Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Ghost of Spoon River

By Jon Gallagher

The Ghost of Spoon River (Malibu Pictures International, 2000) – Director: Scott A. Meehan. Starring: Lauren Sinclair, Brian McNamara, Michael Monks, and Richard Portnow

I recently found out that a movie had been shot almost in my back yard. I was searching for something else and came across a movie which was either titled The Mystery of Spoon River or The Ghost of Spoon River, depending on to whom you’re talking. The DVD that I picked up calls it The Ghost, so that’s what I’m calling it.

First, a short history lesson: Fulton County, Illinois, takes in a good-sized geographic area and its county seat, Lewistown, is where Edgar Lee Masters called home. Masters wrote the classic Spoon River Anthology, a series of what amounts to character sketches of 200 people who are buried in a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River.

Spoon River itself is a small river, about 150 miles long that meanders through three counties in West Central Illinois: Stark, Knox, and Fulton. If it went straight from the point of origin to where it joins up with the Illinois River at Havana, it might cover 50 miles. At some points, the river is little more than a creek, narrow and shallow enough to wade across. I once took a boat down the river with two friends and twice we had to get out of the boat and walk it along the banks because the river wasn’t deep enough or debris was clogging the way.

In the spring, however, the river can swell well beyond its banks, engulfing small towns like London Mills and Bernadotte, and sometimes sweeping away unsuspecting motorists on rural country roads, turning deadly in the process. Just two years ago, two motorists were killed after being trapped in their vehicles by floodwaters.

In 2000, Scott Meehan wrote, directed, and produced a movie called either The Ghost of Spoon River or The Mystery of Spoon River. It was shot in Fulton County, Illinois, using many of the county’s residents as extras.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Emma Masters (Sinclair) is a lawyer in Chicago, but she’s called back home to Spoon River to defend her old boyfriend (McNamara), who’s been charged with the murder of the local game warden (who is black). A local news reporter, trying to get noticed by the networks, tries to turn the murder into a racial event. The Ku Klux Klan gets involved, as does a hardnosed FBI agent (Portnow). 

As the story unfolds, anyone who’s done any studying of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology will recognize a couple of the characters immediately. Without giving too much away here, the movie turns from being a murder mystery into a gothic/supernatural thriller that doesn’t exactly thrill.

This is an independent film, and it soon becomes painfully obvious that Meehan didn’t waste a lot of money on actors. While there are few exchanges between minor characters, it couldn’t have been worse if they’d been filmed reading their lines from a script. 

Sinclair, Portnow and McNamara are stiff in their roles. Sock puppets would have saved more money, but then we’d still have the problem of delivering believable lines. None of the principal actors did that.

Monks turned in the one halfway decent performance playing one of the redneck townspeople who doesn’t want to get involved. He looked like he was at least having fun.

It was fun to see fire trucks from the Astoria Fire Department and to see the high school marching band play a part as well. I have to apologize; I can’t remember whether it was Astoria High School or VIT (Vermont/Industry/Table Grove) High School’s band. They, however, did not look like they were having fun. Maybe they were told to play off-key. 

I think I might have liked the movie better had they done more with the plot. A bigger budget, better acting, and some tweaks here and there to the script might have made this a super movie. I guess when you’re doing everything yourself (Meehan had many family members in the cast and working behind the scenes as well), it’s hard to step back from the product to give it a fair evaluation.

Meehan hasn’t gone on to write, direct or produce any more movies since his initial foray into the film industry.

If you’re from the central Illinois area, you might be interested in seeing this movie, if for no other reason than you can say that you saw it. If you’re into bad movies with terrible acting, you may want to add this to your list to see how it stacks up against your all-time list of bad movies. If you have absolutely nothing to do for an hour and a half and there’s no paint to watch dry, then you might want to check out The Ghost of Spoon River.


  1. Funny to see the local scenes. Horrible awful movie, though. Perhaps the worst I have ever seen.

  2. Having grown up as a River Rat of the Spoon, I'd almost want to watch this, except I find bad movies to be a waste of my precious life.