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Image Entertainment presents

Phantom Ship (The Mystery of the Mary Celeste) (1935)

"Thirteen souls on this ship, and you bring a black cat aboard!"- Toby Bilson (Edmund Willard)

Stars: Arthur Margetson, Bela Lugosi, Ben Welden, Edmund Willard, George Mozart, Shirley Grey
Other Stars: Gibson Gowland, Gunner Moir, Dennis Hoey, Clifford McLaglen, Herbert Coleman
Director: Denison Clift

Manufacturer: Cinepost
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, racial epithets)
Run Time: 01h:02m:20s
Release Date: 2002-05-28
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

One of the great unsolved mysteries of all time is that of the Marie Celeste, a ship found derelict at sea, in full sail, with not a single person, living or dead, aboard and her cargo untouched. Food was found uneaten on the stove and absolutely no indications of what happened were left behind. This film is a fictional tale that suggests what might have happened aboard that fatal cruise in 1872.

Captain Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson) of the Mary Celeste (thus named in the film) is preparing to set sail and sets his first mate, Toby Bilson (Edmund Willard) to finding a crew. Briggs marries his love Sarah (Shirley Grey) and asks her to sail with him to Italy. Among the crew rounded up is Anton Lorenzen (Bela Lugosi), who had previously been victim of a brutal shanghaiing, and Grot (Herbert Cameron), who is placed aboard ship by Captain Morehead (Clifford McLaglen), Briggs' rival for Sarah's hand, with instructions to arrange for the captain to meet with an accident. Soon after setting sail the crew begins to die or vanish mysteriously, leading to a suspenseful conclusion.

This was the second film to be issued by the Hammer studios, which decades later became renowned for its updating of the classic horror characters Frankenstein and Dracula. The print used here is the American export version, which is shorn of the framing story of the maritime inquest. Unfortunately, that framing footage appears to be lost for good. On the positive side, there doesn't seem to be any Lugosi footage missing, and his presence is why the picture is remembered at all today.

Lugosi turns in one of the better performances of his career here. Desperately trying to avoid his horror typecasting, he went to England to make this film. He actually succeeds pretty well in making a sympathetic character, and manages to suppress his usually strong accent into a more generic sound. Some of the moments are a little overplayed in the silent mold, but overall he provides a very sensitive portrayal of the alcoholic, maimed Lorenzen. Also in the cast is Gibson Gowland as the ship's carpenter; Gowland is best remembered today as playing McTeague in Von Stroheim's classic epic Greed. The rest of the cast is generally passable in 1930s style, though much of the film has a somewhat overblown feeling through modern eyes.

The central mystery is generally pretty effective, and with the shortened running time it moves at a ferocious clip. The main difficulty is a structural problem with the script. While Briggs and his wife are carefully set up as the emotional center of the picture, they vanish offscreen with hardly even a throwaway line regarding their loss. A more creative director might have given them an effective death scene without ever showing the killer and spoiling the mystery. In other cases, however, the mayhem being offscreen tends to increase the drama, since the reaction shots leave the presumably horrific sights to our imaginations. The storm sequences are quite well done.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture generally looks pretty good for a picture of this vintage. While Phantom Ship has appeared on video in a variety of PD forms as a smeary, ugly mess, this picture, taken from the export negative, is a revelation. There's plenty of detail and a quite attractive picture overall. A few scenes are overly contrasted, lacking in shadow detail and slightly blooming, and there are the expected episodes of speckling, but this is probably as good as this film is ever going to look short of a massive restoration effort. As usual for such maritime films, the ship's rigging tends to appear fairly jagged.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono sound isn't bad. Early British sound films had notoriously poor audio, and this one is no exception. The sound quality varies from reel to reel, with crackle and hiss prominent in many places. However, the dialogue generally is quite clear, so it's acceptable. The sound design during the storm and generally while at sea sets the mood well. Most of the music is from an onscreen source and sounds fine, albeit a bit thin.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues
Packaging: EastPack
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Absolutely nothing to be found in the way of extras. The cast list on the chapter insert is riddled with typos ("Mozard" for "Mozart" and the like). Chaptering is adequate.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

A taut little thriller with a very good performance from Lugosi. It's never looked better on home video by a long shot, despite the obvious age of the film and audio elements. Not an extra to be seen, though.

Mark Zimmer 2002-06-05