On November 1872, a brigantine merchant ship by the name of The Mary Celeste set sail from New York Harbor carrying a supply of commercial alcohol to be dropped off in Europe. On board were the captain, his wife and 2-year-old daughter and an experienced seven-man crew. Around a month later, the ship was discovered abandoned and floating in the Atlantic Ocean. Everyone on board was gone and none of them were ever seen or heard from again. This eerie tale would go on to become a famous ghost ship legend, inspire stories or be directly referenced by everyone from Arthur Conan Doyle to Stephen King to Dean R. Koontz, be the subject of an article published in Strand Magazine (supposedly written the ship's sole survivor - a stowaway not even listed on the log - and commonly written off as a literary hoax now) and also be the basis for this low-budget British film, which doesn't exactly stick to all the facts. This one drops the child from the story, adds additional crew members and a jilted lover subplot, changes nationalities and eventually provides an explanation for the events on board. It is also noteworthy as the first genre picture from Hammer Film Productions, as well as containing a pretty good performance from classic horror star Bela Lugosi.
As for this film, it begins as Capt. Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson) wins over the affections of Sarah (Shirley Grey) from his friend Capt. Jim Morehead (Clifford McLaglen). Fuming, Jim agrees to help Benjamin fill a vacant spot on the crew with one of his men, and then secretly promises a crewman money and advancement if he causes some trouble on board. Also on board the ship is depressed, penniless, one-armed, hard-drinking Anton Lorenzen (Bela Lugosi), who seems to have fallen on hard times and had a tragic experience last time he was out at sea. The captain, his wife, Anton, gruff first mate Toby Bilson (Edmund Willard) some seaman and a cook/steward all set off to sea and one-by-one end up being mysteriously murdered (most off-screen) until all is explained at the finale. The storyline itself is pretty muddled and confusing and the dark, grimy photography, overbearing lighting and choppy editing splices mix to keep this in "Poverty Row" territory. However, it's still interesting at times, entertaining enough to pass an hour of your time and the confined ship setting creates a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere. The film also has flogging, an attempted rape, suicide, a (hard to make out) shark attack and corpses casually thrown overboard by various crewman, which makes it a bit grittier than usual for this time.
One thing that has harmed the film (other than the highly uneven technical credits) is that many scenes have been removed. Apparently, some court room scenes bookended the film, and footage was also shot of some of the characters escaping to an island. All of that is now missing and believed to be lost, but it may have helped clarify some of the muddier plot points. The fact that the two lead characters simply vanish from the film, only to be briefly discussed later as if of little importance, is also pretty unsatisfying. Fans of Lugosi will definitely enjoy his work here though, and this movie will likely be of most interest to the actor's fans.
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