AKA PHANTOM SHIP
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 80 min [version lost], 62 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Captain Briggs and Captain Morehead are best friends until they both fall for the same girl. Both propose to her on the same day and Sarah chooses Briggs. Some time later, Briggs and Sarah plan to sail. Briggs is short on crew, and asks Morehead to forgive him and help. Morehead agrees, but sends a man to do something to the ship. Briggs also recruits a variety of other crewmen, most with serious problems, and the voyage takes a nasty turn when people start being murdered…
Though this is not too well known, Hammer actually made four films in the 1930’s. None of them are horror but this second effort, the first of their films to survive, does have slight macabre elements. In a way, it’s hard to fully judge The Mystery Of The Mary Celeste, a fictional, non-supernatural explanation for the true-life mystery of a ship that was found floating near Portugal in 1872 without a crew. The full British version, which runs 80 mins, seems to be lost, and all we have now is Phantom Ship the American version, which lost 18 mins. Opening and closing courtroom footage was lost, a twist ending where two people thought killed are seen to survive on a tropical island was removed, plus a whole load of other footage which makes Phantom Ship very choppy and with several events either occurring off-screen or being unexplained. The opening credits even name and show three characters who don’t actually appear in the film! Despite all this, the film still works quite well and is in no way the boring, creaky effort you may expect. The mostly shipboard murder mystery starts a bit slowly, but then many films do, and it quickly gets rather interesting with an odd cast of characters and no shortage of stuff happening, from fights to deaths to attempted rape, all in a British film from the 30’s that is surprisingly brutal, even if we don’t actually see the violence properly.
The mystery of who is killing the crew keeps you guessing for quite a while, with several folk all seeming to be out to be cause harm, and there’s quite a strong atmosphere of futility, though I have a feeling that you’re intended to like the rather dumb captain despite him being a total idiot. German director/actor Erich von Stronheim makes a strong appearance, but of course this film’s interest for horror movie fans is Bela Lugosi, Universal’s Dracula, being in a Hammer film. Though not in the film much until half way, Lugosi gives one of his best ever performances, showing great range as a traumatised religious zealot who becomes central to the plot. It’s a strikingly detailed piece of acting by a star often considered to be just a ham. The combination of model work, studio sets and actual sea footage is well put together in what was quite an ambitious, unusual production. There is some poor acting from some, and the cuts really seem to have hampered the film which I feel must have been very good indeed in its original version, but it’s still rather effective and interesting, and well worth checking out. It’s easily available too.