Amongst his Universal offerings, Bela Lugosi, much like his fellow actors at the time, would often take work where they could find it. As such, one of these films would be Phantom Ship from an early iteration of Hammer Studios in 1935. A British production, the movie was originally a little bit longer in length and went by the name of The Mystery of the Mary Celeste. Making its way to North America, it would find itself trimmed down to little more than an hour, for what reason now is unknown. Surprisingly, what remained was a fairly decent movie, more mystery than horror though classified as both and it would find Bela Lugosi in top form.
The one fault the movie might have more than any other is the fairly simplistic plot. The film involves those who are travelling aboard the Mary Celeste and slowly but surely, each and every member is killed until only one remains and in a shocking turn, not soon after there are none. Simplistic or not, the filmmakers do not let it hold them back in order to tell the story they want to tell. As it is, it does start off a little slow, with a bit of drama about a love triangle, but once the bodies start falling, the mystery begins and from then on, the suspense builds, slowly but surely until the killer stands revealed.
Lugosi himself is a mystery in this film and you wonder not only if he might be a hero or villain, but exactly where he fits in to all of this. There are clues that point in one direction and yet, some of his actions speak otherwise. The remainder of the cast which includes Arthur Margetson and Shirley Grey among their number do all right with the material, but it is Lugosi you came to see and the fact that he was used almost sparingly was a stroke of genius. It made every moment that he was on screen even more memorable, not to mention it added to the tension present throughout.
What was most surprising was the ending and how completely unexpected it was. It does prove that while winning, you can still lose – even if that win involved the killing of an entire ship of people. Phantom Ship is a very atmospheric and slightly claustrophobic picture from Hammer Studios and director Denison Clift, perhaps a little dated, but still worth a watch.
3 out of 5