Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Hammer 1935)
1935’s Mystery of the Mary Celeste (or, if you prefer the US title, Phantom Ship) was the second movie from Hammer Film Productions, and shares many hallmarks with its stablemates. There’s plenty of slow-burning atmosphere, some shocking violence, and – strangely – Bela Lugosi.
Yes, it’s definitely a Hammer film, but the esteemed Mr Lugosi certainly makes his presence felt, tearing up the screen as jittery sailor Anton Lorenzen. It initially seems a little odd to see such a regular Universalite on Hammer turf, but it quickly feels natural.
Of the two cuts of the movie, only the shorter US-shown Guaranteed Pictures cut remains, and with the resulting 62-minute run time, Mystery of the Mary Celeste doesn’t waste a second in setting its stall out. Everyone knows about the ghost ship – now let’s find out what happened to it. In his final turn as director as well as co-screenwriter, Denison Clift takes us swiftly between two very different worlds in New York’s 1872 harbour hinterland. Captain Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson) needs a crew, as well as the hand of pretty Sarah (Shirley Grey), and the unfolding love triangle between Sarah, Briggs and Captain Jim Morehead (Clifford McLaglen) is our introduction to the ship’s doomed voyage.
It ought to be a land-based domestic scene, but the shadow of the ocean looms large behind the tense discussion between the seafaring love rivals, and the following scenes – taking in the forced recruitment of the ship’s crew at a distinctly unsavoury tavern – only enhances the oppressive atmosphere. We don’t know how or why, but the message is clear: this won’t end well.
Bela Lugosi as Anton Lorenzen in Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Hammer 1935)
You’d expect a movie set at sea to be claustrophobic, but there’s something about Mystery of the Mary Celeste that goes further. The cramped nature of the ship means the same environments appear time and again, the same settings playing host to new horrors. Ordinarily it might smack of laziness or tight budgets; here, it’s nauseating. There’s simply no room, nowhere to go except… overboard?
Lugosi is at the heart of it all, his performance as Lorenzen and his alter-ego Gottlieb leaping between surly mystery, nervous withdrawal, and unbridled horror. A superb showcase for his oft-overlooked talents, the gradual evolution of his character is our main window on the emerging nightmare.
The presence of just one female character appears strange, in no small part because as anxious new bride Sarah, Shirley Grey gives us a new angle on the harsh reality of life at sea. She’s a breath of fresh air, but even she can’t stay chipper in the pressure-cooker atmosphere. Throw in some crew dissent and an attempted assault, and it’s no wonder she’s struggling to hold it together.
Even by the performance standards of the day, the crew sometimes feel like a cast of yo-ho-ho caricatures; Sarah is our only sane reference point in this crumbling seaborne community. Likewise, scenes of the crew relaxing and playing cards offer brief respite, a breather and a moment of sketchy normality, but the backdrop of growing unease means that these too have a mood of latent threat.
Bela Lugosi with his wife Lillian and director Denison Clift on board the Mary B Mitchell between takes on Mystery of the Mary Celeste (Hammer 1935)
There’s something almost expressionistic in Mystery of the Mary Celeste. The shadows are too deep, the atmosphere too heavy with dread. The seething resentment of the press-ganged sailors is never far below the surface, the scene of one of the crew threatening to hurl a stowaway cat overboard leaving us squirming. Spine-chilling musical backing from Eric Ansell makes the menacing mood even darker.
As the crew is reduced, the tension rises to a shattering crescendo and a movie that was restless and unsettled from the outset descends into something altogether nastier. Mystery of the Mary Celeste is a unique movie, its historical speculation leaving the inevitable “what if?” hanging in the air; with a wealth of strong performances bringing the story to life, as well as some excellent set-pieces, any horror fan will lap this one up.