“The Death Ship promises something for everyone, set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance,” well, maybe Alvin Rakoff’s aquatic horror film is a little light on romance but it does have something for everyone. The “Haunted Ship” genre is quite old, dating back to such stories as The Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste, but in the realm of cinema, it has not been all that well utilized and it’s nice to see that back in the 80s Canadian cinema released one of the more notable examples of the subgenre, Death Ship.
The movie opens like a typical sea-going disaster movie, much in the vein of Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure, where we are quickly introduced to our cast of characters who will attempt to survive not a title wave of water but a wave of absolute horror. Captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is a rather unlikeable fellow whose hatred for his passengers is only matched by the crew’s dislike of him, but this is his last voyage as the company is having him replaced by Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), who has brought along his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes) and their two children Robin (Jennifer McKinney) and Ben (Danny Higham), but Ashland’s grousing about entertaining guests at the Captain’s Table is interrupted when a derelict ship collides with them.
The ship sinks rapidly – via stock footage from the 1960s film The Last Voyage – and the only apparent survivors are Captain Ashland, Marshall and his family, the lounge singer (Saul Rubinek), Nick (Nick Mancuso) and Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), who as a pair of lovers one of them will provide the film’s required nudity, and finally, there is Sylvia Morgan (Kate Reid) the kind of a woman who will eat forty-year-old candy found aboard a ghost ship and die horribly. Yeah, it’s that kind of picture. To say that the cast of characters found aboard Death Ship were two-dimension clay pigeons, set up quickly so that they can die gruesome death just as swiftly, would be a fair assessment, but with such seasoned actors as George Kennedy and Richard Crenna on board, the film is elevated to a certain degree. Kennedy is great as the disgruntled captain, angry about losing his ship, but once he becomes possessed by the evil aboard the Death Ship he is even more compelling and his rant to Crenna is pure cinematic gold, “I am the instrument of this ship. I fulfill its wishes. I am its servant and its master.”
As a horror film Death Ship is a mixed bag, and certainly not helped by being helmed by a man who had never done a horror film before or ever again, but also someone who didn’t want the job in the first place, and though the film has some amazing atmospheric moments – doors and windows opening on their own, old phonograph players and movie projectors turning on and providing truly creepy elements – but the lack of a good script and a clear direction of what kind of film Rakoff was trying to make is quite evident. The idea of the rusted hulk of a Nazi torture ship sailing the seven seas in search of prey – apparently the ship is fueled by blood – is an interesting idea but the script never gets into the nuts and bolts of the ship’s mythology. Now, I’m not one who needs things spelled out to me but when much of the Death Ship’s motivations are spouted out over the ship’s loudspeaker, in German no less, I’d say the director has possibly made a miscalculation. It’s one thing to have a mystery surrounding your ghost ship but it’s a whole different matter if we never find out exactly what’s going on.
• The radar blip that indicates the approaching Death Ship looks a lot like Skull Island, which makes sense considering it was footage from the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong.
• Ashland must be captaining a fairly lousy passenger ship because it can’t outrun or outmaneuver the rustled hulk of the Death Ship. I guess we can chalk that one up to supernatural powers, it could be the Jason Voorhees of ghost ships.
• The last time George Kennedy played a captain was in The Concorde… Airport ’79 and things didn’t go well then either, so who keeps putting that man in charge?
• Our hero finds a freezer full of the frozen bodies of downed RAF airmen and Soviet sailors, but why the Nazis put prisoners on ice is never explained, perhaps they were they running out of room aboard the ship?
• Richard Crenna’s character states, “Nothing can happen as long as we’re all together” advice which everyone then proceeds to ignore, and Crenna even has his children sleep in a separate room from him and his wife, has he never seen a horror movie before?
The oppressive atmosphere aboard the “Death Ship” is easily the film’s strongest attribute, though images of the Holocaust may offend some viewers, and watching our cast of characters being picked off one by one is handled fairly – that is when the editor wasn’t having a field day with out-of-sequence moments created to hide the fact that not enough footage was shot to make this film coherent – but when our heroes finally stumble across the grotesque remains of Nazi torture victims all the melodrama in the world isn’t going to save you.
It should be noted that these corpses never trundle to life to threaten our heroes, nor do Nazi ghosts roam the halls, and though the idea of the ship itself being inherently evil, possible from soaking up all the horrors perpetrated within its rusted bulkheads, is a good one a more deft script would have been required to make such an abstract threat more credible.
I first came across the work of director Alvin Rakoff with his disaster film City on Fire, a film where he handled the limitation of his budget quite well, but clearly, horror was not his forte and thus Death Ship will remain nothing more than an interesting footnote in the annals of Canadian horror, but if you don’t mind poorly written plots and have a hankering for a nicely atmospheric horror film, than give this voyage a try, George Kennedy’s performance alone may carry you through the rough patches
Death Ship (1980)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
There aren’t enough ghost ship movies out there, so for that reason alone, I can recommend checking out Death Ship, just have your expectations lowered a tad before you set sail.