[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 3 – Torture Ship (1939)

Director: Victor Halperin
Cast: Lyle Talbot, Irving Pichel, Julie Bishop, Sheila Bromley, Anthony Averill
Screenplay: Harvey Huntley, George Wallace Sayre
57 mins. Approved.

Every once in awhile, my wife and I will go picking around in the movie room I have in the basement, and we’ll randomly pick a horror film we’ve never seen, know nothing about, and have no preconceived notions, and we’ll watch it. This occurred the other night. After several titles came up, I found a title that seemed very unique: Torture Ship. Let’s unpack this horror film from the director of White Zombie.

Set on a private ship belonging to Dr. Herbert Stander (Irving Pichel, Destination Moon, Tomorrow Is Forever), a mad scientist who has taken to performing disturbing experiments on “the criminal mind” of notable criminals who have captured and are residing aboard.

Torture Ship is based on the Jack London story “A Thousand Deaths,” but I’ve never read it. To my understanding, that story is one of the earliest, if not THE, to be published. London’s story does seem to be much closer to the film Flatliners than the 1939 film we’re discussing today. Torture Ship seems to concern a “mad scientist” and some “experiments” but the film lacks a number of defined characters and plot points. It opens in such a bombastic place with criminals looking to take the ship back, but at that point, we don’t know who owns the ship and who these guys are and why they are captives and what’s going on. This is all well-and-good, but I think the film takes too long to never give the necessary information.

The saving grace of the film is the performances and the swift pacing. I’m specifically talking about Irving Pichel as the devious Dr. Stander, who carries a presence across the entire narrative, and Lyle Talbot (Three on a Match, TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) as the nephew of Stander, Bob Bennett, who is the chief among the experimented. Director Victor Halperin (Party Girl, Nation Aflame) seems to run to the finish line in a number of films, and Torture Ship is no exception. The movie cruises and, at less than an hour, it creates a pacing where one tends to feel lost, but I was also curious for the layers of the story to unravel (even though several of them do not).

Torture Ship is an absolute mess, though thankfully it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and a few elements actually seem to show an inspired idea that could be played out rather interestingly if the story were to be remade or re-adapted. As it stands, this version, while not a total loss, but a loss nonetheless.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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