There’s something incredibly romantic and haunting about the sea...
...It always makes for a rich setting in tone and atmosphere in horror films. There’s a built-in mystique that lulls the audience in, but the filmmaker must do the legwork to pull the audience along with that tide. Director Shana Betz has attempted to showcase the raw power of atmosphere in her new paranormal horror film Haunting of the Mary Celeste. That venture alone warrants a standing ovation of respect from me, but for the most sincere form of horror atmosphere to flourish, a good story needs to be at the heart of the film. Celeste undoubtedly has heart, but it seems to have trouble playing into a strong narrative structure.
Our seafaring ghost story follows a small group of paranormal researchers out to investigate a strange case where a merchant ship called the Mary Celeste seemingly vanished without a trace while transporting a family. The ambitious leader of the team, Rachel, (Emily Swallow) has chartered a small boat and skipper to take them to the site where the disappearance reportedly occurred. At the helm of the boat is Tulls, (Richard Roundtree), a vocal skeptic willing to put up with the team’s ghost antics for a price. Rachel has a theory that when plate tectonics behave in a particular way, it can open a rift, or portal, to another dimension. She believes the family and crew aboard the Mary Celeste sailed into one of these rifts and crossed over, while the ship and cargo remained intact. Not long into Rachel’s investigation, strange events begin to occur, and members of the team become difficult or impossible to locate. The frightened team and grumpy, no-nonsense skipper must work together to escape when they find themselves trapped in a paranormal plane.
Rather than spoil anything in terms of plot, I think it’s far more important as a film critic to recalibrate people’s expectations for a film. The Ghost Ship (2002) imitated poster art for this film may have you believe this is a loud, brazen scare-fest featuring a large ship the cast is destined to explore. For better or worse, this is not that kind of film. Instead, Celeste is a far more understated experience, preferring eerie atmospheric tonal dread over jump scares and set pieces. Sometimes, the film succeeds at being an argument for why this type of horror is more effective. Several times in the film, we hear disembodied voices being captured by EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and, at least for the first few times, it’s a very spooky affair. By the fourth or fifth time, however, the recycled scare tactic begins to take its toll and the effect wanes. Other atmospheric dread comes by way of subdued lighting, fog that snakes its way into the boat, or strange noises coming from its bowels.
There is one effect I was particularly impressed by involving a dreamlike visual of a character reaching out at a vertical body of water, signifying their “crossing over” into the rift. Once contact is made, they are pulled in almost violently. This reoccurring visual not only looks great and creepy, but also informs the audience of what is happening with that character. Once we learn what this visual cue means, it informs us of a character’s impending doom. Atmospheric creativity like this is great stuff, but for every step forward Celeste takes, it takes a few steps back. Going back to the false advertisement of the Mary Celeste being a location in the film, I can’t help but be disappointed. I’m sure budget restraints prevented this from being written into the film, but the entire film takes place on the chartered boat, which isn’t all that spooky. It would have been infinitely more interesting if Rachel and her team were to explore the actual Mary Celeste. The opening text informs the viewer of the ship; so naturally, the anticipation sets our sights there. All the paranormal moments of the film would hit harder if they occurred in the location of interest. As it stands, the rich atmosphere is present and appreciated, but the untapped potential of what’s left out is hard to ignore.
While the atmosphere and scares are a bit unbalanced, the film’s biggest letdown is the unsatisfying story. The premise is fantastic, but it makes promises it doesn’t deliver on. Instead of a paranormal investigation set on a haunted ship, we’re given an ambiguous story that revolves around uncovering Rachel’s past. But Rachel’s mystery asks more questions than it answers, so the viewer is left with a film that is neither scary nor very engaging in terms of story. Fortunately, Rachel’s character is boosted by Swallow’s performance. Despite the lack of answers or closure for her, Swallow is clearly invested in this character. Whether intentional or not, I really liked how Rachel isn’t easily likable. She risks the lives and sanity of her crew by being a kind of tyrannical leader, always pushing forward to satisfy her appetite for answers. Swallow exhibits characteristics that are by turns noble and warm or astoundingly selfish. You don’t always like her, but you believe her. That’s the kind of character I like to see more in film and Swallow nails it. Richard Roundtree does a convincing job as the skeptical, hardened sailor. There are several instances when he is given the opportunity to have a heavy-handed character arc, but chooses not to play it that way. Rather than giving him an unlikely change of character, Tulls’ arc is subtler. In one scene, Rachel is pouring her heart out to him and, while he didn’t tear up and embrace her paranormal views, without even speaking a line of dialogue, he conveys that she has earned his respect. Roundtree takes a character that could have very easily been one-dimensional and breathes subtle, honest humanity into him.
Haunting of the Mary Celeste contains quite a few elements that elevate it above its peers, but the unavoidable curse this film possesses is unfulfilled potential. I’m almost positive budgetary matters prevented this from realizing its bigger vision. The film we ended up with isn’t without its charms though. Betz understands the power and importance of atmosphere in horror and hopefully, in the future, she will be granted a larger budget to expand her visual flair. The performances are also quite good and add a bit of emotional heft to the stakes of the character’s situation. This film has a kind of “easy listening” quality to it that makes it a good one to watch to help wind down your day.
Haunting of the Mary Celeste comes to VOD/Digital from Vertical Entertainment October 23rd.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth