GHOST SHIP - Blu-ray review

...long on set design, atmosphere, and special effects but short on mystery, suspense, characterization, common sense, logic, or simple frights.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The best thing about the previously released standard-definition DVD of "Ghost Ship" was the cover art on the packaging. It featured a three-dimensional holographic picture of the ocean liner in the movie heading straight toward the viewer. It was a pretty neat effect, actually. But now it's gone from the Blu-ray edition, replaced by a simple 2-D picture on the keep case. Alas, we don't have the nifty cover art to look at anymore.

Still, there's the film.

Following hard on the heels of director Steve Beck's previous horror entry, "Thir13en Ghosts," came 2002's "Ghost Ship," which is generally more of the same, a shopworn haunted-house story. True to its predecessor and to Beck's beginnings as a visual-effects artist in the film industry, "Ghost Ship" is long on set design, atmosphere, and special effects but short on mystery, suspense, characterization, common sense, logic, or simple frights. In other words, despite looking good from the boatload of money that went into its production, "Ghost Ship" ain't very scary.

The movie borrows heavily not only from "Thir13en Ghosts" and every other haunted-house flick in history but from Ridley Scott's "Alien" and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," following the standard formula for modern horror stories, complete with severed bodies, evil spirits, nasty demons, a touch of nudity, and the obligatory creepy little girl in a white dress (Emily Browning). "The Ring" got away with this latter device pretty well; now every ghost story has to have one. "Ghost Ship" doesn't quite cut it.

You know right away that when a film like this one includes a whole crew of characters, none of whom appears much more important than the rest, that we are in for a long night of guessing which character is going to die first, in which order the rest are going to give it up, and, of course, who will live the longest to thwart the fiend. If you've seen the original "Halloween," one of the granddaddies of these things, you'll know from the outset the answer to all three questions. Kind of kills the suspense, though.

The crew in question is a team of deep-sea salvage experts whom a mysterious stranger approaches to help him bring in a long-lost luxury liner, the Antonia Graza, a grand Italian ship missing since 1962. OK, it's an interesting premise, although we know from the beginning that the ship's going to be haunted. How do we know? Well, the title "Ghost Ship" sort of gives it away. And because of the film's introduction, which is elegant enough, a formal dance aboard the deck of the liner. Yet within moments the ridiculous occurs, a shockingly gory, yet brilliantly creative scene where a maniac literally slices everyone at the party in half. Don't even ask; it's too bloody to explain. Indeed, it's so grotesquely ludicrous, it's actually funny, but I guarantee you'll not soon forget it. Remember the scene in "Thir13en Ghosts" where a sheet of glass falls and severs a person in half? Well, the same director and special-effects department must have thought that was such a great shot, they did it again multiplied by a hundred; only this time the instrument of destruction splits the bodies horizontally rather than lengthwise. It amounts to the same effect, with torsos falling slowly off legs and trunks. I'm sorry; I said I wouldn't explain it.

Unfortunately, after that opening scene, things go south.

So, we flash forward to the present and to the salvage crew, headed by a fellow named Murphy, played by Gabriel Byrne, one of my favorite actors and one who became pretty handy at these supernatural pictures. But was he ever in a good one? Anyway, the rest of the cast consists of the usual stereotypes in the usual politically correct racial and gender mix: Grier (Isaiah Washington), Epps (Juliana Margulies), Dodge (Ron Eldard), Santos (Alex Dimitriades), Ferriman (Desmond Harrington), and Munder (Karl Urban).

No sooner do Murphy and the gang enter the old derelict than they find it's--you guessed it--haunted. Once aboard, however, nothing much happens you wouldn't expect from a horror movie. Since it's all typical haunted-house stuff, the crew members follow standard fright-flick procedures by all going their own separate ways. Somebody must have written this down in a Hollywood handbook of rules and regulations for scary, dangerous places. I mean, how else to better meet the monsters and be killed individually than by going it alone? Complications occur when the crew find the recently dead bodies of strangers in the laundry room and gold bars in the cargo hold, and then the filmmakers again show us in flashback the grisly details of the original passengers' deaths, as though once weren't enough, and so on and so forth, with nothing really helping the waterlogged plot.

What does work, though, is the set design. "Ghost Ship" is quite high in production values, even though it never reaches anywhere near the stylish heights of its best contemporary, "The Ring." The ghost ship itself is a sort modern-day "Flying Dutchman," mysteriously appearing out of the mists and filled with all sorts of dark passageways and spooky corridors. "Alien" also comes to mind.

What doesn't work so well are the clichés: People in "Ghost Ship" fall ten feet onto hard metal floors and get up without a scratch; walkie-talkies fail to operate when folks need them most; people who see ghosts never mention them to anyone else; and raucous music follows everyone everywhere. That alone would have spooked me. Indeed, you'll find all the typical tomfoolery of bad fright flicks here.

Nevertheless, the first thirty or forty minutes of the film are somewhat intriguing, developing at least a modicum of suspense by not revealing the ghosts all at once. It's when the deaths begin that things start falling apart. The fact is, as far as dumb horror films go, this one ranks among the dumbest, which is maybe all a viewer wants on occasion, so who's to complain? "Ghost Ship" falls into the "ordinary" category of modern ghost stories.

As we might anticipate from any horror story, the picture quality in "Ghost Ship" is generally dark and murky, with a modicum of light, natural film grain to give the image a gritty texture. The Blu-ray high-definition picture does not disappoint on these scores. Using a single-layer BD25 and a VC-1 codec, the WB video engineers do what they can with what they've got. With most scenes shot in low light, ultimate clarity is always going to be a challenge, and the filmmakers shot practically everything in "Ghost Ship" in low or filtered light. Despite the limitations, object delineation is fairly good, especially in close-ups, although medium and longer shots are more often a bit soft. Colors come off pretty well, considering the surrounding gloom, and the HD reproduction certainly improves upon the old SD transfer.

The Blu-ray disc's sound comes in both lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and regular Dolby Digital 5.1. In TrueHD, the surround sound is more subtle than you might expect, yet as good as that from most new action thrillers. Noises like thunder, rain, waves, dripping water, creaking hulls, and falling debris come at the listener from all sides with realistic, if not overwhelming efficiency. The deep bass rumbles effectively, too, a must in any film with pretensions to supernatural goings on. Why do ghosts always have to be so noisy?

The main difference between the new lossless audio and the older lossy Dolby Digital is that the TrueHD track is smoother and firmer overall. We notice it most in terms of voices and music rather than just special sound effects, yet it makes the audio all that much more enjoyable.

Warner Bros. include on the Blu-ray disc a collection of extras borrowed from the DVD, still in standard definition and still not adding up to much. There's a brief, fifteen-minute made-for-TV featurette, "Max on the Set: Ghost Ship," that is unexceptional. There are three more shorter featurettes, one on special effects called "A Closer Look at the Gore," a second on production design called "Designing the Ghost Ship," and a third on visual effects. There's a puzzle game, "Secrets of the Antonia Graza," which if unlocked reveals four fictional stories that complement the film. And there's a music video, "Not Falling," by Mudvayne.

The bonuses conclude with twenty-eight scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English, French, German, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
These kinds of derivative horror films always leave audiences with the same questions: Like, why do some ghosts have corporal bodies while others don't? And why are most ghosts evil? Why do the souls of otherwise normal, everyday people in these stories turn to the dark side once they're dead? In fairness, the script tries to answer these last two questions and in addition attempts to shed new light on them, but it takes a lot of endurance to care enough to reach the answers.

"Ghost Ship" tends to stretch our suspension of disbelief beyond bounds. Little of the story makes any rational or internal sense, except to say that the Devil made the bad guys do it. Or something like that. Expect a lot of screams, shrieks, dark corridors, cheap frights, gory mayhem, and grisly deaths. Even the ending is silly. Yet, as I've said, that's probably all a viewer wants from these kinds of things.

As a candidate for scary-movie honors, this one hasn't a ghost of a chance.


Film Value