Torture Ship (1939)

Director: Victor Halperin.
Starring: Lyle Talbot, Charleton Young, Irving Pichel, Shelia Bromley, Skelton Knaggs . USA. 49m
Based on: A Thousand Deaths by Jack London.

The notable short story from the creative and imaginative Jack London in 1899 saw a mad scientist experiment with death, finding new ways to kill and revive the protagonist with crazed experiments that lead to yet another more deadly invention to aid escape once the experiments get more depraved! This compelling sci fi story inspired the 1932 White Zombie director, Victor Halperin; to develop his rendition, not just based on any ship, but the mysterious Torture Ship.

Halperin speeds through through his story in record timing, and in under an hour he’s arranged a few twists and turns, alongside a whirlwind romance as a group of cons try to go about their daily lives on board a cruise while not giving away their criminal backgrounds but not realising that’s why they have been forced together on this particular ship by a crazed scientist with a fever dream.

The short story is quite ingenious for a first published story for the budding writer, it’s litterest with racial slurs but it’s au fait for the era. If you can look past this and you’re interested in reading it, the story can be found here

In this dramatic adaptation everything is set up to be a cracker, sadly it instantly falls flat within minutes as it gives up horror for melodrama. Dr Herber Stander is determined to use science to cure the criminal mind, using his technique to delve into the brain to prove the link between criminality and the endocrine. Unfortunately he’s already facing indictment for his illegal testing, so the genius has offered seven career criminals a ticket out of America so they can also avoid charges, but unknown to them, they are all lab rats as he experiments on them one by one during their journey.

The film feels rushed, and it only slows down to pointless scuffles and soap opera acting. It seems the concept of science and torture are all but forgotten as the plot graducally fades away into a cloud of conusion and nonsensical dialogue, which is such a shame as the core ideas are a cross between Frankenstein, Dr Jekyl and Clockwork Orange, but it seems forever doomed with a bright and questionable beginning to this ludicrous retake and then it spurred on two versions of Flatliners where neither really took the story to the limits, are we going to leave this up to Tom Six or Ángel Sala to take it to the next extreme?

For a quickie thriller aimed to give it’s audience a chill, it’s ok, so much about the movie is just ok apart from the silly frazzled ending, it’s not even so bad it’s good, for the most point it’s annoying and that’s without knowing the great ideas behind it all, once you know these then it feels like a red headed step child.

Rating: 2/10

R: Flatliners (1990)
L: Ships of Horror
5s: Victor Halperin
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