Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we take a look at the next in our run of Val Lewton flicks, THE GHOST SHIP starring Richard Dix and Russell Wade and directed by Mark Robson, who also helmed yesterday’s THE 7TH VICTIM.
And this may be my favorite of the Val Lewton movies so far, which I didn’t expect. I’ll say that CAT WOMEN was a better made picture, but in terms of pure enjoyment, I really took to this flick.
I just loved the mounting suspense and paranoia as we follow Russell Wade’s 3rd Officer Tom Merriam on his first long voyage under the command of Richard Dix and slowly grow to learn that Dix is losing his mind.
The man is obsessed with proving to this young man that authority means more than the truth. In his own way Dix is the good guy, at least in his head. Dix likes Wade’s Merriam, hires him specifically fresh out of school and they hit it off at first.
It’s not until a few crew-members die mysterious deaths that Merriam begins to suspect anything and not even that pushes him over. One of the crew members appears to the captain letting him know that some of the crew are overworked being short handed (thanks to a couple of the mysterious deaths I was talking about) and by the rulebook he should pull into the nearest port and crew-up.
Dix just stares at him, not threateningly mind you, and says, “You know, there are Captains that would hold this against you.” And he doesn’t continue! I expected at least a false “but I’m not one of those,” or something. Damn, that’s cold Obi-Wan!
Anyway, the poor seaman who approaches Dix with this ends up dying in a pretty damn brutal way, crushed under the heavy chains holding the anchor when his hatch is closed by Dix, so we see the poor bastard trying to scream over the noise of the heavy chains as they slowly crush the life out of him.
Robson, Lewton and screenwriter Donald Henderson Clarke set a fascinating world. The first character we meet is a blind man playing sea shanties for coins and one of the very next characters we meet is a mute man onboard the ship. And we hear his inner dialogue! In raspy whispers, no less. It would almost be ridiculous if it wasn’t so creepy.
Russell Wade is very vanilla here, a blank slate for us to project ourselves into. He’s unflinchingly good, trustworthy and righteous. He’s likable, so that saves him from being boring, but he’s not even close to the most interesting character.
Richard Dix owns this movie. How he goes from nice and affable to nervous to strict to mean as shit to psychotic and back again… it’s amazing to watch. When he finally loses his shit for good at the end of the movie it’s a little sad because you see a glimpse of the life he could have.
There’s a girl waiting for him, newly divorced and wanting to settle down, but Dix is just too far gone and he even knows it in this scene.
Edmund Glover is probably the most likable person in the movie, playing a well-read and kind Radioman who befriends Merriam, but doesn’t want to get involved when Merriam starts accusing the Captain of murder. He’s the kind of character you’d want to be friends with.
Final Thoughts: This film was a nice surprise to me. By now I’ve come to expect that if a Lewton movie has an exploitationy title it won’t live up to it. There are no ghosts, at least not in a supernatural way. You can feel the presence of those who have been killed, all adding to an atmosphere thick with paranoia and insanity. I get the impression that this one is over-looked, even by Lewton fans, which is a shame because it’s a great film. The final fight is brutal and scary, a good payoff to the dread that builds from frame one. And watch out for the great operation scene halfway through, done without any doctors present, only via radio. Intense stuff.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Tuesday, September 2nd: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946)
Thursday, September 4th: BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Friday, September 5th: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)
Saturday, September 6th: TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (1972)
Sunday, September 7th: TRAGIC CEREMONY (1972)
Monday, September 8th: LISA AND THE DEVIL (1976)
We got 2 more Val Lewton movies to hit before we move on to Bava. I think I’ve decided to make October as fun as I can with a potpourri of horror from 1st-31st, freezing the column in its tracks and picking up where we left off November 1st. I just feel like hitting some fucking absurd horror and will probably be even more in the mood after we get through the next week of Bava and spend the rest of September with Comedy and Drama.
See you folks tomorrow for ISLE OF THE DEAD!