GHOST stories have livened many a campfire since man first discovered fire. They make up a substantial part of the folklore of any culture. In Hollywood, ghosts flit in and out of fashion. They have haunted the big screen in comedies, romances, and horror flicks from the very beginning - when an early filmmaker back-wound his film and re-exposed it, producing a ``ghostly,'' superimposed image.
Right now in most cities across the United States, one can see Bill Cosby cutting up in ``Ghost Dad,'' Patrick Swayze romantically protecting the woman he loves in ``Ghost,'' George C. Scott pitted against a malignant spook in ``The Exorcist: Part III,'' and Kiefer Sutherland wrestling with the ghostly sins of his childhood in ``Flatliners.''
Last year we were treated to Phil Alden Robinson's surprising delight, ``Field of Dreams,'' in which Kevin Costner discovers heaven in an Iowa cornfield. Last year, too, brought Steven Spielberg's ``Always,'' a goopy, intermittently pleasant remake of Victor Fleming's gooey ``A Guy Named Joe'' (1943). Several recent Hollywood horror shows raise up spectral fiends capable of mass murder. (For some reason the newly made ghosts seldom pursue the perpetrator: no explanation for this lapse is ever given.)
HORROR has always offered fertile soil for sprouting tales of ghoulish returns. William Peter Blattey's new ``Exorcist III,'' based on his own novel ``Legion,'' is one more exercise in gross-out - though, to do him justice, most of the ugliness is only described. The viewer sees just one really ugly mutilation sequence. Description is plenty, however.
The story gets off to a fairly ingeniously written start. George C. Scott plays a police detective who has lost his faith in God because he is so overwhelmed by the evil in the world.
When mysterious murders resembling the serial killings of a long-dead psycho start turning his town upside down, the detective faces the forces of darkness far greater than those he has ever seen on the streets.
After the first 30 or 40 minutes of clever repartee and spine-tingling suspense, however, the film winds down through one depressing clich'e after another. Not even George C. Scott can save it.
Evil is made to seem so powerful in this film, it scarcely matters how the story will end. Blattey wallows in the horror ofpsychotic blood letting, ancient superstitions, and modern moral ambiguity without bringing any sensitivity or insight to the subject. The greatest horror films have always made the battle between good and evil complex, the moral choices difficult, the outcome as much a question of ethics as of deliverance from death.
One wonders why in Mr. Blattey's battles with devils, goodness scarcely has a chance. And when the devils are vanquished, what is to prevent them from popping up in the hospital room next door?
Blattey gives his supernatural horror no parameters: A director must establish rules for the fantastic or it all collapses into melodramatic mush appealing only to superstitious fears.
SUPERSTITIOUS beliefs may not be as common as once upon a time, but a film like Jerry Zucker's ``Ghost'' manages still to tap into residual fears - and hopes - about death and an afterlife. Early in the picture, the character played by Swayze voices his fear of death one night as he watches a plane crash report on the evening news, ``Maybe I should skip the trip to L.A. These things always happen in threes.'' He muses on the brevity of life, foreshadowing his murder the following night.
Now his ghost must spend the rest of the picture locating the killer and protecting his beloved. He drags in a reluctant con artist, a phony psychic who realizes she indeed posseses special ``powers.'' Whoopie Goldberg carves out an amusing, grotesque, amplified characterization - the antidote to both the romantic excess and the predictable plot.
Her interaction with the many ghosts who now haunt her, along with her defiant individualism, helps detoxify the 19th-century spiritualism of the story and turn it into a pleasant diversion.
Partly because of Demi Moore's sweet humanity as the girl friend, and despite Swayze's lackluster performance as the ghost, director Zucker fabricates a bitter-sweet atmosphere that ultimately affirms some of the old-fashioned values. Mind you, it's easy to get into Hollywood heaven: You don't have to be too good. The bad guys get dragged off by inky furies, while white light pours down from a night sky scooping up the deserving. The Righteous Brothers sing ``Unchained Melody'' on the soundtrack - which acts as a secular hymn. ``Ghost'' is a pleasant enough entertainment - if a bit emotionally manipulative.
Love, after all, continues unabated, despite death. ``Flatliners,'' directed by Joel Schumacher, tries for something a little more complex when the specters of past misdeeds haunt the young protagonists until they ask forgiveness of those they've wronged.
Five medical students somehow find the time to pursue life beyond death ``scientifically.'' One at a time they are killed and brought back to life by their colleagues after a few minutes. What they see on the ``other side'' is determined by how well they have lived. All are haunted by ghosts from the past.
One ghost seeks forgiveness for having killed himself years before.
Another ghost reminds a student of his childhood cruelty to a little girl. He finds the grown woman and apologizes to her. She tries to brush him off, but finally she forgives him. We feel that she is released from the pain of that emory as certainly as the student from his guilty conscience.
Kiefer Sutherland plays the one student who must expiate his misdeed - the nature of which is so serious and his denial so strenuous, that he must suffer greatly before he comes to feel remorse at the level of empathy for the one he had harmed. In a sense, he pays for his crime the old-fashioned way - an eye for an eye. But once paid for (in remorse and in suffering) he is forgiven.
FLATLINERS'' is highly ambitious, and though it is badly flawed, there is more going on here than in most Hollywood movies right now. What is going on is the search for meaning - in ``Flatliners'' that meaning lies in justice and ultimately in some sense of a protecting power.
The film communicates the idea that one's actions have consequences from which there is no escape: you have to work it out now or later - preferably now. Only then is forgiveness possible - and in forgiveness is freedom.
It may not be a very well-conceived film, (only one of the students has a believable motive for taking the plunge), and some fairly exasperating loose ends are never satisfactorily tied up. Moreover, the highly unethical (to say nothing of foolish) behavior of the students is never seriously questioned.
But in its pop-culture, hip-thriller way, ``Flatliners'' reaches for a vision of everlasting meaning.
Films like ``Exorcist III,'' ``Ghost,'' and ``Flatliners'' are all a shade or two less substantial than Phil Alden Robinson's charming ``Field of Dreams.'' They are entirely too predictable.
But ``Field of Dreams,'' following a logic of its own, manages to tell a ghost story bypassing spiritualism in the classical sense (realism helps undercut any sense of the ``otherworldly'') and reaching for a beatific image for the present tense of experience.
PERHAPS the best way to ``read'' the ghost element in this picture is as a metaphor - a metaphor for reality larger than the senses perceive. The metaphor for the heavenly image is baseball. There's a bit of Noah's Ark and the Prodigal Son in this story of forgiveness, reconciliation, and triumphant affection.
The emotions ``Field of Dreams'' taps into are those related to the joy and relief of reconciliation and the sweet sadness of a second chance - a feeling for the necessity of working out mistakes and shortcomings in the here and now.
Out in his cornfield one day, farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice saying, ``If you build it, he will come.'' Eventually he realizes he must build a baseball field in his corn. A famous baseball player, long deceased, shows up and brings his friends. ``Is this heaven?'' he asks of Ray. ``No,'' Ray replies, ``it's Iowa.''
But by the end of the film after Ray has made his prophetic journey, recovered two men from disappointment, and been reconciled to the father he had wronged in his youth, he changes his mind. Were there is love, forgiveness, reconciliation, selfless action, there is the heavenly.
``Field of Dreams'' begins in a patently absurd fantasy and then transcends its genre somewhat. It may not be a great film, but taken in the right spirit of fantasy-as-metaphor, it reflects some serious needs in the culture.