Sunday, August 10, 2014

Saturday, April 1, 1972 (Midnight): The Ghost Ship (1943) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Synopsis: Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is the new 3rd officer on the merchant ship Altair. Merriam meets the captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix) and is surprised to find that Stone had asked for Merriam to be assigned to him specially. Stone tells him that Merriam's background is much like his own; they were both orphans, and both men were therefore driven to succeed and make lives of their own. As Merriam is getting ready to leave the captain's cabin he sees a moth hovering around a light. He is going to swat it, but the captain stops him. "You have no right to kill that moth," the captain says gently. "Its safety doesn't depend on you."

As the voyage begins, Merriam gets to know the crew: the no-nonsense first officer Bowns; radioman "Sparks" Winslow, and Finn, a mute whose gnarled face seems unwelcoming. Stone seems to treat Merriam like the son he never had, and Merriam seems grateful for his fatherly attitude.

But almost immediately there are troubling things about Captain Stone. He demands order and discipline, but is quick to deflect blame when his orders put member of his crew in danger. Even so,  the crew is very loyal to him, and they are careful not to cross him.

But one day seaman Louie Parker takes an insolent tone with Stone; though Stone is clearly angry, he takes no action.  But later, when the crew is stowing the anchor chain below decks, Louie is given the task of gathering the chain in the hold so that it doesn't become tangled.  This is dangerous work; the heavy chain slides down into the hold quickly and Louie must manipulate it with a spar as it descends to ensure that it doesn't pile up in one part of the hold .  Then he must exit the narrow interior hatchway while the chain is still snaking down into the hold.

Captain Stone, walking down the corridor adjacent to the hatch, casually shuts it as he passes.  Parker soon discovers he can't get out, and shouts for the men above to stop lowering the chain.  But they can't hear him and Parker is soon crushed to death under the chain's weight.

Merriam discovers the body, and notes that the hatch had been dogged from the outside. Stone seems to be entirely indifferent to Louie's death.  The man was insolent and a loudmouth, the captain tells him. There was no place on board the ship for him.  To Merriam, it's clear that Captain Stone closed the hatch deliberately, knowing what would happen. And while the Captain doesn't admit it, he doesn't deny it either, and he makes clear the meaning of his comment about the moth.  The Captain sees himself responsible for the safety of his crew; and because those lives are his responsibility, he is free to take their lives as he chooses. This lesson, he makes clear, is something Merriam must learn if he is to command a ship of his own one day.

The ship arrives in port, and Merriam goes directly to the office of the shipping line. He tells the line representatives about his suspicions regarding Captain Stone. Reluctantly, the administrators call an inquest.  Merriam tells what he knows, but one by one, the crew of the Altair go out of their way to vouch for the Captain's sanity and even-handedness.  Stone is quickly exonerated.

Despondent, Merriam leaves the inquest knowing he will need to find a new job.  But later that evening he is drawn into a fight and hit over the head.  He awakens on board the Altair, now far out to sea.  He quickly realizes that the Captain arranged for him to be brought back -- and is planning to kill him....

Comments: Val Lewton's relationship with RKO studios was an interesting one.  The studio brass seemed to leave him alone for the most part, but certain elements of his movies were imposed upon him with a heavy hand.  For example, nearly all of Lewton's films began with a lurid title the studio handed off to him: Cat People started that way, as did  I Walked With a Zombie and (so it is claimed) did tonight's feature, The Ghost Ship. 

This gambit actually worked pretty well.  Lewton could complain about the catch-penny titles, but he was actually quite masterful at thinking his way out of them, redirecting what he thought the studio wanted into stories that were far more intelligent and lyrical than anyone could have imagined. So in a way the studio did him a favor by forcing him to improvise, to take what was clearly a dismal or shopworn concept and turn it inside out.

Tonight's feature goes quite far afield from what one might expect from a movie called The Ghost Ship.  There is a ship, and the movie is very moody and atmospheric, as you'd expect from Val Lewton. But the horror elements are surprisingly muted; there isn't a ghost in sight.  In fact, there is no supernatural subtext whatsoever. Instead, we have is a rumination about the meaning of leadership and responsibility. One of the larger questions the movie tackles -- via the characters of Captain Stone and his younger reflection character Merriam -- is how a man reconciles himself with the difficulties and disappointments of life without losing faith in his fellow man.

Stone is a man who has lost his way, though he doesn't realize it. He and the married Ellen clearly had spent years trying to find a way to be together.  When she finally manages to divorce her husband, she expects Stone to willingly drop his life at sea to be with her.  But she doesn't realize that she made him wait too long; the ship has become his entire universe, and controlling that universe has become his obsession.

Stone's disappointment in Merriam is so much the greater because of the father-son relationship he imagined, and it is enough for him to cause him to snap - he becomes reckless, first in denying to Ellen via radiogram that Merriam is aboard; then in the murder of Sparks; and finally in his determination to filet Merriam while he's hogtied to his bunk. He has come to believe what he told Merriam about the crew -- that they are just cattle for him to herd. 

Fortunately for Merriam his secret benefactor proves to be the mute Finn, whose imposed silence allows him the ability to carefully observe everything on board ship. He takes it upon himself to safeguard not just Merriam, but his innocence as well.  "The boy is safe," Finn narrates near the end of the picture.  "His faith in humanity is preserved." The device of having a mute character narrate the film is a jarring one at first, and it's used rather haphazardly, but it proves to be a good role for Lewton regular Skelton Knaggs. Veteran actor Richard Dix is also quite effective as the seemingly gentle but ultimately homicidal ship's captain. Edith Barrett has perhaps the most difficult role as Ellen, who must haul buckets of sunshine to a couple of pretty dreary fellows. It's one of the most interesting roles in this less-than-stellar Lewton effort.

Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place -- it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.

His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.

The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us. Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort. He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he's used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.

Soon Winnie's ex-husband (Larry Park) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing's experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.

Comments: This is the first madcap comedy we've seen on Horror Incorporated, and it's a movie so tethered to one locale that it looks as though it was originally written for the stage -- even though the credits indicate that it's an original screenplay.

And while I knew I'd never seen it before, why did The Boogie Man Will Get You seem so familiar to me?

I finally figured it out, and no doubt you have already done so as well: The Boogie Man Will Get You is a pretty blatant knockoff of Arsenic and Old Lace, which was a popular Broadway show at the time. Karloff himself had originated the role of Jonathan Brewster on stage the previous year. Instead of two dotty but lovable aunts collecting dead bodies in the cellar of their boarding house, we have a dotty but lovable scientist storing dead bodies in the cellar of his inn.

As you've probably already guessed, this is about as much a horror movie as Arsenic and Old Lace was. It seems to have slipped into the Son of Shock! package more or less by accident (perhaps the title and the presence of Karloff and Peter Lorre convinced someone at Screen Gems that it was a horror flick).

So we must shrug for the moment and go along with it.

As a horror movie, it's obviously a non-starter. As a comedy -- well, it certainly makes you appreciate Arsenic and Old Lace, in much the same way that watching Starcrash improves your opinion of George Lucas' talent as a filmmaker.

Karloff is perfectly serviceable in the absent-minded professor role, and Peter Lorre in particular seems to be enjoying himself as the kooky and amoral Dr. Lorencz. Retired boxer "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom gets in some laughs as an unsuccessful cosmetics salesman.
And Jeff Donnell (here credited as "Miss Jeff Donnell") shines in her too-brief screen appearance. Considered too plain-looking to be a romantic lead (at least by Hollywood standards), her career sputtered out too quickly.... though I suspect any agent who let her use the stage name "Jeff" might not have been acting in her best interests.


kochillt said...

Not a single Val Lewton title ever showed up on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater, and I have never seen THE GHOST SHIP. Incidentally, Edith Barrett was then the wife of Vincent Price (she died in 1977). I've never been a fan of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, but at least THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU actually has Boris Karloff. By 1952, Jeff Donnell displayed her feminine form opposite Lon Chaney in the 1952 Sam Katzman color cheapie THIEF OF DAMASCUS.

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