Review: Haunting of the Mary Celeste (2020)
Haunting of the Mary Celeste name checks one of the most famous maritime mysteries of all time. The Mary Celeste, which had left New York City eight days earlier, was found by the British brig Dei Gratia about 400 miles east of the Azores on December 5, 1872. The ship had some minor damage but was still seaworthy and fully provisioned. The crew and its one lifeboat were missing and never found. Why they abandoned the ship is still unknown.
Director Shana Betz (Free Ride) along with writers David Ross (The Woods, The Babysitters) and Jerome Olivier have come up with a story that isn’t about the infamous ghost ship itself. Haunting of the Mary Celeste is a more conventional story of researchers who find out the hard way some mysteries should be left unsolved.
Rachel (Emily Swallow, The Mandalorian, Supernatural) is convinced the crew of the Marie Celeste met their fate at the hands of something paranormal. That they travelled through some kind of dimensional rift which took the crew but left the ship. She’s gotten a grant to research the theory and is under pressure to produce answers. She also, of course, has personal reasons for her investigations.
Her chartered boat takes off and leaves her and her assistants Grant (Dominic DeVore, Donner Pass) and Cassandra (Alice Hunter, Girl House) stranded. She convinces Tulls (Richard Roundtree, Shaft, Amityville: A New Generation) and Aldo (Pierre Adele) to take them out to the site of the disappearance. Apparently, she never considered that they might be caught by the same phenomenon.
Going into Haunting of the Mary Celeste, I was expecting something along the lines of Ghost Ship, Death Ship, or maybe even Blood Vessel. Instead, it’s a mostly one set affair, taking place on Tulls’ boat. It’s a small vessel and the effect is very claustrophobic. The foggy exterior shots enhance that feeling, taking away the usual view to the horizon that we expect in films like this.
It also, of course, invokes memories of the fishing boat sequences from The Fog. Especially when we start hearing odd sounds, as though there’s someone or something else on board. Instead of vengeful lepers though, Haunting of the Mary Celeste gives us coins that spin by themselves, dripping taps whose water suddenly moves in slow motion and what sounds like voices played at the wrong speed. It’s all somewhere between creepy and cliché, depending on your tolerance for supernatural horror.
One cliché that can’t be excused however is the one where they not only should, but need to, go back to port. And they decide to press on. They have somebody injured and unresponsive but getting them to a hospital isn’t the first priority? That’s one trope that needs to be retired, most of the time there’s no way to make it believable.
Beyond that, though, there’s not a lot to really complain about. Haunting of the Mary Celeste is a perfectly watchable film, even though there’s nothing special about it either. The acting is competent, though sadly blaxploitation legend Roundtree is given very little to do. At least he is in the whole film, not just a quick cameo in order to put his name on the poster.
The real star is the sound design, the filmmakers get a lot of mileage out of sounds, shadows and suggestion. There are plenty of genuinely eerie noises to set your hair on end as Haunting of the Mary Celeste builds up to its climax.
That climax is somewhat hobbled by another common flaw of films like this, though. Rachel’s theory is never fully explained, so I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, Or what ultimately happened. There’s also a final scene that is a deliberate anti-climax. That sent the film off on a really sour note. But for a film that looks to have had a very low budget, it looks good and delivered enough to keep my interest for its brief 75-minute running time.