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Bright pink lettering introduces the film as if it were a campy romantic comedy. Gentle lounge music plays from a '50s-style nightclub aboard a glamorous Italian ocean liner. Well-dressed travelers dance to the ship's band and elegant chanteuse, oblivious to the impending danger about to snap at their twitching bodies.
The following moment of gruesome surprise is drawn out with such gleeful prolonging that the scene goes from shock to horror to comedy and back to shock and horror without missing a beat. Audiences wanting that old-fashioned "Boo!" surprise of a Halloween spook-house experience can get a few good thrills in the safety of a darkened movie house with Ghost Ship, at least in this opening scene.
A tugboat salvage crew gets an unexpected opportunity when Jack Ferriman (Desmond Harrington of Boiler Room), a Canadian air force pilot, shows them black-and-white aerial photos of an abandoned ship floating off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea. Led by Captain Sean Murphy (well played by the ever reliable Gabriel Byrne), the crew of the Arctic Warrior tugboat agrees to allow the pilot to join them in their salvage effort to claim whatever riches the ship still holds and give the messenger a 10 percent finder's fee for his trouble.
Once on board the giant floating rust-bucket cruise liner known as the Antonia Graza, the crew encounters a few ghosts, some truly scary food supplies, and a huge shipment of solid gold bars valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The crew team leader Maureen Epps (Julianna Margulies) communicates exclusively with the ghost of an attractive young girl named Katie (Emily Browning), who survived a little longer than the rest of unfortunate people on the dance floor when death paid a visit to the ship in 1962.
Blood oozes from bullet holes inside the ship's old swimming pool as the crew struggle to repair a gaping hole in the ship's hull. But the cold claustrophobic fear that should creep off the screen like a dense San Francisco fog never catches on because director Steven Beck (Thirteen Ghosts) can't match the timbre of the movie to the tone of the ship's foreboding atmosphere. Beck never instills the proper mood of dislocation into his actors, nor does he use the camera as a conspirator in building the audience's sense of anxiety.
Tugboat crew members meet with sudden deaths that occur off-screen half of the time, leaving the audience to wonder why we weren't included. The ship's ghosts turn out to be not as vengeful as your typical ghosts. Still, a gruesome flesh-ripping sequence make sure that our attention is held while the true face of evil presents itself.
Ghost Ship won't rock anyone's world, but it's still an improvement on another recent horror flick, The Ring, from which audiences walk out scratching their heads as to what they saw and why they spent their hard-earned money to see such a morass of cinematic boredom.
Rated R. 91 mins.
This review was originally published in the Colorado Springs Independent in 2002.