With Halloween almost upon us, there’s no better time to revisit movies about things that go bump in the night. For some of you, this entails hunting down the best horror movies you can lay your hands on. For others (including me) it’s a chance to dive into decidedly gentler supernatural fare like 1995’s fantasy-comedy Casper.
Inspired by the Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons and comics, this flick is a great way to enjoy the spooky season nightmare-free – or at least, I used to think it was. After my latest rewatch, I’m now convinced that Casper is so weird, so flat-out messed up even, that it’s actually scary as hell.
I’ll admit the idea that a movie as ostensibly harmless as Casper could send chills down anyone’s spine seems more than a little ridiculous. After all, Brad Silberling’s fantasy-comedy is clearly targeted at families and features ghosts who – even at their most fearsome – rank among the least frightening spectres to grace the big screen. Yet for all its kid-friendly trappings, Casper also boasts creepy character dynamics and storytelling mechanics which inject an unsettling undercurrent to proceedings.
Take the relationship between Casper (Malachi Pearson) and Kat (Christina Ricci). There’s an unmistakably sinister vibe to their interactions, largely because Casper behaves less like a friendly ghost and more like an obsessed stalker whenever Kat’s around. Sure, Casper is a good friend to Kat, however, his affection for her carries with it a troubling whiff of possessiveness. The 12-year-old apparition literally asks Kat if he can “keep” her more than once over the course of the film. That’s right: this is an actual line of dialogue in a movie marketed to children under 10.
Now, this aspect of Casper makes sense within the context of the story itself. The poor kid lost the only person he ever loved, his father, a long time ago (more on that later). So, it’s hardly surprising that he desperately clings to the first person he’s connected with for decades, namely Kat. Besides, not only is he just a kid but he’s also been a kid for decades – it’s not exactly shocking that he has some slightly warped idea about how stuff like pre-teen crushes and romance work. Even so, revisiting Casper as an adult, it’s hard not to read a presumably unintentional and unsettling subtext into the Casper/Kat scenes. Moments where he floats over her sleeping body as James Horner’s haunting piano-driven score plays start to feel more chilling than charming.
Casper’s relationship with Kat is far from the only dubious interpersonal dynamic in this picture, nor is it even the most horrific. That award goes to the friendly ghost’s living situation with his uncles Stretch (Joe Nipote), Fatso (Brad Garrett), and Curly (Joe Alaskey), otherwise known as the Ghostly Trio. That Casper’s uncles treat him terribly isn’t implicitly off-putting like the goings on between Casper/Kat – it’s out in the open. Admittedly, it’s played for laughs (presaging the Harry Potter franchise’s own cheery take on child abuse years later), but when you get right down to it, the Ghost Trio have devoted their entire afterlife to mistreating their nephew.
Worse still, Stretch, Fatso, and Curly don’t even have an obvious rationale (if one even exists) for being so horrible to Casper. It seems they just do it for kicks. And considering the trio is supposedly so downright evil and twisted they even send the Ghostbusters’ Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) packing at one point, it stands to reason that Casper’s time with them has been pure torture. They almost certainly would’ve gone on victimizing the translucent sprog, too, if Kat and her dad Doctor Harvey (Bill Pullman) hadn’t arrived on the scene and nudged them toward a somewhat unconvincing redemptive arc.
But hey, Casper is used to dealing with emotional hardship. He has to be, given the movie’s entire premise is built on his heart being broken again and again. Remember, Casper’s backstory boils down to a young boy dying of pneumonia and then going on to (benevolently) haunt his father until said father winds up declared insane and dying in an institution. This is so dark – and is yet another example of how often Casper’s underlying story veers into adult fantasy-drama, if not outright horror movie, territory. The friendly ghost’s backstory does more than just recast its upbeat protagonist in a tragic light. It also doubles as a means of laying out the mechanics of the afterlife as envisioned by Silberling and screenwriters Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver. Predictably, these mechanics raise some unnerving questions the film is far from equipped to answer.
According to the metaphysical laws of Casper’s universe, whenever someone dies with unfinished business, they become a ghost. Everyone else – whether they’re a good person, like Kat’s late mother Amelia (Amy Brenneman), or rotten apple, like antagonist Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty) – crosses over to whatever awaits them on the other side. It’s a simple yet effective plot device that works brilliantly, until you apply it to almost every dead person in the movie.
Let’s start with Casper. His unfinished business was his father, who Casper didn’t want to leave behind knowing he’d be all alone. But now that Casper’s old man has himself died, what’s keeping the friendly ghost tethered to our plane of existence? The best possible explanation (outside of this being a glaring plothole) is that Kat is now Casper’s unfinished business, which is both morbid and depressing. Think about it: she’s a 13-year-old girl with her whole life ahead of her and he’s a 12-year-old ghoul who – brief Devon Sawa cameo notwithstanding – looks like he walked out of a classic cartoon. There’s no way this relationship doesn’t end in tears.
Then there’s the small matter of Casper’s dad, J.T. McFadden. Ol’ J.T. devoted his remaining years to resurrecting Casper yet he died on the cusp of succeeding. So why didn’t he become a ghost too? If ever there was a definition of “unfinished business,” this is it. Did J.T. just suddenly stop caring about Casper on his deathbed?
At least when Kat’s mum passed over to the other side, she knew she was leaving her husband behind to raise their daughter. The same doesn’t apply to Casper’s dad, who knew he was the only person his son could count on to bring him back to life. J.T. skipping out on Casper is downright brutal, especially since abandoning Casper left him vulnerable to the Ghostly Trio. Speaking of those phantom douchebags, what’s their unfinished business? As it stands in the film itself, the only thing keeping them around is apparently “using Casper as a punching bag”. Frankly, it’s all a bit disturbing.
More than that, like just about everything else in this film, it’s eerie in a certain, understated way. So, if you’re looking for a scary movie this Halloween, my wild card recommendation is Casper. Trust me: what this 1995 family flick lacks in gross-out gore and sustained tension it more than makes up for in sheer, unadulterated creepiness.
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