I reported the slightly ungenerous opinion of my late friend Lawrie Knight, regarding filmmaker Vernon Sewell (“As far as I could tell, Vernon never had a brain in his head”) and then I heard from Sewell’s godson, advising me to look deeper. So I did.
It’s unfortunate that the three films I watched descended in quality from one to the next, but there was quality, and to correct that negative impression, I’m reversing the order and starting with the worst first.
GHOST SHIP (1952), starring Hazel Court and her husband Dermot Walsh, is a supernatural thriller — as were the other two films sampled. All three films use parapsychological explanations to fold their ghostly happenings into a scientific worldview, and all three feature cosy ladies who act as mediums (or should that be “media”?), as well as making substantial, and somewhat unconventional, use of flashbacks. This one was of particular interest to me because Lawrie had mentioned it — “He bought a boat, to use as studio. And I think he did make a couple of films on that boat.”
Unfortunately, Sewell hadn’t cracked a system for filming in the cramped quarters of his steam yacht: the result is lots of empty frames, into which characters protrude from the sides, before having discussions in lifeless flat two-shots, before exiting and leaving us with an empty frame again. Contrast this with Polanski’s dynamic use of even tighter environments in KNIFE IN THE WATER.
His story also takes ages to get going, with early manifestations limited to disembodied cigar smoke. Eventually a murder mystery is explicated via the medium’s intervention, and the middle-class couple can get back to yachting in peace. Best fun is the no-nonsense psychic investigator with his tuning forks, who realizes that the heat from the engine room acts as a trigger for spooky appearances ~
“The greater the heat, the more these vibrations are evident. Has it ever struck you how so many apparently inexplicable things only ever happen in hot countries? I mean, nobody’s seen the rope trick outside India. Voodoo’s only practiced in South/Central America. Firewalkers, fakirs, witch doctors: all in tropical climates. It’s like developing a photographic negative: the hotter the solution, the quicker the picture appears.”
Delightful. And all conducted with the aide of a set of tuning forks, too.
We also get a very young Ian Carmichael as a comedy drunk, holding up the action just as it gets promising, and a painfully young Joss Ackland. Having Danny Glover drop a packing case on his head in LETHAL WEAPON II was all in the future for young Joss.
A good bit better is LATIN QUARTER, also known as FRENZY, a tale of a murderous sculptor whose crime haunts his studio, necessitating the intervention of another pukkah psychic investigator and another mumsy medium. This movie integrates its flashbacks better, and it has Frederick Valk (the shrink from DEAD OF NIGHT) as the investigator, Joan Greenwood as a murdered model, Valentine Dyall (THE HAUNTING) as a prefect of police — lots of enjoyable players. The bad guy actor rejoices in the name of Beresford Egan, so we had to like him. Derrick deMarney is the hero, but you can’t have everything. Lots of Germans in this studio Paris, I guess because it was 1945.
Best of all was the modest HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961), which reprises most of the plot of GHOST SHIP with a better, more involved flashback structure, more like THE LOCKET or The 1001 Nights. And the filming is MUCH better, with a mobile camera and slightly fogged style. The haunted cottage carries a genuinely intriguing mystery story which mixes ghosts, straightforward murder, and science fiction of the Nigel Kneale variety — lots of talk about buildings acting as recording instruments for the emotions enacted within them. Oh, and a really nice twist at the end. The cast here is very low-key, with Nanette Newman the best-known face, but the lack of star-power works with the film’s quiet, unfussed approach to the eerie. No wonder Sewell didn’t really thrive in the later world of British horror — his gaudy BLOOD BEAST TERROR, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and BURKE AND HARE aren’t a patch on these mild-mannered chillers.