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Torture Ship (1939)

Approved | | Horror, Sci-Fi | 28 October 1939 (USA)
A mad scientist performs experiments on "the criminal mind" on captured criminals on board his private ship.



(story "A Thousand Deaths")

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Complete credited cast:
Dr. Herbert Stander
Joan Martel (as Jacqueline Wells)
Poison Mary Slavish
Dirk - Stander's Aide
Harry 'The Carver' Bogard
Julian Madison ...
Paul - Stander's Aide
Eddie Holden ...
Ole Olson
John Ritter
Capt. Mike Briggs
Leander De Cordova ...
Ezra Matthews (as Leander de Cordova)
Demetrius Alexis ...
Steve Murano (as Dmitri Alexis)
Skelton Knaggs ...
Jesse Bixel
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Reporter (unconfirmed)


A mad scientist performs experiments on "the criminal mind" on captured criminals on board his private ship.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Horror | Sci-Fi


Approved | See all certifications »




Release Date:

28 October 1939 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Mil muertos en el mar  »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


| (DVD) | (Ontario)

Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


The earliest documented telecast of this film in the New York City area was Wednesday 20 December 1950 on WABD (Channel 5). See more »


[first lines]
First reporter: Doctor, is it true that through your experiments in endocrine glands you can cure crime?
Second reporter: What about this crime cure?
Dr. Herbert Stander: Boys, after the grand jury's decision, I'll have a statement to make. If making a criminal mind is normal... than I'll be indicted.
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User Reviews

Foggy London
6 September 2012 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

A screen adaptation of "A Thousand Deaths," the first story sold by iconic American writer Jack London in 1899, was the choice of producer Ben Judell to launch his newly-formed Producer's Releasing Corporation. London would go on to a prolific, albeit abbreviated, career before dying from a myriad of diseases at age 40, and his name lent prestige to the launching of the fledgling PRC studio. Although Judell shrewdly exploited the film's connection with London, it remains one of the least faithful film versions of the author's work.

This screen adaptation only superficially resembles its literary source, and the now retitled "Torture Ship" is a barely seaworthy vessel. However, its interesting cast keeps the ship afloat long enough to keep it from foundering. Influenced by MGM's Leo, Judell chose a tiger as the logo for the maiden voyage of his fledgling company, but looking at this film as well as the studio's other output during its brief history, a feral alley cat might have been more apropos.

Noted scientist Dr. Herbert Stanton is indicted by the authorities when he tries to prove his theory that psychopathic criminal behavior is a treatable disease that can be cured by endocrine injections. In order to prove his hypothesis and flee prosecution, the discredited doctor hires a yacht and fills it with career criminals and serial killers (with such colorful names as "Poison Mary" and "Harry the Carver") and sails into the Pacific's international waters to freely experiment on his boatload of guinea pigs.

Unfortunately for the doctor his sociopathic patients object and mutiny against the crew and his assistants (who wear sparkling white hospital coats instead of the more practical and waterproof sou'westers and pea jackets.) Both sides struggle for power inside PRC's cramped sets, and the bodies literally pile up on PRC's cramped sound stages until justice and true love ultimately triumph.

Along with Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and others, Jack London is classified in the "Naturalistic" school of writing. They were influenced by such 19th Century figures as Freud, Darwin, and especially Emile Zola. Little of the original story and its intent remain. The Freudian implications of the doctor's son becoming a guinea pig is mitigated by changing the character to his nephew.

Although the setting may initially strike the casual observer as reminiscent of London's "The Sea Wolf," this 1899 work doesn't fit into the canon of the author's other short stories like "To Build a Fire," and "Love of Life." Its science fiction aspects more closely resemble H. G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and the character of the sincere but slightly demented Dr. Stander seems to presage the roles played by Boris Karloff in his Columbia 'B' films.

It is the ship's cast keep the the film interesting. Irving Pichel as Dr. Stanton adds an air of legitimacy to the proceedings and plays his mad doctor role in a straightforward manner as the type of dedicated but misguided scientist George Zucco would portray in later PRC releases. Pichel was an underused talent best known for his role in "Dracula's Daughter" and his sensitive voice-over narration in John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley." Pichel was also a workmanlike director as evidenced in "Destination Moon" in 1950, but unfortunately he was blacklisted during the HUAC period and, like Dr. Stanton, was forced to flee the country to avoid prison.

Gargoyle-like Skelton Knaggs, a poor man's Dwight Frye and arguably one of the screen's homeliest actors, drank himself to death in his early 40's as did author London. Knaggs contributes a welcome bizarre presence as Cockney career criminal Jesse Bixel, whose coke bottle glasses add a grotesque other-worldliness to the proceedings. "House of Dracula," "The Ghost Ship," and "Terror by Night," are among his most memorable credits.

Lyle Talbot, who plays the ship's chief officer and Stanton's nephew, started his career very promisingly at Warner Brothers in the early 30s but moved to B films and soldiered on for some five decades in lesser roles in low budget film and TV, reaching his cinematic nadir in Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space."

Wheeler Oakman, the de facto leader of Dr. Stanton's criminals, was a villain's villain in hundreds of Hollywood films from 1912 to 1948 playing lowly henchmen as well as crime bosses in both big studio and Poverty Row productions. Despite Oakman's mustachioed, sinister appearance, he was once married to beautiful silent screen star Priscilla Dean.

Sheilah Bromley was a promising ingénue only a few years earlier, playing opposite a youthful John Wayne several times under the name Sheila Manners, but by 1939, her features had hardened, and here she was cast as "Poison" Mary Slavish.

Jacqueline Wells (later known as Julie Bishop) is one of the 30s most enduring minor stars, most noticeably as the female lead in 1934's "The Black Cat." She played opposite Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne in the 40s, and co-starred with Bob Cummings in the situation comedy "My Hero" in the 1950s.

"Torture Ship" was one of the last directorial voyages helmed by Victor Halperin. After making the highly successful low budget independent "White Zombie: in 1932, he was recruited by major studio Paramount for "Superatural" with Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott. Unfortunately the film didn't create a stir, and he went back to Poverty Row's Gower Gulch. Some of his disturbing extreme closeups of the drugged guinea pigs on "Torture Ship" are lifted from similarly effective shots that he used of the zombies in "White Zombie." Despite this self- plagiarism, "Torture Ship" never becomes a patch on the 1932 classic.

CAVEAT EMPTOR: The film is in public domain and copies have various run times ranging from 48 to 63 minutes. Many are severely truncated and begin "in medias res" with the criminals already aboard the ship and plotting revolt against Stander and the crew.

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