Torture Ship (1939) Torture Ship (1939) -**Ĺ

     Glands were having a moment in the 1930ís. Fresh from a decade of impressive strides forward, the relatively young science of endocrinology was one of several that got swept up in the eraís mania for utopian social reform projects. After all, its object of study was the machinery behind the basic drives of the human animal. Together with psychiatry and nutrition science, and to a greater extent than either, endocrinology held out the prospect of improving individual humans to match the improved societies envisioned by reformers in the fields of economics, law, and politicsó and it promised to do so on a nearer timeframe than eugenics could ever hope to achieve. These werenít just fringe ideas, either. For example, Louis Berman, Americaís foremost visionary endocrinologist, taught at Columbia University, and some of his monographs would remain standard works in the field for decades. He also held offices with several prestigious medical associations, and helped to organize another. Furthermore, Berman wrote as much for a lay readership as a professional one, and some sense of his thinking on what the future might hold can be gleaned from the titles of his most widely-read books: The Glands Regulating Personality, The Personal Equation, and his 1938 magnum opus, New Creations in Human Beings. Berman and others like him envisioned a world in which stamina, vitality, longevity, reproductive success, resistance to infection, and more would be optimized by the scientific management of hormone levels. Birth defects and congenital disease would be eliminated as well. Eventually, the study of glands and their secretions would even unlock the power to improve intelligence, creativity, imagination, and empathy, while simultaneously suppressing aggression and dysfunctional extremes of competitiveness, libido, and longing for power. This stuff was way too heady not to influence contemporary fictionó which means, for our purposes, that fanciful hormone treatments were second only to raising the dead among the preferred areas of research for B-movie scientists. Victor Halperinís Torture Ship is a notably loopy example of the form. Its mad doctor seeks to cure criminality by means of glandular manipulation, and it takes the rather astounding step of leaving him vindicated in the end!

     Dr. Herbert Stander (Irving Pichel, from Murder by the Clock and Return of the Terror) gets off to a rough start, though, beginning the film already in front of a grand jury, facing indictment on unspecified charges related to his work. Stander is no quitter, but neither does he see much to be gained by defending himself in court. Instead, he swiftly makes arrangements for the kind of getaway that will allow him to continue his research in peace until heís cracked the hormonal code to antisocial behavior. First, he acquires a yacht big enough for prolonged oceanic cruising. To captain the ship, Stander hires his nephew, Bob Bennett (Lyle Talbot, of Flight to Mars and Plan 9 from Outer Space), a demobilized naval officer. The combination of family ties and military discipline ought to guarantee Bennettís reliability, but Stander worries nonetheless that his nephew might be too upstanding to turn a blind eye indefinitely toward plainly illegal activities. With that in mind, he brings on Mike Briggs (Stanley Blystone, of The Thirteenth Guest and The Man They Could Not Hang) as first mate. Briggs got into trouble and lost his officerís license some years ago, so thereíll be no question about him knowing which side his bread is buttered on should Bob suddenly develop ethical qualms. To assist in the lab, meanwhile, Stander contracts his two most talented students, Dirk (Anthony Averill, from The Phantom Creeps) and Paul (Julian Madison). Then all he needs is some experimental subjects. Stander has in mind a very special profile, so he turns to a notorious prison-break specialist called Boyd to make his introductions for him.

     Itís quite a roster of patients Boyd assembles: mob assassins John Ritter (Wheeler Oakman, from The Bowery at Midnight and Mom and Dad) and Jesse Bixel (Skelton Knaggs, of Terror by Night and The Ghost Ship); serial killers Adolph Krantz (Adia Kuznetsoff) and Henry ďthe CarverĒ Bogard (Russell Hopton, from Zombies on Broadway and Secret of the Blue Room); Ezra Matthews (Leander de Cordova), who murdered nine wives over the course of his long life; bomb-planting terrorist Steve Murano (Demetrius Alexis, of Freaks); Poison Mary Slavish (Sheila Bromley, from Barn of the Naked Dead and The Cocaine Fiends), the black widow of life-insurance profiteering, and her secretary and suspected accomplice, Joan Martel (The Black Catís Jacqueline Wells). All these people know well the kind of fate that awaits them at the hands of the authorities, and all of them are therefore amenable to an indefinite cruise in international waters, even if the host is a shady doctor who openly intends to perform medical experiments on them. They start to rethink that position, though, once Stander admits that he expects no better than a 50% survival rate among them while he works the bugs out of his treatment program. Of course, by then there isnít a lot they can do about their predicament. The yacht is miles out to sea, the crew is armed, and every cabin aboard is wired with listening devices.

     The captive killers do have one hope for escape, however. Although Bennett agreed to command the ship on a no-questions-asked basis, he never gave any consent to running a mobile torture dungeon. We already know that his uncle provided against him rebelling in response to learning what was really going on below decks, but Stander was thinking only in terms of Bob conscientiously hanging up his captainís hat. It doesnít seem to have occurred to him that Bennett might actually turn the ship around and go home. Another thing the doctor didnít figure on is that Joan is innocent of any wrongdoing beyond poor choice of employers. She therefore has twice the incentive to seek the captainís aid, and a much more persuasive basis on which to argue the case for mutiny than her fellows. Before Ritter and the others get too excited about this opportunity, though, they should consider that Bennett is in some danger himself. You see, Standerís first couple rounds of experiments have demonstrated the need for a completely new approach. Instead of injecting the killers with synthetic hormones to counteract their criminal tendencies, Stander now believes he should be extracting the secretions of their criminal glands, injecting them into a normal person for processing by a healthy endocrine system, and then extracting them again for transfer back into the original patients. Bob has by far the most squeaky-clean glands on the ship, so his uncle presses him into service as his human hormone distillery. Side effects include becoming a mindless zombie animated only by the antisocial drives of whichever killer heís cooking hormones for this time.

     Producersí Pictures, the outfit responsible for Torture Ship, became PRC, the Producersí Releasing Corporation, the following year. Weíve mocked their handiwork on a number of previous occasions. Although it is less flagrantly silly than, say, The Devil Bat or The Mad Monster, Torture Ship nevertheless offers a foretaste of the inimitable PRC recipe. It stampedes through the first act, breathlessly introducing one character and plot thread after another, then slows to a laborious crawl once everyone is aboard the yacht and Dr. Stander has explained what he intends to do. Far too much time is devoted to the antics of shipís cook Ole Olson (Eddie Holden), another of the comic relief Swedes that were so inexplicably popular in the 30ís and 40ís. (Does Ole constantly manage to clutter up his speech with j-words that he canít pronounce? What do you think?) None of the interior sets are believable for one second as spaces that could exist aboard a ship of 2000 tonsí displacement or so. And of course there are the details of the mad science itself. Iím well accustomed to horror and sci-fi movies being constructed around foolishly literal misinterpretations of whatever cutting-edge science held the momentary attention of the zeitgeist, but even so I was not prepared for crime glands. Furthermore, to be perfectly honest with you, Iím not completely confident that Iíve explained Standerís Plan B correctly, for the simple reason that the explanation he gives makes absolutely no goddamned sense.

     What left me truly flummoxed, though, was Torture Shipís resolution, in which screenwriters Harvey Huntley and George Wallace Sayre evidently felt compelled to give Dr. Stander a semi-happy ending in spite of everything. They certainly didnít get it from the Jack London short story, ďA Thousand Deaths,Ē on which Torture Ship is very loosely based. You see, before Stander gets his comeuppance, he is able to put Mary Slavish through just about a full course of his revised therapy. As he lies dying of injuries sustained during the climactic mutiny, the doctor witnesses Maryís return to consciousness, and hears her express remorse for all those men she poisoned. Standerís theories were right after all, and all it took to prove them was to break a pack of psychos out of prison, to torture a bunch of them to death with chemicals, and to turn his own nephew into an unwilling filtration system for other peopleís hormones! Itís as if with all these murderers running around, the filmmakers lost track of who the real villain was. Iíve seen something similar before in movies of this era, like in the Columbia Pictures mad doctor cycle, but those films were generally careful to portray Boris Karloffís characters as having been persecuted beyond all plausible endurance before they launched off on any wholesale violations of medical or scientific ethics. Here, thoughÖ I donít know. I kind of wonder if the deathbed vindication was maybe something that Victor Halperin added on his own after seeing how oddly likeable Irving Pichel was making Stander seem.

     Pichelís performance is the one thing about Torture Ship that Iíll unqualifiedly praise. 1939 was way too early for Hannah Arendtís ďbanality of evilĒ to have entered the lexicon, of course, but Pichel makes Herbert Stander a fine illustration of the concept just the same. By normal 1930ís standards, this isnít a villainous performance at all. Pichel doesnít give ranting speeches or cackle maniacally. He affects no weird mannerisms, and speaks in what appears to be his natural voice. Pichel doesnít even take after Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls, playing the doctor as a man made callous by long isolation from the rest of humanity. No, Herbert Stander, to all outward appearances, is a doctor like any otheró efficient, businesslike, possessing all the habitual decisiveness of expertise, but not noticeably cruel or unreasonably driven. Pichel allows Standerís evil to concentrate entirely in his actions, like the most dangerous and effective evil really does. Itís a strange thing indeed to see such a carefully thought-out performance in a film that displays so little thought of any other kind.

 

 

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