A doctor experiments on criminals aboard a private ship. His aim is to extract secretions from their endocrine glands and reverse their anti-social tendencies.
This was the first production of PRC (Producers Releasing Company) who were to become a byword for cheap, no budget trash in the 1940s. But some of the elements included here showed there was at least an intent at some level of quality in their early days. For a start the screenplay is based on the first published story of famous author Jack London, although somewhat tenuously it must be said. Also they hired independent director Victor Halperin to helm the picture. He’d achieved global success a mere 5 years before with Bela Lugosi and the strange ‘White Zombie’ (1932), although he had failed to follow it up.
The lead is Lyle Talbot, a respected stage actor, whose film career is now defined by his attendance at the church run by J Edward Reynolds. Reynolds was backing a movie and persuaded Talbot to star. Unfortunately, the director involved was Ed Wood and the film was ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ (1956). The rest of the cast included regular screen bad guy Wheeler Oakman and the wonderful Skelton Knaggs, whose bizarre face was his fortune, gracing many an interesting, if minor, character role.The real problem with looking at ‘Torture Ship’ (1939) is not the cheap sets, poor production values and formulaic script. No, these would be bad enough in themselves but there’s a bigger issue here and it’s not the fault of the original filmmakers. Apparently, the movie originally ran for about an hour but most available prints last roughly 48 minutes. This might not be a problem if the film had been cut professionally but it appears that the first 10 minutes have been simply hacked off! Because of this the film starts with the story already underway and there is no exposition as to how we arrived at that point.
We never really find out exactly who any of these characters are, how this doctor is allowed to experiment on live subjects and why they’re all on a ship. So there is a sense of incoherence and chaos that you never quite lose, although the plot development is simple enough. The full version does still exist but I can’t say I’ll be in a hurry to seek it out. After all, the fact that the first 10 minutes is missing is the most interesting thing about it!
PRC did go on to do a lot worse: ‘The Devil Bat’ (1940) with Lugosi and ‘The Flying Serpent’ (1946) with George Zucco are obvious examples. Occasionally, they came up with something worthwhile such as ‘Bluebeard’ (1944) but such events were few and far between. It’s interesting to see that the studio’s flaws were there right from the start; rushed productions, no budgets and a sorry lack of creativity.