“Can I Keep You?” “Absolutely Not.”

Published on February 15th, 2011

Alex takes a look at why Casper might be the most depressing kids movie ever made.

SPOILER ALERT: This post will spoil the 1995 film Casper. You’ll flip at the end when you find out that Casper has been dead the whole time. Oops, I’ve said too much.

Around Halloween of my first year of university, something reminded me of the 1995 live-action Casper movie, which I hadn’t seen since its theatrical release. I felt compelled to watch the movie again, and I bought it that day. The movie itself is actually pretty bad, although I don’t think I was expecting too much. I’m convinced Bill Pullman was drunk for most of the shoot, the script is really uneven, and the film features some very bizarre cameos from Mel Gibson, the Crypt Keeper, and Dan Aykroyd as his Ghostbuster Ray Stantz. Being that this movie was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment, I would imagine these cameos were called-in favours. But I digress. What surprised me was not the quality of the movie, Bill Pullman’s drunkenness, nor Clint Eastwood’s appearance, but more how mind-blowingly depressing it all was.

The movie focuses on the haunting of Whipstaff Manor, a residence that becomes the property of a rich, blonde, terrible woman named Carrigan when her husband dies. It’s a really cool (albeit creepy) house and if you aren’t like me and stopped watching kids movies when you turned 12, you may remember it better as the house in the Backstreet Boys’ video “Everybody” (you know, the one where they did their whole Thriller thing with the monsters and stuff). In Casper, however, the house happens to be haunted by Stretch, Stinky, Fatso, and Casper as opposed to Nick, Brian, AJ, Kevin and Howie. Bill Pullman is Dr. James Harvey, a ghost psychologist who is hired by Carrigan to rid the house of these spooks, bringing “his loner daughter Kat,” played by Christina Ricci, along for the ride. The matriarch of the Harvey family, Amelia, passed away before the movie has begun, and Dr. Harvey is on a continual search to find her spirit. Okay, I think that’s enough setup.

(Shit, I forgot to mention that when the kids at Kat’s new school get wind of her living at Whipstaff, they decide that the school Halloween dance should take place there. Oh, gosh, I wonder if that little tidbit will come into play later in this post. Hmmm… And yes, I’m aware that I’m lazily plugging this information in at the last second and attempting to pass this paragraph off as both creative* and postmodern** [hence the brackets, and then also these inner brackets]. Maybe I’ll italicize this all as well in order further the illusion of creativity***.)

* it’s not – I lifted it from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
** I guess, maybe.
*** footnotes, too!

Casper first terrifies Kat, but once Kat realizes Casper isn’t a threat, they become pals. He doesn’t have much of a memory of his life as a human, but before too long Kat finds some artifacts from Casper’s life, and it all begins to come back to him. It turns out that Casper died because after finally getting the sled he wanted so badly, he went tobogganing with it all day and came down with pneumonia. This soon killed him, which in turn drove his father insane trying to resurrect his son. Casper recounts this story in a monologue, and it dawned on me that this is a 12-year-old kid explaining to us how he died. Is this how depressing it was to grow up in the Spielberg household?

Arnold Spielberg: Happy Hanukkah, son. Here’s that sled you were asking for.

Young Steven Spielberg: Thanks, dad! I wanna go tobogganing on it all day!

Arnold Spielberg: Wouldn’t that be fun? But you need to keep one thing in mind: whatever it is that you want in life will eventually kill you and your family. The world is a terrible place that is full of things that look like innocent, victimless fun, but these wondrous things will really end up destroying you. There is no harmless, safe enjoyment of this thing called life, even for a young child such as yourself. The world is full of illusions that will play on your childish wonder and desire to experience the world that will eventually cause tragedy to you and those you cared about. And it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.

Young Steven Spielberg: (cries uncontrollably for three continuous hours)

If that’s how Steven Spielberg was raised, no wonder all of his movies have characters with daddy issues. And if that wasn’t sad enough, Casper has since gone through the afterlife without any friends, merely functioning as a slave to the other Whipstaff ghosts. This isn’t depressing at all, you say? Well, there’s more.

Kat goes through some fairly trying things throughout the movie as well. For one, her mom died, but by the end of the movie her dad has also died. It’s okay though, because pops gets brought back to life through the Lazarus machine that Casper’s dad built in what can only be described as his “batshit insane period” (not too different from Tom Cruise’s “Look at me, I’m jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch!” period, I would imagine). Casper was about to regain his humanity through the use of this machine, but since there was only enough fuel for one reanimation, Casper thought it best to let Kat have her dad back. Don’t worry though, Casper will be rewarded for his selflessness.

As the school Halloween dance at Whipstaff begins, Casper gets a visit from the spirit of Kat’s mom. She grants him the ability to be human so that he may go to the dance (for some reason that is never explained, she can do this – perhaps birthing a cranium the size of Christina Ricci’s earns you Super Ghost status), and it is referred to as a ghost version of Cinderella. Since Casper is only 12 years old, however, Amelia is only letting him be human until the clock strikes 10, as opposed to midnight in the fairy tale. Apparently, reanimating her husband and ensuring that their daughter does not become an orphan is not enough for Casper to be allowed to stay up past his bedtime. For all of the positive things people say about Amelia throughout the movie, she kind of seems like a bitch. Again, digressing.

The human Casper, now played by J-14 pull-out poster boy Devon Sawa, comes down the stairs to the main hall and finds Kat. They dance together until Kat realizes that they are floating, which leads her to kiss Casper. But then, the clock strikes 10, Casper turns back into a ghost, and everybody else at the party is scared shitless and runs home. Way to fuck up a perfectly good dance, Casper.

I should also point out what Dr. Harvey is doing during the dance: after Amelia visits Casper, she goes to see her husband. They talk for a couple of minutes before she has to make her exit… without even saying hello to her daughter. Not only does that strike me as rude, but it also seems spectacularly mean. Dr. Harvey never even thinks that he should yell down the stairs, “hey, Kat! Come up here and say hi to your dead mom! She stopped by for a visit!”

So Casper turns back into a ghost, the party clears out, and then Dr. Harvey joins Casper and Kat for a (no joke) Little Richard sing along to end the movie. Awww man, what a pleasant little film! I’m not massively depressed at all! Just think about the conversations that will be occurring in Whipstaff after this sing along is over: “Oh, by the way Kat, the spirit of your mom came by to say hello. I assumed you didn’t want to see her though.” And what about the awkwardness between Kat and Casper after that kiss? They had one kiss as humans, and now Casper’s back to being a ghost, so I assume that’s the end of that romance. While I realize that 12 year old romance is not something to get up in arms about, I hope Dr. Harvey is a normal psychologist too so that his daughter doesn’t go completely nuts, a la Casper’s dad. There’s a reason there was never a real sequel to this movie: Kat probably went crazy within a week of the movie ending.

I loved this movie as a kid, and while I only remember watching it once, every time I watch it now I still remember everything that happens. I can even hum the incredibly depressing piano theme music to the movie from memory. I’m starting to suspect that this one movie has greatly shaped my choices of media products, and life in general, for reasons I have explained above. I remember thinking that the movie was more depressing than most other movies I watched at that age, and looking back on it now, it absolutely is. As a child I can remember being pretty fascinated with death, and that is not something that has let up as I’ve aged (although I feel that’s a pretty common thing). One of my favourite television shows is called Six Feet Under, and the majority of my favourite movies do not end particularly happily. Casper might have been a kids movie that was bad and depressing, but at least it wasn’t completely hiding us from death. The line people seem to remember from this movie is when Casper asks Kat, “Can I keep you?” The movie shows us that Casper can’t really keep Kat, much like we can’t really keep anything. We can’t keep our parents, our lives, or Devon Sawa’s looks forever. The people at Amblin Entertainment seemed to feel that this was a lesson we should be learning at a young age.

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