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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Ghost Ship (2002)
2 Stars

Directed by Steve Beck
Cast: Julianna Margulies, Gabriel Byrne, Ron Eldard, Isaiah Washington, Desmond Harrington, Karl Urban, Alex Dimitriades, Emily Browning, Francesca Rettondini
2002 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, gore, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 26, 2002.

"Ghost Ship" stands the pleasantly surprising distinction of being the first feature film from Dark Castle Entertainment (after 1999's "House on Haunted Hill" and 2001's "Thir13en Ghosts") that is a bigger success than a failure. All three pictures have similarities, including the subject of being trapped in a haunted place with some nasty ghosts, but "Ghost Ship" is more focused and effective. Whereas the former two productions rushed from one gory setpiece to the next, director Steve Beck (who has seemingly learned from many of his mistakes on "Thir13en Ghosts") wisely chooses to take his time here as he concocts an atmospheric mood and some indelible chills.

The opening five minutes of "Ghost Ship" are its best. Starting off with a whimsical, sweeping orchestral score and old-fashioned pink font for the credits, we are taken onboard the beautiful cruise liner, Antonia Graza, circa 1962, where the cheerful guests are enjoying a dance on the ship's main deck. The payoff to this scene is so shocking, so vividly unsettling, so grisly, and so unforgettable that it hangs over the rest of the film like a nightmare that refuses to go away.

Zoom forward to the present day, a salvage crew headed by Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) and Epps (Julianna Margulies) have no sooner gotten back to land when they are approached by a young man named Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) who has taken an aerial photo of a ghost ship in the middle of the Bering Sea. With the payday for pulling it back to shore certain to be significant, the team accepts. What they find is the infamous, deserted Antonia Graza, gone missing for forty years. Once onboard the rustic cruise liner, the crew, which also includes Greer (Isaiah Washington), Dodge (Ron Eldard), Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and Munder (Karl Urban), begin to suspect they may not be alone after all. As Epps starts experiencing apparitions of a little girl named Katie (Emily Browning), what happened on the ship years ago pulls into focus, making it clear that the spectral inhabitants of the ship may never let the new intruders leave.

If "Ghost Ship" fails to ever reclaim the vicious brilliance of the prologue, it contains a spooky ambiance from start to almost-finish, and puts to efficacious use the impressive production design (by Graham 'Grace' Walker) and gloomy cinematography (by Gale Tattersall). Most appreciably are an ensemble not quite as paper-thin as one might suspect, and plot twists that actually make a modicum of plausible sense. Director Steve Beck and screenwriters Mark Hanlon and John Pogue avoid slasher movie trappings for what could best be described as subtle, creepy psychological thrills.

The cast, made up of both well-known and not-so-well-known faces, is a step above what is usually expected from such a genre effort. Former "ER" regular Julianna Margulies wisely makes Epps both strong-willed and vulnerable, the perfect combination for what is, in essence, the heroic female Ripley role. Isaiah Washington (2001's "Exit Wounds") also has some memorable moments as Greer, a man with a beloved fiancee waiting at home who pays for a sexual encounter with a seductive spirit. And Emily Browning, as a young girl onboard the ship in 1962 who bonds with Epps, is excellent, adapting a wise-beyond-her-years angle that would make Haley Joel Osment proud.

A fast-paced flashback back to the fateful evening Antonia Graza was lost is an editing triumph, while the explosive finale offers up a gorgeous, original notion never glimpsed on film before in quite the same way. "Ghost Ship" so continuously fools the viewer into being superior to what is expected that the very last scene comes as a betrayal. Making no sense and with the only purpose being to set up a possible sequel, the very end is as bad as any ending could have been.

Word of advice: If you walk out right when you see someone floating in the ocean with a suitcase, what you will have on your hands is a perfectly respectable horror offering worth seeing for the Halloween season once "The Ring" has already been viewed. Sit through the last minute, and leave with a bitter taste in your mouth. "Ghost Ship" is so solidly made for so long that the viewer must question how anyone could have thought the chosen conclusion was a good idea.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman