The Ghost Ship is the most obscure among Val Lewtons films. All of Val Lewtons other films have been readily available in video/dvd release and screen regularly on tv with the exception of The Ghost Ship. The reason for this is that upon the films release, two writers sued Lewton and RKO claiming that he had plagiarised the script from a work they had submitted to the studio. Lewton denied this but lost the case. Subsequently, The Ghost Ship was withdrawn from circulation. It is widely reported by some websites that it was unavailable for viewing until 1993, although this is not true and the film has circulated (albeit obscurely).
The film comes with an incredibly haunted and melancholic tone. Director Mark Robson sets the scene with an extremely spooky opening as Russell Wade comes across a blind man singing a song where the blind man is able to predict everything that Wade is about to do, before Wade boards the ship and meet a mute (an uncredited Skelton Knaggs) and we suddenly move into the mutes whispered voiceover: This is another man I can never know ... Because I am a mute and cannot speak. I am cut off from other men but in my own silence I can hear things they cannot hear, know things they cannot know. Throughout theres a constant sense of something sinister lurking in the shadows the captains opening speech to the crew where a light is suddenly swung around to reveal a mans dead body has been hidden in the shadows beside them the whole time; the scenes with the crew trying to catch a giant swinging brace whose presence is denoted mostly by its massive shadow; the crewman being crushed by an anchor chain after being locked in the locker by the captain (a scene where we cannot be sure that Richard Dixs captain did not do it accidentally or it was a deliberate action as Russell Wade accuses).
The Ghost Ship was the first of Val Lewtons horror films to feature a mundane as opposed to a supernatural premise. Lewtons classic psychological ambiguity is still there with the crucial issue that the film hangs on now having become one of the captains intent. Mark Robson draws the suspense out with incredible tension. There is an excellent scene when Russell Wade finds that the lock on his cabin door has been removed and tries to settle in for the night, rigging up a cord that will turn on the lamp if it is opened; where he then turns the lights out to go to bed, only for the rocking of the ship to smash a plate in the darkness startling him and causing the door to swing open and set the lamp off. It is a marvellous piece of psychological suggestion. The scenes with Russell Wade trapped aboard the ship where he realizes that the captain is going to kill him and trying to enlist the crews help have beautifully stark atmosphere, none the more so than when Wade tries to pick up a lynch pin to defend himself and the captains hand comes up from behind and stops him, gently saying: Since you have no earthly use of this. There is also a great climactic knife fight.
Most of Val Lewtons films were made on economy budgets. Lewton was often handed a title or concept by RKO and told to turn it into a film. The Ghost Ship was a case where he was given the sets for a ship used in the ocean-going drama Pacific Liner (1938) and told to make a film around it. Even so, the film is mostly contained to a few deck sets and some weak back-projected ocean footage, with no actual shots that take place at sea. The most noticeable thing about The Ghost Ship clearly a title that was handed to Lewton is that there are no ghosts in the film despite the title. Later this is semi-justified in a metaphor given by Edith Barrett, which likens Richard Dixs captaincy to something that in its autocracy has created a ghost ship.
The Ghost Ship is unrelated to several other films with the same title including the British ghost story Ghost Ship (1952), the childrens film Ghost Ship (1992) and the supernatural horror film Ghost Ship (2002).
Mark Robson started as an editor and began directing under Val Lewton, where he also made The Seventh Victim (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). Robson later went onto make other films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Peyton Place (1957), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), Von Ryans Express (1965), Valley of the Dolls (1967), the psycho-thriller Daddys Gone A-Hunting (1969), the Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) and the disaster movie Earthquake (1974).