Ghosts...of the Civil Dead Review

Central Industrial is a “New Generation” maximum security prison, surrounded by razor wire and an electrified fence, and situated in the middle of the Australian desert. No-one leaves. At the beginning of the film, it’s locked down – the prisoners confined to their cells – and we flash back to the series of events which led to this. It began with the transference of some more violent criminals into the prison, creating a tense atmosphere that could only get worse. Pleas to the authorities are ignored.

Ghosts…of the Civil Dead is not an entertaining film, nor an especially likeable one, but it’s not one that’s easy to forget either. It’s a film that has a lot to say about a prison system that brutalises inmates and guards alike. In its way it has a similar message to Scum, though is otherwise very different. Director John Hillcoat incorporates documentary-like captions in between scenes, and uses a deliberately distanced, almost minimalist narrative style. This is more the strategy of the arthouse than the commercial cinema and could have made the film fall between two stools – too arty for the masses, too violent for the arthouse crowd – but the film rapidly gained a following as much because of as despite its overt political content. Make no mistake, Ghosts has some brutal scenes and certainly isn’t for the squeamish or anyone likely to be offended. But seventeen years after first seeing it, scenes and images do stick with you. It’s a pity that director John Hillcoat has not been prolific: he followed Ghosts with the disappointing To Have and To Hold (1996), which more or less sunk without trace, and the impressive Western The Proposition, written by longtime collaborator Nick Cave, which has just opened in British cinemas as I write this. Cave’s contribution is impressive: the film contains his best acting performance (as Maynard, one of “the real psychos”), but he contributed to the script and composed an atmospheric music score with Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld.

Ghosts…of the Civil Dead is a rare thing: a recent dramatic feature film originated in 35mm that is intended to be shown in Academy Ratio. This ratio is 1.37:1 (near enough 4:3), and was virtually universal until the introduction of CinemaScope in 1953. Eventually, with the move to wider ratios, Academy died out in commercial English-language cinema in the 1950s, though it continued to be used in continental Europe and Russia for longer. Even if a film is open-matte, it’s almost always intended to be masked in projection to a wider ratio, such as 1.66:1, 1.75:1 or (most often, and standard in the USA and Canada) 1.85:1. There have been exceptions to this, most often with films originated on 16mm or video, such as the Dogme films. Even films where Academy Ratio is the director’s stated preference (such as Coppola’s One from the Heart or Van Sant’s Elephant), the compositions are “protected” so that you don’t lose much if the film is shown in 1.85:1. There’s a very good reason for this: the great majority of commercial cinemas can no longer show Academy Ratio, so unless you want to make a film that’s only showable properly in repertory cinemas and arthouses, you have to compose your shots for wider ratios. Ghosts, on the other hand is very definitely composed for 4:3 and showing it any wider would result in some awkward cropping of the image. (Incidentally, I first saw the film at the Southampton Film Festival in 1989, a screening attended by Hillcoat and producer/cowriter Evan English. It was shown in the University Film Society’s cinema, as it was the only one in the city that could handle the ratio.) Umbrella Entertainment’s DVD transfer is in 4:3, as it should be. It’s faithful to the muted colour scheme of the film, and the sharp look – DPs Paul Goldman and Graham Wood have avoided the use of filters – comes over well. However, this transfer may well have suffered from compressing this film and a lot of extras onto one disc: motion blur is often visible.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Surround, and it’s faithful to the film’s original Dolby Stereo mix, with the surrounds being used for the score and for some effective ambient sounds. Dialogue is clear, which is just as well as – due to Umbrella’s regrettable policy – there are no subtitles on this disc. Thee are sixteen chapter stops, and the disc is encoded for all regions.

This single-layer disc has a very comprehensive set of extras, enough to put many a two-disc set to shame. They are designed to take the viewer through the film from its inception to its distribution. The extras are divided into five sections: “Interviews”, “Nick Cave”, “Production”, “Promotion” and “Criticism”.

“Interviews” involve the subjects talking to camera, in some cases uninterrupted by any interviewer, and sometimes for a considerable length of time. I’m not convinced this is the best way to present this material, as it’s visually unvaried and depends considerably on the subject’s abilities as a speaker. That’s not to say that there’s plenty of interest here, but it could perhaps be better presented: as they are here, they become a little wearing. Best to listen to them piecemeal, which you can do quite easily as they are subdivided into chapters. The disc contains interviews made at the time of release and new ones carried out in 2002. The 2002 speakers are John Hillcoat (25:26), Evan English (17:52), Nick Cave (14:52) and Blixa Bargeld (5:56). From 1988, we have Hillcoat and English together (14:40), a much shyer Cave (9:40), Mick Harvey (5:15) and a rather shambolic interview with Bargeld (7:55). The video quality in the older interviews is noticeably inferior. Finally, there are a series of audio interviews, with production designer Chris Kennedy (12:30), actors Mike Bishop (8:22) and Vincent Gil (7:38) and production consultant and former prisoner Brett Collins (10:27).

The “Nick Cave” section contains a sixteen-page text biography and links to the two interviews mentioned above. It also links to a page of script in Cave’s handwriting, and with stains that may be someone’s blood. This image is too large to fit in the 4:3 frame, so it automatically scrolls up and down.

“Production” subdivides into “Concept & Research”, “Filmmakers”, “Cast”, “Storyboards”, “Photographs” and “Music & Sound”. In the first section, “Jack [Henry] Abbott” is a two-page biography of the late long-term prisoner and author of the novel In the Belly of the Beast, which was the original inspiration for the film. Linked from this are the British publication details of the novel, plus a letter he wrote to Hillcoat (which the director reads in a two-minute voiceover). David Hale was a former prison guard at United States Penitentiary Marion in Illinois, which has been “locked down” since a series of violent incidents, including the killing of two guards, in October 1983. This section has a two-page biography and links to some audio recordings from the soundtrack album. Finally, there is a five-page biography of Brett Collins, former prisoner, criminal justice activist and consultant on Ghosts, which links to his audio interview mentioned above.

“Filmmakers” comprises text biographies of Hillcoat, English, Cave, Chris Kennedy and Paul Goldman, with links where appropriate to their interviews elsewhere on the disc. “Cast” does likewise for David Field, Mike Bishop, Vince Gil, Dave Mason and Cave again.

The storyboard section should be avoided by first-time viewers as the two scenes it depicts are major plot spoilers, so I won’t list them here. As well as being able to navigate the storyboards back and forth, you are also able to play the individual scenes. “Photographs” consists of fifty-three stills by Polly Borland and Jenny Mitchell, accessible in the usual back-and-forth navigation as well as via four pages of thumbnails. “Music & Sound” has biographies of Cave, Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, which contain links to their interviews mentioned above. Harvey’s section also links to a trailer for Chopper, for which he composed the music. This section also has details of the soundtrack album, from which you can play David Hale dialogue pieces and musical excerpts.

The “Promotion” section has the brief original trailer of Ruben (Vincent Gil) ranting at the guards (1:24) and a more conventional French trailer (1:31, with burnt-in French subtitles). “Print promotion” is a stills gallery of nine posters or fliers, again accessible by navigating back and forth or via thumbnails. “Venice and Cannes” is a nine-image stills gallery of Hillcoat and English at the festivals, plus Hillcoat’s nine-minute audio piece describing his arrest for illegally sticking posters. Finally in this section, “Festivals” is a four-page listing of all the festivals that Ghosts was shown at.

“Criticism” is a short section containing an audio essay by Ina Bertrand on Ghosts, review quotes and some trailers for Australian prison films. These are: Stir (with an apology about the picture quality), Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, Everynight…Everynight and Chopper.

Finally, there are four Easter Eggs on this DVD. On the main extras menu, click left and click on the logos (four, one above the other) that appear over the images on the left hand side. Each of these is an image from Hillcoat’s research scrapbook.

That’s quite some set of extras, and it’s exhausting as well as exhaustive. The only obvious omission is a commentary, but there’s enough material here so as not to need one. Maybe a second disc would have been preferable as the DVD transfer does show some signs of over-compression. And, once again my major complaint about an Umbrella DVD is the lack of subtitles. But otherwise, this DVD is in the Criterion class.

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