Save for a fantastic cold open that sees dozens of wealthy passengers dancing on the top deck of an ocean liner, only to have their lovely evening under the stars ruined with a brutal bisection via wire moments later, Ghost Ship wasn’t much of a cruise worth taking. Flash forward four decades, and the main plot has a salvage crew discovering that same ocean liner, hoping to claim it for riches. Naturally, its long-dead passengers may have objections. It was heavy on special effects and cool set designs, but the dialogue and character work were pretty abysmal. Throw in predictable clichés and tropes, and well, Ghost Ship wasn’t as exciting as it promised. But then, the theatrical release we got was far removed from the original screenplay. A gory special effect driven ghost party set at sea was originally a much quieter psychological haunter in the vein of The Shining.
After profitable remakes House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts, Dark Castle Entertainment decided to venture away from William Castle territory into original story terrain. They went with Mike Hanlon’s spec script Chimera, a small haunted house type story set on a boat. But it didn’t have that showy style or brisk pace of the previous two films, and so John Pogue (The Quiet Ones, Quarantine 2: Terminal) was tasked with a re-write.
In Chimera, there are only four main characters; Epps, Murphy, Dodge, and Greer, played by Julianna Margulies, Gabriel Byrne, Ron Eldard, and Isaiah Washington in the film. Ghost Ship adds two additional Arctic Warrior crew members in Santos (Alex Dimitriades) and Munder (Karl Urban), plus a tagalong in Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) who puts the ocean liner on their radar in the first place. Instead of the 1962 Italian ocean liner SS Antonia Graza, the Arctic Warrior crew instead finds the 1953 passenger liner Chimera. Hanlon’s script paints a more atmospheric setting and its haunting on a much smaller scale, first with strange sounds and then with shadows. It becomes clear soon enough just how much Hanlon drew influence from The Shining once Epps discovers the hidden stash of gold ingots.
Like The Shining, the haunted setting is much more subdued and factors heavily into the psychological breakdown of the crew the longer they stay on board. Room 400 on the Chimera acts as the oceanic version of Room 237. Most of the paranormal activity takes place in this room, and it’s usually centered around Epps, the only one of the crew members who sees anything remotely spectral. Late in the script (it takes a good half way through before things slowly start to pick up speed), Greer is found in a seizure-like state in Room 400. Once he snaps to, the story follows a similar path as Jack Torrance’s psychotic breakdown in the Overlook Hotel. In the film, much of Greer’s storyline is given to Murphy.
Stanley Kubrick had famously stated that there’s an evil side to the human personality, something inherently wrong, and that’s what he was exploring with Stephen King’s story. Hanlon went a little more specific; greed was the catalyst for Dodge, Greer, and Murphy going mad to varying degrees. Like the Overlook Hotel, the Chimera itself is evil and uses the corruptive nature of the gold to bring out the worst in whoever steps foot on board. When they fall under the ship’s sway, they kill each other.
Pogue’s script took the barebones of this concept and added Ferriman, a demon who gets his victims to sin first so he can collect their souls to later be ferried to hell. Pogue also added two additional crew members and an ocean liner full of ghosts, so there’d be a higher body count and more ghost sequences. Essentially, his version went with the “more is more” philosophy.
The one thing that Pogue surprisingly toned down from Hanlon’s mostly gore less script was teen ghost Katie Harwood (played by Emily Browning in the film), the only fully fleshed out ghost in the initial script. In both, she warns Epps away from danger, and gives her brief flashbacks that fill in the blanks of that critical date the Chimera descended into tragedy. But Katie’s fate is much grimmer and graphic in Hanlon’s script- the 16-year-old is sexually assaulted by mutineers next to the dead bodies of her mother and younger sister while other mutineers hold her father down and force him to watch. They then axe her to death. Pogue’s version leaves the assault implied, and hung after.
Hanlon’s script suffers pacing issues, very little characterization, and plot holes without resolution, namely why Epps can see Katie. Going by The Shining blueprint, we can assume she has something akin to the shining, but it’s never explicitly explained. So, it’s easy to see why another pass was taken at the script- it was needed.
When watching Ghost Ship, you can see a lot of Hanlon’s core motifs and concepts at play, even some of the nods to The Shining, but a lot of what worked about it was made worse by Pogue’s take. The Ferriman demon concept, the removal of the mystery element, the ghostly encounters dialed up to eleven, and an eye-rolling tacked on ending that has Ferriman starting anew all brought down a promising concept. The Shining with a little bit of Session 9, but set at sea sounds like a fantastic horror movie that they should have made.