Death Ship (1980)

by Glenn Erickson Sep 03, 2019

From the golden age of Canadian tax shelters comes a horror movie about a fiendish, fearful freighter fraught with frills, I mean, chills. A notable cast — George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid — shows up for paycheck duty, and must have gone through real torture getting this one in the can. It’s got a reputation, and if being ripoff-remade is a marker of success, then it’s earned its place on the horror map: SEE George Kennedy apparently really doused in awful oily bilge water!

Death Ship
Scorpion Releasing
1980 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 94 min. / Street Date December 11, 2018 / 19.69
Starring: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Kate Reid, Saul Rubinek.
Cinematography: René Verzier
Film Editor: Mike Campbell
Original Music: Ivor Slaney
Written by John Robins story by Jack Hill, David P. Lewis
Produced by Derek Gibson, Harold Greenberg, Sandy Howard (?)
Directed by
Alvin Rakoff


What in the living Hell is on board?

Are ships intrinsically spooky?  I note that every time somebody films the real Titanic rotting away underwater, they always show part of the rail where the young lovers from the James Cameron film might have clung. The history books are packed with mystery / ghost ships where the crew and passengers disappeared but the boat was left intact — too many incidents to all have been clever insurance scams.

Scorpion Releasing’s new Blu of this Canadian-financed shocker repackages DVD extras that make the show twice as interesting. Death Ship seems to have been started as a more ethereal ghost tale. Initial treatments and a screenplay were written by Jack Hill, the fave director of Spider Baby, Blood Bath, and Pit Stop.

In the lengthy making-of piece, Hill gives us the clearest explanation of what happened. As the only creative on board with horror experience, he hoped to direct as well. But when the tax shelter deal came through, the key creative positions needed to be Canadian. So we’re looking at one of those movies that is first and foremost a DEAL. Death Ship delivers more than enough horror content to earn its release, but the script is such a low priority that little makes sense, and nobody seems to care. The interior-logic supernatural setup is woefully arbitrary, inconsistent. Instead of feeling any real sensation of horror, we marvel at the professional stamina of the cast, who perform the entire film in what look to be miserable, even unsafe, conditions.


An ocean liner in the Caribbean is under stress. First Officer Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna) will be taking over on the next voyage because Captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is retiring. All aboard can’t wait for that to happen, because Ashland has become bitter and resentful about everything, rude to the passengers and abusive of the crew. Then the liner is hit and sunk by a ‘mystery freighter’ that defeats the helmsman’s attempts to avoid a collision. The few passengers left alive include Marshall and his wife and two kids (Sally Ann Howes, Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham), another deck officer, Nick (Nick Mancuso) and his girlfriend Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), the ship’s entertainer Jackie (Saul Rubinek) and another lady passenger, Sylvia (Kate Reid). Then Captain Ashland shows up as well, just in time for a freighter to drift in their direction. The ship appears to be an unmanned derelict, but the survivors are barely on deck before unexplainable things begin to happen. Doors become stuck and un-stuck, inanimate equipment moves and operates by itself, and the engines are running without benefit of fuel. When even more bizarre things happen the castaways try to leave. But the ship has already killed three survivors, ‘and wants more blood.’


Abandon all hope, ye on the shuffleboard deck!

If my review has spoilers, it really can’t be helped. As the lesser name actors begin dying off, we can imagine each actor asking for his death scene to be filmed next, so they could get free of the set, a rotting, stinking tub in the oily waters of Mobile Bay, in the full heat of an Alabama summer. The perspiration on George Kennedy’s face is likely not applied by a makeup man. Crenna and Kennedy are at one point soaked in what looks like industrial waste. Poor Nick Mancuso is lowered into the ship’s flooded hold with the elaborate skeletal corpses mocked up by the effects men. The fetid water is likely teeming with germs, and/or toxic chemicals. Ain’t show business glamorous?

The logical non-sequiturs of the horror plot place this rather realistic, literal movie in narrative limbo. The script’s shocking, impossible events are witnessed by most of the cast, often in broad daylight, but their response is to under-react or not react at all. No sooner are they on deck than a man is killed by a freight boom apparently controlled by nobody — it can’t be a freak accident. Yet the cast isn’t all that concerned. Without a plan or discussion, the group splits up to investigate the ship’s thousand recesses and corridors. Even the little kids (nicely played and directed) are allowed to wander off alone. No reasonable mother would let them out of sight.

There’s a functioning disconnect between events and responses. Trevor and Nick keep behaving as if things are manageable, long after several horrible occurrences. If there was no time to think straight, or if everyone were operating under some kind of psychic force, what we see might be explained. Nope, a freight boom murdered a guy and a woman broke out in crazy disfiguring facial welts and another woman was trapped in a shower stall while unmotivated blood poured over her. I mean, do ya think the ship could be… haunted?  But let’s still be surprised by the next irrational incident, like the ship’s two lifeboats automatically launching themselves to make escape impossible. Where’s Bill Murray?: “You’re right, no human being would run a a boat like this.”


If Jack Hill is telling the truth, his darker psychological treatment (which sounds a bit like The Shining) was scuttled in favor of a Bad Cruise Ordeal motivated by — Nazi ghosts. (spoiler) The ship turns out to be The Flying Deutsch-Man — a Nazi torture ship that’s still out trawling for new victims. Nick and Trevor find a functioning freezer locker where hang the frozen bodies of the crew; other interrogation rooms are strewn with gruesome corpses, a la Poltergeist, and there isn’t even an Indian graveyard below decks. The soundtrack reverberates with echoey German voices barking orders. In the final indignity, George Kennedy’s Captain Ashland is possessed by the ship and goes Full Nazi. He dons a navy uniform and dispatches two victims personally. There’s apparently no way to neutralize the EBNK (Extremely Bad Nazi Karma) on board… and it goes without saying that the whole show slides into terrible taste. Okay, okay, we’ve got Nazi ghosts, but what about the ghosts of the victims?  A little winner like Shock Waves can get away with facile holocaust references, because it’s basically unpretentious (and it has Brooke Adams). Not this ponderous thriller.

When in doubt, praise the Editor.

Editor Mike Campbell should have been awarded something — 50% of the picture is held together with creative, mood-inducing montages that make the most of whatever the put-upon cameraman could come up with to make the ship ‘look alive’ — zooms in and out of pistons grinding, views down weird corridors, camera movements that seem to dance with Ivor Slaney’s synth music track (which ain’t bad). It doesn’t add up to much, but it at least stays busy. Although the producers shot on a real ship partly at sea, the corner-cutting is pretty extreme. The action of ship collisions is all implied, not shown. A fast montage of destruction and flooding aboard the ocean liner is lifted verbatim from Andrew and Virginia Stone’s The Last Voyage — including a quick cut of actor Jack Kruschen about to be blown to smithereens above the ship’s boiler.


The most forced content, both thematically and editorially, takes place just as the survivors realize that their lives are threatened by weird things nobody understands. Let’s see here, people are dying, and nothing makes sense. Maybe it’s time to take the kids to see that movie, the one that automatically projects itself. Scenes from a 1930s British musical end up intercut with Nazi rallies, with mind-splitting music playing. Did Nazis perfect haunted movie theaters?  Nick is driven batty and tears away the screen — to reveal another screen. Trevor rips up the projector and tosses it to the floor, but the movie projection on the screen is unaffected. I didn’t know that Tex Avery was a Nazi.

Death Ship has little if any swearing; the ‘R’ rating can be chalked up to one of the longest nude scenes in horror film history. It’s the blood shower gag, which goes on for an eternity. The amazingly strong-willed actress screams in panic, twisting and turning, unable to avoid the gushing hemoglobin. She’s then dragged naked up on deck, lifted on high and tossed out of frame — I only hope it was a body-double stunt woman. Even the filmmakers wonder if it’s all necessary — they say that (executive producer?) Sandy Howard decided on the scene, and then insisted that it play as long as possible.

Scorpion Releasing’s Blu-ray of Death Ship sports an excellent transfer of this exploitation movie from a very specific moment in history, where producers with a tap to Canadian financing could let somebody else take all the $ risk. The whole show looks good, even if few of the visuals are particularly memorable — the energetic editing keeps the irrational narrative in motion. It is said to be a 2K scan with a new 5.1 audio track, and in widescreen it certainly looks better than did VHS tapes from the early 1980s.

The extras range from the amusing to eye-opening. ‘Katarina’s Nightmare Theater Mode’ mainly gives you an intro and some credits by Katarina Leigh Waters. Presumably from an earlier DVD, we have a commentary by director Alvin Rakoff, and a jokey featurette in which Ms. Waters translates the German ghost dialogue heard in the show — I’d almost think it was lifted from a German submarine movie.

The best reason to see the disc is the 40-minute making of docu, which features interviews with Rakoff, actor Nick Mancuso and writer-director Jack Hill. I met Mr. Hill with David Gregory about ten years ago, and found him a very credible storyteller, so when he implies that the production of Death Ship was a little flaky, I don’t think he’s doing it out of sour grapes. Nick Mancuso talks about the difficult shoot, and director Rakoff gives a crazy, near-schizophrenic interview. First we hear of his impressive background in British TV, Shakespeare productions, etc.. Then he’s apologizing for the movie, then he’s trying to say that it’s really a little masterpiece, and then he’s acting like detectives are grilling him under bright lights. He’s got nothing to apologize for, directing-wise, as his actors, particularly the kids, are quite convincing. It’s the non-starter of a story that trips the show up.

I neglected to mention her, but the stalwart Sally Ann Howes puts in her share of traumatic performing; the filming must have been an unpleasant ordeal for everyone. Ms. Howes is of course famous for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but we wonder if she took a chance with Death Ship because she had such good luck with horror in one of her first movies back at Ealing, the definitive classic Dead of Night. From what we see Mrs. Marshall going through, Ms. Howes must have been as much of a pro as the rest of these hardy troupers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Death Ship
Movie: Fair + (but more interesting to horror fans)
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Alvin Rakoff; Stormy Seas, a 2007 making-of; Still Gallery; Trailer; Isolated Music Track; Learn What the Ship is Saying featurette with Katarina Leigh Waters; Nightmare Theater Mode intro by Ms. Waters.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
August 29, 2019

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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