The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1935)
Also going by the name The Phantom Ship, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste is one of the more sought-after, hard-to-find Hammer horror films. As one of the very first films by Hammer, and more importantly as the only time Bela Lugosi has been involved in a Hammer production, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste automatically sets itself a very high bar. While unforgivable flaws make this film fall well short of this bar, it proves to be not a bad way to spend an hour.
In short, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste was one of the first “ghost ship” movies. Crew sets sail. Random members of the crew get murdered. Is someone on the ship going mad or is the ship cursed? It’s really nothing that any horror fan hasn’t seen before and is hopelessly predictable, but it turns out to be a delightful ride.
Now, let me just say that due to forces beyond my control, this review is probably an unfair assessment of the original film. Originally released in England at 80 minutes, the only version of this film that remains today is about an hour. Unfortunately, the other 20 minutes are lost. In the credits, there are 3 characters who never even appear in the cut version of the film. And this is a shame because the movie originally may be completely undeserving of my forthcoming complaints. However, as no one has been able to find an uncut print of the film and these minutes are assumed to be lost forever, I am only capable of writing a review for the film that remains, which is the version that you ghoulish readers may in fact be contemplating viewing.
With that being said, the first 30 minutes of this movie is almost unbearable to watch with slow-moving action and poor acting. There's a nauseating amount of character development and a love triangle that has no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the film. Again maybe this in fact did have a role in the original version, but unfortunately, we will never know. It was so excruciating, I would have turned it off if I didn’t keep reminding myself it was only a 60 minute film. In addition, the opening half is a bit confusing because the two men playing the love interests of Shirley Grey’s character could easily have been twins, and when one was as bored as I was, one does not want to take time to put effort into deciphering which clone was actually speaking.
In the end, I was quite glad I didn’t give up as the film picked up steam, and within several minutes I was glued to the screen. As the mysterious murders rack up, the film manages to gain atmosphere, and Bela Lugosi -- whose acting skills are absolutely wasted in the first half -- starts to bloom and contributes a gleefully haunting plot twist to the mayhem. Of course this plot twist is completely predictable, but you don't care as it's fun nonetheless. In fact, the climax alone is so subtly haunting and mysterious -- probably one of the best climaxes in the world of Unknown British Horror -- that this film earns its place of being worthy of a Hammer production. This is quite impressive as Hammer is not known for bouncing back so well after a slow start. The only other time it ever happened is in Frankenstein Created Woman, and even that doesn't bounce back with half the resiliency as this film.
And Shirley Grey? Love her! Though her scenes were relatively limited, she brings such a vulnerability and hopelessness to her character that she alone really boosts the atmosphere. In fact, I dare say I enjoyed her role even more than Bela’s, and her character is ultimately what got me through the first half of the movie. I was somewhat disappointed to discover her career with Hammer ended here as she surely would have been an asset to the realm of “Hammer Girls.“ Unfortunately, in this movie her acting skills are so pronounced that it makes the unskilled actors around her look even worse. Though, come to think of it, that’s probably exactly why she wasn't used in other Hammer films.
I wouldn’t go as so far as to recommend The Mystery of the Mary Celeste because I wouldn’t wish the first half of this film on anyone quite frankly. But if you are a Bela Lugosi or a Hammer completeist, it’s not a bad little film to have on your shelf. Timeless Videos released a not-necessarily-remastered VHS version out under the title of The Phantom Ship which you may find on the bargain shelves at you local video store. The version runs about $6, and though it’s a fun little way to spend an hour, it's really not worth it to pay much more.