Thursday, October 30, 2008

24. The Ghost Ship (1943)

Schlocktoberfest #24: The Ghost Ship

I have a soft spot for Val Lewton's horror movies of the '40s. It begins with Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, a masterpiece of psychological horror that took terror out of spooky castles and foreign locales and put it on the street. Mark Robson directed The Ghost Ship, and it is a weaker entry in the repertoire in some ways because it pulls a switcheroo; there aren't any ghosts. But there's plenty of atmosphere and suspense, which is what Lewton and his directors did astoundingly well on shoestring budgets.

The story begins with a blind man begging by the piers; he's an old salt himself, and he can tell a lot about you just from what he hears. When young sailor Tom Merriam meets him, he knows he's an officer from the suitcase he drops instead of a gunny sack. He gives the old man a coin and he wishes him well on his journey, and repeating for us that a sailor doesn't ask for luck, because he's supposed to live on his wits. And Third Officer Merriam is going to need all he's got to survive.

Before he even gets settled onto the ship, the first body is found; it's a dark night aboard, and an old sailor lies lifeless aboard, found after roll call. The pock-faced Finn the Mute gives us an internal monologue warning of the tragedy to come: "The man is dead. With his death, the waters of the sea are open to us. But there will be other deaths, and the agony of dying, before we come to land again." Finn comes off as a mystic, and he plays an important part in the story.

As Merriam settles in, he meets Captain Will Stone; a stern man who seems affable enough. Unfortunately we soon learn he does not tolerate any form of dissent, and the story becomes a mild fascist allegory. A smart-aleck sailor who the Cap'n dislikes finds himself locked in the chain room, as the anchor is hauled up. The noise drowns out his screams, and the simple terror of an industrial accent is made up close and personal. The massive anchor chain piles into the room like the coils of a boa constrictor, and when Merriam peeks through the door to check on the sailor, the look on his face is all we need to imagine the bloody crushing death inside.

He immediately confronts the Captain, filled with his youthful idealism and concept of justice. And he won't let it go. He approaches the First Mate, who suggests he forget it. When they make land, he tells a higher-up his concerns with the Captain's sanity, but crew all speak up for their leader. All except Finn of course, because he can't. On land he meets a woman who knows the Captain, and she tells him not to let the power of his position go to his head, as with Captain Stone. That would make him a ghost, and he'd be on a "ghost ship..." See what they did there? Sneaky.

He knows that he can no longer sail with Stone after denouncing him, but when he helps a cheerful Trinidadian sailor out of a fight, he gets sucker punched out cold. To keep him out of trouble, the sailor brings him back to the ship- thus sealing his fate. Captain Stone isn't painted as a caricature; on land, he talks to a good friend and is concerned about his behavior. We haven't seen him kill; he just said that the dead sailor was no good because of his jokes and dissent. Is the young officer just confused about what it takes to lead? That's what makes the short movie compelling, how it keeps us wondering.

It all comes clear in the end, when Merriam conspires with the radio man to contact shore, against Stone's orders. Finn may not have been able to speak up, but when the time comes he stands up- and protects the helpless from a man drunk with power. It may not be the best of Lewton's run, but The Ghost Ship manages to be a compelling thriller, despite having a distinct lack of ghosts. I guess the title got bodies in the theaters. The movie is available now after 50 years, when it was kept from view due to a battle over plagiarism. It's worth seeing, especially if you like the other Lewton films.


elgringo said...

Battle over plagiarism? Oops.

If you like movies about pock-faced mutes, maybe you'll like movies about an armless knife thrower/circus performer.

My friend, I give you: The Unknown (1927)
Check it out. It's one of my favorite Chaney films.

tommy salami said...

I love old Lon Chaney silents, and The Unknown is great... I wish I could throw knives with my feet. Tod Browning was amazing.
First of all, Dracula and Freaks... but he also gave us The Unknown and The Unholy Three.

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