For one reason or another — call it typecasting — people who make horror films tend to specialize in the same.
Directors like F.W. Murnau, Tod Browning and James Whale (who, ironically, chose to direct a horror film because he was being typecast as a specialist in war movies) started this trend, which has endured through the years to encompass such filmmakers as Jacques Tourneur, Terence Fisher, etc. In more modern terms, it’s been fellows like Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and John Carpenter who, for better or worse, have inherited the mantle. Along with these luminaries and quasi-luminaries there have also been a number of also-ran schlockmeisters — directors whose names are known only to really hardcore enthusiasts. Ever hear of Frank Strayer? Phil Rosen? William Nigh? Jim Wynorski? Kevin S. Tenney? Steve Miner? No, probably not, and if Steve Beck — the latest to make a bid for a place in the horror-movie pantheon — keeps making movies like Thirteen Ghosts and Ghost Ship, you’re not likely to hear much about him, either.
I didn’t hate last year’s Thirteen Ghosts, nor can I say I hate Ghost Ship. Thirteen Ghosts was unregenerate schlock — a good-natured, nasty remake of a good-natured piece of schlock exploitation, 1960 style. It wasn’t good, but it was watchable junk. Ghost Ship also isn’t good, but it’s somewhat less watchable. Strictly speaking, it’s what we call, in critical parlance, a mess.
The story line is a predictable rehash of The Shining — only on a ship. We have a red-hot-mama ghost (Francesca Rettondini) who turns into a rotting hag. And instead of an elevator that gushes blood, we have a swimming pool that fills up with it. How predictable is it? Well, let’s see… there’s dirty work afoot among the characters, all but one of whom have known each other for years. Can you spot the culprit? Hmmm. (We won’t even discuss the character’s innate creepiness or the transparently “clever” name.) And when Ghost Ship isn’t being predictable or derivative, it’s being cheesy and incomprehensible. Just exactly what accent is Gabriel Byrne using? He can’t seem to decide if he’s supposed to be from Brooklyn or Dublin. (What is he doing in this movie in the first place?)
Structurally, Ghost Ship is in the mould of the old Omen pictures where the “kick” isn’t suspense in any normal sense. You know these characters — about whom you’ve been given no reason to care — are going to be sleeping with the fishes. It’s just a question of what new and clever way the film can figure out to off them. (“Hey, let’s lock him in the ship’s aquarium!” The what? Well, this ship has one.) The movie even starts this way — with a physically impossible “gag” wherein a dance floor full of people is sliced in two by a cable. Oh, sure, it’s a nice gory starting point — so long as you are able to buy into the effect-looking CGI monkeyshines, and you don’t wonder exactly how a group of people cleaved in twain by a taut horizontal wire could be sliced at different levels.
Actually, the movie starts off rather cleverly, with bright pink titles done in a font that looks like we’re settling in for a 1960s Doris Day comedy — apt enough since the opening is set in 1962. It works by playing against our expectations, nicely setting us up for when the events turn nasty. Unfortunately, it’s nearly the last clever thing in the entire film.
The plot kicks in after this, and the cliches come a-tumbling out with wild abandon as Gabriel Byrne’s perfectly P.C. — the racial/gender balance might have been designed by the “It’s a Small World” folks at Disney World — salvage crew goes in search of the 40-year-missing Antonia Graza, an ocean liner that has somehow drifted from the Mediterranean to the icy waters of the Bering Sea. (The location isn’t merely improbable; it’s ill-suited to the story, since people pop in and out of the water as if this were the Caribbean.) Unfortunately for them, they find the ship. It’s not that much fun for us, either.
One sequence — botched though it is — does stand out. Fairly late in the film, we’re shown one character transported into the events that took place on the boat in 1962. Not only is this a very assured sequence, but it registers on an unusual emotional level as that character reacts in horror to what she lived through 40 years ago. For this one bit, Beck is onto something new and fresh in the horror genre — something that he undermines by slapping an inappropriate industrial-metal song at that point in the soundtrack. As for the rest of the movie … well, if you’re looking for a few Halloween shudders, go see The Ring.