Ghost Ship is one of two movies directed by Steve Beck (the other being Thir13en Ghosts). It has built a name for itself based almost entirely on its opening scene and its headlining cast. Is it a worthy entrant into the hallowed halls of horror? Is it shitty drivel? Is it a mediocre intermediary betwixt those two with a truly incredible opening segment? Well, I don’t want to tip my hand, but it’s the third one. Check out our spoilerific review below to get them deets.
Reviewed by: Mark
Open on a picturesque 1960s ocean liner. A warm breeze rolls across the bow revealing a lovely captain’s ball with a live band. Adults dance and laugh as young Kate (Emily Browning) sits to the side looking generally bored and envious of their good time. The captain takes notice and generously asks her to dance. She accepts and starts to have a better time as they dance. Nearby, an unseen hand reaches for a lever and pulls it. A wire snaps across the dancefloor, presumably pulled by the deployed anchor. There is a moment of stunned silence as the comprehension of the situation begins to dawn on the victims, then the upper halves of the now bisected dancers begin to slide off. Katie screams as she sees the captain’s head split in two. She was short enough to be spared, but what hell awaits her on board?
Flash forward to modern day where we are introduced to Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) and his crew of naval salvagers. You know the type… the ones that bring in shipwrecks for big money. We get some quick action shots of Epps (Julianna Margulies) before we jump to them in a bar celebrating their most recent conquest. As they celebrate, a pilot named Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) gets Murphy’s attention and tells him about a seemingly deserted ocean liner he saw in the Bering sea in one of his most recent endeavors. Seeing the multi-million dollar opportunity for what it is, the crew packs up and rolls out to their next job.
Soon after, the crew finds the ocean liner in what is decidedly the most Mudvayne filled sequence you will ever see in any movie ever. Once onboard they go full Scooby Doo and simultaneously announce how dangerous the ship is and decide to split up to explore it. Solid move. As strange things begin to happen (there happen to be some ghosts on this ship) the crew finds a gigantic pile of gold on board and celebrate their new found riches. Except that doesn’t last long because when they go to tow the thing home their tugboat explodes. Cue the sad trombone sounds.
Since their only functional vessel just exploded, the salvagers are forced to fix up their new ghost-infested digs to make it sea-worthy once more. As the crew once again splits up they are equal parts efficient in fixing things and efficient in getting killed off. For full grown non-idiot humans these folks sure are easy to kill. Greer (Isaiah Washington) is enticed into falling down an elevator shaft, Mundy (Karl Urban in his first major role) gets crunched up by a big ass gear, and Murphy gets tricked into an aquarium where he drowns. In the meantime Epps befriends the ghost of Katie and the history of the ship is revealed to the audience via flashback that once again has an unfortunate amount of strange 90s industrial techno metal.
And here we arrive at the grand reveal of the movie. Remember Ferriman? Well, he’s an agent of Charon The Ferryman, the demon who ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx in a ferry. Do you get it? They named him Ferriman because he’s a ferry-man. Yeah. It’s not subtle. Anyway, long story short he’s been using the pile of gold to force people to kill each other so he can collect their souls, turn them into ghosts, and deliver them to the netherworld to fill a quota. The bisection scene at the beginning was the result of Ferriman himself convincing the crew of the ship to revolt and kill all of the passengers on board. Epps shoots him with a spear gun (demons are weak to spear guns… everyone knows that), blows up the ship, miraculously survives the explosion she causes, and then is saved by another cruise ship while she floats on some debris. As she is loaded into an ambulance on board she sees Ferriman help load the gold from the ship onto a truck. The doors close and, you guessed it, Mudvayne plays us out.
What the Movie Does Right
The cold open is the singular most important thing in this film. In fact, if you want to watch this movie do yourself a favor and just pull up the opening scene on youtube, watch it, then spend the rest of your evening watching anything else. Although the movie itself is relatively lackluster this scene is through the roof. It’s honestly one of the best self-contained horror scenes in all of horror. It’s surprising. It’s tense. It’s gory. It’s a diamond in the rough.
It is probably important to note that the cast itself is very good as well. Julianna Margulies puts in a strong performance as the badass leader of the group (despite Gabriel Byrne being the actual captain). This is the role that more or less launched Karl Urban’s career, which when you think about it is so fucking weird. Like, really? Ghost Ship is why we have Dr. Bones McCoy? You also have a young Emily Browning playing an important role as a child actress. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the likes of Ron Eldard and Isaiah Washington. That’s some depth right there.
The sets themselves are actually pretty good as well. I’m pretty confident this was all shot on a stage and not on an actual ship (unlike the similar feeling Virus). Although you can generally feel the lack of connectivity between the locations the individual rooms feel well realized.
The Mudvayne…. Ha just kidding that part was ridiculous.
What the Movie Does Wrong
Yeah so remember how I said I liked the sets? Well, there’s a caveat there. Like I mentioned, none of the individual sets feel like they’re connected to each other. Maybe it’s that they vary widely in size and general level of decrepitude. Maybe it’s that when the group splits up they’re immediately out of earshot of one another. Maybe it’s that within the scaffolding of the story different parts of the ship are constantly shifting between timelines. In any case, the world of the ship is really hard to piece together.
The characters are written in a way that is impossible to believe. It doesn’t matter if you have an A-list cast when they have to play these jabronis. Epps is the only character that makes any sense, and even then she seems totally okay with the group splitting up immediately after one of their own falls through a catwalk. Greer immediately forsakes his fiancee for an italian temptress and just sorta throws himself down an elevator shaft. Ferriman the ultra-demon is weirdly susceptible to being harpooned. There are bizarre and confusing decisions being made throughout this entire film.
The granddaddy sin of them all in this one is the construction of the plot. Think about this: the movie is called ghost ship, and although there are ghosts on the ship, they are not the villains. Actually, as weighted by screen time you could say that they are more helpful than harmful. The real villain ends up being Ferriman (in a move surprising no one with even a cursory knowledge of Greek mythology). What that winds up meaning is that the movie can’t use the ghosts in a meaningful way. You just sorta stumble through the first 75% of the movie before the actual plot is revealed and then quickly resolved. Pardon the pun, but you’re basically just treading water the whole time.
To pile onto the plot aspect, in a very weird way this movie is just Virus. “Salvage crew lead by badass female character finds derelict vessel holding a sinister presence.” Hey, doesn’t that also sound like Alien? How hard is it to execute on this formula? Apparently much, much harder than it sounds.
Story: 4 - This actually might be a bit high, but I’m giving it credit for being relatively unique and for having a strong female lead. Outside of that though, the story has a huge flaw in how the villain is revealed and how that leads the ghosts to be more of a footnote than a plot device.
World-Building / Immersion: 4.5 - The sets look pretty good in a vacuum, but they seem completely and utterly disconnected. Beyond that, the characters are flat and unrealistic. I should also note that having such an incredible cold open that is then immediately followed by an hour of essentially nothing happening is very difficult to invest in from a pacing perspective.
Scare-Factor: 6 - This is entirely because of the opening two minutes of the movie. Like I said, that scene is a truly incredible self-contained horror short that stands among the great moments of the genre. Everything else is pretty tame. I think Munder’s (Urban) death could’ve been up there too, but when it happens it winds up being too rushed to matter.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 5.5 - Exactly average. For a movie that came out in 2002 they showed remarkable restraint in their use of CG. That being said, there’s still a weird amount of bad CG in this movie. Like, why do you need to animate doors shutting in a hallway? Can’t you just shut those doors manually? The ghosts look fine, if perhaps a little over powder-caked. The opening looks very good, and the rest of the movie looks alright, so it balances out to average. Boom. Math.
Overall: 5.5 - Once again, this movie is getting buoyed (more naval puns!) by its opening sequence. I think because of that scene it is an important movie to reference and discuss, but if you subtract that from the discussion then what you’re left with is mostly forgettable.