Review: Death Ship (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #716

Number of Views: Three
Release Date: March 7, 1980
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror
Country of Origin: Canada, United Kingdom
Budget: $3,000,000
Box Office: $1,750,000
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Alvin Rakoff
Producers: Derek Gibson, Harold Greenberg
Screenplay: Jack Hill, David P. Lewis, John Robins
Special Effects: Michael Albrechtsen, Peter Hughes
Cinematography: René Verzier
Score: Ivor Slaney
Editing: Mike Campbell
Studios: Astral Bellevue Pathé, Bloodstar Productions, Lamitas
Distributor: Avco Embassy Pictures
Stars: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Victoria Burgoyne, Jennifer Mckinney, Danny Higham, Saul Rubinek, Murray Cruchley

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Bobby Darin “Beyond The Sea”

[2] Ivor Slaney “Death Ship”

I’ve never been particularly sold on the idea of life on the open waves if I’m honest. Something about the deep blue sea makes me decidedly uneasy, likely the fact that over two-thirds of our planet is submerged in water, yet we still know precious little of what truly lies beneath. Perhaps that has something to do with watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws through my open palms at the tender age of five or the short paddle to Michael Anderson’s Orca: The Killer Whale! and Peter Yates’ The Deep soon afterwards.

As a direct result, I care less than a jot for what kind of treasures can be unearthed from Davy Jones’ Locker; maybe Nemo doesn’t wish to be found, did you ever consider that? Toss in a gigantic abandoned freight liner and I’m a sunken vessel in the time it takes a turd to capsize. There’s something about the way they ghost onto radars without warning that freezes the blood in my arteries; pulling up alongside our tiny tug boats and inviting us all aboard with their whispering tones of tantalizing torment. Think I’ll stick to dry land thanks.

If I needed any more convincing that I wasn’t cut out for seafaring, then Alvin Rakoff’s atmospheric 1980 chiller Death Ship pretty much sealed the deal. Sporting the kind of hauntingly effective cover art that made it almost impossible to ignore, I was powerless to resist an overnight rental and badgered my father until which time as he buckled to my enthusiastic pleas. Thankfully this wasn’t a case of false advertising and Rakoff’s film did precisely what was stated on the tin. There may have been better movies available at the time but few that struck a chord like this one as it stayed with me for years afterwards until finally receiving its long overdue DVD restoration. One thing is for sure, it single-handedly made the prospect of cruise ships some way less appealing.

We begin aboard a cruise liner on course for the Caribbean, where crabby Captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is none too happy about this being his final voyage before relinquishing command. His understudy Trevor (Richard Crenna) is set to take over at the helm once this particular ship has sailed and his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes) and two children Robin and Ben have come along to celebrate daddy’s promotion. Tonight is the grand masquerade ball and all passengers appear to be in high spirits, aside from Ashland who is determined to take the sheen off his replacement’s big moment, bitching and griping at every available opportunity. However, before control can change hands, they’ll need to get back to dry land without incident and the words “Battle Stations! Enemy in sight!” ringing out in disembodied tones amidst the devouring waves suggests that may be easier said than done.

If that was disheartening, then the spooky freighter materializing right in front of them on a crash course is reason enough to engage panic stations. Any last-ditch efforts to change course are futile and, one direct hit later, it’s time to sink or swim. A handful of survivors manage to clamber onto a lifeboat and flee the wreckage – including the captain, his first mate and family, widow Sylvia (Kate Reid), lovers Nick (Nick Mancuso) and Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), and the costume ball’s master of ceremonies (Saul Rubinek) – with the only available option being to board this mysterious vessel before it drifts back into the mist from whence it came. However, with the ship thwarting their every move, it soon becomes clear that they’re not at all welcome.

You see, this particular freighter heralds from Nazi origins and, while currently unmanned, it has managed to acquire a mind all of its very own. Lights flicker eerily in long cobweb-infested hallways, doors and windows open and close of their own accord, vintage vinyl records play without warning, and down in the engine room, its mechanical heart beats ever more strongly. In addition, Captain Ashland is beginning to become increasingly mutinous against his shipmates and appears to have been placed under some ghastly spell, with visions of dubious grandeur over becoming its new captain. All the while, the death ship determines its own course, with all signs pointing straight back to hell.

What we are talking of here is effectively a haunted house on the sea and its insular design offers Rakoff plentiful opportunities to wreak havoc with his audience. René Verzier’s moody close-quarters photography and Ivor Slaney’s suitably ominous score both lend weight to his cause, although the bizarre choice to foreshadow some of the key shocks beforehand relieves Death Ship of a fair share of its pressure-cooker tension. While shots of our liner cutting stubbornly through the waves establish the sinking feeling somewhat exquisitely, it has to be said, Ken Wiederhorn’s 1977 chiller Shock Waves did so better. Meanwhile, the cast cannot be accused of not having all hands on deck, particularly one time Oscar-winner Kennedy in a gloriously batty role that marries fists of iron with a heart of cold stone to marvellous effect.

My memories of Death Ship are rose-tinted and, while it is now beginning to show its age a little, revisiting it for the first time in almost thirty years reminds me how timeless a tale it really is. Granted, Rakoff’s film never truly sets sail as it threatens with its crowd-baiting opening act, but neither does it sink without trace, providing you don’t go expecting to reel in a classic. Many have attempted to recreate this kind of seafaring terror, with the likes of John Bruno’s Virus and Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship frittering their effortlessly creepy locations. Indeed, with the exception of Christopher Smith’s pristine 2009 paradox, Triangle, they’ve seemed more than content to tread water. Thus with life on the open waves no longer nearly baleful enough for my liking, I’m glad I tossed Rakoff’s creepy little vessel a life raft.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: There are certain do’s and don’ts to abide to when boarding a seemingly abandoned death ship. It is advisable not to make flippant remarks about the opportunity to top up your suntan while marooned, flannel wash as opposed to showering, and under no circumstances whatsoever, consume any rogue cough candies found in the lower decks. Each of the above (and more besides) will result in death most ghastly and, while Rakoff’s film is relatively light on the grue, that’s not to say that the dispatches aren’t catches in their own unique way. One finds its victim sprawled out in a massive trawler net strewn with skeletal remains where he writhes like a fish out of water, while the blood shower alone is well worth breaking out the loofah for.

Read Triangle Appraisal
Read Shock Waves Appraisal
Read Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre Appraisal
Read Ghost Ship (2002) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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