The phrase “based on a true story” has been used to sell and promote horror movies for decades. Just the thought that the horrific events that are unfolding onscreen may have actually happened is enough to grab the attention of viewers. Whether in the form of faux-documentaries, like The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Blair Witch Project, or as dramatizations, such as The Amityville Horror or The Town that Dreaded Sundown, true stories make fascinating movies.
Sometimes, a tiny kernel of truth can sprout an entire exploitative tale as it did with Eaten Alive, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile. Other times, however, the real stories are unknown, so the films have to rely on complete speculation like they do with Open Water and The Strangers. Such is the case with the 1935 movie Phantom Ship and its account of the final journey of the Mary Celeste.
Phantom Ship begins with Captain Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson from Broken Blossoms), skipper of the schooner Mary Celeste, preparing for a voyage. Just before he leaves, Briggs asks the lovely Sarah (Shirley Grey from The Hurricane Express) to marry him. She agrees but confesses that Briggs’ best friend, Captain Jim Morehead (The Alley Cat’s Clifford McLaglen), has also asked for her hand. Since Briggs met Sarah through Morehead, the jilted man is rightfully hurt. Briggs has no time for the hurt feelings of his friend, however, as he is getting ready to set sail, bringing his bride along for the ride, and needs to assemble a crew.
Briggs’ first mate, Toby Bilson (King of the Damned’s Edmund Willard), searches for crew members and offers a spot to Anton Lorenzen (Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi), a man who was wronged by Briggs years earlier. The crew is rounded out by a loaner sailor from Morehead’s crew named Grot (Spitfire’s Herbert Cameron) who is more loyal to Morehead than to Briggs. Once the ship sets sail, tragedy begins to strike, and the crew quickly learns that one of them is a murderer. Briggs must determine who the killer is as the crew is being killed one by one, but it’s quite a feat with so many logical suspects on board.
Written and directed by Denison Clift (The Old Wives’ Tale), Phantom Ship was one of the first films ever made by Hammer Film Productions, the studio that would go on to become synonymous with horror in the United Kingdom. It’s not quite as horrific as the Universal Studios movies that were made around the same time, but it’s a lot more realistic. The first half of Phantom Ship is basically exposition and setup, but once it gets past that, it’s full speed ahead with the fighting and killing – and there are no werewolves or vampires aboard the Mary Celeste, just the evils of tormented men.
There are two versions of Phantom Ship. Actually, not really. The original British version of the film was called The Mystery of the Mary Celeste and was eighteen minutes longer. That version has been presumed lost, and the only remaining copies of the film are the sixty-two-minute American cut which was retitled as Phantom Ship. It’s unclear as to what exactly is in the lost eighteen minutes, but seeing how long Phantom Ship takes to get up to speed even at the shorter running time, the film may be better off with the missing section missing. Either way, despite several false claims to the contrary, no one has been able to come up with an uncut version, so the American Phantom Ship is what audiences get.
The scenario and setup of Phantom Ship has a basis in fact. The Mary Celeste really was a merchant ship that set sail from New York in 1872 for Italy. Benjamin Briggs really was the captain of the ship, and his wife, Sarah, was really aboard the ship at the time of its mysterious encounter. The ship was found floating derelict a month later by a Captain Morehouse (not Morehead) with no trace of its crew or passengers anywhere around it. The events that led to the disappearance of those onboard the Mary Celeste has remained one of the sea’s greatest mysteries. The scenario that is put forward in Phantom Ship is as good a theory as any as to what really happened.
The strongest element in Phantom Ship is the performance of horror legend Bela Lugosi. After Dracula, Lugosi became a genre icon by making more horror movies like The Black Cat and White Zombie. He was a legitimate legend by the time Hammer tapped him for Phantom Ship. Before all of this, however, Lugosi was a classically trained actor, and that talent and skill is on full display with his portrayal of Anton Lorenzen, the mentally unstable sailor whose slow descent into madness is at the emotional center of Phantom Ship. Lugosi keeps his character sinister while not tipping his hand as to whether or not he is the killer, and that keeps the audience guessing right up until the end of the movie. Lugosi’s performance sells Phantom Ship.
For a horror mystery, there are a surprising number of musical songs in Phantom Ship. Many members of the Mary Celeste’s crew play instruments and they pass the time by belting out folksy drinking chanties while below deck. In an early scene, First Mate Bilson is recruiting sailors in a pub where a band of ragtag musicians is rocking the night away. Sarah, the captain’s wife, is also an accomplished singer, and she breaks into song while sitting at a piano a couple of times. It might sound corny to have musical numbers peppered throughout a film about murder on the high seas, but the songs occur organically and naturally, and while they do feel a little musical theater-like, they don’t seem like they come directly out of left field. The musical performances are a nice break from the mayhem in Phantom Ship.
When it comes to “inspired by” horror movies, liberties are often taken in order to spice up the story. In the case of Phantom Ship, an entire theory has been fabricated, but that doesn’t make it any less believable.