DEATH SHIP. (1980) DIRECTED BY ALVIN RAKOFF. STARRING GEORGE KENNEDY, RICHARD CRENNA, SALLY ANN HOWES, NICK MANCUSO, VICTORIA BURGOYNE AND SAUL RUBINEK.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
Wow. This ghostly horror film completely blew me away. I’d been You-Tube-ing ‘ghost ships’ and related stuff, on account of having read some really scary true-life stories about same in John Robert Colombo’s TRUE CANADIAN GHOST STORIES, an excellent book I read over Halloween. Then a clued-in FB friend recommended DEATH SHIP, and I was intrigued enough to give it a go.
It stars George Kennedy as the main character, a Captain Ashland, the captain of a cruise ship who’s on his last voyage before handing charge of the ship over to Richard Crenna’s Trevor Marshall. I love George Kennedy.
He was one of those very masculine old-school actors like Paul Newman or Steve McQueen, although I’m not sure if he was ever treated as romantic lead material. Very unfair, as I’ve personally always fancied him, this big giant bear of a man with his gruff deep voice and commanding demeanour. My ideal man, in fact, lol.
He was terrific in DALLAS as JR Ewing’s enemy, Carter McKay. I also loved him in the Western movie BANDOLERO! as July Johnson, the straight-down-the-line sheriff who pursues a couple of criminals (played by James Stewart and Dean Martin) into Mexican bandit territory because they’ve brought with them as a hostage the woman that he, July, loves. Alas, the woman, played by the stunning Raquel Welch, prefers bad boy Dean Martin to good guy George Kennedy, and, in the end, no-one really gets what they want. Sigh. Such is life.
Anyway, Captain Ashland is a grumpy bastard who maintains he went to sea to captain a ship and sail the seven seas, not to pander to the gushing socialites who all want to be able to say that they’ve sat at the captain’s table for dinner while they were cruising. I see his point, but on the other hand I see theirs too. No point going on a poxy cruise unless you can say you’ve chowed down at the captain’s table, lol.
His pandering to vacuous socialites gets cut brutally short on this, his last trip, however. The cruise ship is scuppered by another vessel that comes at them out of nowhere and blows the whole lot of ’em out of the water in a POSEIDON ADVENTURE-style maritime catastrophe. This other vessel is the titular DEATH SHIP. Climb aboard at your peril…
The survivors, cast adrift in a lifeboat, have no choice but to board the ghostly vessel. The survivors are, neatly and coincidentally, Captain Ashland; his successor-to-be Trevor Marshall and Marshall’s wife and two cute kids, Robin (a girl) and Ben, who are allowed the full run of the ghost ship in a highly irresponsible manner that would earn their parents a rap on the knuckles today.
There’s a sexy young couple called Nick and Lori who were having sex when the iceberg, sorry, the ghost ship, struck (that’s the way I’d like to go, by the way, lol); the ship’s comic (bet he doesn’t find his new gig too bloody funny!) and a random old lady passenger, who are the ghost ship’s first two disposable casualties. Oh yes, the ghost ship wants to kill them all, didn’t I say? Cue evil snigger.
The ‘death ship’ is magnificent in its rusty, cobwebby state of dereliction and decay. We don’t know if it’s a ghost ship as such or what those in the maritime business would call a ‘derelict’ ship, a real ship that somehow lost its crew and passengers and now sails the seven seas rudderless, a navigational hazard if it should happen across another vessel in its path.
What we do know is that the ship is a relic from Nazi Germany, a so-called ‘Gestapo interrogation ship’ where ‘enemies of the state’ were taken and tortured horribly for what bits of information they possessed.
Out at sea, miles from anywhere, who was there to hear you scream? We also know that ghostly, unseen hands operate the rusty, dusty machinery and direct it towards hurting, maiming or even killing the passengers now in its evil clutches.
I love the way that they only show you the bare minimum of ghostliness in the film, and the way that Nazi Germany and the ‘Forties, the time when this ship was peopled with real-life seamen (titter, seamen!), are revealed to us in little bite-sized snatches, rather than in huge chunks of flashback.
There are the bunks with the pin-ups of Betty Grable and stars of ‘Forties German cinema plastered around them; the ‘Forties music on the record player and the home cinema with film footage of Hitler and his minions playing on a loop; the German voice issuing orders through the speakers in the radio room; a mere glimpse of the German naval captain on his bridge.
Then there is the ‘interrogation room’ itself, no more than a brutal torture chamber, and the Freezer Room, possibly the saddest place on the whole entire God-forsaken ship. And God doesn’t seem to have ever had a place on this carrion ship of death and decay and hopelessness, and it’s certainly not God who’s steering its eerie, lonely course now.
The ship of doom is having a very unhealthy effect on Captain Ashland. I love the bit where the sensible, Daddy-ish, woollen jumper-clad Trevor Marshall comes to his wife and says: ‘The ship has caused Captain Ashland to take on the persona of a German naval captain, it’s like it’s possessing him in some way!’ Or words to that effect, anyway.
It’s the funniest bit of the film, which is definitely not a comedy. It’s like something out of THE SIMPSONS, that line is. You half expect to hear Lisa Simpson, the voice of reason, saying: ‘Well, d’uh! Everyone’s already worked that out, Dad…!’
So now, Captain-to-be Marshall has to save himself, his wife (played by Sally Ann Howes, or Truly Scrumptious from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) and unruly children and the sexy young couple (who just can’t seem to keep their kit on!) from the gruesome machinations of Captain Ashland, who has a definite kind of ‘The Shining’ thing going on with the ship of death.
And he- Captain Ashland- now resents Trevor Marshall as well, thinking it’s Marshall’s fault he’s losing his captaincy, and not his own complete and utter inability to be a ‘people person.’ He’s out for Marshall’s blood, and, as long as he’s being evil, the ship of death is determined to help him…
The ship itself is terrifyingly creepy, from the untenanted radio room, where a crackly German-speaking voice issues its instructions through the speakers, to the long echoey corridors where the sound of loudly clanging doors can be heard, unnervingly, from up ahead. It’s kind of like the Overlook Hotel from THE SHINING, peopled by ghosts and the bad energies from the awful deeds that took place there, but on sea instead of on land.
(When I first watched this film on YouTube a couple of years ago, the blood-shower scene featuring the beautiful Victoria Burgoyne as the sex-crazy Lori, Nick’s girlfriend, was available to watch in its rather naughty entirety. Now, for some reason, it’s gone. Maybe the morals brigade didn’t want this scene corrupting the new generation of horror film fans.)
The Death Ship sailed the seven seas (Are there really seven? Can someone actually count them for me, please?) long before there was a Captain Ashland or a Trevor Marshall, and it will sail them long after those two men have returned to the dust from which they came. I can’t recommend this superbly spooky British-Canadian horror film heartily enough. It’s captured my imagination in a way that nothing else this year has. Full steam ahead for frights and frolics…