The best thing about vessel bound horror is the dearth of escape routes; hide in a cabin, behind a mast, or head over the side – these are your viable options. This is also the worst thing about same; fewer options can lead to repetition which can lead to boredom. So then, the bigger the vessel, the bigger the hellscape, and when you throw in some creepy Nazi haunting, you end up with Death Ship (1980), an oddly compelling thriller that plays like The Poseidon Adventure meets The Evil.
Okay, that’s a little bit of a sizzle sell; Death Ship doesn’t have the scope of the former or the effects of the latter, but it does achieve a grimy buzz as it progresses. Released by Avco Embassy in early March stateside, critics hated it and audiences failed to come aboard; it only brought in about a third of its $4.5 million dollar budget. No matter; it’s a small enough sub-genre that Death Ship has not only stayed afloat, but still holds enough quirky charm for those willing to take the trip.
We start not on the titular ship, but rather a passenger cruiser that harbors the final voyage of Captain Ashland (George Kennedy – The Terror Within), who’s being forced to step down due to his less than hospitable manner with guests and crew alike. Taking his place after this voyage is Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna – Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell), on board with his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and their two kids; no sooner has dinner commenced when a rust bucket of a freighter plows into their side, and suddenly the size of the cast becomes much more manageable. Ashland, Marshall and clan, and a few others (including Nick Mancuso, Saul Rubinek, Kate Reid, and Victoria Burgoyne) head in a life raft towards the freighter and climb aboard.
Easier said than done of course; the tetanus Titanic tries to dispense of some of the cast as they climb the ladder and are deluged with waste dispensed from a port hole. Ashland gets it the worst, and goes into a catatonic state. A better fate than others, for the time being though; a grappling hook leaves one cast member hanging around before being discarded. The gang finds out in short order that the ship is a forgotten Nazi torture freighter that continuously roils on in search of fresh souls. And when Ashland falls under the spell of the rigger Reich, he becomes even less hospitable than before…
Make no mistake; Death Ship doesn’t conjure forth an inferno of activity. It isn’t necessarily slow, but aims more for unease than shock; the unconvincing sinking of the cruise line that starts your tour in choppy fashion may leave you with a solid sense of trepidation. But once the remainder of the cast load onto the freighter, the monolithic force of the ship itself carries quite a bit of weight; the darkened, narrow halls and oppressive piping lend a smothered air and it ultimately becomes the central figure of the story.
This isn’t to take away from Kennedy’s performance as the embittered captain and de facto villain, however; he certainly looms large, physically and outwardly emotional here as he was in every role. Ashland starts off as a creep and makes the short slide to creepy without causing much of a distraction; that is, until he assists the ship with the sacrifices. (Which are never fully explained other than Nazis are bad, mkay? A simple enough credo for anyone to get behind, I suppose.)
Surprisingly, the film isn’t exploitive in nature; regalia are kept to a minimum and other than a quick tour of the tortureporium, all instrumentations of evil are kept to the beckoning German voice in Ashland’s head and over the ship’s intercom. By keeping the original language, it not only eliminates any vocal exploitation, but gives the film an unexpected layer of authenticity (well, as much as can be expected considering the subject) and fear. Just what are the voices saying? I have no idea, but I’m assuming they aren’t promoting the floor show on the promenade.
Canadian director Alvin Rakoff (City on Fire) comes from a mostly TV background, and it certainly shows in the rather flat visual palette; he pretty much let’s the ship itself do the heavy lifting, without putting any kind of spin on the cast climbing the same ladders over and again. But one of the benefits of coming from TV is an affinity for drawing out efficient performances and tight pacing, which Death Ship more or less achieves; and while the film doesn’t go in for the hardcore grue of the day (take your pick from the Canadian or British co-producers; my money’s on the latter bearing the reservations), screenwriter John Robins (Hot Resort) and co-story writer Jack Hill (Spider Baby) concoct enough rotting corpses, a bloody shower, a nasty rash, and a severed arm to appease those with a more visceral taste.
The most common comparison to this film is Ghost Ship (2002), Dark Castle’s similar take on a water-logged haunted house tale. The biggest difference though is an inversion big enough to flip The Poseidon; while Ghost Ship starts off with one of the most memorable openings of any horror film ever (how low can you go?), it quickly drowns in blasé visuals and tired thrills. Death Ship on the other hand, has the good sense (or luck) to ride out its rough waves at the start on its way to calmer seas and a stranger journey. Besides, only one of them has Richard Crenna sporting a turtleneck, which should automatically put it on any genre lover’s sonar; Death Ship’s buffet may be old, but I promise the cheese is still fresh.
Death Ship is available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: TO THE DEVIL… A DAUGHTER (1976)