Searching for Spooky in Spokane: The Ghosting (1992)

A rarity of a horror film that’s barely been seen in the last thirty years gives Dave the opportunity to tell you the fascinating story behind its path to creation.

You know the one about the fella who went a little bit crazy when he moved his family into the deserted landmark so he could take a job as the caretaker? And then there was that whole deal with the axe? Well, maybe you don’t…

It may share a couple of themes as well as the last three letters of the title, but THE GHOSTING is a whole different entity to anything associated with Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King, and it warrants a journey back to 1952 in order to hear about the remarkable life of its driving force, Walt Hefner.

Hefner was just out of the Air Force when he got his first taste of showbiz, taking up a job at the eight-hundred seat State theatre in downtown Spokane, Washington. By the mid-‘60s he’d gone on to own a few auditoriums, and shortly after that he made a wise investment in a patch of land north of the city where he (literally) built the Starlite Drive-In. Interviewed for the Spokane Chronicle in ’73, the reporter asked him what portions of the place he helped put up, to which he replied “It would be easier to tell you what I didn’t do”.

On November 17th, 1972, following two years of construction at a cost of $103,000 of his own money, Hefner’s drive-in opened with a triple-bill of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Mouse on the Moon (1963). Known as a William Castle-esque ringmaster and entrepreneur, Hefner was under no illusions in regard to his business model, telling local news at the time how “some of the movies we show are terrible, but our audience knows that and appreciates it”.

How ironic, then, that in the wake of selling his drive-in to a cinema chain for a million dollars, he would go on to blow virtually the entire profit on his very own bad movie. “I’m one of those guys who, if you have the money, why not spend it?” the eighty-eight year-old told Spokesman Review in 2017 [1]. And spend it he did. Three quarters of a million dollars on an empty church, expensive cameras to shoot on 35mm, and paying nearby thespians sky-high union wages of $380 a day.

The result is something else; an old school spook story with tame chills and little to offend. Running ten minutes shy of two hours, The Ghosting has the propensity to be an endurance test, but there’s something undeniably compelling about the Jessup family. Ralph (Charlie Shores), his wife Amy (Pamela Kingsley), and kids Jeanie (Jennifer Salmi) and Steve (Jason Jackson) are going mad being holed up with Ralph’s father, but a chance encounter at work for Amy provides them with the opportunity to look after an empty church for a few months. It seems like a much-needed break for a family who are slowly being ground down by Ralph’s flashbacks to his service in Vietnam. Alas, on the way to pick Amy up from work, the former soldier knocks down Dan Marcum (Tony nominee Bill Hutton), a murderer on the run from the nearby nuthouse, and whose crimes took place in the house of God in which they’re staying – and now his spirit won’t leave them alone.

It’s convoluted, nonsensical and a little bit dumb but, without doubt, The Ghosting is an endearing regional diversion that’s begging for cult status. It’s virtually disappeared from the world, although thirty years on, there are still hundreds of unsold VHS tapes packed in boxes lying dormant in the church in which it was shot. For a directorial debut, there’s a lot to admire in Hefner’s composition, structure and mood, even if his tendency for wide shots afflicts the picture with a hollow stagey look.

The character development puts a lot of its peers to shame, as each role is given a backstory and depth, but in doing so, some scenes are drawn out excessively and the dialogue teeters on soapy melodrama. With the exception of Hutton and his smooth as velvet voice, the local ensemble are at exactly the level you’d expect, but that’s not an issue. More concerning is that fact that this film doesn’t deliver on the one thing it promises – horror. And when it tries, it’s either eye-rollingly derivative (a riff on The Exorcist‘s (1973) bed-shaking scene, for example) or frustratingly anticlimactic (the graveyard payoff).

The Ghosting was shot in ‘87, four years prior to its eventual ‘theatrical’ release, and in that time Hefner pored over the editing process and forensically planned every detail of its big premiere on 1st November 1991. The location of that long-awaited debut? Newport Cinemas, a $2.4 million complex that was touted as the largest film exhibition centre in the state of Washington.

And it was, of course, the former site of the Starlite Drive-In.

USA ● 1992 ● Horror ● 109mins

Bill Hutton, Jennifer Salmi, Charlie Shores, Pamela Kingsley, Jason Jackson ● Wri./Dir. Walt Hefner

Artwork courtesy of VHSCollector.com

[1] Bring Back ‘The Ghosting’ for One Awfully Good Night by Doug Clark, Spokesman-Review, May 4th 2017

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