One of the most ambitious, and at times, troubling narratives that filmmakers have undergone is that of the “based on” or true event horror films — mostly because of the unbelievability most horror films have to extend to. It is more challenging than not to convince audiences of something horrifically macabre or even supernatural without breaking some barrier of believability. This brings us to Director Shana Betz’s new film, Haunting Of The Mary Celeste, a paranormal film about a group of researchers who further investigate the disappearance of an American merchant brigatine that was discovered adrift in the Atlantic Ocean undisturbed, but missing the entire crew and lifeboat in 1872. Betz delivers exceptionally given the short runtime, and while it may not benefit the emotional weight of the narrative, it does strengthen the tension and tone.
Haunting Of The Mary Celeste is a unique twist on the true story element, as while it does in fact put a fictitious spin on an old myth, it is in fact a myth that did occur and had yet to ever be solved. While it is greatly assumed that the crew had drowned following their departure on the lifeboat, it remains unsure as to why the crew left in the first place. There was little to no issue with the ship barring a few scrapes and scratches along the sails, and the crew’s belongings had remained intact. Thus lending this aura of mystery that could leave endless amounts of answers, and that thought of the inconclusive is terrifying to those that think the worst of it. On top of that, you have the sea, which has been utilized so many times over the course of history to inflict fear and the unknown that the fear itself of open water is almost instinctive to some. This is all adds to a very simple, yet ambitious setup for a story that trembles along its path and near the end, but ultimately is still a well-executed horror ride.
The film follows Rachel (Emily Swallow, Supernatural, Castlevania, The Last Of Us: Part II), a driven and extremely focused paranormal researcher Hellbent, to the extreme at times, at getting the answers she wants to the mystery with her team members, and boat skipper Tulls (Richard Roundtree, Shaft, Brick, Speed Racer), who is often pessimistic in regards to the team, but manages to lay his odds aside for the benefit of the team. The opening shots of the film show you that Rachel is obsessed with the mysterious disappearance of The Mary Celeste, to the point where you can tell her passions may be making her team a little weary. She believes that the movement of tectonic plates opens a portal to another dimension and that the crew of The Mary Celeste had passed over into that dimension. Once she and her paranormal team of investigators begin their discoveries, strange events occur and Rachel is left struggling to find a balance between finding answers and her team. She is a powerful character and I enjoyed the fact that she can make herself likable by making herself shallow when needed, she avoids distraction, and will even risk the safety of herself and her team to accomplish her goals.
While Swallow gives an emotionally and engaged performance, and Roundtree is able to lend a touch of originality to an otherwise bland character, the rest of the team does not get the attention they really need and are otherwise as forgettable as some of the poignant moments of the film. The biggest issue particularly being the utilization of the Mary Celeste itself; without spoiling the plot, the film almost falsely leads you to believe that the Mary Celeste would be the location and or surroundings of the film. While I did not notice until I had finished watching it, Haunting Of The Mary Celeste has a poster that is eerily similar to that of 2002’s Ghost Ship starring Emily Browning, Desmond Harrington, and Karl Urban. This is no doubt going to trick audiences into thinking that this film may be more of a spookfest, and while that element alone is of no fault of Betz’s, I still cannot help but feel disappointed in the lack of location. Especially given seafaring disappearance such as Patriot, USS Cyclops, and Intrepid are historically creepy and make for an interesting mystery. There is no question that this is more than likely a budgetary issue, and it makes me wish for further work for Shana Betz with higher funding.
This may come across like a rather aggressive review, and there remain elements of the film that once I began to think about further would fall apart, that being said it is a film I enjoy and does make the great usage of it’s one-hundred fourteen minute runtime. I wish that there was more of an intense Mary Celeste story, and I feel at times Shana Betz’s utilization of tension worked to the better, but as the film went on it became a drag that was less frightening come the final spooks. A tense atmosphere, creepy myth that is factually accessible to the audience, and Emily Swallow’s performance are the greatest strengths of Haunting Of The Mary Celeste. It may be an “easy watch” to some looking for a horror fix, but it is definetly worth your time for the creepy mythos alone.
Spoiler Review To Follow.
Score: 7 / 10