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GHOST SHIP , USA/ AUSTRALIA , 2002 , MPAA Rating : R for strong violence/gore, language and sexuality

We don't, on the whole, ask a great deal of the usual Halloween releases. A few good scares, maybe a scream or two and, just for effect, a scene that makes us think twice about having linguine with red clam sauce after the flick. If we also get a plot that doesn't insult our intelligence, so much the better. On all points, GHOST SHIP delivers and, just to add to the mix, it's got good acting and some nifty special effects.


The film opens in 1962, where we see what happened to the ship, the Antonia Graza, before it took its spectral turn. On a balmy evening as the rich and richer dance on the decks of the then-deluxe Italian cruise liner, swaying to the soulful song stylings of an Italian femme fatale swathed in red satin. Suddenly, a rigging is set loose, neatly slicing and dicing the revelers where they stand in their diamonds and pearls.


Flash forward forty years and the intrepid crew of the salvage boat Arctic Warrior, led by craggy Gabriel Byrne and gritty but warm Julianna Margulies are approached by a weather pilot with a tantalizing proposition. He's found a large ship adrift in the Bering Straits. For 20 percent of the take, he'll take them to it. From the photo he's got, it's clear that this is the salvage of a lifetime, as in riches all around and retirement. So off they all sail into a dark and stormy night to find a ship that likes to play hide and seek with their radar.


As the crew boards the Antonia Graza, Byrne warns them to watch out, sea air can turn steel decks into quicksand and, sure enough, one of them plunges through the deck. We'd be disappointed if it didn't happen. As Margulies is helping pull him to safety, she sees a little girl looking straight at her. Would that that were the only odd thing, but in short order the crew discovers other peculiarities, like a digital watch, something that wasn't invented until after the ship disappeared. And soon Margulies isn't the only one seeing people who shouldn't be there, though she is the only one who chooses to act appropriately, something that will count in her favor.


The nice thing about the characters in GHOST SHIP is that they're not the usual stupid souls who have to be dumb for the plot to keep going. No, this time they're smart enough to want to vamoose from the eponymous vessel once things get too weird; it's a malevolent power that keeps them there. Still, while having the bejeezus scared out of them individually and collectively, they succumb, individually and collectively, to some of the most popular of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony, avarice, envy, and, or course, lust each have their moment and some deliver quite a wallop in the way of retribution. Lust, in particular, offers up some wonderful visuals as one of the crew, addled with one too many shots of liquor, is tempted by that sultry Italian singer who, though a phantom, is obviously not over enjoying some corporeal pastimes. As she dances seductively with her would be playmate, the ruins of the ship's once-elegant ballroom slowly reconstruct themselves as our man throws caution and sense to the wind. And just to keep us all on our toes, there are one or two serious frights that have nothing to do with the supernatural, but rather some high spirits of the mortal variety and a cluster of rocks that will shortly sink the ship.


Director Steve Beck effectively keeps things suspenseful even when faced with some hoary cliché³® Is there anyone out there who can't figure out what's going to happen to the guy who's about to get married? Didn't think so. Beck, who was an art and effects director at Industrial Light and Magic, also does a nice job with an extended flashback of the events that led to the Antonia Grazia's current ghostly status. It's tight and taut and offers eerie shots of a ghost watching what happened to its mortal coil.


Best of all, the explanation of what happened forty years ago has a nice bite to it and enough originality so that we don't feel cheated at having spent 91 minutes getting to it.


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