Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) arrives at an isolated Welsh village to take over running the local lighthouse. The villagers are a strange and superstitious lot, believing the lighthouse to be haunted, a belief that is buttressed by the disappearance of the previous lighthouse keeper as well as Tom Evans (Reginald Tate) having just gone mad while in the lighthouse. Not only do the ghosts attack those who trespass on their domain, but they also create a phantom light, thus summoning sailors to their doom. Higgins is approached first by beautiful and bouncy Alice Bright (Binnie Hale), who he mistakes for a prostitute, and then by reporter Jim Pearce (Ian Hunter), both wanting him to take them to the lighthouse. He refuses, and then heads out in a boat with local authorities, including the one stable person in the area, Doctor Carey (Milton Rosnier), who need to check on Evans. The Doctor concludes that Evans is in no shape for the difficult trip off of the island, and so must stay at the lighthouse with Higgans and his two underlings, cheerful Bob Peters (Mickey Brantford) and dour and hulking Claff Owen (Herbert Lomas). Pearce and Bright find their own way to the lighthouse in a small boat, and then are stuck there for the night. What do Pearce and Bright want and who are they really? What drove Evans insane, and are there ghosts? The answers will come before daybreak.
Six people confined to a eerie building on a foggy night, with doors opening on their own and talk of ghosts. Yes, we’re in Old Dark House territory once again, with a lighthouse swapped in for a dilapidated mansion for the second time in 1935. But this British entry doesn’t resemble Hollywood’s lighthouse spooky film Sh! The Octopus, but England’s own The Ghost Train. It was based on the stage play The Haunted Light, which I haven’t read, but assume was either itself based on the play The Ghost Train, or the filmmakers decided to borrow from the film The Ghost Train as much as from the play they were supposed to be using. They both have the same tone, with a lot of humor, focused on a few characters while everyone else plays it mostly straight. They have creepy moments with the newly arriving folks hearing the ghostly tale of the place from a local who is terrified. Both have a significant fraction of the characters not being who they say they are. They have plans by the heroes and villains that don’t stand up to scrutiny. And they have very similar secrets that are revealed in the final act.
This isn’t a comedy as it is often labeled, but fits best in the horror, thriller, and mystery genres. There is humor, but it is soft, not so much gags or big jokes as quirky character moments, and those come mostly from Gordon Harker, He was a stage comedian who got a good deal of work in film playing the third banana comic relief character. Leads were rare for him. Here Ian Hunter takes on the romantic bits, leaving Harker the lighter tones, and he does a nice job of it. As do the rest. It’s a good cast. They are given reasonable dialog to speak and a passable plot to act out, though one that has a few major problems with why people act the way they do. All of which would make this a decent but unremarkable little film. But it has something else. It has Michael Powell.
Powell, once he partnered with Emeric Pressburrger, became one of the greatest directors of all time. He helmed I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, and what I consider to be one of the top 10 films ever made, Black Narcissus. He had an incredible eye for what worked on camera and was willing to break all the rules. And as subject matter he often touched on the normal person in what he/she considered the normal world stepping into what he/she felt was a more primitive environment, and then finding that “normal” and “primitive” don’t mean what they had seemed to mean (not a view that was big in England as the empire faded). And in 1935, he was a young, though busy filmmaker. As was common at the time in Britain, he learned the craft by working on quota quickies—low budget films made in England that were used to fulfill the requirements that a percentage of all movies be made locally. If theaters wanted the latest blockbuster from the US, they had to show a British picture. Not surprisingly, few of the quota quickies were great art, or even passable art. It took something special to elevate movies where the producers only cared that they existed, not that they were any good. Powell couldn’t make gold from the lead, but he could make silver. And The Phantom Light was a quota quickie.
So many shots in The Phantom Light have the Powell touch. There’s sudden, shock close-ups. There’s winding camera movements. There’s shadows wrapping the frame. Early on, and again when the towns people head for their boat, there’s a documentary texture; Powell used a documentary-type style with some of his early classics. But he is particularly known for his surrealistic tendencies, and those are on full display. By the end, The Phantom Light feels like a dream, one that is terrifying on the edges, but is not a nightmare. And that’s Powell. I find something Lovecraftian about his work: the world is fine here, though perhaps a bit boring, but just beyond here, things get strange, and beyond that are wonders and horrors we cannot conceive. That would reach its climax with Black Narcissus, but I can see it here, and it makes a cheap movie into something very interesting.
The Phantom Light isn’t one of Powell’s classics. It isn’t a great film. But it is a good film that shows a great artist finding his way.