Death Ship (1980)
WRITER: Screenplay by John Robins
Story by Jack Hill and David P. Lewis
DIRECTOR: Alvin Rakoff
STARRING: George Kennedy as Captain Ashland
Richard Crenna as Trevor Marshall
Nick Mancuso as Nick
Sally Ann Homes as Margaret Marshall
Kate Reid as Sylvia
Victoria Burgoyne as Lori
Jennifer McKinney as Robin Marshall
Danny Highman as Ben Marshall
Saul Rubinek as Jackie
QUICK CUT: When the final voyage of Captain Ashland's tenure as a cruise ship captain ends with his vessel pulling a Titanic, he and the survivors end up on an abandoned vessel that picks them up from a certain, floaty death. And then the Nazis appear.
Captain Ashland - A once good captain, whom has spent the twilight years of his career going in circles running a cruise ship. The monotony and not exactly living his dream has turned him into a bitter, resentful man on the verge of retirement.
Trevor Marshall - Ashland's replacement, a good captain, and a good family man. He seems a bit wishy washy at times, but he gets the job done when it counts.
THE GUTS: We start out pretty ominously, setting a tone right out of the gate. The music is heavy and dreary, they try and make the inner workings of a ship look dark and foreboding and mostly succeed. And they do all this with angry German shouts over it all. You're already asking what's going on, and things just don't feel right. That's how you do opening credits.
Once the tone is down, we move to another ship's bridge, where Captain Ashland is getting ready to hand over things to a new captain in three days. Oh no. He's only three days away from retirement!
With some crew introductions out of the way, we move on to some of the guests, at a costume party. Ahh, such a good way to introduce all the fodder at once and get it over with. Including the new captain's family.
And there's Artie, probably on one of his first missions for Warehouse 13, looking for whatever artifact is causing the plot of this movie. What?? I just gave you more of an explanation than the actual movie ever does!
The captain appears, much to his own displeasure, and you can tell he is so done with this shit. He can't even be bothered to bow to his happy guests. At least the new guy hasn't had all the fun crushed out of him. Yet.
Meanwhile, back in the real plot, the crew keeps trying to avoid something on their radar, but it continues to be in the way. Sorry guys, you can't avoid plot contrivances that easily.
There are some wonderful moments of destruction as whatever it is and the cruise ship collide. Some big explosions, the cast does a good job of acting like they've been rammed, shots of an engine room being flooded. All very well done, and very real in this pre CGI era.
It is amazing how, the survivors of the crash are all people who had lines up to this point, and no one else. These people were scattered across the ship, and yet they all find themselves in the same boat. Literally. Ahh, plot convenience.
As they bob up and down, a large ship looms behind them anchored in place. It appears to be abandoned as they yell for attention. How they missed that sucker, I don't know. Well, I guess their cruise ship didn't miss it...
They find a way aboard the ship, and slowly climb up onto the rusting hulk. The new captain's son keeps complaining about how he needs to go to the bathroom. Well, as we all know, the recommended course for this is to find a bag or a pot, right?
As the two captains and another crewman try and get on board, the ship decides it is at full capacity and tries to dump them back into the ocean. One of the guests finds a rope ladder and lowers it down to them, though. Even then, the ship tries to keep them from coming on board by spewing all over them as they climb. Take the hint!
Just as everyone starts to catch their breath once they're on deck, the ship decides it doesn't want Artie around and tries to yank him into the air. It toys with him a bit before dropping him into the water to drown as they raise anchor and sail away. Hey, he might be okay!
Everyone starts to explore the ship, and I can't decide if it's because of the plot or because no one knew him that well, but no one seems all that affected by Artie's unceremonious removal from the plot.
Most of the survivors find a room to settle down in, and say they're safe as long as they stick to...togeth...WHY ARE YOU SPLITTING UP? I get not knowing the rules of horror movies, but you're ignoring your own advice!
As everyone gets used to their new surroundings and tries to keep busy, we get the usual series of haunted place tropes. Rattly pipes that burf out undrinkable water, things move on their own, the Ashland hears voices. You know the drill. But at least it's a new setting, so it's almost fresh.
The new captain and crewman Nick head up to the bridge after a weird event of all the doors on the ship closing. Everyone else relaxes and tries to stay calm, but they get drawn off by voices coming from an old movie that starts playing. Didn't I do this review already?
Captain Ashland keeps hearing German voices and trying to get to the bridge, but everyone keeps him in bed after the ordeal he's been through. Captain Trevor finds communications but the ancient equipment shorts out when they try and use it.
Things finally start to pick up when the older woman has a strange case of boils after eating some peppermint candies. She rushes back to Ashland, who promptly strangles her. Well, I guess that's merciful? At least they give her a proper burial at sea and mourn for a moment. Unlike Artie.
As they're all distracted dumping her body overboard, the ship takes the opportunity to get rid of its lifeboats. Well, so much for getting off that way. The ship is just lonely, and wants some friends.
Captain Ashland is really getting into the new ship, as he finds an old German captains uniform, and calls Marshall to the bridge. This is a decent scene, with Ashland reasserting his role as captain, his power and dominance, and making sure Marshall knows who is boss. Well, the ship is, but still.
Marshall tries to change the ship's course, but the wheel will only turn for its chosen captain and not the newbie. George Kennedy does a good job here of being just the right mix of dark, without chewing scenery. You can almost buy that he's just gone a bit around the bend, and isn't under the influence of the vessel, and questioning just what's going on. Is it a haunting, or just a crazy captain?
Nick and Lori sneak off to make out, and after that, clean up. But Mary discovers another old haunted place trope; blood in the water pipes. This is also a good time to highlight an interesting thing the movie keeps doing.
We've actually seen this before. The movie has, several times, shown us flashes, not quite subliminally, of things that are going to happen. I'm not sure if I like that or not. I get wanting to tease the horror, and until you get that you're seeing the future, you wonder what's going on. But at the same time, it almost spoils what's coming. If the flashes were more subliminal, it might work better, but it gives too much away before it happens. I think it was Maniac that did the same thing, and I think they pulled it off better.
Anyways, while Lori is painting the shower red, Ben and Robin are still off trying to deal with Ben's lousy bladder. Geeze, Ben better never be stranded on a Carnival cruise. They go exploring and get a little lost, until Ashland finds them and brings them back to their father. See, he's not all bad!
I wonder if Lori's little shower nightmare was supposed to have been more evocative of a gas chamber, but that was a bit too on the nose and close to home for Nazi symbolism, so they went with the more passive bloody goodness.
Nick finds Marshall and drags him down to the shower to try and help get Mary out, but when they get there, they find the door is open, the stall is clean, and the girl is missing. She's being dragged by Ashland up on deck, and they arrive just in time to see the captain huff her overboard.
They chase Ashland all over the ship before he can commit someone else to the deep, but he's too clever and has the ship on his side. And confirming things anyone with half a brain would have picked up on by now, they stumble into a red room decorated with more swastikas than Hitler's boxer shorts. I guess that explains why the Jewish guy was flung out of the movie first.
An absolutely hilarious moment occurs in that room, as Nick and Marshall look around at all the symbols. The walls are covered in them, and Nazi eagles, flags, pictures of Hitler...and there's this one little alcove covered in a mysterious curtain, which Nick flings open revealing...ANOTHER PICTURE OF HITLER! They try to sell this as being gasp! shock! a surprise, but it just holds no weight after the Swastika Palace. Seriously, we got the whole Nazi deal by then. Hitler is NOT a surprise then.
They run out of there and find the medical bay, along with pans filled with gold teeth. They deduce this must have been some sort of interrogation vessel, and they then find a room filled with dead people in various states of decay and torture. That's almost as bad as building your home on an ancient burial ground
Somehow they stumble from that room into the makeshift theatre, so much for established geography, where a film of Hitler is playing. Nick tries tearing down the screen, but just finds another behind it, and another behind that, etc etc. It's a little silly, but also somehow works as being just off-putting enough and wrong. Even when Marshall destroys the projector, the movie still plays. Very creepy.
This also catches up with another of Ashland's flashes with a distraught Nick on the floor. As that timeline catches up with this one, we see more flashes of Ashland speaking, but suddenly that's now? And Nick is falling into the water-filled hold of the ship? When did time get thrown out the window? Where's the TARDIS?! DOCTORRR!!
Ashland starts to pull his crewman up, revealing all the other dead bodies caught in the net Nick is standing in, before dropping him back into the murky water below to drown like so many other people in this movie.
Back in the theatre, Marshall has flashes of Ashland telling him the ship needs blood to survive, and suddenly he's in that other room Ashland was in, but is now with him, instead of just picturing it in his head. I know it's boring to see characters move from one place to the next, but this is goig too far in the other direction!
Foolishly though, Ashland has brought Trevor to a dinner table, and he grabs the knife at his place setting, stabbing the captain with it several times. I like how they cut back and forth from the stabbings to the ship's inner workings stopping. It draws a nice connection between man and machine, possessed and possessor.
With that out of the way, Marshall tries and finds something to use for his family to get off the ship. Instead, he finds cold storage, where a bunch of the ship's previous crew are kept hanging like slabs of beef.
Surprisingly, he actually finds a raft and life jackets in there, AND the hanging crew doesn't attack them. Why was a raft stored with the frozen Nazis? Not so surprisingly, Ashland isn't all dead and he tries to shoot his replacement after they get the anchor to drop.
While the two captains fight, the wife and kids get the raft overboard, and the kids follow it into the water. But Ashland grabs Marshall's wife before she can join them.
Ashland doesn't do a great job of securing her in a small room though, as the boat gets underway. She easily just stands up and opens the door, reuniting with her husband. Well, that was pointless. The couple jump off ship as all Ashland can do is watch from the wheelhouse. He tries to make the vessel turn and get them, but I guess the ship has what it really wanted; a new captain.
I like how Ashland was complaining at the start about hating his job, wanting to be a real captain, and hating that all he does is sail in circles on the cruise ship. In a way, he got what wanted, having a real ship again, although all it does is sail in circles...for eternity. Still, probably a step up for him, and makes for an interesting way to grant the character's desire.
But then he ends up getting crushed by the ship anyways, so never mind. Well, that's what you get for shooting the ghost ship!
Anyways, Ashland is dead, the family escapes, and the Deathship sails off into the sunset to terrorise some other hapless craft. Yay?
Video: This looks pretty good. It was a serious movie, with an actual budget, and thus had a real film crew and release behind it. They did a decent job cleaning it up, and everything is well lit. Yay!
Audio: A solid mono track, fitting with the time, but I do lament not having that ship's inner workings churning all around me.
Sound Bite: "Nothing can hurt us as long as we all stay together!" said moments before splitting up. Damnit...
1 - 26 minutes in, Artie gets left at sea and drowns. And no, I'm not counting everyone else who died when the cruise ship went down.
2 - Sylvia, poisoned and strangled.
3 - Lori, thrown overboard by Ashland, after the worst shower ever.
4 - Nick, drowned in the hold.
5 - Captain Ashland, crushed up in the engine room.
Best Corpse: Lori probably had the best death, since it worked on a traumatic level, and watching her be hurled off the ship was pretty cool. It also worked as a nod to actual Nazi torture chambers, whether that was intentional or not.
Blood Type - B: There's a lot of blood in a few scenes, most notably the shower scene, but there's not much actual wounding to give good blood, it all comes from the pipes.
Sex Appeal: Lori clearly gets naked, and Nick runs around a good chunk of the movie totally topless, so a little something for everyone!
Movie Review: Oh, this movie almost works. It has a story, it has a real budget, it has a damned good cast with Crenna and Kennedy doing far better work than this sort of thing deserves. But the editing...something failed, someone dropped the ball. And set it on fire. And then tried to put it out with gasoline. While researching the movie, yes I do research these things sometimes!, I discovered there are a number of scenes that were either cut or never even filmed. And they would have gone into the movie when things got really weird. Some of them were stylistic choices, some were removed just for the sake of making things even stranger, which I can respect. But one scene? The one included on the DVD? It's a bit of dialogue from the scene where Ashland is talking about the ship needing blood. AND THE SCENE EXPLAINS THE DAMNED PLOT. That's not something you cut!! But some terrible editing choices aside in the last third of the movie, this movie has great acting, and some amazing atmosphere, and some great moments of horror and dread. It almost gets everything right! Almost. But for some very dodgy stuff when things get weird, I only give it four out of five flying lounge singers.
Entertainment Value: That weirdness does not add much to the movie's entertainment value. But the movie is still pretty fun, and unique, with a solid cast. If you're willing to forgive it the flaws and enjoy the cruise, this is a perfectly solid, and acceptable little horror movie. It's way better than you'd expect, with some genuine care taken in most respects. But the weirdness does leave a bad taste in my mouth I can't forget or forgive easily. It stops the movie from gelling as a whole. It loses sight of what it's doing, and never gets it back, which is a shame. It almost knocks it out of the park, then trips over its feet. Three out of five frozen Nazis.