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Friday, 25 November 2016

TORTURE SHIP (1939)

When you’re presented with a film bearing a title like Torture Ship, it suggests a luridly-pleasurable piece of grisliness – until you realise it’s a Halperin Brothers production and you’re shit out of luck. The producer-director team of Edward and Victor respectively are best known for bringing us the so-so Bela Lugosi voodoo horror White Zombie (1932), then gradually descended through the dull Supernatural (1933) and the tepid cash-in Revolt of the Zombies (1936) –all of which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. By 1939, on the evidence of Torture Ship, they were past caring about making any real effort at quality.

The film was based on adventure writer Jack London’s first published short story A Thousand Deaths, concerning a scientist who deliberately induces death then resurrection in his own son before being killed in revenge by him. The story appears to have been relocated to the sea. I say appears as you’d be hard pressed to guess this from the beginning except from the dialogue, as the Halperins clearly thought they could avoid sourcing the footage or paying for model work to show any establishing shot of a ship. We are thrust straight into what seems to be a hotel room studio interior where a group of disgruntled men talk of a Captain and a Mate and their dissatisfaction with conditions. They threaten to get hold of knives, their ring-leader Ritter (Wheeler Oakman) griping that what they really need are guns. 

In Syd Field’s book on screenwriting, he advises the writer to begin a scene as late as possible into the action. Here, the uncredited screenplay (and doesn’t that tell you a lot), possibly by Harvey Huntley and George Wallace Sayre, seems to begin half-way through the film, not helped by its mercifully brief running time of 48 minutes.

 This hilariously poor nautical endeavour is already capsizing and we’ve only just embarked. Irving Pichel marches in. He is Dr Herbert Stander, a step-up from Sandor the somnambulist servant whom we last saw him play in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. He drearily carries out dubious experiments on board like a mad scientist Pirate DJ, assisted by a sinister team, and assures the mutinous bunch via the medium of a crap scuffle that he is watching them all, so they’d better behave. Meanwhile, elsewhere there is a cat-fight between two ladies, Mary (Sheila Bromley) and Joan (Julie Bishop) who are feuding ex-partners from a poison scandal. Bishop was earlier known for comedies with Laurel and Hardy, fending off Walter Long’s advances in the boxing comedy Any Old Port in 1932 and The Bohemian Girl (1936). Despite changing her name to disassociate her past movies, somehow a ghoul like this movie found her.

To reinforce our suspicion that Torture Ship is heading into very inexpensive seas, when we do cut to an exterior night shot of Lyle Talbot’s Lieutenant on deck, it’s a laughable black screen over the ship’s stern. Only when we cut to a close-up of him, do we see a soft-focus moving horizon line behind to simulate the ocean. In daylight, there is no choice but to splash out on back-projection footage of a wave wake.

There is at least a blackly-funny macabre moment when Eddie Holden’s barber Ole Olsen and his awful Swedish accent come by for the refreshing change of a close shave from Harry Bogard (Russell Hopton). This becomes literally the case when Bogard invites Ole to look through his scrapbook just as he starts. Olsen sees Harry’s picture in a newspaper cutting, and as he unfolds down the page it reveals the headline: ‘HARRY THE CARVER GETS FIFTH VICTIM!! KNIFE KILLER LEAVES EVIDENCE’. Olsen of course scarpers just as Harry aims to make him number six.

The strapped-down Lieutenant manages to escape from his bed incarceration out onto the deck where he is subdued after killing then tossing overboard a luckless sailor. It’s only when punches in a fight-scene are under-dubbed as they are here that you realise how accustomed we are to ‘fake reality’ effects. Instead of the usual weighty ‘keesh’ sound, each blow in this film sounds like a finger of Kit-Kat snapping.

Dr Stander reveals that he is taking extracts from a part of the endocrine gland that governs criminality. ”I must let nature do this work for me in the body of a normal person – like you” he tells one of his lab assistants, who understandably drops his test-tune on hearing this offer. Lt. Bob, the poor test-subject from earlier flees again and almost kills the Dr and Joan before fainting, allowing the Dr to inject him into a zombified state. Stander’s ethics are neither present nor correct - Bob is related to him. “How could you? Your own nephew!”, Joan berates him. Pichel responds with a low-powered look that can only come from an atrocious actor one day realising he’s better off as a director (notably of Destination Moon in 1950). “Do you think we’re giving him too heavy a solution?” he asks an underling. Physician, heal thyself.

All of a sudden, Bob regains his mind and resolves to use smarter methods of escape from the movie, firstly by interrupted radio contact and then asking for the barber’s gun and pass-key. His fellow conspirator wrestles (or rather waltzes) for control of the vessel with Captain Briggs played by Stanley Blystone, who would gain more experience of kooks in many of the Three Stooges’ shorts.

On his death-bed, Dr Stander is confusingly validated for his crackpot work as he hears Mary repent for her sins. Since the plot is about to end, she speaks for us all: “I feel as if I have been born again”.

One future horror actor who is worth watching out or at the end is Sheffield-born purveyor of diminutive oddballs Skelton Knaggs as Jesse, a sinister henchman in coke-bottle glasses. Reminiscent of character maestro Jeffrey Combs, (and often compared to contemporary Dwight Frye) he inadvertently drinks Mary’s poisoned wine and is dispatched very soon after he appears. We will cross paths many more times with Knaggs in The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), House of Dracula a year after and other better showcases.

Torture Ship is, need I say, a leaky dinghy of dingbats on the choppiest waters of incredibility helmed by film-makers who are all at sea.

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