by Mel Valentin
In the early 1940s, Val Lewton, a Ukrainian-born writer/novelist became a horror film producer for RKO Studios. RKO, reeling from their ill-fated association with Orson Welles (neither "Citizen Kane" nor "The Magnificent Ambersons" succeeded at the box office), decided to open up a B-level horror division to belatedly cash in on a genre profitably mined by Universal Studios. To that end, they hired Val Lewton, a writer and story editor for David O. Selznick ("Gone With the Wind"). Lewton wanted to produce his own films, exercising a modicum of control. RKO agreed, attaching certain conditions to their agreement: (1) budgets were limited to $200,000 per film, (2) RKO would pick the films’ titles and Lewton would create a story around them, and (3) the films were proscribed from running longer than 75 minutes (in order to fill the second slot on a bill with an A-level feature film).Lewton, however, did have the run of RKO’s standing sets, production departments, and actors or directors on contract. In the span of only five years, Lewton produced nine films, an output long acknowledged as the work of a producer/auteur. Some (e.g., Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie) are justifiably considered classics of understated, psychological horror. For his fifth RKO effort, Lewton set his film aboard a merchant ship plying fog-shrouded ocean lanes. True to its name, The Ghost Ship disappeared soon after its release, due to a legal dispute over the screenplay (which was later settled in favor of the plaintiffs). It remained out of circulation for several decades, making The Ghost Ship one of the least seen of Lewton’s RKO output. Horror fans, however, will be disappointed to discover that The Ghost Ship, has no ghosts, or even a hint of the supernatural (i.e., a variation on the “Flying Dutchman” legend).
"One of Val Lewton's less memorable efforts. For completists only."
Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix) runs a tight ship, brooking no dissent from his officers or from the crew, whom he perceives negatively. Enter his newest officer, Tom Merriam (Russell Wade), fresh from training and on his first shipboard assignment. Merriam is more than eager to listen and learn from Captain Stone. Stone, for his part, welcomes the opportunity to spend hours pontificating on “authority,” on the duties and responsibilities officers should have toward their men and the reciprocal duties and responsibilities the men should have toward the officers. In the abstract, Captain Stone’s pronouncements seem thoughtful, even insightful (if a bit dry and academic).
In practice, however, Captain Stone proves himself to be a harsh, authoritarian taskmaster. All his talk on authority is nothing more than misdirection. He believes in blind, unquestioning obedience. Officers or crewmembers that cross Captain Stone face his wrath. Captain Stone and Merriam’s relationship quickly deteriorates, leading to several high-profile confrontations. With several men dying mysteriously aboard the ship, Merriam begins to suspect that Captain Stone may be involved. The men remain loyal to Captain Stone, with the exception of a mute character, whose thoughts we hear intermittently as voice over narration (he also plays a vital role in the climactic scenes).
The Ghost Ship suffers from several, hard-to-overlook flaws, including an awkward romantic subplot shoehorned into the film, and linear, pedestrian plotting centered on an idealistic, cardboard thin protagonist and idiosyncratic performances, particularly Richard Dix as Captain Stone. Russell Wade is as stiff in the lead role as Dix is idiosyncratic as his nemesis. Lewton, of course, had limited to high-caliber actor (he could have had an A-level budget for his previous film, The Seventh Victim but balked when RKO disagreed with his directorial choice). For The Ghost Ship, Lewton did have a standing set used for a previous RKO production, Pacific Liner, which at least ameliorated the possibility that The Ghost Ship would look cheap (it doesn’t, despite the lack of exterior shots).Lewton also had editor-turned-director Mark Robson returning to helm "The Ghost Ship" (Robson directed Lewton’s previous feature film, "The Seventh Victim"). Lewton and Robson also had the services of cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca ("Cat People," "Curse of the Cat People," "The Spiral Staircase," "Blood on the Moon"), who employs a surprisingly mobile camera and dramatic, shadow-drenched lighting. In addition, "The Ghost Ship" has one or two tautly directed set pieces, including one later borrowed for 2002’s supernatural thriller, "Ghost Ship." "The Ghost Ship" also contains one of the more optimistic endings in a Lewton film. Ultimately, "The Ghost Ship" is a minor film best recommended to Lewton completists.
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originally posted: 10/21/05 15:41:38