Editor’s note: Jay of the Dead is the host of Horror Movie Podcast and Movie Podcast Weekly. He has been a print and online film critic since 2006, and he has been podcasting about movies since 2010. Jay of the Dead’s horror movie reviews do not contain spoilers.
Film critic Roger Ebert said “Ghost Ship” (2002) is “better than you expect but not as good as you hope.” Those are my sentiments, exactly. But if you’re a horror fan and you haven’t seen the opening sequence of “Ghost Ship,” then your life is still incomplete.
Bloody Disgusting named the curtain-raiser of “Ghost Ship” as one of “The Top 13 Kills in Horror Movie History!” And I agree here, too. It is the perfect example of what I call “Horror in the Daylight,” or horror that comes unexpectedly — out of nowhere, out of a clear blue sky. This massacre is such a delightful and diabolical surprise that I am reluctant to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. But I typically don’t hesitate to discuss a film’s opening, so if you’d like to avoid my description of this sequence, skip over the next two paragraphs.
At first blush, “Ghost Ship” begins nothing at all like a horror movie. In fact, it looks like an episode of “The Love Boat.” The movie’s title is displayed in curvy, hot pink letters and the music is happy. The year is 1962. Everything seems idyllic on the Antonia Graza, a ritzy, Italian ocean liner. But then we sense something is amiss. A thin wire cable appears to be in danger of getting caught and pulled into the ship’s mechanical workings. Then we’re shown that this wire is on the ship’s deck, where about 50 well-dressed cruise guests are joyfully dancing.
Suddenly the wire is quickly dragged into the ship’s machinery, and it is drawn tightly at a lightning-fast speed, slicing across the ship’s deck and through — yes, through — the dancers! This moment is the masterstroke of the scene, because everyone stops and appears unaffected except for the unsettling looks on their faces. The expressions on their faces are priceless, and they verify our worst fears: They have all been sliced in half, Darth Maul-style. And right then, the halted dancers just topple in halves with their blood, body parts and carnage filling the deck. It is priceless and like nothing I can recall seeing until the night club massacre in “The Collection” (2012) — another must-see mass kill scene.
Here’s the premise of “Ghost Ship”: The crew of the Arctic Warrior tug boat salvages ships and other sea wrecks for profit. A young man named Ferryman approaches the salvagers with photographs of a mysterious ship that he has spotted in the Bering Strait. They agree to split the spoils of their find. But the titular ghost ship they recover is the ill-fated Antonia Graza, mentioned above, which had presumably been lost at sea for the past 40 years. As the crew explores the vacant vessel, they begin to discover disturbing circumstances and supernatural phenomena that lead them to suspect that the Antonia Graza may be a ghost ship in a very literal sense.
“Ghost Ship” was directed by Steve Beck whose only other stint in the director’s chair was in his debut feature film, the remake of “Thir13en Ghosts” (2001). More notably, Beck served as the visual effects art director for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “The Abyss” and “The Hunt for Red October.” And the experience of his resume is evident in “Ghost Ship.” This film looks amazing and is technically well executed. No complaints there.
The problem is, “Ghost Ship” is more of a mystery than a horror movie. It has more blood than you might expect, but it’s not scary in the least and has relatively few outright horror scenes. For this reason, “Ghost Ship” is an unusual and bizarre blend of a gory horror flick with very little horror or scares.
Even so, “Ghost Ship” has still gathered a small cult following, and I stand proudly among its defenders. I think “Ghost Ship” has garnered its fans from its epic opening and the revelatory sequence where we’re finally shown the rest of the ghost ship’s horrific back story, punctuated by some great soundtrack decisions that significantly enhance the sequence.
By the way, the cast is a solid ensemble with many actors who are now more famous and others that you’ll definitely recognize: Karl Urban, Isaiah Washington, Ron Eldard, Gabriel Byrne, Julianna Margulies and a young but creepy Emily Browning.
Rating and Recommendation:
In the end, I think “Ghost Ship” is a truly fun (albeit mild) little horror mystery to watch during this Halloween season. It’s a good fit for a very particular sort of audience that may not mind some gore but prefers to have milder scares. “Ghost Ship” is a 6 out of 10 for me, and I’m calling it a “Rental.”
Note: Beware, the IMDb trivia page for “Ghost Ship” reveals spoilers that are found even above the trivia’s spoiler section.
—Jay of the Dead
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