Directed by: Alvin Rakoff
Written by: John Robins, Jack Hill (story), David P. Lewis (story)
Produced by: Derek Gibson, Harold Greenberg
Cinematography by: René Verzier
Editing: Mike Campbell
Music by: Ivor Slaney
Special Effects by: Michael Albrechtsen, Peter Hughes
Cast: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Kate Reid
Runtime: 1 h 31 min
Distributor: Nucleus Films
"Death Ship" is one of those films with a purely chilling work of art for a poster -- I mean look at it, it means business. I remember seeing this inside Starburst back in 1980 and staring in wonder, my imagination playing around and dreaming up images of what could be inside that ship. Unfortunately, though my parents rented a lot of horrors and "Death Ship" wasn’t one of them. The video tape never surfaced again but then recently a tidy little DVD label called Nucleus Films dug it up, gave a little polish to it (well, not much but more on that later) and Alvin Rakoff's flick hit the shops.
Cult Classic: That is a bold statement for a film, though a lot of those late 70s and early 80s movies can be easily tagged with that label. "Death Ship" has been called a Cult Classic in a few places. Should it be? Yes and no, really.
One thing I loved about the release is the fact that it still holds a lot of grainy Betamax style quality, I’m a sucker for it, I truly am. Lines down the screen, cig burns, etc. So, my horror soul-mate and I were buzzing as the intro credits appeared, with a giant rotted steel ship sailing about in dark waters. Super. It feels like sitting back after closing an old clunking top loader and flicking a button on the TV since remotes weren’t around and we all had to be ultra fit to operate the TV, right?
Captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is due to retire and hand the torch of his ship to a bearded chap called Marshall (Richard Crenna). On this final voyage, George is simply unpleasant and miserable. Marshall’s family is on board, including two really annoying kids, Robin and Ben, who no one seems to like. Conversations are pure filler as we wait for the sinister corroded Death Ship to slam into them and hopefully kill everyone, especially George Kennedy who is just sleepwalking the role and acting as if his mind is elsewhere. For this reason he joins my Scatman Crothers list as a thorn in my side. Finally the ship is sunk and a handful of survivors float towards the huge "Death Ship." Oh, what a shock, they fish Kennedy out of the water. He’s unconscious.
As they shout out to the ship, we see doors and windows open and shut as if ghosts are peering out. Let me just point out, this is a cheesy horror moment and it’s hard to describe how this simple act can undo the atmosphere. We now know that it’s not the ship, but a few ghosts.... Or is it? As they clamber onto the decks, one guy is dropped in the ocean and dragged under the ship. Kennedy slowly regains consciousness and hears German voices in his head. He’s possessed, though his acting skills do not change in the slightest, neither does his expressions either.
They find dry clothes and flick through old German mags and find a cheery little film playing in the ship's small theatre. In the meantime, old Mrs Morgan eats some old abandoned sweets and dies quite ruthlessly with rash-like bee stings. Kennedy helps out by choking her as well. They bury her at sea and suddenly Kennedy is fluent in German as he reads from the bible. He then takes charge of the ship.
Ben, the young lad pees everywhere -- I mean it. In nearly ever scene he's featured in he’s either peeing or looking for somewhere to pee whilst his sister, Robin is with him. Why do I mention it? It’s because of the fact that they are like Kennedy -- neither change their expressions. The survivors start to uncover the ship’s secrets bit by bit, including frozen corpses, and the remains of torture victims.
They then start to die one by one. The most effective has to be the infamous shower of blood scene, which has the standard 80s horror breasts on show, featuring a big haired girl suddenly soaked with blood in a shower cubical. She writhes in the jets like Ash in "Evil Dead 2," or like a WWE wrestler selling someone’s finishing move. Her boyfriend tries smashing the glass with a piece of wood, but watch carefully, my horror soul-mate noticed he repeatedly hits the door frame and not the glass. He then runs down the same corridor twice to find help, which reminded me of old "Doctor Who" episodes.
I think the biggest plus point this film has is, if we ignore the ghost ‘peekaboo’ windows and doors moments, the ship is awesome both inside and outside. The deck and the rooms are eerie and claustrophobic. In the scene where they discover mummified corpses, you can hear moans and screams. This is on top along with the reason it’s not a good idea to try and wreck the movie projector in the little theatre (I won’t spoil that bit).
Unanswered questions.... Where did the extra life jacket come from? Most importantly, why was the ship doing this? To answer the latter question if you watch this on the Nucleusfilms release, go into the extras and find the deleted scenes. There’s one from a collector’s old Australian video copy which explains a little bit of the back-story, but let’s face it, a lonely ship which once existed to simply torture POWs, that is still full of corpses, is going to have a few issues.
I’m half minded about this film. A lot of the characters spoil what could have been an effective chiller and you’re left not caring who lives or dies. It feels too much like a film which isn’t sure what to do. The end sequence is a rush and takes a while to really figure out why the ship has a change of mind. I watched the end again and then it clicked, I’m not daft, it’s a real muddy script. The Death Ship is really the star of the show and I wish it could have been used better.
Dead German soldiers on a ship? I’d rather watch "Shock Waves" again to be honest.
As stated earlier, Nucleus Films have left a fair bit of grain on this release. It has been sourced from a rare 35mm print and it does add to what atmosphere can be built in the film. It is widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Pal with mono sound. The extras contain a few deleted scenes sourced from a TV version, which flesh out the movie a bit. There is a featurette called 'Stormy Seas' with contributions from director Alvin Rakoff, writer John Robins, Jack Hill and assorted cast members including George Kennedy. There is a commentary from the director, Alvin Rakoff. There is also a nifty picture gallery and three trailers for the film.