Horror films tend to open in one of two ways: either with a slow build or a sudden shock. The former is a little safer since there’s no risk of peaking too early, but the latter has the potential to get people talking. Director John Carpenter often started his movies with comparatively flashy moments, notably Michael Myers’ eye view of his opening murder in the original Halloween. But the champion of such notions is undoubtedly ghost ship, a decent-but-unexceptional effort from 2002 that ultimately fell victim to peaking too early. Its opening sequence delivers a bit of Grand Guignol ultra-violence, as passengers on a 1960s luxury liner are murdered en masse in a singularly shocking manner. The moment has yet to be topped by any horror movie before or since.
What Is Ghost Ship About?
Ghost Ship is the story of an Italian cruise ship whose passengers are murdered for stolen gold. 40 years later, the ghosts return to bedevil a salvage team who finds the derelict ship and intends to claim it. In and of itself, there’s nothing special or notable about the plot, and the film — while decent — doesn’t stand out from its contemporaries. The movie’s pedigree, however, bears discussion since it helped set up the opening.
It was the third movie from Dark Castle Entertainment, created with the initial goal of remaking the work of low-budget producer William Castle. Castle became a legend for his use of clever gimmicks to juice up his cheesy chillers. That included putting joy buzzers in the seats for 1959’s The Tingler — timed with a fourth-wall-breaking moment in which the film’s monster gets loose in a movie theater — and “insurance policies for $1,000” taken out against any paying customer experiencing “death by fright” during screenings of 1958’s Macabre.
Dark Castle was formed with higher budgets and better scripts in mind, but it wanted to keep that spirit alive. its first two movies were straight-up remakes of Castle films — 1999’s House on Haunted Hill and 2001’s Thirteen Ghosts — and took care to re-imagine some of the gimmicks for more sophisticated audiences. That included things like special glasses the protagonists of Thirteen Ghosts needed to wear if they wanted to see the spirits stalking them: a riff on the 3D style glasses Castle used to make the ghosts “appear” in the 1960 original.
Why Ghost Ship’s Opening Scene Remains Iconic
Ghost Ship wasn’t based on a Castle movie, but it needed to reflect the same spirit, as well as compete with a pair of ghoulishly effective opening from each of its predecessors. Director Steven Beck had helmed Thirteen Ghosts and was happy to up the ante for his first scene here. It opens like an early ’60s romance, complete with swelling music, pink credits in a cursive font, and a brief scene of passengers in formal wear dancing on the deck.
That ends in a sudden, shocking burst of violence as a motor elsewhere on deck mysteriously turns on, sending a taunt wire snapping across the dance floor where it neatly slices the entire party in half. The dancers have a few horrifying moments to process what’s happened before they collapse into multiple pieces across the deck. A number of them continue to flail helplessly in the gore as they die, with one woman in an evening gown pulling her lower torso in a desperate effort to reattach it.
Beyond the sheer number of people and the gruesome manner of their deaths, that moment of self-aware horror killed speaks most deeply to its effectiveness. The gallows humor of watching a group of fat cats killed amid their revelries is right in keeping with Castle’s proclivities, and while the rest of the film never matches it, it’s helped Ghost Ship find a cult audience of its own. The lone survivor of the scene is a little girl — too small for the cable to catch — who has to watch as the rest of the dancers collapse into an abattoir of their own limbs and torsos. Castle would have loved it, and it’s hard not to imagine a ghost creeping up at that moment to whisper in her ear. “Pretty scary, huh, kid?”