Although you wouldn’t know it due to any recent use of the trope in popular culture, one of horror and science fiction’s most common plots during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was the “Ghost Ship”. Not in the literal sense of a ship being a ghost, but of ships being found abandoned (or with all crewmembers dead) for unknown reasons on the high seas. These plots were all inspired by the real life discovery of the ship Mary Celeste in 1872. The actual facts of the case aren’t as mysterious as conspiracy theorists make them out to be, but that hasn’t stopped popular culture from coming up with all kinds of crazy reasons for the ship (or ships obviously based on the Mary Celeste) being found abandoned; Arthur Conan Doyle gave us a racially motivated madman in his story “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”, “A Fire in the Galley Stove” by William Outerson proposed giant octopuses as the culprit, the 1933 film Terror Aboard had the discoverers of the ship actually find bodies, Hammer’s first horror film, 1935’s Mystery of the Marie Celeste pointed the finger at a vengeful crewman played by Bela Lugosi, and what do you think was the first case that came to mind when UFO theorists were looking for mysterious disappearances to blame aliens for?
Common though such uses of the plot once were, it has pretty much been abandoned in modern times (Although one would think filmmakers looking to get in on the “Found footage” craze would find such a plot ideal), with one major exception. That exception, oddly enough, isn’t much more well-known today than the short stories and films mentioned above, but at one point, it inspired a major motion picture with A-list stars and an action figure line which still sells well on e-Bay.
And it all started with a comic book limited series from Dark Horse; Chuck Pfarrer (one of the co-writers of Darkman) and Howard Cobb’s Virus in 1992.
Pfarrer had originally pitched Virus as a movie script, but decided to sell it as a comic book because he felt there weren’t any effects convincing enough to portray his vision. The execs at Dark Horse apparently thought highly of the series, publishing it in TPB format twice (one with an introduction by Robert Sheckley and the copyright info written in the form of jumbled computer code), long before the property was even optioned for a movie. So, was it any good? Let’s see.
Despite being billed as a techno-thriller, Virus showed off the obvious debt it owed to the traditional ghost ship scenario immediately, by beginning on a Dark Stormy Night:
A tugboat carrying a heavy barge commanded floundering dangerously in the churning waves, but the ship’s captain, Powell pressed his crew to push the ship forward at full power despite the danger. Unfortunately for Powell, the ship’s first mate, Averil, refused, afraid that the ship would eventually capsize. Averill insisted the only way to proceed was to get rid of the barge, despite it being worth ten million.
After nearly being hit by a tidal wave, Powell was forced to concede, and Averill and the ship’s navigator Colleen Foster got to show off their Implausible Action Movie Hero Chops™ by blowing the barge up with a flare---in the pouring rain, on stormy seas, while drenched in water. Okaaay. You can already tell this was envisioned as a movie script.
After the seas calmed down the next day, the crew came across a derelict Red Chinese research vessel called the Wan Xuan III, which had been carrying out space contact related experiment.
They decided to investigate, but before we get to that part, let’s observe these lovely scenes of interaction between Averill and two crewmembers named Richie and Apia:
Well, he’s quite a charming personality. Did I mention he’s going to be our main character? Get used to it.
The crew boards the ship, only to find a ghastly sight awaiting them:
Not only that, the ship was also nuclear powered, and all the fuel rods are drained:
With something having stolen the ship’s power, and all the crewmembers dead, Powell comes to the natural conclusion: Steal the ship and sell the electronics aboard to make up for the lost barge cargo:
Meanwhile, Foster goes exploring and look what she finds:
Aaaahhhhhhhhh! It’s the crappy looking ‘robot’ strung together with bubble gum I made for one of my home movies when I was a kid!
Averill (who is now an electronics expert for some reason) examines it, and guess what? That pink stuff? It’s supposed to be human flesh.
Naturally, no one cares, and gets back to their act of piracy. Only thing is, right as the crew is preparing to tug the ship, one of the cables snaps:
Then the tug sinks:
Then the lifeboats are mysteriously lowered, Richie and Apia, BFFs just a few scenes before, now come close to killing each other:
In any case, our motley crew is now trapped on the ship.
Help seems to arrive from some Chinese pilots, and sure enough they see the crew aboard and respond; by trying to blow them to hell:
The only thing which ‘saves’ our heroes is the ship’s satellites, which mysteriously come to life and deflect the missiles, leaving the ship with only a small gash in the hull.
Now finally aware that something out of the ordinary is going on, Averill begins barking orders at people and sends Richie (who we only now start to see is Asian) and Apia to go cut the ship’s circuit breakers:
Remember, it’s Powell who’s supposed to be the bad guy and tyrant here.
Of course, Richie’s no saint either.
Turns out, he’s our designated comic relief, and he gets to do his Mantan Moreland impression soon enough when he goes looking for Apia and finds this thing:
Thankfully, Richie and Apia avert the supposed horror tradition of the minorities dying first (which seemed to start happening a lot more frequently in movies after people started joking about it than prior), but when Averill s alerted, the ribcage monster has vanished:
Averill goes searching, but although he never finds the monster, he discovers that it’s already beat him to the circuit breakers and turned the ship back on:
Apparently, this thing is some sort of electronic virus from space that can possess both inorganic and organic matter so long as it relies on a power source, meaning it can ingrain itself just as easily inside human flesh as machines, and guess what it did to the original crew? The only way to avoid it is to avoid anywhere where there’s lots of circuitry, and as Foster soon finds out from a blueprint; the entire ship is filled with circuits, the virus is everywhere!
Despite this, Powell and the rest of the crew decide to go ahead with the original plan and try and sail the ship to port and sell the electronics, despite knowing there’s a deadly alien virus aboard that will try to kill them all, if the Chinese don’t bomb them again:
Averill and Foster decide their only hope is to try and shut it down again:
Sure enough, they succeed:
But the rest of the greedy crew won’t stand for it, and send Richie to go get Powell to turn it on again:
Meanwhile, it seems the Virus has bonded with Powell:
Wait? The virus can talk now? Or is it Powell controlling it?
Averill kills him, but sadly, Powell had managed to spread it:
Anyway, the comic basically turns into a zombie movie, with the non-infected trying to avoid the infected:
We also get some more lame comedy from Richie, although he at least gets to do something badass:
Averill tries to make it to the flight deck so that they can fly away (why didn’t that occur to him earlier?), only to find that the virus has beaten them:
And then it decides to turn into Godzilla:
That’ll never not look silly.
The group heads below deck again, only to find the virus has got Richie:
It also apparently has learned how to make wisecracks:
Also, why oh why, does it think pliers are so damn deadly? Seriously, this thing seems to love using pliers as its primary weapon!
Averill comes to the risky solution of luring the entire virus on deck in one form, then blowing it up, at the risk of sinking the ship. He also gets the douchiest self-sacrificing speech of all time:
It doesn’t matter anyway; Apia tags along and he gets killed:
Pretty soon it’s down to just Averill, Foster and the Virus’s final form…which is pretty silly looking, even the ribcage-scorpion was cooler:
The two succeed and destroy it however, and are rescued by a passing helicopter. BUT WAIT! A floppy disk containing the virus still remains, waiting….for a sequel that would never come.
Virus is an unwieldy mixture of Alien, The Thing, zombie movies and The Terminator as well as the old ghost ship scenario. How the virus works is pretty inconsistent, with it sometimes controlling multiple parts of the ship at once, other times putting itself all into one form. The level of control it has over its victims is also never explained; it’s supposed to just be some mindless crazed-for-life being that possesses everything around it, but several times the infected characters talk and even make jokes. In Powell’s case he apparently has control over it, and we’re never given any explanation as to why other than that, well, he’s a bad guy.
Speaking of good guys and bad guys, man is Averill an ass. He’s supposed to be a voice of reason and to look good compared to the tyrannical, greedy Powell, but if anything he’s even more controlling. Even at his worst, Powell still doesn’t casually threaten to shoot people the way Averill does. The scene where he gets ready to “sacrifice” himself rings hollow instead of heroic, because he comes off as a glory hound, and since he doesn’t die anyway, it’s pointless. All in all, there really isn’t much that makes him come off as better than Powell, whose greatest sin is basically just being a greedy, bossy jackass who we’re supposed to resent because…we hear that his dad owns the company at one point.
One interesting thing about Averill though is his relationship with Foster. You’d think she would be his love interest, but other than a cliché “I’m not leaving without you” scene, she’s never portrayed that way. Their relationship is only platonic. That’s kind of refreshing. The last thing this comic needs is a romantic subplot.
Foster isn’t the most interesting character (but then again, everyone takes the backseat to the all-mighty, all-knowing Averill in this), but it’s cool to see a female lead who isn’t a love interest, or really even sexualized at all. She’s drawn to be sexy, but there are never any explicit poses or anything, not even so much as a cleavage shot.
This is about as sexualized as she gets
The art by Howard Cobb is excellent throughout, the only real problem with it is that the book’s main attraction, the gruesome welding of flesh and machines, never really has the scare factor it is intended to. It’ s too…clean-looking, as if Cobb tried to draw everything to look like it would in an anatomy book, but without the gory, slimy quality it should have. It may as well be pink taffy intermeshed with the machines! Even though Pfarrer thought that Hollywood couldn’t properly depict what his script required, the comic didn’t either!
But then, Hollywood did eventually bring Virus to the screen. And how did that turn out? Let’s see.
The film begins with silent credits, then it gets straight to its first of many jump scares when the cheesy-looking title logo pops up to “DOOOOOM!’ dramatic music. Isn’t it sad when a comics logo looks more like a movie logo than the movie’s logo itself?
This version starts off right on the ship, which in this version, is Russian instead of Chinese and is called the Vladislav Volkov.
The most atmospheric shot in the movie
Whereas in the comic, we never got to see the virus attack the ship and it was all left to our imaginations, here we get to see the Virus actually make its way to earth and infect the ship: It’s…blue lightning shaped like a UFO. What was the point in showing this?
After that, we meet the characters. Here, Foster (Jamie Lee Curtis) is named Kelly for some reason and was also an ex-Navy officer who was kicked out for hitting a superior, the Averill character (William Baldwin) is an engineer instead of first mate and is named Steve Baker. Here, they are in a relationship, although apart from small talk among other characters, we never see it. Baker varies between being totally useless and just as hyper-competent as in the comic, although interestingly enough, he’s just as gung ho on looting the ship as the rest of the crew here. Most of the focus is on Foster here, and Curtis gets an awesome scene where she decks the film’s Powell analogue.
The film adds a Russian survivor named Nadia, who does about fuck all to advance the storyline until the very end except be treated suspiciously by the others, she doesn’t even provide any meaningful exposition.
Richie is in this too, played by Sherman Augustus. He’s kind of a paranoid weapons nut here. His butt-monkey role goes to another character named Woods, although he still gets some incredibly dumb comic relief scenes, like when he tries to say hi to one of the robots “hey little guy!”.
However, most of the film’s humor is unintentional, and it all comes from one source: Donald Sutherland as Captain Everton, the Powell character. Here, he goes from just being a greedy jerk to an outright supervillain. Although at least here, he’s shown to be a homicidal nut from the start, and it’s he who keeps pulling guns on people to get them to follow orders, instead of Averill.
Sutherland is a joy to watch in this, with his deranged facial expressions, scenes where he plays Russian roulette by himself, sobs like a little kid after Foster smacks him and mumbles lines like “Russian rubbish!!” and calls Nadia “Dr. Igor fuckin’ Frankenstein” (or more accurately “fuggin’ Vhrankensh-tein”). Sutherland is obviously just collecting a check, but he must have decided to have fun while doing it.
Oh, and after he gets smacked by Foster, and even though up to this point he’s supposedly not believed Nadia’s story and thinks all the weird goings-on are part of a Russian plot, he makes a deal with the virus by convincing it that he is Earth’s dominant life form so that it can infect him and give him cyborg powers!
Yeah, that’s right, in this version; the virus can be communicated with via computer. It speaks in a deep, Darth Vader voice that is meant to sound creepy and to evoke HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but comes off as trying too hard.
Oh, and it’s motivation has gone from just being a mindless being looking to spread itself, to wanting to wipe us out, because get this, it thinks humans are germs because they pollute the planet and carry diseases. “You are Virus” it says.
That has got to be the worst use of the “Humans are the real monsters” trope I’ve ever seen in anything.
Oh, and eventually Mecha-Everton shows up and—awwwww how adorable, he’s still wearing his captain’s hat!
It’s as silly on film as it is in still form. Sadly, he doesn’t last much longer than his comic counterpart before being destroyed, despite all the build-up he’s given as the film’s Big Bad. A damn shame, Mecha-Sutherland (and his hat) is easily the best part of the film.
The special effects are okay, and there are some pretty impressive scenes of the machines burrowing into body parts or impromptu autopsies being performed on the cyborgs, scenes which succeed far better than the comic in creating a Giger-like atmosphere. Sadly, these scenes are few and far between and everything else is either a big dumb special effect or kept in shadow to the point you can’t see it.
The film also ends with one of the dumbest escape scenes I’ve ever seen (the ship has its own eject seat), and one of the cheapest, most predictable jump scares I’ve also seen, although oddly enough, there’s no build up for a sequel.
Virus was a big bomb at the box office, and has a pretty poor reputation overall, with Jamie Lee Curtis even calling it an “all-time piece of shit”. While it’s not that bad (it isn’t even the worst horror movie Curtis has done), it’s still pretty lousy, at times seeming like a parody of sci-fi/action films played straight. But you know what? You have to admire Chuck Pfarrer, he wrote a script designed to emulate big dumb techno-thriller action movies with a bunch of sweaty unlikeable people toting guns yelling at each other, calling themselves by their surnames and blowing shit up, and by god, it eventually got made into a big dumb techno-thriller action movie with a bunch of sweaty unlikeable people toting guns yelling at each other, calling themselves by their surnames and blowing shit up. That has to count for something.
Everton and Foster action figures