Between 1942 and 1946, Val Lewton’s production unit at RKO made nine of the sharpest, most influential horror movies of all time. His films never cease to amaze me in how literate they are, how much weirdness they pack into their short running times, and how much they anticipate the next 30-40 years of horror cinema. They’re so modern, in every sense of the world. Tonight, I finished The Ghost Ship (1943), directed by Mark Robson. Icons of Grief, a book about Lewton’s films in relation to World War II, quotes Village Voice film critic Michael Feingold as calling it “one of the most homoerotic films Hollywood ever made.” So of course I had to see it.
Well, the homoeroticism isn’t very overt, but it’s satisfyingly there – and so is much, much more. The ship in question (the Altair) doesn’t actually contain ghosts, but it is ruled over by the obsessive, quietly megalomaniacal Captain Stone (Oscar nominee Richard Dix). Stone’s men trust him, because he’s very careful to cover his tracks, but then the new third mate, Merriam (Russell Wade), comes aboard. Having no prior history with Stone, Merriam can’t help but see his pathological and scary behavior for what it is: pathological and scary. When Stone starts murdering his men for disobedience, Merriam takes action and calls for Stone to be investigated.
Disastrously for Merriam, however, he has no real evidence and no other witnesses. He tries to stay on land, but then an accident traps him aboard the ship… and a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse unfolds. The lack of ghosts may sound like a bait-and-switch, but Captain Stone haunts the ship so much better than any paranormal entity could. The stately, deep-voiced Dix plays him as an experienced, well-mannered leader of men, but one whose deep-seated psychological problems constantly threaten to surface. He’s a man with a single, all-consuming passion: his own authority. He has to erase any and all challenges to it with unflinching thoroughness.
Stone’s dangerous nature is suggested during any early scene where he orders a giant, heavy hook to be left untethered on the deck. After it endangers the lives of several men, he calmly explains his philosophy to Merriam: “I have the right to do what I want with the crew, because their safety does depend on me.” In short, he’s severely mentally ill, but he’s also in a position of power and able to rationalize his own violent actions until he’s satisfied. On one level, then, The Ghost Ship is a dark, poetic attack on the exercise of power for its own sake. But as with other Lewton films, its morals are ambiguous, offbeat, and sometimes self-contradictory.
In under 70 minutes, The Ghost Ship also manages to establish and flesh out a full supporting cast, including the classically educated radio operator Sparks (Edmund Glover), the calypso-singing Billy (I Walked with a Zombie‘s Sir Lancelot), and most memorably of all, the mute, unsmiling Finn (Skelton Knaggs), who speaks to the viewer in a raspy voiceover as he observes the film’s events (and eventually intercedes in them). The Finn’s portentous monologues add considerably to the film’s eerie atmosphere; they expose us to an enigmatic character’s rich internal life, as when he hisses, “I know this man’s trouble. I see the captain’s hatred. I know, and I will watch. I will watch.”
Disturbing touches like this make The Ghost Ship an extraordinary horror movie, despite the absence of any supernatural elements. In the film’s last act, the Altair becomes – for Merriam, at least – an ocean-bound haunted house. Even though he holes up in his cabin, Captain Stone’s power still threatens him, with the potential to strike at any moment. Nowhere is safe and no one can be trusted – the Captain’s seen to that. With photography by the great Nicholas Musuraca, The Ghost Ship turns the Altair‘s every window, corner, and corridor into a harbinger of greater evil.
And that homoeroticism? Yeah, it’s there, hidden under layers of Production Code-era repression. This is a film about power relationships between unfulfilled men, and it’s tinged with thick sexual tension – especially, as you might guess, in relation to Stone and Merriam. The bloody climax abounds with bondage and undeniably phallic imagery, and although the film tries to recoup some sense of normality by having an insistently heterosexual ending, it feels tacked on. Ellen (Edith Barrett), who appears briefly while the ship is docked, isn’t really the one on Stone or Merriam’s minds. She’s associated with land-bound life. These are sea-going men.
If there’s anything I need now, it’s more viewings of The Ghost Ship. Lewton’s films are so compact, so dense with iconography and symbolism, building up motifs with swaths of meaning. One viewing is never enough. But these are my first impressions: The Ghost Ship shares in the best aspects of the Lewton tradition, with its deep, well-written characters, its disconcerting political and sexual overtones, and its profoundly scary environment. Stone’s final breakdown illustrates all of these, as he wanders the ship in a monomaniacal daze, hearing whispers in his head: “If the boy is right… the boy is right… maybe the boy is right…”