Ghost Ship

Ghost Ship is another one of those Dark Castle horror movies, which are usually good for a crappy good time. Dark Castle is the production house set up by Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, who produced HBO’s Tales from the Crypt and obviously enjoy doing their bit to perpetuate the time-honored tradition of the medium-to-low-budget horror film. The movie has few surprises for lifelong horror fans, but it’ll keep them (or us — I count myself in their number) happily diverted for just under 90 minutes.

Things start off promisingly: a mishap aboard the Italian cruise liner Antonia Graza, which went missing in 1962. Proving that Silver or, more likely, Zemeckis has a bit of clout with the MPAA, the opening scene gives us dozens of bloodily dismembered bodies without getting slapped with an NC-17 rebuke. I found the scene as wildly implausible — if you see it, ask yourself if all the bodies would remain standing — as it was fun to watch; horror fans are always on the lookout for new ways to affront the human body, and Ghost Ship introduces the dreaded Runaway Cable. Okay, you’ve seen that before, but as an instrument of mass murder?

A weather spotter (Desmond Harrington) has caught sight of Antonia Graza apparently floating out in the nowhere of international waters; he brings this info to a salvage crew, headed by Gabriel Byrne as a tough Irish captain named Murphy. This is excellent news for Byrne, who gets to retain his accent while downing hard liquor and tersely issuing unquestionable commands. Murphy decides to take his crew — including the fearless welder Epps (Julianna Margulies), first mate Greer (Isaiah Washington), engineer Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and scruffy crewmen Dodge (Ron Eldard) and Munder (Karl Urban) — to see if the ship contains anything worth salvaging.

It contains, of course, much more than the crew bargained for, including a newly minted cliche in recent horror: a ghostly little girl (Emily Browning) who turns up now and then to distribute mystifying warnings. (Someday soon, I expect to see a ghost-movie parody in which the herald of supernatural doom is a portly guy with a bad combover.) For fans of The Shining, there’s an enticing chanteuse (Francesca Rettondini) who sings passionately and strips merrily to lead gobsmacked men to their doom — perhaps she thinks she’s in a David Lynch movie. Horror fans will also note with bitter amusement that, obeying the rules of the game, the first two victims among the crew are the non-Caucasian ones. My hopes that Ghost Ship would circumvent this rule were dashed when each of the above victims was shown to have a photo of his beloved — one has a wallet photo of his girlfriend, the other a framed picture of his car.

The movie doesn’t know how to use Gabriel Byrne (hint: just point a camera at him and let him be cool), and the big revelation about the bad guy would come as more of a shock if we didn’t see it coming about ten minutes into the movie. But the scares arrive on schedule and are crisply mounted, courtesy of director Steve Beck, who manages the unenviable task of making a one-location movie visually interesting without resorting to fancy tactics (having Gale Tattersall as his cinematographer probably helped). And any movie that eventually awards front-and-center status to Julianna Margulies is inherently worthwhile; reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books, I kept picturing Margulies as Anita, but if we don’t get an Anita movie series starring Margulies, Ghost Ship is an agreeable alternative.

Indeed, the movie is generally agreeable; the Dark Castle films come with no pretense, no huge stars to throw off the balance of the script (which means any character can die at any time), and no flab. They’re certainly not fit to stand alongside the true classics of the genre — they’re somewhere between Roger Corman’s run of horror in the ’60s and direct-to-video horror of the ’90s — but they’re fun, handled with a modicum of craft and respect for the horror audience. Until the next horror master with the prerequisite combo of vision and madness comes along, the Dark Castle movies will have to do.

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