By Doug Gibson
This British 1936 film is a treat for Lugosi fans. He is Anton Lorenzen, a broken-down one-armed sailor who inspires a pity as part of the doomed crew of the Mary Celeste, a ship that in real life in the 1870s was discovered in the Atlantic sans crew.
This film, released in a much longer -- unfortunately lost -- version as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in Britain, is an entertaining murder mystery. It sort of plays like a rough version of Agatha Christie.
The plot: A captain and his bride (Shirley Grey) set sail with a ragged, rough, sinister ship's crew, including Lugosi, who inspires pity. One by one people start to die. The captain and his wife disappear. Finally only Lugosi's Lorenzen and the sadistic first mate are left. At that point, Lugosi, acting like a 30s version of The Usual's Suspect's Keyser Soze, announces he is the killer, there to avenge a previous wrong. He kills off the first mate but then is hit by a beam of wood and falls into the sea to his death.
Before he dies, Lugosi brags of killing the capain and his wife. That scene appears clunky though. It almost sounds as if Lugosi's voice is dubbed. This is important because the ONLY remaining print is the 62-minute U.S. version, The Phantom Ship. The longer, lost 80-minute version, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, apparently had an epilogue where the captain and his wife are discovered alive on an island, having escaped death on the Mary Celeste via a raft. It sure would be fun to locate a copy of the lost version. Lugosi biographer Frank Dello Stritto has located director Denison Clift's original shooting synopsis for the film and it includes the island epilogue.
Lugosi is great in The Phantom Ship, which used to be rare but in today's digital world can be found easily and in fact watched for free on the Net. He inspires pathos and pity and then effectively turns cold-blooded killer. He did this very well also in the 1930s The Black Cat, the Monogram Black Dragons and even Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster. Rest of cast is capable and the ship scenes are quite effective for the low budget. Definitely worth a buy. One of Lugosi's best late 1930s films.