Tone is an important thing for horror films to get right. Without a proper tone, setting the atmosphere you want is almost impossible. I mention this because Ghost Ship misses the tone-boat right off the bat, meaning it never manages to set a proper atmosphere. It actually starts out fairly whimsical, like a horror-comedy. The title overlay is in pink and italics, the music is jolly, and soon enough, dozens of people have been decapitated thanks to a wire that fell from the ceiling.
After this, the film gets darker. The music, apart from a few noticeable times, is all ominous, the characters are all sad saps who don’t seem to like the word “fun,” and the over-the-top gore, while present, is no longer done in jest — the film is actually trying to scare us with a ton of blood. After the silliness of the opening scene, this drastic shift in tone completely seemed to miss the point. Or maybe the opening scene was actually trying to be scary, too, and it just completely failed at its attempt. Either way, Ghost Ship didn’t set an atmosphere that could scare anyone.
The plot: A group of salvagers get a tip from a man named Jack Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) about a ship that he saw while flying over the ocean. It doesn’t respond to radio signals, and it appears to be drifting aimlessly. He demands a 20% finder’s fee, but settles for 10%. The catch: He has to accompany the crew on their journey. Some, if not most, of these people will not be making it off the ship alive. It is called “Ghost Ship” for a reason.
Of course, once they board the ship, things start going wrong. This is largely a haunted house movie crossed with a slasher flick. Doors open without reason, apparitions appear and disappear, while other things begin to happen that are meant to scare us. Corpses are found on the ship, a digital watch — which wouldn’t have existed in the 1960s, when the ship reportedly crashed — appears, and the crew begins to wonder whether or not they’re really alone on the ship. We know, thanks to the title of the film, but they don’t initially.
Appearing intermittently is a little girl named Katie (Emily Browning), seen by and talked to by only one member of the crew. She provides a lot of the exposition of the film and actually is the only character who is given a back story, which I thought was surprising. I wondered while watching if this was done to make her the only character we were supposed to care about, or if it was just a lack of good writing. Considering the events of the film seem to attempt to make us care about the salvage crew, I’m leaning toward the latter.
Despite the fact that they look and sound different from one another, the crew members are interchangeable. Okay, so there’s only one female, one African American, and one Irish guy, but those are surface differences. In terms of their characters, they’re almost all identical. Discovering gold on the ship, they all come to the same conclusion: Take the gold and let the ship sink. Did they even look at the film title? Did they consider that the gold might be cursed?
I jest because it’s fun. But mostly, the only discernible differences end up being the way the characters talk to one another. There are less greedy and more greedy ones, but it’s mostly a sliding scale. Even after they begin getting picked off (including one death which results in the loss of their functional ship), they still argue. And for some stupid reason, nobody calls in to anyone or let’s someone else know where they’re going. Stupidity might be an essential element to horror films like this, but I had to wonder how this crew survived this long before we began.
By the end of exposition and convolution, I stopped caring about the plot. It involves supernatural beings, as you’d expect given the title, but it doesn’t really involve a lot of ghosts. They appear once in a while, but it turns out that something else might be behind the strange occurrences. It’s so silly and hard to take seriously, while also not making much sense. And, of course, there’s a “twist” ending which sets up a potential sequel that will never come, nor should it, as it wouldn’t make sense to continue this story.
The cast of Ghost Ship are mostly TV actors, most of whom aren’t big names. Perhaps the biggest name in terms of movie actors go is Karl Urban, although he doesn’t have a large role here. Acting doesn’t matter much here anyway, although I never got a good vibe from the salvage crew members. They didn’t seem any different from your Average Joe, not having the expertise or intelligence to seem authentic. It’s like the actors showed up without researching what their role might contain, and relied solely on the writer and director to provide that knowledge. And the knowledge was limited and instead of seeming real, the roles felt fake.
None of this would matter if the film was scary. It is rarely, but most of the time, it’s just boring. A stranded ship makes for a good location, and the set design is superb, but director Steve Beck doesn’t give us an atmosphere that works. The creepy visuals don’t work because we’re not already on our toes. “Boo!” scenes don’t even startle. There are a couple of interesting kills, and I was happy enough about that, but for the most part, Ghost Ship is just boring.
Despite being intermittently creepy, Ghost Ship falls flat thanks to its characters and plot. You don’t need a lot to make a successful horror film. All it needs is to be scary, but if it isn’t, audiences start looking at other things. The foundations, in this case, are weak at best, and completely broken at worst. The film just doesn’t hold up, even if the set design and location are top-notch.