Film Torments: Ghosts Can’t Do It (1989)
THIS time on Film Torments, Dan takes on one of the worst films ever released to cinemas.
To cut a story short, Bo Derek was a sex symbol in the early 1980s, exploding in popularity following her appearance in the Dudley Moore comedy 10. John Derek, her then-husband and apparent retainer, took hasty control of Bo’s career trajectory, directing her in Tarzan, the Ape Man and Cannon Films’ Bolero (we’ll get to that). Ghosts Can’t Do It is the apogee of this toxic cinematic partnership, the stinking crystallisation of a deeply unsettling meta-fiction that culminated in a near-clean sweep of that year’s Razzies ceremony, nominated as it was for almost every category under the sun.
Ghosts Can’t Do It is not the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it tries very hard to be. John Derek is not the worst director of all time, but he tried very hard to be. Bo Derek is, quite probably, the worst known actress of all time. This is not the most auspicious opening for an article, but Ghosts Can’t Do It, right down to its insipid, knee-slapping title, is an adventure in ineptitude from reel to reel. Seldom does a film move me to outright scream at the screen, begging for it to end, but the Dereks’ piece de merde had me go from bored to apoplectic with half an hour to go. And Donald Trump is in it.
Apparently having only just realised that everyone was laughing at them in their previous films, the Dereks decided to make Ghosts Can’t Do It a ‘dark’, supernatural sex-comedy, presumably so that the audience would laugh with them this time. That didn’t happen. It’s a wretched, seedy little hack job that’s high on exploitation and devoid of humour. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was merely a vanity project for Bo and John, but they managed to convince poor Anthony Quinn – who you might remember from Lawrence of Arabia(!!) – to star as John’s drunkface stand-in.
So here’s the deal: Katie (Bo) and Scott (Quinn) are happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between them. (See: Real life for the Dereks.) Katie rather disconcertingly refers to Scott as “The Great One”, and maintains a creepily childlike demeanour in his presence. Scott suffers a heart attack and is crippled with impotence, thankfully ensuring that we don’t have to endure a sex scene with Bo Derek and Anthony Quinn. Distraught, Scott kills himself, leaving Katie with a considerable fortune but condemning her to, as the film labours to make clear, a life without a big strong man to tell her what to do.
Good thing angel Julie Newmar is on hand to give Scott a chance to communicate with Katie after death as a drunk, giggling idiot spectre. He stands around in a black backdrop with wave effects, making stupid hand gestures as he reprimands Katie like he’s talking to a child, demanding her murder a man so he can possess his body and make sweet, awkward love with her again. She goes along with it. This is the plot.
Everything from the narrative to the characters to the editing to the acting to the camera placements is a disaster. The film cuts incessantly between glassy-eyed Bo – normally with her breasts hanging out, talking to thin air and flicking her hair – and intoxicated Quinn, who barks unintelligible orders at her with every given opportunity. Bo is meant to look a little crazy here in the adorably kooky vein, but her unblinking cyborg eyes indicate that she’s psychotically demented, even during ostensibly normal conversations. I think Quinn is meant to be loveable in the paternal, kindly old gentleman sense – a man desperate to regain corporeal form for the love of his life – but he plays Scott as a mean-spirited prick who just wants to fuck his nubile paramour at the expense of everyone else.
One moment, Bo is relaxing in a swimming pool, and the next she’s telling a hired hitman to rape her rather than kill her. That’s a joke that John Derek wrote into his screenplay. “Rape me!” she says. Out loud. Seriously. What makes this even more disturbing is that Bo plays Katie like a child throughout, asking flighty questions, bobbing on the spot and doing absolutely everything she is told to do by Scott. Whether or not this is Bo’s abject lack of talent or an issue of direction – probably both – Katie is first and foremost a plank upon which old rich men project their fantasies and desires. (Strictly speaking, this sums up Bo’s entire career).
And Donald Trump is in it. As himself. In an impossible board meeting, where an associate yells, “You must yield!” at Katie’s face, Mr. Trump sits opposite Bo Derek and pouts at her. “There are knives sharp enough to cut you to the bone, ” he says, “And hearts cold enough to eats yours for hors d’oeuvres.” Putting aside the fact I can believe that Donald Trump’s heart would be able to consume other hearts, this is an incredible meeting of acting superpowers. Trump fares better as himself, but his seduction technique of ‘licking and puckering one’s lips’ doesn’t seem to translate well to the screen, even after Katie heartily plugs The Art of the Deal. It’s probably one of the more dignified moments of his career, but it is still worthy of nothing less than overwhelming scorn.
An even more astonishing, history-making moment is when Katie encounters a reverend who, outraged at her lascivious dancing to Kenny G-lite sex sax muzak, begins screaming, endlessly, at her. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the moment that Bo Derek out-acts another human being. Wade Collings, it turns out, has absolutely no idea how to emote on-camera, resorting to wildly gesticulating with his neck and nostrils like he’s trying to pass a kidney stone through his jugular. My eyes widened in stunned awe as I watched this man perform, and it proved to be the one highlight of the entire film.
Perhaps I was shocked that the camera managed to capture this glory at all. It’s borderline experimental how frequently the camera fails to frame itself correctly, with the central focus of any given shot often being a character’s chin. The editing is similarly bizarre, as scenes regularly cut to completely different settings without warning, in the middle of dialogues between completely different characters. Even the sound mixing is atrocious, with lines fading in and out of earshot, blending with the squawks of background chatter and ocean waves. John Derek, at this stage, had around 45 years of experience in the film industry; quite how he managed to bungle his final movie this badly escapes my understanding.
But, putting aside the rancid sexual politics, rampant misogyny and all-round ineptitude, Ghosts Can’t Do It is merely pathetic. It’s a self-serving, craven gasp for attention from fading stars on a straight shot to obscurity, fetishising the physical charms of a talentless actress with pornographic sensitivity. As terrible as she undoubtedly is, as I endured this catastrophe I still felt bad for Bo Derek. How must she have felt, knowing that her only purpose on-screen was to cater to the male gaze? It’s not liberating or sexy to watch her cavort in the nude; it’s voyeurism, as tasteless and crude as Trump’s toupee.
Ultimately, the film will likely be remembered as “that one film with Donald Trump“, but it should be forgotten about entirely. When I began writing this article, Ghosts Can’t Do It was languishing at No. 98 on the IMDB Bottom 100. As I finish this article it has dropped out, proving that it’s not even good at being terrible.