The Ghost Ship is another film by Val Lewton whose title is a little misleading, a movie most would assume to be a horror when in fact is more of a suspense-laden psychological thriller more than anything else. There are no ghosts to be found nor any ships of mysterious origin, simply a captain of a ship who finds himself going mad and knows it to be true, a man aware of his own deterioration and soon, when bodies start piling up, Captain Stone finds himself accused by Third Officer Tom Merriam of not only committing them, but confronted about his insanity as well. It is a genuinely moody film, one that does deliver a little fright to go along with all the mystery that it manages to drum up, by a proper horror it is not, though it comes very close.
There are many things about this film which make it attractive to the viewer, the first of which is the casting of Richard Dix as the old sea captain who tries the best he can at his job, but knowing that he cannot hold on forever. His crew is a loyal one and they look to the captain as they should, with respect and obeisance – even when those among them start turning up dead. Dix is subtle in the role for the most part, sure but unsure in his role over the men, especially when things start to look grim. There is a scene where he is tasked with performing surgery on one of his crew as crazy as that may seem, and Dix brings everything to the table so to speak. You can see the beads of sweat on the man, feel the worry roll off of him in waves and it is not only one of the most suspenseful moments of the film, it proves that casting Dix in the role was a stroke of genius.
There are other such moments in the film where Lewton and director Mark Robson create moments of high tension including a scene with a giant swinging hook that is quite scary and while that is but one example, the rest of the movie has an air of unpredictability about it in the same vein, much like many of Lewton’s films. You never quite know what is going to happen next, who it is that lurks in the shadows, just what those sounds might be or which person will end up being killed. Lewton liked to rely upon the unseen to frighten its audience and as with all of his pictures, it worked. Part of that reasoning always had to do with the budget, but also because the mind is a powerful tool and Lewton knew that no matter what he put on screen, someone could always think of something far more horrifying. Relying upon darkness and shadows with minimal lighting would also help to put across the suspense and as such, though this might have been a B film, it looked better than it was.
Additionally the film would star Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Skelton Knaggs, Ben Bard and Lawrence Tierney in a bit role and coupled with the performance from Dix and many of the trademark Lewton tropes, The Ghost Ship would end up being one of the best that Lewton would produce, not to mention one of the least viewed pictures the man ever made due to complicated circumstances. Taut, suspenseful and packed full of mystery, The Ghost Ship is worth the ride.
3.5 out of 5