Out of all the movie critics in all the world, Judge David Packard is uniquely qualified to review this set. He belongs to a ghost tracking group. No, really.
Our reviews of Unsolved Mysteries: Bizarre Murders (published July 20th, 2005), Unsolved Mysteries: Miracles (published December 22nd, 2004), Unsolved Mysteries: Psychics (published May 4th, 2005), and Unsolved Mysteries: UFOs (published October 13th, 2004) are also available.
"He was crucial to the show, an element as integral to it as the color blue to the sky."—John Cosgrove, Unsolved Mysteries creator and executive producer, on Robert Stack
As someone with an insatiable, lifelong interest in the mysterious and unexplained—the supernatural, UFOs, the ingredients in SPAM—it comes as no surprise that I sank my teeth into this series when it debuted in 1987. Hosted and narrated by the suave and confident Robert Stack, each episode of Unsolved Mysteries delved into real-life enigmas by mixing reenactments with eyewitness testimony. Some of the segments featured stories you might find in your local newspaper (lost loves, missing persons, fugitives on the run) while others—the ones I preferred—were more apt to appear in an issue of the Weekly World News.
Before the court weighs the evidence, it should be noted that this judge's interest in supernatural phenomena is so great that I actually hunt for ghosts when I'm not donning my judicial robes. As a member of the Indiana Ghost Trackers (IGT), I've done everything from chilly midnight treks in forgotten cemeteries to stumbling through pitch-black basements in private homes in my pursuit of the paranormal. Therefore, the court recognizes that some parties may feel my weighing of the evidence in this case will be absent of objectivity. On the contrary! While I do believe in the subject matter (having personally experienced unexplained phenomena as a member of IGT), I approach each hunt or investigation with an open mind and a healthy dollop of skepticism. It's first and foremost my goal to rule out all natural explanations. What remains after that—well, that's up to the individual to decide.
The same approach has been applied to Unsolved Mysteries: Ghosts. First Look Home Entertainment scares up a winner with a very sharp (both cosmetically and content-wise) boxed set of four discs containing 34 of the "scariest" episodes culled from the 45 ghost stories originally profiled over 13 years and 250+ episodes. The varied tales alone are enough to satisfy any avid fan of phantoms and spooky stories, but some very nice extras ice the cake and make this release a must-have for anyone into things that go bump in the night.
Facts of the Case
34 segments are spread across four discs. The contents are as follows:
• "Resurrection Mary"
• "Matchmaker Ghost"
• "Queen Mary Ghosts" (includes commentary)
• "Voice From the Grave"
• "Ghosts Go to Court" (includes commentary)
• "The Entity"
• "Ghost Boy"
• "Tallman's Ghost"
• "Ghost Blimp"
• "Gordy's Ghost" (includes commentary)
• "Highway Vision"
• "Civil War Ghosts"
• "Profiling the Paranormal"
• "Ghost Lights"
• "Tatum's Ghost"
• "Ghostly Attraction"
• "Ghost Writer"
• "Mary Celeste"
• "Comedy Store Ghosts"
• "Myrtles Plantation" (includes commentary)
• "General Wayne's Inn" (includes commentary)
• "Devil's Backbone"
• "Frightened Family"
• "Moss Beach Ghost"
• "Lady in Black"
• "Bullock's Deadwood"
• "Lake Wales Haunting"
• "Mystery Hum" (includes commentary)
• "Always Karen"
Extras (repeated on each disc):
As shown in the "Creator Introduction" extra, Cosgrove knows his subject matter, which explains the wide variety of ghost stories presented on these discs. Segments highlight spirits that are helpful ("Black Hope Ghost," "Lady in Black"), victims of accidents ("Resurrection Mary," "Highway Vision") or murders ("Lizzie Borden's House," "Ghostly Attraction"), possession ("Voice From the Grave," "Profiling the Paranormal"), apparent replays of past events ("Queen Mary Ghosts," "Gettysburg Ghosts"), and downright terrifying ("Ghost Boy," "Black Hope Curse," and many others). The variety in the stories staves off boredom and evokes a range of emotions. One segment leaves you with a smile, while the next one has you scrambling to find the light switch and jumping at every noise. Whatever type of ghost story you prefer, chances are you'll find it included in this collection.
One of my favorite aspects of the Unsolved Mysteries series was its inclusion of real eyewitnesses in the segments. The reenactments are necessary, of course, to assist in telling the story, establish the spooky setting, and add a needed touch of drama. But having the actual folks tell us of their encounters gives each segment real bite, and it works well with this genre. It's one thing to hear of a boy being terrorized by shadowy figures, but it's far more compelling to hear the youngster speak of his harrowing experiences in his own words.
As a ghost hunter myself, I've always preferred television shows and specials that bring in the "professionals" as part of the investigation. I'm not talking about Bill Murray and his pals discussing laser containment systems and the dangers of crossing the streams; I'm referring to actual paranormal investigators and psychics. While some of the episodes omit this opportunity to capture visual, audio, or psychic evidence of phenomena, several go the extra mile, and the results are intriguing: audio tape captures the sounds of banging metal from deep within the Queen Mary in "Queen Mary Ghosts," night vision video shows tumbling, flying candles in "Ghosts Go to Court" or the strange, flickering lights of Marfa, Texas, in "Ghost Lights." Inclusion of possible evidence of unexplained phenomena adds greatly to the atmosphere of the segment (actual audio and video rarely fails to give me chills) and to the credibility of eyewitnesses reporting similar events.
Speaking of atmosphere, kudos must be given to the Unsolved Mysteries staffers behind these segments. Granted, this is television, so we can't expect the special effects at a quality level equal to that of a mega-budgeted Hollywood summer release. Still, the vast majority of these segments combine creepy music with very passable audio and visual effects to effectively convey the story. The relentless crashing and banging behind ceilings and walls was unnerving in "The Entity," and the strange fog sliding low across a dark lake in "Grace's Ghost" was truly eerie. Camera work often utilizes things like sudden, repeating pans to convey the uncertainty of an unseen spirit's location, shakes to simulate the effect of pounding blows, and point-of-view shots to simulate a ghost creeping into a room or sidling up next to someone. Effective without being unnecessarily overbearing or cheesy, the audio and visual effects in these segments in combination with solid camera work do a fantastic job of bringing the "dead" to life. Episodes featuring commentary usually include the director stating how some of the effects were done, whether it is a flesh-and-blood person just out of camera view opening and closing a sliding door, visual effects that took days to perfect, or, literally, the use of smoke and mirrors. It's a nice bonus within the commentaries, as you sometimes gain insight into why a director chose a particular effect (for example, in the commentary to "Gordy's Ghost," we learn that heavy lighting and a soft focus was used simply because it was cheap and adequately gave a ghostly appearance to the actors portraying the friendly spirits).
I would be remiss to discuss atmosphere without mentioning the involvement of the incomparable and charismatic Robert Stack. I simply can't imagine this series hosted and narrated by anyone else. Stack, nattily dressed and often in a trench coat, personified the show's intelligent and almost-menacing theme music, and his definitive voice and serious, unsmiling demeanor conveyed the mystery lying at the heart of every segment. A quote by Cosgrove in the "Robert Stack Tribute" extra resonated greatly with me, and with nary a tagline in sight, it became The Charge that opens this review. I think that quote, more than anything else, conveys the impact that Stack had on this series. His persona meshes perfectly with this subject matter, and having Stack introduce and narrate these true ghost stories makes them more chilling.
I would have been completely content with the episodes themselves, but a couple of the extras are noteworthy and deserve mention. "Creator Introduction" features Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer proudly discussing the series and this compilation in particular. Cosgrove's enthusiasm for the series is unmistakable as he talks about the various kinds of ghost stories they've included and how the Unsolved Mysteries crews would come back from filming with strange stories of their own. It's great to see a series creator take the time to talk about their baby, and in this case, it's a real gem thanks to Cosgrove's genuine interest in the discussion.
Among the extras, the "Robert Stack Tribute" is the highlight. It's surprisingly comprehensive in detailing Stack's life, from birth through his passing in May 2003. Included are highlights of his film career from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, his renowned role as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, his incredible love for his wife, Rosemarie (married 47 years until Stack's death), and, of course, his hosting of Unsolved Mysteries. Cosgrove also includes some beautiful statements he made in his eulogy for his friend. Touching and heartfelt with tons of great photos, this is one extra not to be missed.
Segment directors provide commentary on eight of the segments. Aside from insights into the special effects I mentioned earlier, commentaries usually include insights into the emotions that the actual persons (or "victims" as I tend to think of them) were feeling and how their lives were changed, comments about the actors, and added details of other true events experienced by the eyewitnesses that were not included in the segment.
Video is presented in the original full-frame aspect ratio, which is to be expected. The quality of the video and the cinematography vary greatly because these segments go back as far as 1987. Older episodes can be quite grainy with bits of dirt and other debris, and the camera work is occasionally less than smooth. Still, the content is what you're after, and chances are good that you'll be too glued to the story unfolding before you to care much about the video. Most recent episodes fare much better, with smoother camera pans and sharper video.
The audio has evolved into a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and the result is a mixed bag. Sound is very crisp, and some episodes (especially "The Entity") benefit from the digital offering: Sledgehammer-like blows against a home's walls thump pleasantly from the front speakers, while steady bass rumbles the subwoofer as if a spectral freight train were passing through the house. Unfortunately, don't expect much work from the rear speakers, which could have greatly enhanced the experience with a more active mix. Imagine the spectral poundings coming at you from all sides; sadly, it's an opportunity wasted.
The boxed set itself is very attractive, with a foil-like material giving the package a slick, colorful sheen. Each disc is housed in its own skull-emblazoned case that's much thinner than your average DVD case, a boon to folks like me who find free space for their burgeoning DVD library to be at a premium. The cases drop into the box from the top; with the box itself looking more like one in which you'd store magazines, the spine labels remain clearly visible. This is a set that definitely looks sweet as it sits upon your shelf.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The word "scariest" is used a few times to describe these ghost stories, but that term doesn't apply to every segment. What's scary about a ghost that protects your home from a hurricane or isn't kosher with the local gambling legislation? If these 34 episodes are the scariest of the 45 profiled on the television show, I have to wonder about the content of the 11 segments that failed to make the cut. Don't get me wrong: There are more than a few stories here that provide the requisite chills—just don't expect every episode to leave you in need of a change of underwear.
A few episodes don't fit at all. "Ghost Blimp," "Mary Celeste," and "Mystery Hum" may be mysterious, but they're surely not ghost stories. They also take you out of the viewing experience if you're watching these episodes back-to-back as I did. I'm sure at least three of those 11 segments not included would have been better substitutions for these awkward selections.
The ghost hunter within me wishes that investigators were brought in more frequently to check out the claims. It's a minor quibble, but the episodes that feature the inclusion of these folks occasionally yield some intriguing audio and video, upping the fright factor. If ghosts "caught on tape" are your thing, there are better options than this compilation.
Unsolved Mysteries was also known to provide updates to previously-aired stories, and it would have been nice to see a few of these stories revisited. Who prevailed in "Ghosts Go to Court"? What's currently happening with the folks still living in the neighborhood afflicted with the "Black Hope Curse"? I realize there'd be added cost as well as the painful absence of Stack; still, it would have been nifty to see where some of these cases stand today.
I understand that those behind the show were very proud of their ability to reunite lost family and friends or apprehend fugitives, but the "Behind the Scenes—The 200th Solve" featurette, which highlights the reuniting of two Vietnam War veterans and friends, just feels out of place. It has nothing to do with ghosts, nor does it add any information of real value regarding the series or those involved with it. It's not a bad piece; it simply comes off as jarringly weak in light of the other extras.
Whether you're a ghost-hunting freak like myself or simply an open-minded skeptic with an interest in the paranormal, you're sure to enjoy Unsolved Mysteries: Ghosts. The terrific tales (some of which are truly terrifying), nice extras, and spiffy presentation easily outweigh the few nitpicks.
Update! The court has found Unsolved Mysteries: Ghosts not guilty! The court would also like to recognize First Look Home Entertainment for the obvious care put forth in almost all aspects of producing this set. The end result is something of which I believe the series' creators can be most proud. Case dismissed.
[Editor's Note: Judge Packard would like to dedicate this review to the memory of Dean Lee Wilson, 1964-2004. Dean was a fellow Indiana Ghost Tracker.]
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• Creator Introduction
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