“I’m a hand short. Thought you might let me have a man.”
Captain Briggs (Arthur Margetson) is in love with Sarah (Shirley Grey). Captain Morehead (Clifford McLaglen) is also in love with Sarah. They use to be friends. They both propose on the same day. Sarah picks Briggs. Briggs and Sarah marry and begin their honeymoon by sailing on Briggs’ ship, the Mary Celeste, to Italy.
Short on crew Briggs asks Morehead if he can borrow one of his. Morehead, still stewing, sends Volkerk Grot (Herbert Cameron) with instructions to see to it that the Mary Celeste does not reach its destination. Also aboard is Anton Lorenzen (Béla Lugosi). Lorenzen is a man who has had a hard past and has seen too much after being shanghaied six years ago. The result is that he lost his left arm. Other crew members were bullied into signing on. None of them are happy to be there.
The ship sails with a complement of men that are not thrilled to be aboard. Everyone seems to have an axe to grind. In short order it’s apparent that someone aboard is a killer. Sailors begin dropping like flies. One crewmember tries to rape Sarah, but Lorenzen saves her by killing the man. It appears to have triggered something in him. His theatrics about having killed a fellow human being seem a little over the top.
Soon, everybody has died or disappeared except three of the crew. And they are, each in turn, looking at the others with very suspicious eyes.
“The Phantom Ship” was released in 1935 and was directed by Denison Clift. This is a British film that was produced by the Hammer Studios before Hammer got its reputation as master of the horror movies. The film is based on the mysterious events around the real “Mary Celeste”, a ship found adrift at sea in 1872. The British version was titled “The Mystery of the Mary Celeste”. The US version is about eighteen or twenty minutes shorter than the British version and is believed to be the only version still in existence.
The movie has gotten a bad rap from critics. It’s a little short on plot, but it’s not horrible. There is some choppiness to the movie. You don’t really see what happens to the captain and his wife. It must be in the 18 to 20 minutes that ended up cut from the movie. There are a couple twists but understanding how those twists happened is also not clear. Again my only recourse is to blame the editing.
As for the real Mary Celeste, yes Captain Briggs and his wife Sarah were on board, but so was their two year old daughter Sophia. Also they had a 7 year old son that was left behind because he was in school. The love triangle is a plot devise to get the movie going. There is no real explanation as to what happened aboard ship. But, of course, theories abound. Some of the more interesting are; a mutiny, a pirate attack or an assault by a giant octopus or sea monster. Even a giant waterspout, and of course the aliens took them. Another theory was an explosion caused by fumes from the 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol in the ship’s hold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story in which the inhabitants of the ghost ship fell victim to an ex-slave seeking vengeance. I guess a killer on board is just as good as any other theory.
It’s not a great movie, and it starts a little slow, but the suspense towards the end builds nicely. There is no shortage of suspects. Although he has top billing, Lugosi’s role is more of a supporting actor. One problem is that none of the characters are very likable. Even the two main characters. Sarah was stringing along Morehead and Briggs basically had his crew shanghaied. When the ship is finally found, the only living thing on it is Lorenzen’s pet cat. Sounds like justice to me.