Halloween Havoc!: GHOST SHIP (RKO 1943)

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Val Lewton produced some of the most memorable horror films of the 1940’s, moody, atmospheric set pieces noted for their intelligent scripts, chiaroscuro lighting, and eerie use of sound. CAT PEOPLE, THE BODY SNATCHER,  and THE SEVENTH VICTIM  are just three that spring to mind when I think of Lewton movies. GHOST SHIP is one of his lesser known films, a psychological thriller about a sea captain obsessed with authority who goes off the deep end, and while it’s not supernatural as the title implies, it’s a good film worth rediscovering.

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A blind street singer on a fog-shrouded corner gives an ominous warning to 3rd Officer Tom Merriam, about to embark on his first voyage aboard the S.S. Altair, captained by veteran sailor Will Stone. Stone is stern but friendly, eager to teach Tom the ways of the sea, and implement his view’s of the captain’s authority. A crewman dies just before they’re about to set sail, victim of an apparent heart attack, and Stone, claiming “he was an old man”, launches without a replacement. A freshly painted grappling hook is left unsecured by the captain’s orders, despite Tom’s protestations. When the Altair hits rough seas, the crew risk their lives to secure it, and Tom learns his first lesson about questioning the captain’s authority.

When another sailor has an appendicitis attack, radioman Sparks puts in a ship-to-shore call to a doctor. Stone is unable to perform the delicate operation, and has Tom take over. Loyal officer Tom gives Stone the credit, as the captain explain he has the power if life and death over his men. We can see the cracks in Stone’s armor are beginning to show.

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Crewman Louie (an uncredited Lawrence Tierney ) dares to question Stone’s authority when he complains about being down two crewmen now. Stone once again offers an explaination for his actions, telling Louie before he leaves, ” There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. Later, Louie is down in the hold as the crew drop a massive chain down, and Stone locks him in, causing the sailor to be crushed to death. Tom sees him below, and accuses him of deliberately killing Louie. An inquest is held at the port of San Sebastian, and the sailors all side with the captain, even ‘The Greek’ who praises Stone for saving his life during his medical crisis. Tom is crestfallen and plans on leaving the Altair and settling up in San Sebastian.

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But Tom is knocked unconscious while break up a fight with the sailors in front of a bar, and shanghaied back to the Altair. Stone offers him the ship’s  hospitality, but reminds his former 3rd officer, “There are some captain’s who’d hold this against you”. The crewmen all give Tom the cold shoulder, even his friend Sparks. Tom returns to his quarters to find his door lock’s been tampered with, as well as his porthole. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when Stone tells Sparks to reply “no”, his supicions are aroused. Tom heads to the gun cabinet only to find Stone waiting for him. “Authority cannot be questioned”, says the unhinged captain. A wire comes through asking if Tom’s aboard, and when tone tells Sparks to reply “no”, the radioman’s suspicions are aroused. Sparks goes to Tom and says he’ll help him, but he’s intercepted by Stone. The captain then asks Tom to help send a wire, informing the shore that Sparks has gone overboard. The two men fight and the crew breaks it up, with orders from the captain to restrain and sedate Tom. The mute seaman Finn (whose inner thoughts we hear throughout the film) finds the wire and shows it to his mates. Stone overhears the men talking about the situation, and he completely snaps, hearing voices in his head saying “Maybe the boy is right”. He grabs a cutlass and heads to Tom’s cabin, murder in his eyes…

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The horror is strictly psychological here, there are no demons, zombies, or cat people, only the psychotic Captain Stone. Veteran actor Richard Dix (the Academy Award winning CIMARRON, THE WHISTLER series) gives a Queeg-like performance as the sea captain slowly descending into madness. Russell Wade(THE BODY SNATCHER) is fine as Tom, and Lewton regulars Edith Barrett (the only female in the cast), Ben Bard, Dewey Robinson, and calypso singer Sir Lancelot are also in the cast.

This is the American debut of actor Skelton Knaggs, playing the mute Finn. Knaggs had the creepiest looking face this side of Rondo Hatton, resembling a living skeleton, and has a long list of small but pivotal roles in horror films: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, ISLE OF THE DEAD, HOUSE OF DRACULA, TERROR BY NIGHT, and BEDLAM, usually uncredited. He’s one of those actors whose name you may not recognize, but that face is unforgettable:

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Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography is outstanding as always, and Mark Robson’s direction keeps this GHOST SHIP taut with suspense. Most readers are familiar with Lewton’s greatest hits, but this quiet, gripping little film is worth seeking out. While GHOST SHIP isn’t out-and-out horror, I think you’ll find it quite a treat for your Halloween movie basket.

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