The horror movie generally gets a bad rap – most of the criticism heaped upon it, justly deserved. For those aspiring to become the new 'sultan of shudders', the allure is as real as the danger to simply cast subtlety aside and go for the all-out special effects laden gore-fest. The temptation to succumb is, of course, predicated on, what is by now, the audience’s well-honed response to terror. What scared us yesterday very likely will not have quite the same effect on us today; our inevitable desensitization inextricably linked to more jaded expectations to see something new – or rather, more repulsive than perhaps we even imagined. Hence, Hollywood’s catering to the lowest common denominator begins.
In some ways, Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship (2002) is a prime example of the horror movie gone wrong, but for all the right reasons. The movie’s premise can be summed up in one line: a present day group of salvagers are lured by a mysterious stranger to inspect the Antonia Graza; a luxury liner that disappeared under spurious circumstances back in the early 1960’s. Predictably, they get more than they bargained. Yet Ghost Ship defies all of the abject negativity critics too readily, and with wild abandonment, heaped upon its poop deck fourteen years ago.
Fair enough, the mayhem concocted by Brian Cox and his SFX team leaves little to the imagination, especially during the fairly gruesome flashback used to explain how the great ship came to be a mass mortuary. But Ghost Ship never forgets itself in this carnage; perfecting its theater of the grotesque with a not-so-subtly plied entanglement that can still, at times, shock, revile, disgust and yes – even entertain; with its uber-clever mix of grand guignol and suspense. Too few horror movies simply indulge in too much of the former while tossing away the latter. But Ghost Ship manages a tenuous balance between the implacably grisly and marginally less offensive good solid chill.
It is a very brave director who can start us off with a few champagne-inspired bubbles rising from the sea and a sweeping crane shot over the Antonia Graza at the height of her luxurious trans-Atlantic crossing, with a glittering assemblage of the ultra-chic and infinitely wealthy on board; then rattle our collective senses to their core by having the passengers suddenly cut in half by a metal mooring cable torn from its rigging, after being deliberately stretched too tight. In this brief setup, Steve Beck has given us the two halves of a perilous tale that will truly come to haunt our select group of salvagers. On the surface, Ghost Ship has no subtlety to it at all; its narrative drenched in the sort of blood-soaking sadism I usually cannot abide. But somehow Ghost Ship is different; or rather – my response to it remains unexpectedly dissimilar. I realize I am between Scylla and Charybdis in this opinion of the film. Most critics eviscerated Ghost Ship as a derelict bit of super-schlock and nonsense already run aground.
So, what are its merits? Well, for starters, we could recommend the cast fronted by Gabriel Byrne and Julianna Marguilies; a pair of pros who could do better, or even more, elsewhere, though nevertheless remain contented herein to sell their wares convincingly enough. Also a nod to Ron Eldard and Desmond Harrington; again, better than their material, yet able to sustain our respect for the craft even when the dialogue and/or maggots issuing from their lips lets us down. We’ll also tip our hats to Francesca Rettondini as the sultry chanteuse, warbling ‘Senza Fine’ with a killer voice and curves; a real femme fatale who flirts with danger and gets ‘hooked’ into more than she realized. Yeow…she sizzles!
Beyond the stars and…uh…titillation factor, we should also pause to give notice to Gale Tattersall’s opulent cinematography; Graham ‘Grace’ Walker’s phenomenal production design and Richard Hobb’s sterling art direction; all of them conspiring to truly resurrect another more glamorous period in travel about to go horribly awry. Ghost Ship’s production values really are commendable. Finally, to director Steve Beck who insisted, wherever possible, to commit the film to visual effects done live – using CGI only as a last resort to ‘stitch’ together the seams and augment what had already been captured in camera. I’ve said it before, so once more won’t hurt: there really is no substitute for full-scale film-making. As good as it has become over the last twenty years, CGI cannot compete because it never manages to fool the human eye for more than a few seconds at a time.
Let us be clear about one thing: Ghost Ship won’t win any awards for high art. But it can be compelling in spots; its gut-gushing visual effects let loose during the penultimate flashback sandwiched two thirds of the way into Mark Hanlon and John Pogue’s expertly timed screenplay. That the script doesn’t really advance beyond its first act premise in any sort of meaningful way does not negate the interesting setup or sustained trepidation that permeates the entire movie from start to finish.
We begin in 1962, the Italian luxury liner, Antonia Graza on another routine voyage with wealthy passengers aboard. On deck, a lonely young girl, Katie Harwood (Emily Browning) quietly observes the elegantly quaffed and dressed adults sashaying around the dance floor, sadly lamenting the fact she has no one with whom to partner up. The first officer (Adam Bieshaar) gives Katie a scrabble toy to amuse, and soon the Captain (Robert Ruggiero) invites her to the floor. It’s a perfect moment on an idyllic moonlit evening. Alas, something is remiss; a mysteriously gloved hand pressing down on a lever that recoils a thin wire cord around its spool, the tension snapping like a blade across the dance floor and bisecting the revelers.
In slow motion, we witness their horrified disbelief as one by one each passenger separates at the waist, their bloody entrails strewn about the deck. Only Katie has been spared, the captain having bent down to shield her from the wire that has torn through his face; the top half of his head separating at the mouth. Initially, Brian Cox had designed the sequence so that all the passengers would be decapitated. At the last possible moment, upper management at Warner Bros. nixed this idea, presumably nervous that it might be too much for audiences to handle.
Katie’s lone scream of terror amidst these wriggling corpses kicks off the film’s present day narrative. Some forty years later, we are aboard the salvage vessel, Arctic Warrior, captained by Sean Murphy (Gabriel Byrne); the tug’s operations overseen by Maureen Epps (Julianna Marguilies). Also aboard are Greer (Isaiah Washington), Dodge (Ron Eldard), Munder (Karl Urban) and Santos (Alex Dimitriades); rugged individualists hard at work. It isn’t going well, but teamwork pulls the group through, and, to celebrate their victory over the elements everyone retires to a familiar watering hole. The mood is jovial until they are approached by Canadian weather service pilot, Jack Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) who claims to have discovered a mysterious derelict adrift in international waters in the Bering Sea. Suggesting a 50/50 split of whatever they find on board, the temptation for riches proves too great for Murphy and his crew to resist.
They set sail for the open waters with Ferriman. A gale picks up and storm clouds move in. The night sky is rain-soaked, misty and foreboding. But the crew remains undaunted; surprised even when the Antonia Graza suddenly materializes directly ahead; Santos narrowly avoiding a collision with the luxury liner. Boarding the Antonia Graza is like stepping into the past. Alas, the restless spirits who populate this ship are unwilling to leave well enough alone for the new arrivals. Greer nearly falls to his death when the balcony he is standing on inside the ship’s grand ballroom suddenly gives way. He is pulled to safety by Dodge and Epps; the latter catching a fleeting glimpse of Katie quietly observing their predicament from below. It can’t be. A little girl alive on this rusty hulk?!?
Epps keeps her discovery to herself, believing the others will think her crazy. Ferriman helps guide everyone into the ship’s hull where they discover what has always been rumored; that the Antonia Graza was carrying gold bullion in its cargo hold when she disappeared. Elated at their good fortune, the mood turns sour when Murphy finds a digital watch on the ship’s bridge. Its’ discovery leads to a more ominous precursor – the bodies of another salvage crew floating face down in the ship’s flooded engine room.
Endeavoring to get off the Antonia Graza with all speed, Murphy’s attempts to load the gold onto the Arctic Warrior come to not when an invisible force opens one of the gas valves in the engine room, causing the Warrior to combust into flames and sink to the bottom of the ocean with Santos on board. The rest of the crew is now stranded on the Antonia Graza and fated for similar demises. Murphy reasons that their only chance at survival is to repair the ship and sail her into port. But finding viable means to restart its rusty engines means the group will have to split up. In the dilapidated ballroom, Greer suddenly comes face to face with Francesca; the slithery chanteuse who was aboard the Antonia Graza when she disappeared. Is he losing his mind? No, though he’s about to lose his life. Greer is seduced by Francesca, who resurrects the ballroom to its former glory, populating it with an impressive gathering of moneyed guests, gathered around and bursting into applause.
Meanwhile, Murphy discovers the captain’s quarters and a fresh glass of Scotch awaiting him on the cobweb and dust-laden dresser; catching a glimpse of the Antonia Graza’s sad-eyed captain reflected in a mirror on the wall. The captain explains to Murphy how the Antonia Graza came upon the Lorelei, a sinking cruise ship. Several of his crew managed to save the Lorelei’s stockpile of gold bullion; also a lone survivor whom Murphy is flabbergasted to learn is none other than Ferriman. Realizing they have been lured aboard the Antonia Graza by a specter of some sort, Murphy races to warn the rest of his crew. He is prevented from reaching them by Santos’ ghost; severely charred and menacing at every turn. Thus, when Murphy does manage to break free of Santos apparition, he seems mad and dangerous; subdued by Epps and Dodge who confine him for his own safety – as well as their own – to a very large fish tank emptied of both its fish and water.
In their search for supplies, Dodge and Munder stumble into the ship’s mess, discovering storehouses of food stuffs that apparently have weathered the passage of time with remarkable freshness. However, upon biting into the tasty morsels the boys discover the food is definitely tainted, vomiting up mouthfuls of maggots. Down a lonely crew passage, Epps is suddenly confronted by a series of doors slamming shut, Katie reappearing to her and gently placing her transparent hand across Epps’ shoulder; the glowing limb allowing Epps a vivid look into the past. The Antonia Graza is renewed before her very eyes on the eve she went missing. Epps witnesses firsthand the poisoning of passengers by the ship’s steward (Matthew Wollaston) and purser (Iain Gardiner) after they have already murdered the chefs and kitchen staff.
In the resulting chaos of passengers taking ill, crew members loyal to Ferriman – who is actually revealed to be a demonic spirit, collecting souls – carry out a bloody annihilation of everyone on board; stabbing some, slitting others’ throats and conducting a mass assassination at rifle point inside the ship’s indoor pool. Epps also witnesses Francesca pick off the assassins one by one; presuming her loyalty to Ferriman will be well-repaid. Instead, he releases a razor-sharp hook in the ship’s cargo hold from its winch, the metal catching Francesca in the neck and causing her lifeless body to swing back and forth while she bleeds out; Ferriman burning an imprint into her hand – just another soul he’s claimed for his tally.
Realizing Murphy’s protestations were not the ravings of a lunatic, Epps leaves this blood past behind, racing back to the fish tank. Regrettably, Ferriman has been there first; the tank overflowing with Murphy’s lifeless body still floating inside. Dodge and Munder meet similar fates below deck, their attempts to pump water from the flooded engine room forcing them to dive below and become caught in the rigging one by one. The only way Ferriman can succeed is if the Antonia Graza is restored and sailed into port. So Epps sets out to sink the vessel instead. She plants explosives and prepares to detonate the charges when she is confronted by Ferriman who explains he is the ‘salvager’ of souls earned for his lifetime of sin.
Because Katie was singularly without sin when the Antonia Graza was ambushed, Ferriman cannot control her soul as he does the others. But the Antonia Graza must not be allowed to sink. It is his eternal trap to keep the tally of spirits constantly growing. Epps refuses to help Ferriman in his evil plans, confronting him in a life and death struggle that ends only when she manages to detonate her charges, thereby sinking the Antonia Graza into silence.
As Epps swims for her life, the many souls once trapped in this floating purgatory are now set free all around her with Katie’s pausing a moment to sincerely thank Epps for her courage and their freedom. After narrowly surviving the sinking and managing to remain afloat on a piece of ship’s debris for many days, Epps is rescued by another cruise ship passing by and taken safely to port. However, as she is being loaded into the back of an ambulance she sees the all too familiar battered crates of gold from the Antonia Graza being loaded onto another cruise ship by a new troop of men loyal to Ferriman, who boards the ship last with a wicked grin curling about his lips; Epps screaming in vain for the EMS attendants to take heed of her warning.
Ghost Ship marked the end of a very brief collaboration between director Steve Beck and producer Gilbert Adler. The pair had first conspired on the very lucrative remake of Thir13een Ghosts (2001); with Adler also producing a remake of House on Haunted Hill (1999). Ghost Ship’s abysmal reception and weak performance at the box office put an end to Adler’s aspirations to produce more like-minded fare. It also interrupted a period of rather profitable horror reboots – at least, for a few years; the cycle is once again in full swing. I suppose you just can’t keep a good ghoul down! Yet, in retrospect, the vitriol that greeted Ghost Ship seems largely unwarranted. The movie has merit and, thankfully, a cult following that has only grown in the intervening decade.
The genius in the exercise is its casting of A-list talent to headline the story; something rather unexpected. This hasn’t really happened in American-made horror movies since the late 1970’s with The Thing (Kurt Russell), Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and The Omen (Lee Remick and Gregory Peck) among others. Again, Ghost Ship is arguably not in the same league as the aforementioned horror classics. But it is competently made. It delivers some exacting bone-chilling tension along the way. Debatably, one isn’t going to see such movies for their artistic merits; and yet Ghost Ship has this too; its production design quite unique and sumptuous; stylishly photographed by Tattersall, with John Frizzell’s eerie underscore bringing out the devil of the piece long before we are introduced to his advocate, who has been riding with us shotgun all along. Sea evil, indeed!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is, of course, solid. Ghost Ship’s debut in hi-def coincided with the launch of Blu-ray and the studio has obviously put its best foot forward on this transfer to show off the ‘then’ new technology. Ghost Ship sports a refined, highly detailed image with eye-popping colors, exceptional contrast and an impeccable representation of film grain. This is 1080p done right and right up there with a reference quality mastering effort. You will love this disc. It’s just that simple; a luscious visual presentation, showing off Tattersall’s gorgeous shimmer and ghostly ambience; top notch kudos, with Blu-ray’s superior resolution maxed out. No artifacting or crushing of blacks.
The 5.1 DTS, while not particularly aggressive, exhibits very subtle nuances to thoroughly compliment the visuals. Extras are limited to several featurettes; junkets that superficially document, though sadly, never detail the making of this movie. We also get an obnoxious music video (avoid this) and the film’s original trailer; plus a rather ridiculous ‘game’ feature where one can explore ‘secrets’ of the Antonia Graza – actually, poorly produced backstories that neither flesh out the story or enhance one’s appreciation for the film. We won’t poo-poo it any further. So much is good, we can overlook the faux pas. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)