Ghost Ship is from the same stable as Thirteen Ghosts and The House on Haunted Hill (2001 version), and has many similarities to both films. The House on Haunted Hill proved that you cannot make a creepy old horror film better by adding flashy effects if you end up losing the tension. Thirteen Ghosts also suffers from the excessive use of special effects without building any real tension. Sadly, Ghost Ship fits the same pattern.
The story centres on a salvage crew captained by Murphy (Gabriel Byrne). A man named "Ferriman" talks them into a salvage mission in the Bearing Sea, with the promise of a big payoff. Ferriman leads them to the "Antonia Graza", an infamous Ocean liner which disappeared in the 1960´s. The ship is deserted, but it is not long before one of the crew members, Epps (Julianna Margulies of E.R fame), spots the obligatory ghostly child (played by Emily Browning).
The little girl warns Epps that they will all die if they don´t get off the ship, but needless to say, their half hearted escape attempts fail. The other crew members Greer (Isaiah Washington), Dodge (Ron Eldard), Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and Munder (Karl Urban) start to have ghostly encounters of their own, and are picked off one by one.
The true story of the ship unfolds through flashbacks and through Epps conversations with the ghostly Katie. In the first five minutes we are treated to the most impressive set piece of the movie, a flashback to the 1960´s, to a lavish ball, just in time to witness many of the passengers and crew being slaughtered in what appears to be a freakish accident. The shocked dancers are sliced to pieces in what can only be described as a horrific scene. However, it soon becomes clear that it was no accident, and that everyone onboard died that night.
The cast is pretty good. Gabriel Byrne is always enjoyable, and Julianna Margulies puts in a fair performance. However, the script lets them down, and there is very little character development. The heroine is not the brightest of people and seems to be adept at making decisions which get other people killed.
The story starts out well. The Marie Celeste style nautical myth is a creepy one, and the flashback to the ball is excellent. Unfortunately it goes downhill from there. The ship is quite creepy, and some of the special effects set pieces are lovely. In particular, I liked the scene in which Greer is lured into the wrecked ballroom by ghostly music, only to see the room transformed back to its former glory before his eyes.
The full history of the ship is revealed through ghostly re-enactments and centres around some gold and a bunch of double-crossing. It should stop at that, but sadly goes on to reveal that Ferriman, the man who led them to the Graza, is in fact some kind of soul harvesting demon. This revelation has no real impact and instantly raises loads of questions which threaten to crumble the flimsy plot.
Unfortunately, despite the promising opening, this film just isn't scary. The first scene is brilliant, but the rest of the film never hits that peak again. The full story of the ship is slightly disappointing and I felt that the implication that the evil behind the ship was either the devil or one of his demons was actually less creepy than the idea of an unfathomable evil somehow built into the very fabric of the ship. I also personally hate modern horror movies where the last scene is the baddie; you thought the surviving character had killed, looking perfectly well. Haven´t I seen this somewhere before?