Death Ship (1980)

DVD Cover (Scorpion Releasing)
Genres: Gothic Film, Horror, Supernatural Horror
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Alvin Rakoff Alvin Rakoff
George Kennedy George Kennedy
Richard Crenna Richard Crenna
Nick Mancuso Nick Mancuso
Sally Ann Howes Sally Ann Howes
Kate Reid Kate Reid

4.9 / 10 - Overall Rating

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Review by Chad
Added: January 17, 2009
Giving my thoughts on Death Ship is going to be a difficult review to write. You see, I really enjoyed this movie for a couple of reasons, but at the same time, there were things about it that positively drove me up the wall. There's a select few of you who will pick this up and absolutely love it, and there are some (maybe the majority even) who will wonder what in the hell I saw in it to give it anything above a 0/10. It's a bizarre little number that doesn't really fit into any one niche, and truthfully, I'm not even sure what I thought of it at this point in the review. Gee, I wonder why nobody has decided to take a chance with a DVD release of this one?

We begin our story on a seventies-era cruise ship, where we discover that Captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is sailing his last voyage as this ship's captain. He enjoys being at the helm of a huge ship, but the problem is that he really isn't a very good people person and he isn't exactly the best boss to work for - two very bad traits when you consider that his passengers are paying customers who don't particularly enjoy paying for the privilege of being verbally abused.

The owner of this operation has decided to fire him and replace him with Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), a younger man who isn't quite as experienced and doesn't exactly know all of the ropes, but he's a damned fine captain when it comes to entertaining the guests. The two men try to be civil with one another on this final voyage, but it's readily apparent that the tension is running a little high between them. However, with Trevor's family aboard - wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes) and kids Robin (Jennifer McKinney) and Ben (Danny Higham) - and a roaring party attended by everyone aboard taking place downstairs, it seems that this trip will turn out just fine for all involved.

Of course, this being a horror movie and all, things don't exactly work out like that. The sailors in charge of running the ship notice a bizarre object on their radar and try to get the ship out of the way, but whatever it is seems to be intentionally trying to ram them. It eventually scores a hit on the side of the ship which causes the massive cruise liner to sink to the bottom of the sea, leaving only a handful of people floating atop a small piece of wood in the middle of the ocean.

Just when all seems to be lost and it's looking like these survivors will die of dehydration, a massive ship shows up literally out of nowhere and our heroes believe themselves to be saved. They board the ship and go to greet their saviors, but that's when things start to get weird: there's nobody on this ship but them. It's rusty and decrepit, it seems to be one strong wind away from sinking down to Davy Jones' locker, but somehow, it's still chugging along. This is rather bizarre, but hey - it beats floating around on a piece of wood, right? Well, our heroes will soon discover that this was a Nazi interrogation ship that is now haunted by both the victims and the former Nazi crew members, and needless to say, some freaky shit is about to go down.

As I mentioned already, Death Ship is a bizarre little number that sort of plays out like the bastard child of The Shining and The Amityville Horror, only, set on a Nazi ship instead of in a house. Ghost Ship attempted something similar earlier in this century, no doubt inspired by tonight's film (just compare the covers if nothing else), but it just didn't work: that film seemed like it was trying to please too many different groups of people after going through one too many test screenings, but in the end, it really didn't please anyone. It was sort of sad, really, as I had been waiting for a film to explore the concept of a ghost ship ever since I read a handful of accounts about this phenomena during my days of reading "true" ghost stories. As it turns out, Death Ship is a movie that had already put this idea to film, and while not perfect, it was infinitely more rewarding.

One of the best things about this film is the ship itself, as the filmmakers used a vessel that was legitimately broken down and in dire need of repair for their set. This isn't some Hollywood set or a perfectly good ship dressed up to look bad - barring the Nazi connection, what the script described is what these guys went out and found to shoot their movie on. The end result is a film that comes across as downright creepy before any actual supernatural events ever occur, and I really can't praise the look of this ship enough.

The set itself is creepy, but this is saying nothing about some of the actual occurrences on this ship. While the film does rely more on atmosphere and tension than legitimate "something is happening right before your very eyes" scares, there are a few scenes that will certainly stick with you. Take, for example, a scene in which a projector starts playing a Nazi rally complete with a speech from Hitler himself, and said projector just won't stop playing this footage on the wall - even after our heroes have destroyed the projector. How about the scene where they discover the interrogation room, or the piece where they find a bedpan full of teeth, or... well, there's some good moments in here, let's leave it at that.

I did say that this wasn't a perfect movie, and it's true that there are some problems. For starters, the film really takes far too long to get started; this can be overlooked for a period of time as we're taking in the sight of this ship, but after a while, we just want to see something happen. I'm all for tension and a healthy fear of the unknown, but you do have to throw us a bone every now and then. I also wasn't a huge fan of some of the performances, with those of the children easily topping that list. Look, if you had thrown me in front of a camera at the ripe old age of six or seven, yeah, I would have stunk up the film as well - I'll admit that. It's really no fault of the kids that they had no business being in front of those cameras, but somebody should have saw that they were hurting the movie and cut down their screen time at the very least. As it stands, they were popping up in every two or three scenes, and it was just painful to watch at times.

Overall, the film will be a hit or miss depending on what you're looking for in a horror flick. It delivers some damned fine atmosphere, it gives us some legitimate scares, and yes, there is actually a good deal of originality on display here. This is what viewers will be given throughout the entire movie, as there's almost nothing in the way of sleaze (blood, gore, and T&A) - just good, old-fashioned horror. On the other hand, there are some major pacing issues that, if they had been fixed before release, would have certainly made this a cult classic. This is also another movie that violates my "No kids in horror flicks" rule, and while I can make exceptions here and there, this is not one of those films. Regardless of its faults, I personally think that a 7/10 sounds about right, but again, this movie certainly won't be for everyone.
bluemeanie #1: bluemeanie - added 01/18/2009, 01:50 PM
Holy Shit -- haven't though about this one in years. Holy Fucking Shit. 9/10.
Optimus Prime #2: Optimus Prime - added 01/22/2009, 08:31 PM
Remember Ghost Ship? That movie's horrid. I haven't seen this though. Maybe I should.
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