Dark Castle Entertainment’s first two releases were remakes of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts – which is where the studio took its name from – and though both of those films garnered fairly good reviews for their third outing they decided to go with an original story and moved the horror out onto the high seas with Ghost Ship.
When one thinks of aquatic horror films like Jaws and Deep Rising come readily to mind but Dark Castle Entertainment’s Ghost Ship is a closer cousin to the 80s film Death Ship, where George Kennedy and company board a haunted Nazi torture ship, and with Ghost Ship we have a movie that is basically a “Haunted House” on water. The basic plot surrounds a crew of ocean salvagers getting wind of a particular lucrative salvage job from a stranger at a bar named Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) and despite the mysterious nature of the job the crew can’t pass up this possible huge payday, that things go wrong almost immediately is pretty much expected. The crew of the Arctic Warrior consists of gruff Captain Murphy (Gabriel Byrne), his second-in-command Epps (Julianna Margulies ), soon-to-be-married Greer (Isaiah Washington), the crew’s mechanic Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and the prerequisite comedy team of Dodge (Ron Eldard), and Munder (Karl Urban), but don’t expect too much character development from this group as the quick “And Then There Were None” aspect of this particular horror movie does not allow itself for such luxuries.
The real star of this movie is the ghost ship itself and the set designers went all out in fashioning incredibly spooky environs for our “Red Shirts” to wander through, from the SS Antonia Graza’s gorgeous interiors during its glorious heyday of the 60s to its current decrepit state as a rusted out and waterlogged tomb full of ghosts and decaying corpses. I especially loved the way the cinematographer used the dappled light effect of reflected water to create the illusion that this boat was not only out to sea but in danger of sinking at any moment, sadly, the amazing sets weren’t quite enough to overcome the bipolar nature of the story. The original script of this movie was to be more along the lines of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with the crew of the Arctic Warrior murdering each other off so that the sole survivor would walk away with all the loot aboard the Antonia Grazza, but after the events of 9/11, the studio decided against a film that focused on the worst aspects of humanity and thus the movie switched gears and made the threat more supernatural in nature.
Even though the movie is titled Ghost Ship there aren’t all that many ghosts for our heroes to encounter. The key spectre is that of a little girl named Katie (Emily Browning ), who kind of works like a nine-year-old version of Virgil from Dante’s Inferno as she tries to help Epps uncover the mystery of The Antonia Graza, but aside from her all we really have ghost-wise is the ship’s lounge singer (Francesca Rettondini) who lures Greer to his death but more in the manner of the mythological sirens rather than that of your average ghost. The death of Greer is a key piece of evidence as to where the film fails, as we are given no real-time with these characters to get to know them and thus it makes no sense that Greer, who states that he is getting married in a few weeks, would be lured to his death via the offer of sex.
Note: The script tried to justify his attempted adultery by him stating “Can’t cheat on your fiancée with a dead girl, right? “but not only does this make him a bigger asshole but an idiot as well.
The interesting thing about the Antonia Graza is that it’s not so much a ghost ship as it is a supernatural equivalent of a pitcher plant, with the mysterious Ferriman luring people to their death with the promises of riches, but unbeknownst to his victims, Ferriman is actually the demonic spirit of a deceased sinner who had been tasked by the Devil with provoking people to sin, then killing them and bringing their souls to Hell. What is not made clear is what happens to those killed who weren’t sinners. We learn that Ferriman masterminded the murder of the crew and passengers, by somehow convincing some of the crew into slaughtering everyone else via poisoning, machine-gun fire, or as depicted in the film’s amazing opening sequence by cutting them in half by a high-tension steel cable, but aren’t most of those people simply victims? Why are those spirits trapped alongside those of their greed-filled murderers? It’s alluded that Katie was able to work against Ferriman’s wishes because she was an unmarked soul, but as she seems to be the only ghost able to do so one must ask the question, “What kind of ship was this little girl travelling on if she was the only good soul on board?”
Katie explains to Epps, “We are all trapped here, my shipmates and I, even the ones who are not marked and when the boat is full, when he has all the souls he needs and he’s filled his quota we will all be ferried” but if he can ferry across souls that aren’t marked by sin what’s the purpose of luring people aboard through greed?
It’s clear that the greed aspect was a holdover from an earlier draft of the script before it got the supernatural overhaul, and thus we are left with a movie that has mythology with bigger holes than this particular sinking ship sports. Then again, who needs stuff like “character development” and “proper plotting” when you have cool moments of gore on hand?
• The opening title sequence does a nice job of keeping viewers off guard with its use of nice romantic music, and even the title card Ghost Ship is in the hot pink graphics of what you’d expect from a romantic comedy.
• Murphy’s understanding of Maritime Law is flat-out wrong, it is not a case of “finders, keepers” and most salvage crews are hired by the original owners of the ship or the country the ship originated from and they would then be offered a percentage of the haul.
• When Murphy tells his crew the story of the Mary Celeste he nearly gets all of the facts about its disappearance, travel, and recovery wrong. Did the writers not have access to Wikipedia?
• At one point Murphy states that because the Italians could not compete in speed with the ships of the British or Americans they built their ships to be extremely big and luxurious, but this is completely wrong, since the 1940s, Italian ocean liners were known, precisely, for their speed as well as for their luxury. Clearly, Google was also beyond the reach of this film’s writers.
• We get a scene where food someone is eating suddenly turns into maggots which is clearly a nod/rip-off of either Poltergeist or The Lost Boys.
• The name Ferriman is a mythological nod to Charon, the boatman who ferries souls of the dead across the River Styx to Hades. At least one of the writers apparently cracked a book.
• Cruising around the Bering Sea doesn’t seem like a very lucrative place to pick up souls, Ferriman would have been better off in the Bermuda Triangle.
• The corrupted crew of Antonia Graza pulls out an array of full-automatic weapons to slaughter the crew, but where did these guns come from? Was this ship a pleasure ship/gun-running operation?
• Captain Murphy is a recovering alcoholic, which the spirits use to drive him mad, so basically he’s intended to be Jack Torrance from The Shining.
I can sympathize with the problems that director Steve Beck must have had in dealing with the studio’s mandated script changes – going from a human drama to supernatural carnage is a big shift – but he still must take some of the responsibility for creating a horror film with not a lot in the actual scares department, sure, we do get some fantastic set pieces and the atmospheric design of the ship is excellent but there is no real sense of dread and much of that comes from not caring if any of our cast of characters make it off the ship alive.
Ghost Ship was Beck’s last time in the director’s chair and that is a shame because he did fine with Thi13en Ghosts and if given a more thought-out script this could have been another hit. Overall, there are certainly worse horror films than Ghost Ship, thousands actually, not to mention the fact that we certainly don’t have enough sea-going ghost stories out there, so I can still recommend this to fans of the genre.
Ghost Ship (2002)
Movie Rank - 6/10
We need more ocean-going horror stories that don’t revolve around sharks or sea monsters and for that alone, I can still recommend Ghost Ship, it’s just a shame because with a better script this could have been a classic.