Friday, June 5, 2009

Torture Ship (Producers’ Pictures, later PRC, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Torture Ship was a 1939 production by Sigmund Neufeld for the fledgling Producers’ Pictures, later Producers’ Distributing Corporation and ultimately Producers’ Releasing Corporation, or PRC, the initials by which it’s become known and either loved or loathed by generations of film fanatics since. (The inevitable Hollywood wags of the 1940’s said the initials PRC really stood for “Pretty Rotten Crap,” which is unfair to some of their best movies — Lady in the Death House, Bluebeard, Detour — but an all too accurate description of many others.) This was only PRC’s second film — their first had been the 1939 production Beasts of Berlin, Hollywood’s first exposé of the evils of Nazi rule in Germany (and a film with a surprisingly similar plot line to MGM’s The Mortal Storm, made a year later) — and its credits insisted it was “suggested” by a Jack London story called “A Thousand Deaths.”

The London connection is believable because the plot as staged here bears a family resemblance to The Sea Wolf, only in this case the principal villain is not a ship’s captain but a mad scientist, Dr. Herbert Stander (Irving Pichel, anemic in a part Boris Karloff could have played to perfection). A reviewer who posted a comment on this film to its page on the site wrote, “Watching this movie from the beginning actually feels as if one walked into the show in the middle” — and indeed anyone who watches this version has walked into this show in the middle: the download runs only 49 minutes whereas the American Film Institute Catalog gives the running time as between 57 and 62 minutes. What I suspect happened is that this version was prepared for sale to television in the early 1950’s (before the major studios had lifted their anti-TV embargo on their own catalogs and therefore the only movies available to TV stations were British imports and “B” cheapies from companies like PRC, Monogram and Republic), and in order to allow the film to fit into an hour-long time slot and still leave room for commercials, the TV packagers simply cut out the first reel.

“Convinced that glandular disorders are at the seat of all criminality,” the AFI Catalog plot synopsis begins, “Dr. Herbert Stander begins experimenting with endocrine injections. To conduct his experiments without interference, the doctor charters a yacht, which he convinces his nephew, Lieutenant Bob Bennett [Lyle Talbot, top-billed, which will give you an idea of how cheap this movie really is!], to captain, then helps eight killers escape from jail and brings them aboard as guinea pigs.” The film as we have it opens in a room in which the eight killers are locked in — aside from a few process shots showing a deck of the boat overlooking water, there is no attempt to make the action look as if it is credibly taking place on board a floating vessel — bemoaning their fate and expressing their fears about the doctor’s injections, also vowing revenge and plotting mutiny, unaware that the doctor has the entire ship bugged and can hear every word they’re saying.

Also on board — with little account of what they’re doing or how they got there — are female convict Mary Slavish (Sheila Bromley), who ran an insurance scam that involved poisoning people and then collecting on their policies; and nice-girl Joan Martel (Jacqueline Wells, later known as Julie Bishop, who had appeared in the 1934 film The Black Cat — thereby two of this film’s cast members, her and Talbot, also appeared with Bela Lugosi), who was Mary’s secretary and was convicted along with her even though she was innocent of any knowledge of her murderous activities and thought she was only running a legitimate insurance business. Bob and Mary fall in love, of course, and in the meantime Dr. Stander decides he needs a normal, non-criminal subject for his experiments — so he makes Bob his guinea pig and turns him into a criminal beast. Bob recovers when the drug wears off and, rather than submit to a new injection, puts distilled water into the doctor’s hypodermic — and the film ends with the convicts mutinying and Bob turning the tables by faking the voice of the now-dead doctor, claiming they're all about to die from the effects of the drug, and getting them to give themselves up. There’s another scene, towards the end, referenced in the AFI Catalog synopsis — “As they sail home, the doctor’s experiments are vindicated when Mary awakens from her treatment and repents her crimes” — and the film ends with a conventional romantic clinch between Bob and Joan on deck.

Torture Ship is an oddly unmoving film, lacking in either terror or thrills, surprising given that the director is Victor Halperin and he had made two great movies in the early 1930’s, White Zombie and Supernatural — but then his directorial gifts seemed to have shriveled and died on the vine; the film has none of the visual atmospherics Halperin indulged in in his good movies, and it’s directed surprisingly flatly in a way that makes us all too aware of the cheapness of the production instead of concealing it the way the best “B” directors did. George Sayre’s barely motivated script doesn’t help much, either, and the lame casting also weakens a movie whose plot had the potential to be a quite exciting horror/suspense thriller but which fell far short of what it could have been.