Ghost Ship (2002)

SEPTEMBER 29, 2020


More than once I have inadvertently written up a review here only to discover I had already done that, but I am pretty sure Ghost Ship is the first example of the opposite being true: I was 100% positive I had watched it for HMAD in the early days, but if that's the case I cannot find the damn thing no matter how hard I try. I searched on the site (both of its search engines!), Googled it, checked my Twitter, etc - all to find a review I swear I remember writing but seemingly does not exist. I know I didn't see it in theaters, so I guess I just watched it in that four year period in between its home video release and when I started HMAD. But I invite you all to try to find the review anyway so I know I'm not losing (more of) my mind!

Anyway, it's better than I remember. My only memory - and I'm sure I'm not alone on this - was the opening sequence, and in my head the review was "that's the only good part of it" but that's not true, as it turns out. It's actually better than Thirteen Ghosts, in my opinion (fair comparison since both films comprise Steve Beck's entire directorial career), and probably better than Death Ship, which its often confused with due to the similar titles and posters. An unsung masterpiece, it is not, but after seeing many lesser horror movies set on ships (Virus, Mary, Rec 4), I can appreciate what this one offers.

For starters, I like that along with all the expected Shining stuff, it's actually cribbing a bit from... Perfect Storm? As is usually the case with these kind of "A small ship comes across an abandoned big ship" kind of narratives (which include outer space versions), the salvage crew's original ship (the Arctic Warrior) is destroyed and forces them to stay on board the haunted one, but before and after that there's a lot of stuff about how they might have to abandon their newfound treasure in order to get back to shore safely. This was Perfect Storm's turning point - the men on the Andrea Gale could have waited out the storm, but it would have meant letting all their valuable swordfish turn bad, so they opted to take the risk in order to cash in (in reality no one knows what the circumstances were that resulted in their deaths since the boat was never recovered, but this sort of "reckless" behavior led the families to sue Warner Bros for making their deceased loved ones look like fools).

Here, they find a lot of gold on the boat, worth just as much if not more than the ship itself, but there's no way to get it all on a raft along with the crew itself. So they set about repairing the rusting derelict ship, which in horror movie tradition is just a good way to split them all up, but I like that they are genuinely doing repairs and making it look like they know what they're doing. One thing that's always kept me a little at bay in Session 9 is that their cleanup crew was seemingly focusing all of their attention on two rooms, which had a real world excuse (too much of the hospital was unsafe to put the actors in) but doesn't help sell the idea of their reason for being there in the first place. Here, you could almost remove the ghost stuff and it'd still work as a sort of survival/race against time kind of thriller.

As for the supernatural goings on, it's hit or miss, but thankfully less reliant on the hokiness that hamstrung Beck's previous picture. As has been reported elsewhere and repeated by Beck on his commentary, the original script (titled "Chimera") was more of a psychological affair with the crew turning on each other (which is why Session 9 came to mind in the first place!) but was rewritten to have more ghosts/people/obvious scares, much to the disappointment of many of its actors - Julianna Margulies has reportedly disowned it like it was Archie Panjabi or something. But they still kept things to a relative minimum - the main ghost we see (the little girl played by Emily Browning) is a benevolent one, and the primary villain appears as a flesh and blood protagonist until his secrets are revealed in the final 15 minutes (the film shares Ghosts' weird decision to race through the exposition when the movie is almost over, resulting in a rushed climax).

Instead, most of the scares are more subtle - doors opening on their own and such, and hallucinations where they think they're eating real food but it turns out to be maggots. There's a real attempt to deliver atmosphere; if anything they might go overboard with it at times, since it seems like a full twenty minutes of the movie are made up of people shining flashlights around. The biggest ghost setpiece is one that has no overt scares until its punchline; it's the one where one character (Isaiah Washington's Greer) is drunkenly wandering around the destroyed ballroom as it gradually reforms to its former glory, with the sultry lounge singer seducing him and leading him to another room seemingly to have some casual ghost sex (hey, we've all been there). Alas, instead of hooking up, MacGruber style, she chooses that moment to become vapor and his attempt to embrace her results in him falling right through her and down the elevator shaft he didn't notice she was standing in front of, impaling himself on some rebar below. Poor sod.

But like Ghosts, the structure holds it back a bit - things are relatively slow-paced for a while, then so much happens at once it feels like you accidentally put the movie on fast forward. One major character's death has almost no buildup, they cut to him underwater only mere seconds before he is caught in something and crushed/torn up by the ship's gears. Another one dies off-screen entirely in a manner that suggests it couldn't have happened quick (he is drowned in a tank that was empty when he entered), even though it seems only a few minutes had passed since he was last looked at. And it doesn't help that the flashback scene that explains how that bravura opening sequence happened (and what transpired immediately after, which the opening version does not) is set to a godawful industrial song written/performed by the film's composer, John Frizzell (whose score is otherwise fine). It's not just a bad song, it's in no way fitting to the visuals it accompanies, making it feel like work to get through when it's actually informing you of what's been going on the whole time. That it goes on far too long just makes it worse. I never thought I'd long for a scene where someone goes to the library to get all the backstory off a microfiche (or even a Google search!) until this sequence entered its 4000th minute.

Sadly, neither Beck nor the moderator mentions it during the commentary, but by that point I kind of figured there wouldn't be much in the way of candid reveals. Beck is pretty diplomatic throughout, with only his pauses before answering certain questions about the rewrites and the post production letting us know that this wasn't a super enjoyable experience for him. He actually laughs when asked if Dark Castle ever contacted him about working on another film, and that's about as directly honest as it gets. But that's what kind of makes it an interesting track to listen to; he's saying a lot by saying very little - except for saying how good the original script was and that he thinks Thirteen Ghosts is the better film, ahem. He also explains why he hasn't made another film - after ten years of false starts on at least six other films, he basically got tired of it and went back to commercial work. But he doesn't seem to be bitter about it, there's an "it is what it is" kind of tone to the whole thing, which is certainly better than whining.

The other features are a mix of new interviews (one via Zoom with Washington) and the original bonus features from the DVD, including Mudvayne's music video for "Falling", a solid track that I actually still hear pretty frequently on the radio (having not realized when it originated, I was surprised to learn it was that old of a song - gun to my head I would have guessed it was from the past decade considering how much airplay it still gets). It also has new art featuring Browning's character instead of the Death Ship ripoff art, though that's still available on the reverse of the sleeve. As a personal bonus feature, to me, the film had a scene featuring a heart locket, which yesterday's movie did as well - back in the original HMAD run, I was always tickled when back to back movies would share some random little thing like that (personal favorite: two unrelated movies in a row that featured a boozy brunette pretending to seduce a handicapped man as part of her evil plan). What little random throwaway thing in Ghost Ship might turn up in tomorrow's movie? I hope it's someone else getting cut in half while dancing.

What say you?


  1. Didn't you also review The House that Jack Built? I would have sworn that you did, but I can't find it now.

    1. Hah, I've never even seen it! Not a big Von Trier fan, alas. I do have the Blu-ray though, maybe I'll give it a try.


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