Believe it or not, GHOST SHIP contains one of the greatest openings in recent horror movie history. So much so that, while I tend to steer clear of spoiling any endings, this time I can't even spoil the fantastic beginning. It reminded me of another recent film that bowled me over with an incredible first five minutes. But that film wound up being a horrid little film called THE CONVENT.
When you open a film, you set a standard. THE CONVENT could not meet it's own standards. Sadly, neither can GHOST SHIP.
After the prologue, we get to meet a rag-tag salvage crew, celebrating their latest haul at sea. The group is made up of the same unwashed but charming working stiffs we've become enamored with since Dan O'Bannon gave us DARK STAR and ALIEN. There are a couple familiar faces here. Gabriel Byrne plays Murphy, the group's leader and a recovering alcoholic. His second-in-command, Epps (Julianna Margulies - wonder if she misses ER yet?) sees Murphy as a father figure and the crew as her family. The reasons why are never made quite clear but it would have been interesting.
And hey, isn't that Ron Eldard in the crew? He was in two of my favorite films from 1996 - SLEEPERS and THE LAST SUPPER. Then he did a sitcom with Rob Schneider and we never heard much from him again, save for some supporting roles. More proof that Rob Schneider is hazardous to your health.
Anyway, a young pilot named Ferriman (Desmond Harrington - THE HOLE, WRONG TURN) breaks into the celebration with a business proposal. He has found what seems to be a ghost ship, floating in the Bering Sea, just waiting to be plundered and returned to port. The name of the ship is the Antonia Graza.
The Antonia Graza has become one of a handful of legends in maritime lore. It set sail in 1962 and was never heard from again. When our salvage crew goes out to see the ship, they find everything they would need to set themselves up for life. Treasures, vintage materials for museums and a substantial stash of gold. They also find evidence of a massacre on board. They find everything except bodies.
Before you can say "Mary Celeste," Epps is seeing an extremely pale little girl who seems to be trying to warn her of something. Too late. The salvage crew becomes trapped on the ship with some roaming spirits who, for some reason, seem hell-bent (no pun intended) on adding the crew to their number.
GHOST SHIP is the third production from Dark Castle Entertainment. It is also the first film not to follow their model of remaking the films of William Castle.
Steve Beck fills the director's chair for the second time. He previously directed 2001's THIRTEEN GHOSTS. Seeing that film was a very frustrating experience for me. It had one of the eeriest sets I'd seen in a while. It had an excellent design for the creatures, courtesy of KNB Effects. The effects guys even had the good sense to create some beautiful back stories for the creatures. But all depth of character was cut out. Instead, we had the same generic people, including one particularly offensive racial stereotype.
But worse yet was the direction in THIRTEEN GHOSTS. Beck did not let any suspense build. Instead, he chose strobe effects, jerky camera movements and many jump cuts. The effect was that it looked like a fine music video by Slipknot or some other nu-metal incarnation. But it made for a blah horror film.
Beck almost corrects his mistakes in GHOST SHIP but finds himself falling into the same slump as the film wears on. Like he did with the caged spirits of THIRTEEN GHOSTS, Beck creates a detailed and poignant back story for the events surrounding the Antonia Graza. But all of this is still left in the background (for a few more snippets of this backstory, check out some of the DVD extras).
We keep losing track of characters for extended periods of time. At times, they end up on opposite ends of the ship, not that they didn't have time to cross the whole thing twice over since we last saw them. The script (by Mark Hanlon and John Pogue) manages to avoid stereotyping it's characters, but fails to infuse them with any personality to make up for it. Hence, aside from Murphy and Epps, we have a cast of disposables and we can't feel too affected by seeing them diced into chum.
Now onto Beck's direction. After the opening, he seems to be consciously holding back. In fact, a lengthy search of the ship is quite dull until one character has the good sense to stumble on a weak bit of floor. The film continues to go through a bunch of dull patches for the most part. Beck revs things up towards the third act, but winds up using the same motor that powered THIRTEEN GHOSTS. A flashback sequence tells what happened on the Antonia Graza. Believe it or not, Beck could have actually topped his killer beginning with this montage - one that should have been an amazing sequence, filled with plenty to make us jump. Instead, Beck's camera and editing does all the jumping for us. Using yet another disposal nu-metal track, the jerky motions and strobe editing come back in full force and completely ruin anything that could have made the sequence great. It was a huge let-down.
Most of the performances are fine, particularly Byrne and Margulies. But Desmond Harrington, in one of the more important roles, is just plain wrong. He seems too young and willowy to handle everything that's happening. The little touches he adds to his character, seem out of place. It's as if he wasn't getting enough direction regarding his performance and he was trying to accommodate for everything. When the crew found the gold, his incessant giggling was dancing on my last nerve. I sincerely hope he is better in this year's WRONG TURN, a project that seems to have some positive buzz.
Not everything in GHOST SHIP is a misfire. The opening is great, and it manages to recapture some of that magic with one beautiful shot towards the end and an effective last sixty seconds.
Another refreshing change is that you expect to be treated to endless scenes of people seeing ghostly apparitions, screaming and running away. They don't. It does not take people long to realize things are not right on the Antonia Graza, and what's going on defies all rational explanation. After two sightings, Margulies actually seeks the little girl out as if to say, "Who is this poor kid? Why is she bugging me? And most of all, are we in as much trouble as I think we are?" It's a nice switch from the standard routine and GHOST SHIP should be commended for at least remedying this clich in a convincing manner.
Still, GHOST SHIP winds up being a wholly mediocre experience. I've seen the film once and have absolutely no desire to ever sit through it again. It's a far cry from the rather impressive updating of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in 2000.
It's predictable, frustrating and at times, boring. And for everything in GHOST SHIP's favor, there?s just no sailing around that iceberg.
- Scott W. Davis