No one talks about ghost ships any more. They’re so ’70s, like an episode of In Search Of, with Leonard Nimoy. Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship recognizes this outdatedness, if not outright corniness, in its title.
The film’s opening underlines this self-awareness, the credits set over a deep blue sea filled with tiny bubbles swirling upwards. While we know these are air bubbles rising to the surface, they also evoke Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles,” the backdrop to the curlicue pink script that announces cast and production team. It’s a clever, tongue in cheek move to open a horror flick like an episode of The Donna Reed Show.
After the credits, the film turns more serious, and this is largely a good thing. The Italian luxury liner Antonia Graza is idling somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, in 1962, the year it will disappear. It’s nighttime, and the high-toned guests lounge about in the great ballroom and on deck listening to the live music and shuffling around the dance floor. Outside on deck a lonely little girl named Katie (Emily Browning) works a wooden puzzle, bored and disdainful of all the adults around her, or pretending to be. Minutes later, she’s dancing with the Chief Steward (Boris Brkic).
Meanwhile, something’s going wrong below. We see the anchor begin to drop, its wire cable unreeling out of control. The cable gets stuck, the tension builds, and the wire snaps across the on deck dance floor, like some high-speed garrote. Only instead of strangling the passengers, the wire slices them all in half. The cruisers’ understandable surprise is underlined by blood oozing from under their clothes; they fall in pieces to the deck, eyes still open, limbs still twitching. Yowza! A dance floor full of decapitated and dismembered bodies, witnessed by one horrified little girl. For Katie has, somehow, survived.
It’s a striking and surprisingly hilarious moment (even if no one else in the theater was laughing with me). In fact, Ghost Ship manages to surprise quite often. And I don’t mean it offers only spooky, jump in your seat surprises (although it offers those), but also, narrative and generic surprises.
With this scene, you might think you’ve got the story down. Some tragic accident leaves the crew and passengers of the Antonia Graza dead, except for Katie, who is doomed to drift with all these corpses until she herself dies. But in Ghost Ship, the tale is more complicated. For one thing, the wire trick only happened on the outside deck. The liner was carrying over one thousand people, most below that deck, and they’re all dead too: the question is, how? For another thing, the film is not only a story of ghostly vengeance. It’s also something of a Christian morality tale, ruminating on human greed and temptation.
This isn’t to say that Ghost Ship is a great cinematic achievement. Parts feel directly ripped off from other sources, The Shining and The Lost Boys. And, while the film’s Christian framework demands a redemptive conclusion, it’s also totally hokey. Worse, the crew of the Arctic Warrior — the salvage ship that goes to claim the Antonia Graza — is comprised completely of horror movie clichés. We have our Final Girl, the plucky and independent Epps (Juliana Margulies); the bumbling boy buddies Dodge (Ron Eldard) and Munter (Karl Urban); the horny black guy Greer (Isaiah Washington); and the Latino mechanic Santos (Alex Dimitriades), who talks to a picture of his low-rider and calls it “Princessa.” The cast is more than capable, but they are still working against some dried up conventions.
And yet, somehow Ghost Ship doesn’t get mired in these shortcomings, instead offering some new twists to the stories it apes. Much to its credit, the film relies equally on splatter and suspense, where many recent “scary movies” leave out this second element. Given the general mediocrity of films like Jason X, Halloween: Resurrection, and Thirt3en Ghosts (Beck also directed this last), the best surprise of Ghost Ship is that it’s surprisingly good, spooky, fun, and stylish.