Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ghost Ship


Mr. Stryker, my international film celebrity of mystery, and I met for dinner last night in a lovely little West Hollywood bistro, the Blue Palm. We had several cocktails, posed for photographs and a brief interview with that seriously horse faced young woman who claims to be some sort of relation to Joan Rivers, and treated ourselves to Chilean Sea Bass and crème brulee. Afterwards, Jeff asked me to accompany him back to his home up in the hills to see some rare etchings he had acquired on a trip to Taormina and I was just tipsy enough to agree.

We arrived at his home, and I asked to see one of his film performances, as I must confess I was unaware of his body of work. He was more than happy to oblige and we were soon ensconced in his home theater and I, expecting some nice B movie science fiction, was in for a shock at the wall to wall flesh that soon filled his 54 inch HDTV screen. I was in even a bigger state of shock when he made some highly improper suggestions to me that seemed to involve vast quantities of molded latex and blackened cow hide. Needless to say, I cut our evening somewhat short, made an emergency phone call to Madame Rose, my publicist, telling her just what sort of a man with whom she had paired me, hoping that she'd be able to keep the tawdrier revelations out of Vanity Fair, and headed back to the correct side of Laurel Canyon Boulevard. I should have known there would be trouble when, on first meeting Jeff, he told me to 'Shake that hand! Oooh, baby! Shake that big fat hand!'

On the way home I felt in need of a breather so I stopped off at the dollar second run cinema in hopes of finding a film featuring characters somewhat dumber than I. My search was rewarded when I entered a screening of the latest horror film from Dark Castle Entertainment, Ghost Ship. Dark Castle, brain child of film producers Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, is a firm determined to inflict high art horror films on an unsuspecting public. For their first releases, they chose to remake the not very good William Castle films The House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. William Castle was a true American original in the film business of the 50s and early 60s. His schlocky and so-so horror films were surrounded by a frenzy of hype and gimmicks that have become classics. (Fright insurance policies, uniformed nurses in the lobby to revive fainting customers (usually shills).) His films were B programmers at best, but they tended to have good titles.

Ghost Ship is the first Dark Castle production to be made from an original story, rather than remaking one of Castle's old stand-bys. As the film opens, we're on a sleek ocean liner in the early 60s. Glittering couples foxtrot on a parquet floor under the stars; stewards in crisp white jackets serve gourmet delectables. Then, very quickly, all hell breaks loose in a rather novel scene, leaving the screen awash in gratuitous gore. Fast forward forty years to present day where we are introduced to a salvage crew working off of a tug in the Bering Sea. The square jawed captain (a slumming Gabriel Byrne), fights with the usual blue collar film clichés, led by Julianna Margulies, of all people, as his right hand person. Other crew members include the Australian Alex Dimitriades (playing Hispanic), the American Ron Eldard (playing Blond), and the New Zealander Karl Urban (playing dumb).

After a not-so dramatic salvage job, which sets up the fact that these folks (who use far too much conditioner and eyeliner to be true blue collar types) are great underwater welders, the crew celebrates their success in a waterfront bar borrowed from Anna Christie. There they meet Jack (Desmond Harrington), a bush pilot who has taken aerial photos of a huge drifting hulk of a liner. Interested in the ultimate prize, our heroes, with Jack in tow, head off to capture the ship, which turns out to be the fabled liner we saw earlier, which had disappeared forty years ago, never to be seen again. The salvage crew, not worrying too much about how the boat could have been drifting for forty years without being discovered, climb aboard to patch her up and tow her back to port. The ship does not rest easy, however, and the ghosts of the dead have unfinished business. As in all such films, the crew attempt to figure out what's happening and, while unsurprising plot revelations are semaphored to the audience, they're dispatched in various gory ways in reverse order of billing.

This is one of those films that's chock full of idiots. If any character had a lick of common sense, none of what happens could happen and there would be no film. It's always a crime seeing intelligent actors trying to justify moronic choices on film. The screenplay, attributed to Mark Hanlon and John Pogue (who also wrote the execrable remake of Rollerball), is full of dumb moments and logical contradictions. My favorite being the emergence of the cast in wet suits and full welding gear after the calamitous loss of their tug in the previous reel. The story tries to have a few surprises, but most of them can be deduced by anyone with more than a third grade education long before the characters figure them out.

The cast, actually full of good and interesting actors, tries gamely to breathe some life into their walking and talking clichés, but don't have a lot of success. The best of the bunch is the relative newcomer, Desmond Harrington, as the mysterious pilot. He at least has some juicy scenes and some real motivations. Byrne sleepwalks through his bits and Marguiles looks like she's more concerned about her mascara (in place even after a dip in a freezing ocean) than about her perils.

The only real winner here is the art department. Art Director Richard Hobbs and Production Designer Graham Walker deliver magnificently with their sets of the decaying ocean liner. The rusting bulkheads, rotting furnishings, and clues of past mayhem and massacre give an appropriate feeling of menace and mystery to the film. Too bad a better script wasn't constructed for use with the sets. The direction is by Steve Beck, a former visual designer for films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He knows how to make full use of the sets and visuals - the film looks gorgeous even when it's completely moronic.

Like Dark Castle's earlier efforts, the ending relies on a series of overproduced visual effects that don't really give us anything new. The producers would be better off taking some of the effects budget and using it to hire better writers. One of the true marks of a good horror film is knowing what not to show on camera.

Mass hemicorporectomies. Underwater blowtorch. Gratuitous seductive lounge singer. Elevator shaft fall. Ghost with locket. Gratuitous maggot eating. Engine room explosion. Cursed gold bars. Intriguing final shot. 

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