So, before they became an action movie imprint, the Warner Brothers/Universal production studio “Dark Castle” was a churner out of relatively cheap “horror movie as spectacle” films, in the tradition of William Castle. In fact, several of their early films were gored up versions of classic Castle films. Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship was an early effort, when they were still concentrating on doing very gorey horror films with an action movie sensibility, before they started putting Ethan Hawke in Fast and Furious knock-offs. Now, to be sure, the “horror as spectacle” trend wasn’t limited to just this one studio, but nobody hit it quite as hard as Dark Castle, nor with such a distinctive half-assedness.

After a mood-setting opening sequence, that attempts to inter-cut horrific violence with a cheery glam 60s aesthetic, we cut to Gabriel Byrne as Murphey, captain of a salvage crew that includes Final Girl lead Juliana Margulies as first mate epps and Karl Urban before anyone cared who he was. They are approached by Ferriman, a weather pilot who has spotted an abandoned ship in the Bering Sea, and offers to share the location of the ship in exchange for a substantial cut of the salvage profits. The crew agrees, as pickings have been slim and the promise of a luxury liner means good money. When they arrive, they discover that the ship is the Antonia Grazia, a well known lost ship. While patently ignoring plenty of clues that something is wrong, even Epps seeing a ghost, several times, the crew continues to explore the ship, eventually finding the remains of a previous salvage crew and crates full of gold bars. Celebrations are cut short when their ship explodes in a not at all suspicious accident and the crew must now attempt to pilot the sinking and rudderless Grazia home. The crew is picked off by ghosts one-by-one, as a ghost girl gives Epps a visual info-dump, revealing that the gold came from the Lorelei, another lost ship, along with a survivor, who convinced several of the Grazia crew members to kill the passengers and remaining crew and take the gold, before being killed themselves by the survivor. Who is revealed to be Ferriman, an apparently immortal supernatural being with a not at all portentous name. Epps destroys the ship, freeing the souls of the passengers and is rescued, only to learn that the cycle is bound to repeat.

It’s hard to find things to like about Ghost Ship. Big, loud and dumb was the name of the game with the spectacle horror films, and there’s fairly visceral thrills to be had from time to time. But the film confuses gore and special effects with actual terror, which often leads to unintended comedy. Somebody, at some point was paying attention, as there are hint-heavy murals in the background of a number of shots, not to mention the heavy-handed naming convention at work with Ferriman. Rumor has it that the script the cast was shown was almost completely jettisoned by the time filming begun, with a more psychological film turned into a jump-scare film. It’s plausible, and several cast members certainly act as if they’re in a different film than the one they ended up in.

So, in the end, we go back to that old distinction between “good” and “entertaining.” Ghost Ship isn’t good, but there’s enough of something there that was once good to wring a half-way competent “dumb fun” picture out of.

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