Avast, Ye Rubberheads!

Ghost Ship sets its course for charming horror clichés.

Ghost Ship
Gabriel Byrne plays the salty seaman Sean Murphy, captain of the Arctic Warrior.
Gabriel Byrne plays the salty seaman Sean Murphy, captain of the Arctic Warrior.

Producer Joel Silver makes movies to win audiences, not awards, and Ghost Ship -- created under the Dark Castle horror banner with Silver's Tales From the Crypt partners Robert Zemeckis and Gilbert Adler -- opens with a hook both gripping and revealing. It's 1962, aboard the Italian luxury liner Antonia Graza, and from soup to nuts, the cruise and the filmmaking are delightfully lavish. Celine Dion's voice is absent, but instead we get stunning Francesca Rettondini seducing Europe's glitterati -- and us -- with a mesmerizing ballad. Then all bloody hell breaks loose, as if we're watching Titanic 2: The Revenge (and high time, too). The upper-crusty passengers in their tuxes and ball gowns are absurdly and spectacularly offed, and as the deck sloshes with their viscera, one can't help but snicker, because the cheeky, grisly scene seems to have been conceived at a hoity-toity Oscar party.

After such a promising, pretension-skewering launch, it's hard not to admire the pluck of Ghost Ship, a high seas haunted-house yarn that's at once old-fashioned (stock plot and characters) and newfangled (hyper-gore and thrash rock). From the get-go, this perfectly timed Halloween romp generously delivers tricks and treats while sustaining a childlike sense of perilous fun. Despite being rated Arrrrgh! for bountiful nastiness, the movie's intentions are basically friendly; like Independence Day or the remakes of King Kong and Godzilla, it wants to introduce old B-movie kicks to a new generation. (Haunted boat? I'm so there!) However, also like those movies, the thing's cloying reverence for mediocre and illogical storytelling keeps it from charting new territory.

Our present-day heroes form the crew of the Arctic Warrior, a scrappy salvage tug returning from six months off the coast of Alaska. Fresh from a rockin' action montage illustrating their inherent coolness, they're basically the cast of a beer commercial (which makes sense, coming from award-winning commercial director Steve Beck). As Captain Sean Murphy (Gabriel Byrne, 100 percent sodium chloride) refrains from tossing back MGDs with robust team leader Maureen Epps (Julianna Margulies), lusty first mate Greer (Isaiah Washington), and stalwart crewmen Dodge, Munder, and Santos (Ron Eldard, Karl Urban, and Alex Dimitriades), he is approached by a completely boring and charisma-free Canadian Air Force pilot (Desmond Harrington) who's called Jack Ferriman (as in, hint-hint, "Don't pay the . . ."). Ferriman has spotted the legendarily missing Antonia Graza adrift in the Bering Sea and needs the crew to help him salvage her, as she may be worth a fortune.

Following the mantra "In our business, the only plan is there is no plan," the crews of both the Arctic Warrior and this movie set off like modern pirates set to plunder. Naturally, it's a dark and stormy night when Captain Murph's boat nearly rams into the enormous, beautifully conceived rust bucket (director Beck has studied design and led the art department at Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic), and the team immediately raids the spooky ship. Simultaneously, screenwriters Mark Hanlon and John Pogue raid every favorite movie on their video shelves, nicking bits from Jaws (Byrne's Robert Shaw shtick, not quite as good as Dana Carvey's), The Lost Boys (in two words, ghost beans), the remake of The Haunting (similar damned -- or rather, not damned -- climax), and The Shining (haunted ballroom, drinking with the dead, plus a creepy ghost girl in a Victorian-style dress, here well played by Emily Browning). Frame the action à la Alien/Aliens and/or Virus (with Harrington in the Paul Reiser-weasel role and Margulies playing Sigourney Weaver and/or Jamie Lee Curtis), and ye got yer vile vessel.

For about the first half, hopes are high. Sure, the crew splashes in tiny, bathwater-warm "Arctic" waves (the film was shot off Australia's Gold Coast), and the appearances of miraculously well-lit interiors, belligerent prosthetic rubberheads, fat rats, incredible treasure, and the Love Boat theme are obnoxiously predictable, but nonetheless it's easy to cut Ghost Ship some slack. After all, apart from Below, how many nautical fearsomes are out there these days? The lovingly detailed setting and eerie atmosphere count for much.

The problem is that Ghost Ship isn't likely to shiver your timbers. Following the floundering Thirteen Ghosts, Beck still hasn't figured out that graphic violence and wanton cruelty do not a scary movie make. The poorly plotted, rehashed screenplay is partly to blame, but Beck is simply no master of suspense. Not scary enough for its own good, his Ghost Ship ends up stuck, albeit enjoyably enough, between the Scylla of schlock and the Charybdis of camp.

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