Sally Ann Howes
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Death Ship (1980)
6th Feb 07
When a mysterious unmanned German ship collides with a cruise ship, the surviving passengers and Captain George Kennedy climb aboard the nasty tub, only to find it has some sort of life all of its own. Yes, there will be blood. Mostly in the shower.
Ah… the oldies. It’s good to have them back, isn’t it? Well, isn’t it? Judging by eBay auctions on pre-cert videos of this early 80’s watery spook hokum, it’s definitely a sought after affair, but this could just as easily be for cult collector’s value rather than traditional merit. We all remember the poster art - a wicked painting of a monstrous vessel, advancing towards us with its big nasty face, and we were all dying to see what was inside. But could the filmmakers’ efforts live up to our expectations?
As far as I'm concerned, when you've got a situation whereby George Kennedy has been taken over by evil German spirits (or something) and is wandering about a big ship, offing people with a crazy glint in his eye, I don't care about much else. But for the purpose of a fair review, it seems only right to shift some focus away from the big white haired man every now and again. George Kennedy... they don't make them like him anymore. Here he plays naval misanthrope Captain Ashland – a man forced out of naval authority due to his ill-mannered temperament. This is his final outing, so he’s even meaner and angrier than before. But its not just annoying passengers (especially those old ladies and children he particularly despises) that are getting his goat this time round. No. There also happens to be a mammoth fucking German warship on a direct collision route.
A small group of surviving passengers manage to escape on a raft, no-one missing the grumpy captain until he fortuitously floats to the surface exactly where they are, clearly suffering from some kind of malady. Soon they happen upon the titular ship once again, boarding it with some difficulty when the steps collapse and it becomes apparent – to us at least – that the whole ship seems to have a life of its own. One of the characters thought so, too – you can tell that by the way she says, “This whole ship seems to have a life of its own.”
From here on in, things go from bad to worse; hooks hoist Saul Rubinek’s character from the deck, dropping him into the sea, one guy gets hit on the head by a swinging hook, a woman eats possessed sweets then goes all crumbly, while another gets trapped in a shower that has a tendency to switch water for blood. Nice. George Kennedy’s condition meanwhile deteriorates as he begins hearing German voices in his white head, complete with macabre visions, eventually succumbing to the German spirits and assuming the role of a German naval officer. Can you dig it? Great fun for Kennedy fans everywhere, as he wakes from his fever, sits upright and says, ”I gotta get to the bridge.” Genius.
Death Ship is too much fun to be a disaster. It also manages, despite its silliness, to be quite effective in places, and this is mostly down to what can only be described as a stellar cast. Kennedy aside, we have the brilliant Richard Crenna (you may, like me, know him as Colonel Sam Trautman from First Blood) on fine form as Marshall, who, along with his family, manages to survive the rusty wrath of the ship. Nick Mancuso also turns in a particularly good performance as, er, ‘Nick’, who doesn’t manage to escape the evil, literally being tortured, screaming in agony amongst a plethora of bony corpses in the final reel. According to imdb, Mancuso played the really quite disturbing voice on the phone in Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas! This is just the kind of useless information we love here at eatmybrains.
Also on board (sorry, couldn’t resist) we have Saul Rubinek (who you might remember from his hilarious turn as Body Bags director Lee Donowitz in True Romance). The cast really is unusually strong for such a modestly budgeted movie, the fine acting talent massively contributing to keep the whole thing afloat (sorry again).
Director Alvin Rackoff manages to create a couple of good sequences – the blood shower sequence being more effective than it sounds. It somehow manages to go on for ages, and Ivor Slaney’s electronic music score (and overall sound design) seems to give moments like this (and Nick’s final, crazy moments) more dramatic punch.
Rackoff lays emphasis on the boat as a living thing, as interpreted through frequent scenes of pistons raging furiously, like heart muscles pumping blood through the ship. This notion is reinforced when Kennedy goes off on his great monologue, confirming that ”This ship needs blood.”Death Ship has been likened to The Shining, in that it’s an environment-exclusive horror, i.e. if a hotel can be scary, so can a boat, right? But Kubrick this certainly isn’t.
On the most part though, Death Ship is great fun as a cult horror favourite, with a great cast and score helping to hold it together, even though the story itself is just a bit, well, stupid. And that's just fine with me.
Marc Morris and Jake West’s Nucleus Films have done a superb job with the Death Ship package. Apart from a great remastered transfer, the main highlight is the highly enjoyable documentary, featuring George ‘Let me fix your aeroplane’ Kennedy being as endearing as ever, with nothing but praise for his colleagues.
Director Rackoff and writer Jack Hill (Coffee and Foxy Brown) reflect on the evolution of the script (the very different Blood Star), while actor Nick Mancuso also contributes some great memories of writhing about with skulls. It’s an enlightening affair for cult horrorheads as well as lovers of low budget cinema in general.
Features and Bonus materials:
- Newly Created Widescreen (1.85:1) presentation enhanced for 16x9 TVs
- English 2.0 (original PCM Mono)
- Optional Hard of Hearing Subtitles
- Audio Commentary with Director Alvin Rakoff, moderated by English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby
- "From Blood Star to Death Ship" - An All-New Featurette with Director Alvin Rakoff, Writer Jack Hill and actors George Kennedy and Nick Mancuso
- Theatrical Trailer (x 3)
- The "uncensored" Bloody Shower Scene - darkened down in other releases
- Picture Gallery (Posters, Stills, Press Books, Video Art)
- Nucleus Promo Reel (at start of disc)
- Trailers for 5 other Nucleus Films releases
- RSDL dual layer high bit rate encode for optimum picture quality