In Defense of Ghost Ship, 20 Years Later.

by Paul Deeter

The year 2022 for horror films was not particularly consistent. I did mention this in my article earlier on Jeepers Creepers: Reborn, the early Jeepers Creepers films are arguably quite bad despite the nostalgia millennials held for that era of horror films. With the occasional gem like The Ring, we also got some all-time duds like Darkness and the incredibly dated Fear Dot Com. The early 2000s fall into a time where horror movies either relied to heavily on CGI, gore or jumpscares. And often all three. But this article is not intended to repeat what I just wrote in my Jeepers Creepers: Reborn piece. This article is intended to re-evaluate a film from 2002 that in my opinion did not get the fair shake it deserved. Ghost Ship is a wild 2002 ghost feature flick with a very promising premise and solid scares bogged down occasionally by its sometimes muddy visuals and very muddy and dated nu-metal soundtrack. The movie's not great and often quite dull, but it doesn't deserve its 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating, and while it tripled its budget in '02 I truly think it deserves another return voyage.

The movie begins as strong as it ever gets, with a terrible accident involving a boat support wire snapping and slicing straight through every patron on the dance floor outside of little Katie (played by young Emily Browning) who's height keeps her from getting bisected. It's a wicked and nasty beginning to a surprisingly gore-limited film, but we'll get to that later. This cordial boat dance occurred on our titled-ship setting: MS Antonia Graza in the year 1962 (40 years ago to the films setting. We meet a rag-tag group of all star performing salvagers, including Gabriel Byrne as our lead, Isaiah Washington, Julianna Marguilies and a young, dorkier Karl Urban (pre-ripped 300 bod). The crew are tasked by a mysterious pilot into searching for and recovering 28 gold bars from the derelict ship, needing nothing but 10% of the profits. As suspicious as this is, this is also a movie and our characters think that the offer can't be passed up. Therefore they embark immediately to the adrift ship (also sus) and began their search for the missing treasure. The setup is very National Treasure meets a more modern Pirates of the Caribbean and being the both those films came out around the same year here, the effects and overall escapism is strong and felt in the action sequences.

Our Motley Crew.

With initially nothing to lose, the adventurers scout out the ship peaceably until an accidental propane explosion kills of one of our less interesting supporting actors. The movie then takes the old stereotypical question: "why don't our characters just leave the haunted house" and strands our cast onto this boat. The director Steve Beck also utilizes this trick in Thir13n Ghosts in which the house actually locks itself like a contraption to keep anyone with a logical brain from just leaving the premises. We are in the middle of unterritorial waters, which at least makes the gold fair game for our crew, but also leaves them up shit's creek without a paddle.

It doesn't take long for the spooky abandoned ship to get mad at their uninvited guests, and in the fashion of any effective horror film, each character begins to have their own experiences with the ghosts. One of the female crew is directly spoken to through Katie (the young girl in the beginning) who's kind of our spiritual guide in explaining the curse on the ship. One of them is seduced by the sensual boudoir actress on stage; SPOILERS she lures him to his death like a siren to the rocks. There are other moments of spookiness and icky-ness with cans of stew turning into maggots while people unknowingly eat them and other various apparitions which keep the film fun. As I mentioned before, the movie doesn't do much to rely on gore outside of its initial shocking introduction. This script was a relatively bloodless psychological thriller rather than a vivid supernatural horror film. Most notably, much of the film's gore is absent from the screenplay." Not much gore translates on screen in the end, but the opening and the nudity of the singer apparition keep this firmly in R-Rating territory. But its nice to know that some of the 2002 R-Rated horror films didn't swing for the fences with onscreen violence, and had some elements of actual old-fashioned scariness.

The actual setting of the movie makes up for the stronger aspects of this film. The behind-the-scenes work on securing a ship for the setting shows an extra mile that came from actually wanting to still the film in a somewhat practical-effect based background: "The idea of filming on a real ship was continually brought up, and a few ships were scouted for the possibility of being used as the Antonia Graza. "The temptation was always to shoot on the real thing," Beck says. "We actually visited a few [ships] , but every time we thought, to get the shot you need...on a steel ship that's impossible. We knew the real thing would be far too limiting." The actual film background was utilized with some rooted practical on set filming. The film balanced most of the filming on soundstage, but utilized miniatures, CGI and other visual effects on a phenomenal level that truly does not look nearly as dated as I expected (especially viewing it on a DVD).

Thar be more to tis ship than it seems.

And the horror does work quite well here! The film's frequent jumpscares do feel a little tiring, but that's to be expected. The actual makeup and creature FX reminds me of the creativity designed for the ghosts in his Thir13en Ghosts film. They're effectively creepy and clever in each of their own distinguished looks, kind of like the various cenobites in the Hellraiser franchise. Again the killer setting is really fun, with various scenescapes showing abandoned Victorian-era rooms and lifelike props. There was never one room quite like the other here. On top of it all, the goofy charisma of the cast here was strong, even though the dramatic twist and turn of the narrative of the film's last act didn't quite sell me. That and the unfortunately obnoxious film soundtrack make the movie a cut under complete recommendation.

That said, I loved Ghost Ship. I missed it in 2002 since I was too young, and never ventured to watch it on DVD (or at the time VHS). I had trouble finding a copy and ordered one on DVD from the library. If you can't stream it, consider picking up a Scream Factory! copy of it on Blu-ray.

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