Generally considered to be one of the least interesting of producer Val Lewton’s canon, and lost for decades due to copyright issues, The Ghost Ship re-emerges as something of a dark horse in 2020. Perhaps not quite a masterpiece, but a far better film than many prestige pictures of the time. Some found it a disappointment because it’s not a strict horror genre piece, but that fault is on the part of audience expectations rather than the film-maker; The Ghost Ship riffs on some familiar horror tropes, but plays them out in a original way.
The ‘mad martinet’ file contains such classics as The Caine Mutiny, Mutiny on the Bounty and even A Few Good Men; the ingredients are blue-collar men, extreme stress, and corruption up to here. In this case, it’s Capitan Will Stone, played by Richard Dix. He welcomes on-board his third mate Tertius (Russell Wade) with a warm handshake and talk of the potential for friendship on long voyage; the whole film as a number of homo-erotic flashpoints. The crew of the Altair seem wary; a series of Final Destination-style accidents convince them that something evil is afoot, but we’re not talking about monster suits here. The evil seems embedded in the Captain’s mind; a ‘feeling that I can’t control myself, my thoughts, my actions.’
We’re never quite sure what to make of the captain; the film deliberately rests on our willingness to give Stone the benefit of the doubt, even if Tertius seems to be certain that the captain is out to kill him. It’s an effective line for Mark Robson’s film to take, picking out moments of dangers from the ships’ daily activities; a swinging crane-hook provides genuine thrills at it lashes with deadly intent on those at deck. The captain closes a door, trapping a sailor with a deadly chain as it crushes him in an enclosed space, but do his actions prove his intent? An early scene where the captain’s nerve fails when attempting surgery on a crew-member sets up the conflict between the two men; will the captain allow innocent men to die preserve his reputation, even if that reputation is only in his own mind?
And what’s going on here? Distrust of authority, for sure, and there are suggestions that Lewton was sticking it to his RKO bosses with the power-gone-mad plotline. The Ghost Ship suggests that madness in great ones must not go unheeded, and even if the wrap-up is simple, the questions raised linger. Meanwhile, supernatural elements, a dread-provoking blind man, a mute whose internal monologue provides a narration, are laid out and developed while Lewton cannily refuses to show his hand. The music cues, old sea shanties and industrial noise, keep the nerves on edge throughout.
The Ghost Ship is a damning indictment of the corruption that power can provide; those who come to a position of power have responsibility, and if that responsibility is not adhered to, must be quietly removed. Whether supernatural or just a manifestation of mental health issues, what afflicts the captain afflicts his ship, and the lives which are his responsibility. It’s difficult, but necessary to stand up against such behaviour; otherwise the world sinks slowly in the sunset.