Beginning in 1999, a string of remakes helmed by a fledgling production company began hitting theatres; specifically kitschy B-movies from the waning decades of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Created in part by Robert Zemeckis – director and longtime William Castle fan – Dark Castle Entertainment sought to promote the godfather of gimmick by setting its sight on Castle’s efforts and trademark shtick.
The first to shake the cobwebs off was House on Haunted Hill (directed by William Malone), which allowed Geoffrey Rush to ham it up as Vincent Price’s Professor Jarrod, while giving audiences a chance to win a load of money through a scratch ticket handed out with the price of admission. After drawing in almost $16 million in its opening weekend and receiving relatively mixed reviews, the production company decided to pursue another Castle film, this time turning to 1960’s 13 Ghosts, now trendily titled Thir13en Ghosts (Steve Beck). Initially intended to provide 3D glasses reminiscent of the originals Illusion-O, which would allow audiences to participate in seeing the film’s eclectic ghosts, Dark Castle Entertainment pulled its marketing scheme after post-production, a move that signalled less of a distress call and more of a detour that saw them venturing into original material — sort of.
Enter Ghost Ship, an oceanic horror story that postures itself as a unique film in Dark Castle Entertainment’s rather small pool of offerings, though its sails are set on capturing the essence of two very different films. Leaving behind a baker’s dozen of ghosts to face a ship full of them, Steve Beck borrows his title from a 1952 British adaptation of a stage play, L’Angoisse, and its poster from Death Ship (Alvin Rakoff), a 1980 British freight film that also happens to feature a skull-like face carved into the ships bow. These similarities might lead one to think that a pair of Illusion-O’s have been slipped in front of our eyes, as the third film in Zemeckis’ production company carries with it telling signs that this is in fact, not original. However, past its marketing, title, and clever tagline (Sea Evil), Ghost Ship is very much its own thing. Drifting into theaters on October 25th, 2002, less than a week before Halloween, Beck’s sophomore effort (and last) would generally have dominated the box office. That is, if it wasn’t released the same day as Jackass: The Movie and a week after Gore Verbinski’s The Ring introduced unsuspecting audiences to the phenomenon of J-Horror. While Ghost Ship managed to rake in over three times its $20 million dollar budget worldwide, critics were quick to create a literal poop-deck, soiling its story with words such as senseless, boring, ugly, dumbed-down, and inept.
But is it really so bad?
Let me paint a picture for you:
We open at sea, as a swaying orchestral piece ushers in a soft pink title-card cast against a luxury cruise liner. String lights guide us to a bustling dance floor set under the night stars, as a woman in red with a sultry voice cuts through the violins and cellos, inviting us to join the festivities in the ships ballroom. We move seamlessly through passengers and crew members, losing ourselves to the merriment that pervades every frame. Pearls, gowns, bow-ties, and champagne flutes evoke a time now gone. A little girl sits observantly, listless from the night’s sophistication. The last of the rose hued credits fade as the captains hand extends outward, inviting the girl to dance atop the decks open floor. Suddenly, the Italian serenade shifts to foreboding strings and horns as a white gloved hand lifts a lever, revealing a taught wire that sweeps across the entire deck. As the soothing sound of the band fades, a spool winds recklessly, snapping the wire and cutting across the dance floor and its guests. Slowly, torsos and arms slide off bodies as blood trickles down their legs. Before realising what has happened, the guests crumple to the floor in dismembered shock as the girl stands unscathed amidst strewn intestines and halved humans. Her single scream closes the scene.
If you’re wondering why I just described the opening scene in such detail, it’s because this is where Ghost Ship peaks, and it peaks hard! This isn’t to say that there is nothing of value or worth within the remaining 90 minutes, but the intro deserves a moment of your time. Not only do we get a sense of the life that exists on this doomed cruise ship, but we feel it’s time beneath our feet. The feel of the fabric beneath our fingers, the smell of the forgettable food and intoxicating perfume, the sounds of luxury and the spirit of being alive; it’s all conjured before our very eyes. Then the body count hits double digits in such a way that suggests the film’s dedication to the extreme. After all, I’ve yet to even make a dent in the buttery top layer of my popcorn, and already there are enough cadavers to make Hannibal Lector seasick; clearly this ship is going places.
*long sigh* Wrong.
We’re immediately whisked away to the present, where we’re introduced to the crew of the Arctic Warrior; ragtag salvagers that are more family than team. There’s Murphy (Gabriel Burns), the fatherly captain to Epps (Julianna Margulies), who in a way acts as the big sister to Dodge (Ron Eldard), Greer (Isaiah Washington), Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and Munder (Karl Urban). Together, they create a lived-in quality to the Arctic Warrior, passing playful jabs towards each other that quickly make you feel at home with this crew. Plus, Isaiah Washington and Karl Urban bring an understated level of gruff charisma to the screen; this ship’s company can’t possibly be anything but delightful.
Joining in their expedition is Ferriman (Desmond Harrington), a Canadian weather service pilot they encounter at a bar, who informs them that he’s discovered a drifting and possibly abandoned ship out at sea. Despite giving off high levels of creep with a coat pocket full of Rohypnol, the Arctic Warriors decide to take on the task of pulling in a potentially lucrative vessel, bringing along the pilot who lacks sea legs and well, almost all self-awareness.
At this point, it’s already obvious that Ferriman is up to no good. He saunters around like a man-child lost at Sears, pouting and timidly hitting on the lone woman of the ship with a voice softer than the title-card.
Once they discover the titular ship, they quickly take a tour through its dilapidated corridors and rusted rooms, deducing how salvageable it really is. This introduction through the guts of the ship demonstrates an attention to detail, offering a deep-rooted atmosphere that hovers around every darkened corner. If the crew of the Arctic Warrior created a lived-in quality to their surroundings, then this is where the environment creates a worn-out quality to the crew, sucking them into its seemingly unoccupied world; one whose spirited passengers now reside within the slowly sinking vessel.
This new habitat *should* provide Ghost Ship with enough depth to float, but this is where not only the film sinks, but the characters too. And we really want to root for their success, and ultimately their survival, as this is a tight knit family that left behind loved ones in order to put food on the table. But as the situation becomes more and more dire – the Arctic Warrior falling victim to an explosive gas leak moments before heading back with newly discovered gold – their actions become more and more harebrained and half-baked.
Murphy and Greer, now drunk and distraught, go off on their own, only to encounter their own ghosts. While Murphy goes and gets sloshed in the captains quarters, being visited by the ghost of captains past, Greer stumbles into the decayed ballroom, where he once heard the alluring voice of an Italian woman. Being the newly engaged man he is, Greer finds himself confronted by the woman in red, who seduces him with her ghost boobs. “Can’t cheat on your fiancée with a dead girl, right?”
Oh, how quickly a strong and perceptive grown man can stumble into the bilge of stupidity. As our woman in red enticingly removes her dress, Greer staggers after her, dead set on getting a piece of ghost ass. It’s one of, though not the, most ludicrously stupid scenes we’ve encountered, as our smitten salvager begins removing his clothing, inching ever so close to an empty elevator shaft. And like a man does, Greer blindly falls into what he believes is a handful of ghost, only to stumble to his death.
Most bothersome is the fact that Greer, in his grieving and intoxicated state, acknowledges that this woman in red is undead, if not at the very least, a ghost. Yet somewhere, in the recess of his male mind, he deems getting freaky as a somewhat rational course of action, despite his very existence dependent on patching up the leaky hull. Oh, and by the way, it’s not cheating if she’s dead.
Meanwhile, Epps is off chasing Katie, the little girl from the opening scene, played by a young Emily Browning, while Dodge and Munder dig into the ships four decade old food, only to realise they’ve been eating maggots. It’s an infectiously comical nod to the Lost Boys – “How’re those maggots, Michael? – that shows the level of humour Ghost Ship could have been anchored to from the very beginning. Except this isn’t really a horror film that adheres to any one tone, shifting between seriously haunted and seriously hokey in such a way that evokes some of the most unintentionally hilarious moments since Deep Blue Sea gave us Thomas Jane: shark wrangler.
One of, though again not the, biggest moments in the treasure trove of unintentionally hilarious, comes when Katie shows Epps the true reason there are so many lost souls strewn across the entire ship. It’s a flashback that for some reason or another carries with it a techno-based track by composer John Frizzell that would feel more at home in Blade: The Series. As men and women flee in terror, not from the song but from thieves masquerading as crew members, we see that their murderous spree is over the stashed gold. Furthermore, it’s revealed through this scene, laughably utilising sped up and decelerated editing, that Ferriman is actually a demonic spirit. Bear with me now!
Turns out Ferriman was never after the gold, only the souls of those aboard the ship. See, he never was a Canadian weather service pilot, but a soul salvager, who just so happens to have a quota to fill before heading back to hell. Are you still with me? He can only control the souls of sinners to do his dirty work, but in order to traverse the waters collecting souls, he needs the ship repaired. If the ship sinks, every soul on board will be set free.
It’s a preposterous plot twist that might be believed, had it not been for the utterly unconvincing Desmond Harrington. You’ll find heavier brooding on a jungle gym than this demonic bad-boy, with both Murphy and Dodge being killed off-screen because well, it’s more credible if we don’t see it. The script doesn’t even really know how to tackle confrontations between the crew and Ferriman, sending Munder to a shallow grave from a piece of machinery, while turning Julianna Margulies into an action star, spear-gun and all.
In the end, Epps sends Ferriman back to hell in a blaze of glory while escaping with the help of Katie, who floats with the remaining spirits around the sinking ship in a scene that looks, feels, and sounds like it is aping FernGully: The Last Rainforest. And yet Steve Beck and his writers save the best for last as Epps, lying in the back of a dockside ambulance, witnesses a crew loading a ship full of gold. Struggling to concoct a sinister look about as convincing as The Smurfs Gargamel, Ferriman turns towards Epps before Ghost Ship closes with an ill-placed Mudvayne track, all because it really is so bad.