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  Phantom Light, The Tower Of Terror
Year: 1935
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Binnie Hale, Gordon Harker, Donald Calthrop, Milton Rosmer, Ian Hunter, Herbert Lomas, Reginald Tate, Barry O'Neill, Mickey Brantford, Alice O'Day, Fewlass Llewellyn, Edgar K. Bruce, Louie Emery
Genre: Comedy, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) is travelling to the West Coast of Wales by train, where he will be accepting a post as a lighthouse keeper, but on arrival he finds the little village close by is not exactly accommodating. The only person to meet him is the station mistress, who speaks no English, a problem when Higgins wants a car to take him to his destination, but as he looks about for more help he notices a woman calling herself Alice Bright (Binnie Hale) who tells him somewhat excitedly that she has been waiting for transport for hours. On asking her what she’s here for, she spins a yarn about wishing to investigate the ghosts at the lighthouse, but Higgins informs her she’ll be lucky for there are no visitors allowed there, just staff – yet what of the tale of mystery surrounding the other light seen at the rocks by the shore?

The Phantom Light was a short film known as a quota quickie, that was a British effort produced cheaply merely to make up the required quota of local pictures in the nation’s cinemas by law, ostensibly to ensure the screens were not filled up with foreign (i.e. Hollywood) product and give the Brits a chance. The effect of that was a whole load of cheap and not so cheerful movies made with the barest minimum of care and attention, crafted as quickly as possible and forgotten about as soon as their run was over, more often than not. But this was slightly different, it was indeed made under the usual quota conditions, yet it made a favourable impression on audiences of the day, and was one of the projects that marked its director Michael Powell out as a rising talent to watch; it would take until the following decade and his partnership with Emeric Pressburger to truly see that blossom.

All very well, but was it right enough that there was some worth in what in its era was purely regarded as ephemera? Certainly Powell had fond memories of it and claimed to have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of directing it, and it’s accurate to say that sense of playfulness he could often bring, dare we say that sense of fun, was very apparent as the pretty basic plot unfolded over the course of an hour and a quarter. As one of the select few entertainments set in a lighthouse, it could hold its head high with eccentricities like America’s Sh! The Octopus, Michael Redgrave and the ghosts of Thunder Rock or the Doctor Who story The Horror of Fang Rock as taking advantage of a potentially cramped and claustrophobic setting, as once the characters gather at the building they made great play of running up and down the stairs, and at times also scaling the outside of it into the bargain, all to give the impression that there was something important happening.

You would observe the cast were plainly having fun, with Hale in particular a real puzzle, who keeps giving alternative explanations for what she’s actually doing in the lighthouse in the first place, to the extent that even her final one that should really have wrapped things up leaves you none the wiser, or unconvinced at any rate, she was who she said. This was a rare cinematic outing for singer and stage star Hale, best known for her signature tune Spread a Little Happiness, which is a pity as she came across as game for many of the things the script threw at her, whether it be lashed with wind and rain or spend half the film dressed in home-made shorts for no very good reason other than to show off her legs. Harker had by then established himself as a character actor and celebrity, his lugubrious delivery a neat contrast to Hale’s twittering, and we can share his bafflement at the plot he has become embroiled with. All in all, not anything terribly original even at the time, but it breezed along with makeshift flair.

[Network's DVD in The British Film collection has a nice, restored print better than the public domain one, and a gallery as an extra.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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