Of the eleven remarkable low-budget horror films that Val Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s, an astonishing total of four come from 1943. This incorporates his final two with the most celebrated director to come out of the collaboration, Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), and two with Mark Robson, including The Seventh Victim and this film, Ghost Ship. Despite the temporal closeness of their releases and what were surely short or parallel shooting schedules, The Ghost Ship feels like a transitional film. It still has plenty of Lewton’s distinctive touches, especially his incomparable ability for creating psychologically complex and morally ambiguous characters in a genre where either features are practically unheard of, but Robson’s direction seems less of a fit to Lewton’s brand of horror and terror than Tourneur’s.
It stars a young marine officer named Tom Merriam (Russel Wade) who has just joined the crew of the Altair ship. Merriam forms a quick bond with the ship’s captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix), who takes Merriam under his wing almost like a son. Stone loves talking to Merriam in his docile but firm voice about his theories on authority. Primarily, he feels that since he is responsible for his crew’s safety, he can also take certain liberties with their lives. Merriam also befriends the radioman Sparks (Edmund Glover) who warns Merriam that Stone might not be the wise sage that Merriam thinks he is. After a rebellious crewman named Louie is killed, Merriam turns against Stone, accusing him of murder while futilely attempting to get the rest of the crew to side with him.
Like all of Lewton’s I’ve seen, The Ghost Ship is an unusually intelligent take on the horror genre that allows its scares to manifest from the depths of the psyche rather than in external monsters. Two of Lewton’s trademarks are present from the beginning, especially the bad omen delivered from a prescient presence. Here, it’s in the form of a Blind Beggar (Alec Craic) who tells Merriam that ships are always cursed. If that wasn’t enough, Lewton follows up the beggar with Finn the Mute (Skelton Knaggs) who creepily lurks around the ship, allowing us to be privy to his thoughts that concern the concept that he can see what others don’t. All that’s missing from this portentous “see no evil, speak no evil” duo is a “hear no evil” deaf man, yet the dialogue in the film seems to exist as the evil that can’t be ignored.
Primarily, The Ghost Ship is concerned with the dangers of naïve trust, suspicion and conviction. The impressionable Merriam is an easy target for Stone’s “wisdom,” which Merriam initially takes to believing. But if Stone plants the seeds of his philosophy, then Sparks plants the seeds of doubt. Sparks’ more cynical outlook on the captain’s philosophy forces Merriam to reconsider his trust for the captain, and when Louie winds up dead as a result of him being locked in a chamber where the heavy chain of the ship’s anchor falls, Merriam instantly jumps to the conclusion that Stone murdered him. After all, the door was shut and locked, Stone didn’t like Louie because of his insubordination and responded apathetically to his death.
As is typical in Lewton, what we’re shown leaves the truth ambiguous. We do see Stone shut the compartment door, but we don’t see him lock it, nor do we see if he knew that Louie was in there. But more important than the truth itself is Merriam’s sudden change of conviction from believing in Stone’s principles to believing he’s a homicidal madman. Here, the brilliance of Lewton isn’t so much to highlight the ambiguity of truth as it is to highlight the polar evils of naïve faith, whether they’re for or against someone or something. This incident also sparks the hearing that has Stone being found innocent (because nobody would testify against him) and Merriam being outcast as a seaman.
Due to a bizarre incident involving Merriam getting knocked out, he ends up back on the Altair with Stone and the entire crew against him, but now he’s in fear for his life, feeling the captain wants to murder him. As much as the film stumbles in its first act, it truly reaches a dark, dramatic, psychologically terrifying boiling point here as Merriam waits patiently in his room for Stone to make his move. Typically, the scariest moments in Lewton are reserved for characters’ walks, where the outstretching shadows seem to contain the lurking evil. But here it’s the claustrophobic stasis of Merriam that triggers some of the most sweat-drenched tension in all of Lewton.
If The Ghost Ship can be faulted for failing to live up to Lewton’s high standards it’s primarily in its sloppy first act and the blandness of the cast. Russel Wade has all the character and personality of a cardboard box, and it’s hard to feel too much for him throughout the film, even though he’s the protagonist. Richard Dix is more accomplished, but even he feels less up to capturing the richness of Will Stone. Indeed, Stone, as a character, is reminiscent of the great captains from literary history from Ahab to Queeg (The Caine Mutiny). Stone certainly seems to mix the growing obsessive dementia of the former with the maliciousness of the latter.
Lewton was always phenomenal at humanizing his characters, though, and Stone is a fascinating study in a humanized monster. For instance, as in Lewton’s other films, the title, which would, ostensibly, refer to some supernatural haunting, actually refers to Stone himself. As the lone female character, Ellen (Edith Barrett), says later on, obsession turns men into ghosts and, eventually, it’s not a human operating the ship anymore. Stone does seem perpetually distant even as he’s quite lucid in his speech and thought. His eventual breakdown serves as one of the highlights of the film, as he spies on three crewman turning against him to side with Merriam he stumbles into his room with the words “The boy is right” echoing in his head, as he finally snaps.
Some of the film’s action lives up to its title in more traditional ways. The captain’s refusal to tie down a large hook causes it to come loose in the night, swaying back and forth like an immense guillotine over the ship, causing chaos in an attempt to reel it in amongst the crew. The movements are exaggerated as if there was a genuine haunting going on. The minimalistic art direction, creaky, rickety sounds of the old boat and hazy, high-contrast cinematography is certainly enough to dredge up a kind of hallucinogenic cabin fever as well, creating an atmospheric, visual and aural haunting out of artful suggestion.
Yet, much like The Leopard Man, The Ghost Ship is a film that impresses more than it viscerally affects. Perhaps part of this is the lack of any genuine relationships amongst the characters. The vague father/son suggestions between Stone and Merriam aren’t enough to convince us there’s any real connection there. Likewise, the Sparks/Merriam connection seems more like a catalyst, an intellectual association more than a real friendship. Perhaps if Merriam was as rich a character as Stone, or if Wade was a better actor then this wouldn’t be so detrimental, but The Ghost Ship is in desperate need of the humanism that marked Cat People, its sequel, and even I Walked With A Zombie (which, although it wasn’t as humanistic as its predecessors, was much more technically accomplished).
One final complaint is that in spite of the fact that The Ghost Ship is replete with the substantial thematic suggestiveness of Lewton’s best, it feels less fleshed out and less deeply explored than its predecessors. It isn’t as chilling as Zombie, as mystical as Curse of the Cat People, as humanistic as Cat People, or as structurally daring and original as The Leopard Man. It’s undeniably the lesser of this quartet, yet its failings only serve to highlight what a B-movie genius Lewton was, because who else could give an audience this much to think (and write) about, much less experience, in such a “lesser” effort?