“Phantom Ship” (1935)

by A.J. Hakari

"Phantom Ship" poster


The draw of a maritime mystery isn’t hard to comprehend. It’s a textbook “rock and a hard place” scenario, forcing the poor souls on board some doomed vessel to either confront the evil among them or take their chances on the cold, open seas alone. A film’s frightful potential is further raised when it bases itself on an infamous real-life puzzler, as was the decision made by 1935’s oceanic chiller Phantom Ship. Of course, when a story is inspired by an incident that left so many unanswered questions, some gap-filling conjecture is to be expected, but with information as cryptic as that which this picture has to work with, little effort is needed to jump to spine-tingling conclusions. However, while Phantom Ship fares admirably in stocking its bowels with intrigue aplenty on the outset, a fatal leak is sprung soon into the second act, one that unravels all the suspenseful good will the movie had accumulated up to that point and sends our interest sinking swiftly to the briny deep.

On December 5th, 1872, one of the strangest tales in seafaring history presented itself to the world. The cargo ship Mary Celeste, bound for Italy with scores of alcohol in its belly, was discovered adrift and devoid of life, with no sign of its crew in sight. What could have possibly prompted those aboard to abandon ship and instead choose to face the Atlantic’s brutal waters? The makers of this film have a few ideas, painting a most deadly portrait of the events that might have led to the Mary Celeste‘s ultimate fate. What follows is the story of one Captain Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson), a young lad who brought his new bride Sarah (Shirley Grey) on what at first seemed to be a typical voyage. But little do the lovers know of the danger surrounding them on all sides, from a spy assigned to sabotage the trip by Briggs’s jealous best friend (Clifford McLaglen) to an unstable sailor (Bela Lugosi) who wants revenge for being shanghaied years before. However, when more and more bodies start stacking up, it becomes clear that the Mary Celeste is dealing with no ordinary murderer but a veritable madman, one with the mother of all grudges against the vessel and all it stands for.

Perhaps the greatest distinction that Phantom Ship can claim is being among the first productions from some teensy British movie outfit called Hammer. The ensuing decades would help cement the studio’s prominence within the horror genre, but before their gothic goings-on could get underway, the powers that be had to cut their teeth on a series of low-budget, no-frills thrillers. Phantom Ship (released as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in its native England) was a part of this initial wave, closely adhering to the routine of the era’s average pulse-pounder by introducing a touch of romance into the mix and filling out the suspect pool with every shady-looking character actor it could get its mits on. Although his approach can come across as a little stiff on occasion, director Denison Clift does a fine job of establishing the story’s many pieces. Not only does he supply the viewer with multiple parties who board the Mary Celeste with murder in mind, he also subverts expectations by painting Briggs — the sort of dashing romantic lead who’s often depicted as a hopeless goody two-shoes — in dark shades himself. Add in the usual perils that come with being stuck on a scuzzy boat with a decidedly disgruntled crew (some of whom didn’t sign up willingly), and one can’t help but get excited thinking about the possibilities of how a cold-blooded killer might use these conditions to his or her advantage.

But once Phantom Ship starts getting down to the meat of the mystery at its core, that’s when its borderline incompetent grasp on the “whodunit” concept makes itself known. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that about twenty minutes were cut from the picture’s original version for its stateside release, a sizable chunk of celluloid now unfortunately lost to time. We can only surmise what those frames contained, but it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to learn that most of the film’s character arcs, red herrings, and stabs at misdirection were chucked in the trash. Even if they weren’t, however, Phantom Ship‘s go at leaving the audience guessing as to what’s really happening is inexcusably poor, for not even the script can apparently be bothered to keep most of its players straight or muster much concern for the figures on whom it does manage to focus. Whether it’s a sailor whose name we’re never told or one of the protagonists, character development is constantly getting the shaft here, and when the unceremonious off-screen deaths begin piling up in both departments, caring how anyone turns out is nigh impossible. In all fairness, though, the shiftless screenplay’s sting is eased some by the acting (with Lugosi turning in a particularly pained performance), as well as the movie’s art and sound design, which turns the titular craft into a high seas haunted house with ghostly gales ominously bellowing across the bow.

Admittedly, ganging up on Phantom Ship seems a bit mean, considering how stacked the deck is against it. In addition to its virtually incomplete present condition, the film’s decades spent in the public domain means toughing out sub-par sound and degraded prints, should one get the itch to give it a whirl. Bearing in mind the horrifying heights to which Hammer would eventually ascend, there’s no use in sweating Phantom Ship, but were it to make its way onto your to-watch list, then prepare for a one-hour tour that feels thrice as long.