31 Days of Halloween — Day 11: Ghost Ship (2002) — by Jay of the Dead

Ghost Ship 2002

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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10 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 11: Ghost Ship (2002) — by Jay of the Dead

  1. Knock Knock…
    So gonzo over the top crazy I couldn’t help being sucked into the insanity…Good or bad I’m not sure but it was intense…

  2. (Spoiler free)

    Day 11 – Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

    Well, this was not a movie I had expected to watch this year. It was at the very top of my list for movies I really didn’t want to watch due to how graphic it was and the animal cruelty. So, what changed my mind? Well, paying money to see the Green Inferno in the theater probably helped some. While I was sure that Cannibal Holocaust would be more intense, I was already in the mode of seeing something more graphic that I watch on a regular basis. Another factor is that I’m not a fan of letting key horror movies in horror history go by without a single watch. Even though it’s a silly idea, the idea of skipping certain horror films for any reason comes across as being an insincere fan of the genre. Lastly, there’s the fact that I haven’t gotten around to watching any true foreign horror this October yet. What’s the deal with that? So for all of those reasons, I turned on my night light, grabbed my favorite stuffed animal, and kept telling myself that it was only a movie, only a movie, only a movie.

    The truth is, it wasn’t as graphic as I thought it would be. With the exception of three key scenes, it was a typical movie experience for me. Part of this can be attributed to not focusing on the real events of what happened and telling myself that whenever an animal is killed, it wasn’t real, but rather special effects were done by some crafty FX guy. The fact that these poor animals didn’t bleed much when they died helped that fear of not knowing if I could handle watching legitimate animal deaths on the screen. The one animal death that was tough to watch was the large turtle. This is because unlike all of the other animal deaths, it’s not a quick shot. We stayed on that turtle for a long time. The most nauseating moment of the entire film occurs here when we see the turtle’s insides and the nerves causes the legs to move even after the head is removed. Now, while the animal deaths weren’t too difficult to watch, it did really annoy me that I was having to watch animals be killed on screen for scenes that didn’t add anything to the story. At best, only the pig’s death added to the story, but that was just a small part in a far bigger series of events. If you watch the animal cruelty-free version of the film, there isn’t anything removed that would affect the plot. If you’re going to kill an animal on screen for a movie, at least make it mean something.

    The other two scenes that were the hardest to watch involves sexual assault. The first one is the worst simply because it’s not a rape scene. It’s plain and simply sexual based torture. The things done to the woman in this torture are things I wouldn’t have ever imagined, let alone expected to see in a movie. It’s truly horrifying. Finally, the final tough scene to watch was the first rape scene. It’s a very “Normal” type of scene to watch in extreme movies from this time period, but it’s still to watch. However, this scene plays a part in the plot and plays a big role in the emotional involvement that I had in the film. As unpleasant as rape scenes are to watch in movies, they’re extremely effective at causing me to have the intended reaction of wanting to see some brutal revenge against the rapists.

    To backtrack some, the movie began with it’s fantastic opening credits. Throughout the credits, we hear the main theme while we’re shown overhead shots of the amazon. This theme is very upbeat and it sounds like innocent and loving folk music from that time period. If you knew nothing about this movie, the opening credits is going to mislead you into expecting an exciting adventure film with some romance tacked on. These are credits you’d expect to be accompanied with 1957’s African Queen, not this ultra violent cannibal film. That’s exactly what makes this credit scene so great. It’s such a contrast to the rest of the film. The same main theme returns at various points in the rest of the movie, typically when someone truly awful is going on. I would compare it to the usage of “Singing in the Rain” with 1971’s A Clockwork Orange.

    Similarly in The Green Inferno, a major theme is who are truly the villains in this? On the surface, it’s the cannibals. They have these awful customs and unwillingness to have a “Normal” society. However, the longer the movie went on, the more these people seemed innocent and like the entire history of the world, the white men were the real villains. It’s a nice reminder of the fact that not everything you see on TV or the internet is the full story. We are lied to and mislead, sometimes without ever knowing about it. At the same time, the question is presented to us about whether or not we care if the false presentation makes for a more compelling story.

    One area in which Cannibal Holocaust stands out in is that parts of it makes up the first ever found footage film. Here there’s some lighthearted fun as we get to see some found footage tropes on full display even in this very first film. It’s not a found footage film unless at least one person tells another to put the camera down. That happens here. Some convenient footage is missing or damaged. There’s some playing to the camera that attempts to humanize the characters. The found footage ends up revealing a twist or a surprise that was not known at the start of the film. One thing that Cannibal Holocaust does that so few other found footage movies does is that is shows the finding of the footage. The entire first half of the movie is the search for this missing footage to try and explain what happened to the missing TV crew. So even though this movie is now thirty-five years old, it actually feels different from found footage movies of today. That’s quite impressive when you think about it.

    Overall, I don’t know if I’ll ever watch Cannibal Holocaust again. It’s not a pleasant movie, even if I had built it up so much in my head that it wasn’t as explicit as I imagined. Like with the Green Inferno, you’re mostly getting what you expect. It’s an ultra violent film that is graphic in a variety of ways. If you’re not comfort with extreme kills, real animal deaths, sexual abuse, ect, you should not watch this. If you can handle all that, the film has a lot of merits. It plays with your emotions, makes you think some, and it’s a legendary film in terms of being the first ever found footage movie. Ultimately, it’s a movie that I enjoyed, but not one I can see myself watching again anytime soon. If you saw The Green Inferno and enjoyed that, check out the superior Cannibal Holocaust.

    I’d give it a 8/10.

    • Man, this is a tough one to talk about. I’m overwhelmed just thinking about how we’re going to cover this properly in our Cannibal movie discussion. You’ve done a good job laying it out here, Sal, but this is still so raw for so many people.

      A line is crossed in this film, one that society should not condone. Period. BUT … I think there are some lines that shouldn’t have a but.

      That line is muddied for me personally as someone who has shot documentary footage of far worse violence against animals. The violence I filmed was about subsistence (even survival) but you could easily argue that the use in my upcoming doc, while educational, is still ultimately for entertainment. It’s difficult.

      Basically, although I think it is worth discussing, I’m very empathetic to those who think this goes beyond the pale.

      • The animal cruelty featured in Cannibal Holocaust is a very muddied issue. Since it is so in the middle between being able to be defended and being reproachable, I think is the main reason why it still gets debated to this day. Had it skewed more towards one way, there’s not much to say about it. On one hand, these animals were killed solely for the entertainment and shock value despite how little it meant towards the plot. On the other hand, the kills were quick and the animals were then fed to the tribes. I’ve even heard some people claim it wasn’t actually animal cruelty since the kills were quick enough to limit the amount of pain the animals went through rather than just trying to torture them.

        This becomes even further complicated since everyone has their own opinions and beliefs for what it is too far.

        What I will say is that it could have been worse. It may not seem like much of a defense for the filmmakers, but it’s still something. The whole ethical debate is interesting in respect to other forms of entertainment where animal deaths occur. In theory, was there much of a difference between what happens in Cannibal Holocaust and your typical hunting show?

        At the end of the day, the animal deaths are reason enough for why some horror fans will have no desire to watch the movie. It does leave me wondering if that shock is the whole reason why animals were killed. Thirty-five years later and we’re still talking about the movie due to the animal deaths. How many moviegoers only heard about the movie due to it’s controversy? Was it always the plan of the filmmakers to give the animals to the tribes for them to eat or was it merely a way to dispose of the bodies in the easiest possible fashion? That I believe plays a big role in whether I feel what did they was completely wrong or just “Right” but something I’m not entirely comfortable with.

        I’m rambling now, but the multiple debates that can come from it could be the basis for multiple documentaries or papers.

  3. 31 Days of Halloween day 11
    29. Yakuza Apocalypse (***) – Another Takashi Miike directed crazy gangster movie with vampires, a kappa, and Frog King. There’s also a guy dressed as a steampunk pilgrim for some reason.
    30. Knock Knock (***) – Every man’s worst nightmare. Basically a remake of Hard Candy except that Keanu’s character really doesn’t deserve what’s happening.

    • Yakuza Apocalypse is the Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup of Movies!!! You got Japanese mobsters in my end of the world scenario!! You got an end of the world scenario around my Japanese mobsters!! So many exclamation points!! !!!

  4. This is a classic holiday movie for us! We rented it one Christmas and every year when we talk about movies to watch someone always says “Ghost Ship!” Indeed the opening sequence is fantastic.

  5. Day 11: Haxan
    I started watching Haxan on October 11 but I needed to take a break and come back to it. Haxan is a swedish silent film from 1922. I bought this copyright-free movie for like $20 off of iTunes but it is a great version with newly recorded music based off the music played at Haxan’s opening night in 1922. I loved this movie. There are about 7 sections so it’s kind of like an anthology. It has really cool reenactments of witch rituals but it also has a documentary feel. I’ve never seen a movie like this and it was refreshing to watch. That being said, I did have to watch it in two parts. There are plenty of scenes and they come quickly so I needed a little time to digest what I was watching. If you haven’t watched a silent movie, don’t start with this one. If you like silent horror, check this out.

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