Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Haunting of the Mary Celeste, Co-Starring Richard Roundtree

History's most infamous lost ship has a short but distinguished filmography. It was the subject of a docudrama short directed by Jacques Tourneur, who directed Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, and it inspired Phantom Ship (a.k.a. The Mystery of the Mary Celeste), an early Hammer production starring Bela Lugosi. That is some intimidating company, so Shana Betz called in Shaft for back-up. Richard Roundtree does indeed co-star in Betz’s The Haunting of the Mary Celeste, which releases tomorrow on-demand.

Rachel is a “scientist” specializing in explanations for the mysterious disappearance of the Mary Celeste off the Azores in 1872. The passengers and crew vanished without a trace, but the ship itself and its cargo were undamaged—including a substantial shipment of booze, according to Tourneur’s
The Ship that Died—not something a gang of mutineers are likely to leave untouched. It is one of the great unsolved maritime mysteries, but Rachel’s interest appears to be decidedly personal.

As Rachel explains to Tulls, the dodgy charter captain her small research team is forced to hire, she hypothesizes the Mary Celeste traveled through some kind of “rift,” but the souls aboard were somehow pulled back, like gun shot residue. Of course, if he knew they were looking for some kind of paranormal anomaly around the estimated site of the ship’s misadventures, he probably would not have accepted the gig, but here they are, suddenly stranded with no power in open waters, with people on-board disappearing one-by-one.

will not blow anyone’s mind, but it is reliable in an appealing B-movie kind of way. Screenwriter David Ross (sharing story credit with Jerome Olivier) devises some reasonably creative pseudo-science, which Betz executes briskly and economically. She and cinematographer Raquel Fernandez Nunez also give the proceedings an ominous look and vibe.

As Rachel, Emily Swallow is convincingly intelligent and driven. Neither of her annoying research assistants, played by Dominic DeVore and Alice Hunter, can disappear soon enough, but that’s what they are there for. In a brilliant stroke of casting, Rountree totally anchors the film and gives it instant fan street cred, as salty old Tulls.

Haunting is a small film—literally so, at just a whisker under 75 minutes, but it is still an overachiever. Betz does a lot working within her budget constraints, building considerable tension from the claustrophobic setting. As result, for horror fans, The Haunting of the Mary Celeste is well-worth checking out when it releases tomorrow (10/23) on VOD platforms.