Ghost Ship (2002)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: September 29th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
You know where any conversation about Ghost Ship has to start: with that indelible, tantalizing opening sequence that convinced all of us that we were about to witness a damn classic the first time we saw it in 2002. With its vintage WB title card and retro-stylized credits, these opening five minutes whisked us away to the 60s, aboard the SS Antonia Graza, an ocean liner teeming with revelry, tinged by the sultry voice by an enchanting songstress (Francesca Rettondini). Tragedy strikes, however, when a cable snaps, bisecting the passengers—only they don’t immediately know they’ve been bisected. Nor does the audience, who waits with bated breath as director Steve Beck holds on a tense note as the damned passengers slowly realize what’s happened when their intestines begin to spill out all over the deck. By the end of the sequence, only a horrified young girl (Emily Browning) is left standing, surrounded by entrails and crimson as the ship’s lone survivor. In an era where mainstream horror was trending towards supernatural hauntings light on gore, there was something audacious about unleashing such a bloodbath on unsuspecting viewers. Watching it unfold for the first time sent my expectations through the roof: at the very least, it looked like Ghost Ship might be an unrepentant schlock-fest, if nothing else. Not that it would have needed to be anything else, of course.
Well, about that: it turns out Ghost Ship is something else decidedly more mundane once it jumps ahead 40 years to its actual story, which finds enigmatic stranger Jack Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) recruiting a crew to salvage the recently resurfaced Antonia Graza. While some of the crew members are hesitant to take the offer, they ultimately can’t resist the lure of possible fame and fortune. Once they realize what they’ve found, their minds start racing with visions of an early retirement, especially when they discover gold aboard the ship. But there’s also something else, of course, which explains the fleeting visions of a little girl and the mysterious voices that call to some of the male crew like a siren. It turns out that Ghost Ship does more or less fall in line with its contemporaries in that it’s a haunted house movie—but on a boat, you see.
But maybe this is selling it short a bit. Watching it for the first time again 18 years later, I realized I may have let my initial disappointment overshadow what is essentially a decent ghost movie. For some reason, I’ve always lumped it in with the era’s more tepid supernatural fare, the ones that relied heavily on cheap jolts and digital effects. So I was pleasantly surprised to find just how practical and tactile Ghost Ship is: the Graza is an especially impressive feat in set design, each of its levels grimer and more derelict as the crew descends through its bowels. Beck recognizes that a haunted house movie’s foundation is a killer location, so he and his art department go all-in on the Graza and the surrounding desolate, foggy Bearing sea. Sometimes, a film can thrive on atmosphere alone, and Ghost Ship comes damn close to pulling it off.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t make it all the way into port because what unfolds inside of this wonderful production design isn’t quite compelling. Most of Ghost Ship’s narrative involves unraveling the decades-old mystery surrounding the tragedy on-board the Graza and its subsequent disappearance. The script untangles it predictably, with Browning’s ghost girl and other spirits filling in the blanks with flashbacks and expository dialogue that coalesces in the film’s big twist that’s obvious from the moment a guy named “Ferriman” strolls into a movie about a haunted boat. The characters themselves are fine, thanks in large part to a cast that’s almost comically overqualified in retrospect. One of the fun parts about watching Ghost Ship in 2002 is remembering that it stars the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Julianna Margulies, Desmond Harrington, Isaiah Washington and Karl Urban (in a rare role where he’s not a gruff badass; in fact, he’s kind of a goofball here, and I wish we got to see this side of him more often); I am sure I would have lost money if I had to correctly name any of these since Ghost Ship all but evaporated from my mind by the time I walked back across campus after catching an advanced screening (where they gave us a poster that I hung up in my dorm anyway because, hey, free poster).
Even they can only do so much, though, since the film is expressly concerned with disposing of them. This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if the dispatches were as memorably gruesome as the opening five minutes; however, the prologue proves to be a tough act to follow since Beck is mostly content to serve up the ghastly aftermath gore. And while those corpses are sufficiently mangled and gnarled, they hardly compare to the sloppy pile of viscera Beck ladles onto the Graza in the opening sequence. And while it’s a little easier in retrospect to appreciate the Dark Castle approach to mounting big-budget, gore-soaked updates of horror staples, Ghost Ship isn’t the most successful stab at it (that would come a few years later with House of Wax). Ultimately, it’s a film haunted by itself: even it can’t resist constantly flashing back to that opening scene, kind of like a tired, one-hit-wonder reprising its fleeting taste of success at the end of a set. It’s recited half-heartedly, with both the performer and the audience in tacit agreement that it never got any better than this. But one good scene does not a good movie make, and if you have a problem with that, take it up with Howard Hawks. I didn’t make the rules.
Ghost Ship returns to Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory following a maiden HD voyage back in 2009. It doesn’t look like Scream commissioned a new transfer, meaning you won’t see an uptick in A/V quality; however, Warner’s transfer was already quite solid, struck from a nearly flawless print that retains a nice level of detail and vibrancy. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is downright impressive in the way it scatters sound all across the soundscape: Ghost Ship is a fairly boisterous movie, and the sound design offers some nice atmospherics and aggressive moments in equal measure.
Scream did produce some new supplements for this release, including a commentary by Beck and a trio of new interviews. Washington appears in “This Isn’t Real” to discuss his experiences with getting cast before reminiscing about the production itself. When he came aboard, Washington was told his character would be the lead, but plans changed when Byrne was cast. (This actually speaks to one of the film’s most obvious weaknesses—there really isn’t a protagonist.) “Every Body on Board” is a chat with effects supervisor Jason Baird, who walks viewers through some of the gore gags, including that show-stopping opener. Vintage behind-the-scenes footage accompanies his recollections, providing a glimpse of the various casts and molds required to pile up such an impressive body count.
Finally, producer Gil Adler shares some insight into the Dark Castle process, which aimed to churn out a movie like Ghost Ship each Halloween. He notes that the original script didn’t quite work until John Pogue did a second pass on the material to make it scarier, and he discusses the unique challenges of working in and around water. It’s worth noting that both Adler and Baird discuss the film’s legacy, particularly how younger fans swear Ghost Ship was a formative horror film, a notion that makes me want to absolutely crumble into dust since this movie from 2002 doesn’t seem like it should be that old. And yet, here we are, 18 years later reckoning with the realization that this movie is as old now as the original Nightmare on Elm Street was in 2002. I’m afraid the math checks out here.
The rest of the special features are ports from the old Blu-ray, which were originally produced for the DVD release (a beautiful old snapper case with a cool lenticular cover—remember when this stuff felt like a novelty?). Anchoring these supplements is one of those “Max On Set” EPK pieces where the very enthusiastic cast and crew talk about making the film while hyping it up. I don’t want to imply that it might be a little over-the-top, but they name-drop the likes of Dante’s Inferno and The Shining. You have to respect the hustle, at least. One of the producers also insists that the Dark Castle mantra was to make horror movies that weren’t the usual teen movie fare, a sentiment now rendered ironic by the revelation that this was apparently a sleepover classic for an entire generation of kids.
The rest of the old supplements are quick looks at various production aspects: we get another pass at both the practical and CGI effects, plus a bit about designing the Graza itself. “Secrets of the Antonia Graza” is a collection of in-universe vignettes meant to fill out the history of the vessel and its disappearance. Finally, the film’s trailer and the music video for Mudvayne’s “Not Falling” are dutifully carried over if you really want to experience the 2002 of it all. I do not suggest it but I also recognize your right to indulge in early-aughts metal if you so choose.
I will say this: this disc did instill a newfound appreciation for this particular era of Dark Castle. While I don’t necessarily like all of its films (and I’m lukewarm on Ghost Ship especially), the approach was pretty sound, particularly the commitment to releasing a movie each year around Halloween. That opening trio—The House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts, and Ghost Ship—all at least have that playful Halloween vibe that makes them a perfect fit for the season. So maybe Ghost Ship wasn’t the instant classic its opening sequence suggests (well, for me, anyway—The Kids obviously think differently), and yet it’s also not as completely disposable as I recalled. Probably wouldn't put a poster up for it these days, but you can if you order a copy directly from Shout Factory.
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