Ghost Ship (not to be confused with the many, many other works also called this) has a 16% “TomatoMeter” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 28% “MetaScore” on MetaCritic. Its audience scores are somewhat higher, but it’s generally fair to say that this is not a film that met with much positive critical reception or audience enthusiasm. Despite all that, it’s one of the best-constructed and most watchable horror films I’ve seen in ages.
Motivated entirely by potential profit, a salvage crew boards a deserted, drifting cruise ship. Their attempts to get the ship patched up and underway are hampered by mechanical issues, disturbing visions, and (probably most importantly) murderous ghosts. The film is a cross between Final Destination on the waves and Deep Blue Sea but with ghosts instead of sharks. The past is revealed, people get murdered, and a discordant team grapple with internal tension & their own greed while being picked off one-by-one. It’s a fun watch.
I’m not in any way saying that Ghost Ship is high art; it’s a shlocky horror film and that is all it pretends to be. But it’s a very solidly-constructed schlocky horror film that absolutely nails its plot, characterisation and atmosphere. I was genuinely impressed by how well-made it was: horror, particularly this kind of horror, has a very forgiving fanbase, and I myself have watched and enjoyed many films that were far, far worse. This is formulaic horror done by someone who fully understands the formula and plays with it well.
The film has a powerful opening that both sets and plays with expectations, all while being set to a song that I cannot get out of my head. Despite Ghost Ship’s appalling review scores, I have mentioned the film to a number of people, all of whom – no matter how long since they had seen the film – have recognised the name immediately and proceeded (unprompted) to describe the opening in great detail, often with sound effects. Regardless of the critical reception, that’s exactly what an opening scene should do.
All films that involve a diverse ragtag team under immense pressure could learn from how well the salvage crew is established here. The team is introduced in their element, showing the competence and specialisms that are then called back to once things start falling apart. Individual roles and personalities are quickly distinguished, and while the acting is a little hammy – almost a necessity for pulpy horror – the cast work well together. There are moments of pathos and subtlety and sudden horror all packaged neatly within a (probably a bit too-) busy plot. Introducing and eliminating a large cast while managing to make any deaths have a bit of weight to them is a hard trick to pull off.
2002 wasn’t exactly the heyday of great special effects, and it’s clear that Ghost Ship was not the best funded of films. The special effects are exactly as you would expect them to be. Nevertheless, for the limitations of the time, they’re used well, and lightly enough that the narrative earns its moments of the audience willingly not seeing the wires. Even the most grandiose (and therefore clunkiest) effects are forgivable because of how the film uses them.
The same applies to the plot, and the specific mechanics of picking off the victims. There’s absolutely gore and over-the-top violence (a literal swimming pool of blood features), but it’s less gratuitous than the norm for the genre, and employed more carefully. There’s nothing earth-shattering here, but there were some twists on expected tricks that I enjoyed, and it all had impact. There’s always a risk with violent horror that it slips into being either sickening or farcical; even with limited effects and extreme violence, Ghost Ship manages not to do that. The violence has weight and a role within the narrative, rather than acting as a distraction.
Once more, this is not a great film, nor one that tears up the rulebook. It’s a formulaic entry in a crowded genre. But it’s so, so much better than the reviews led me to expect, and so much better than its competition. One review compared it unfavourably to Thir13en Ghosts, which is absolute nonsense; Thir13en Ghosts is a confused mess of a film and Ghost Ship is dramatically stronger, more coherent, and better-executed. Rather than being piled upon with negative verdicts, this is a film that others in the genre should be learning from.
Ghost Ship takes a well-known formula and produces a polished take on it with some original flair. The film knows exactly what part it should play and does well; would that we could all say the same