Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: DEATH SHIP (1980)

(Canada/UK - 1980)

Directed by Alvin Rakoff.  Written by John Robins.  Cast: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Saul Rubinek, Victoria Burgoyne, Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham.  (R, 91 mins)

DEATH SHIP is probably better known for its chillingly effective poster art than for the film itself, though it does have a devoted following.  A ubiquitous presence on cable, late-night TV, and video store shelves throughout the 1980s, DEATH SHIP has some occasionally striking bits of atmosphere and two memorable death scenes that became minor classics with horror fans, but for the most part, it's really nothing spectacular, and it's hobbled by some clumsy direction, sloppy editing, and an unwillingness to cut loose and exploit its more outrageous elements.  DEATH SHIP has certainly achieved cult classic status, but it might be a case where it's more about sentimentality for a bygone era than anything inherently "great" about the film itself.  DEATH SHIP seemed to constantly be on TV when we were kids, so it's a film that a lot of horror fans--myself included--saw during an influential and formative period in their lives.  This was one of those movies that a lot of us cut our teeth on and, as is often the case, the way it exists in your memory is perhaps a lot more satisfying than the reality.

Cold, unlikable cruise ship captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is on his last voyage and breaking in Capt. Marshall (Richard Crenna), his more affable, people-person replacement when the ship collides with a mysterious vessel that seemed to intentionally target them.  The cruise ship sinks and Marshall leads the handful of survivors--his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes), their kids (Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham), shipmate Nick (Nick Mancuso), his girlfriend Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), religious widow Sylvia (Kate Reid), and comedian Jackie (Saul Rubinek)--onto a raft where they encounter the presumed-dead, barely-conscious Ashland in the water.  They come upon the very ship that caused the tragedy and upon boarding it, find it completely uninhabited.  It's a German ship, and soon Ashland starts hearing German voices in his head and acting strangely.  Mysterious things start happening and the ship seems to be killing the survivors one by one.  Ashland starts reading from a German-printed Bible and declaring that "No one leaves the ship!"  Marshall finds a room with rotting corpses and extracted gold teeth and jewelry and concludes that this was a Nazi torture ship that now roams the vast, open waters, powered by its dead victims.  Or, as the possessed Ashland declares, "It needs blood."

DEATH SHIP, released in US theaters in March of 1980, has some strange similarities to two other ghost movies released the same year:  John Carpenter's THE FOG and Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING.  Like THE FOG, released a month earlier, it's a seafaring ghost story (though Carpenter's film has its ghosts of a shipwreck invading a small town), and unlike the slasher films gaining a foothold in the horror genre at the time, it's filled mostly with adult characters and older, reliable actors.  But THE SHINING wouldn't be out for another three months, and DEATH SHIP prefigures it in several ways, starting with the idea of Ashland, like Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) being possessed by a haunted structure (like the Overlook Hotel) filled with ghosts of an ugly past.  Marshall finds a roomful of rotting corpses that looks a lot like the vision Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) has in the lobby of the Overlook.  When the crazed Ashland tries to convince a weakened Marshall to kill his wife and children because the ship needs him to, he briefly goes from functioning as the Jack Torrance of the film to become the Delbert Grady stand-in, much the way the ghost of the former Overlook caretaker convinced Jack of the need to "correct" his wife and son.  When Marshall and Nick finds themselves trapped in a room where a Nazi propaganda film seems to be playing on its own, and are then suddenly out of the room, it's similar to the way Jack Torrance is locked in the food storage room and apparently (though, as in DEATH SHIP, we never see when or how) released by the ghost of Grady.  This scene also suggests that DEATH SHIP might be playing with space and time and on its way to a "they've been dead all along" or "they've always been here" finale, but John Robins' script (from a story by Roger Corman veteran Jack Hill) isn't even adventerous enough for something that predictable.  No, most of the cast is killed and the people you expect to survive do and are rescued.  And the Death Ship...gets away?

DEATH SHIP may have these similarities to specific films by Kubrick and Carpenter, but veteran TV director Alvin Rakoff isn't capable of the style and finesse of those exponentially more gifted filmmakers.  The bland resolution goes right along with Rakoff's TV-movie efficiency and while there are some occasionally interesting visuals scattered throughout, he never explores the eerieness of the setting to its full potential.  And there's some really inexcusable gaffes: as early as two minutes in, during a prowling shot of the bowels of the Death Ship, we see the shadow of a camera operator (with the camera on his shoulder) on a door;  the sinking of the ship is amateurishly accomplished via mismatched stock footage from other movies; a window of the Death Ship opens on its own...but you can see the arm of the crew member pushing it open; when the wisecracking Jackie gets his foot caught in a rope and is lowered into the ocean, you can clearly see the mechanism that's shackled to the left leg of Rubinek's stunt double; and most hilariously, the establishing long shot of the survivors on the life raft post-sinking features a plainly visible Kennedy already lying unconscious on the raft before he's even been rescued from the water.  But beyond that, even for a drive-in/grindhouse exploitation pic, DEATH SHIP is pretty tame.  Sure, there's the two memorable death scenes (one involving poisoned candy and the other with Lori being trapped in a bloody shower, the one scene in the film that everyone remembers) and some Burgoyne nudity, but take that out and this is essentially another TV-movie for Rakoff.  It has a good, creepy score by Ivor Slaney, and some interesting ideas with a lot of potential, but it doesn't really take advantage of any of them.  Even the Nazi element is handled in as perfunctory a fashion as possible.  I'm not saying they should've gone in some ILSA THE WICKED WARDEN or SALON KITTY direction, but come on.  If 1978's THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL can take a tacky, batshit Hitler-cloning idea with two legendary actors like Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier hamming it up and getting the latter an Oscar nomination in one of the most gleefully absurd guilty pleasures of the 1970s, then DEATH SHIP can certainly give itself some wiggle room to get crazy. It's supposed to be a trashy, R-rated horror movie about a Nazi ghost ship.  Live a little!

The great Richard Crenna (1926-2003)
A Canadian-British co-production, DEATH SHIP was made in the waning days of the Canadian tax shelter-era, when huge tax breaks allowed the struggling Canadian film industry to draw in some major talent (similar to the later tax loopholes that led to countless German co-productions with Hollywood throughout the '00s).  DEATH SHIP gets a lot of mileage from two established pros like COOL HAND LUKE Oscar winner and AIRPORT series fixture Kennedy and the always-reliable Crenna, who could class up anything in which he appeared.  Kennedy hams it up a little near the end, but not enough.  His character is in a catatonic stupor for a good chunk of the running time.  I got the impression that Crenna was probably on the set a lot more than Kennedy.  Crenna was mostly appearing in TV movies at the time, and became a bit of a go-to actor for the Canadian tax-shelter producers, starring in the 1979 family film WILD HORSE HANK with Linda Blair, as well as the 1980 crime thriller STONE COLD DEAD, which opened in the US on the same day as DEATH SHIP and featured Crenna as a plays-by-his-own-rules cop going after a powerful pimp played by the unlikely Paul Williams.  STONE COLD DEAD was on TV in the 1980s as often as DEATH SHIP, and is a solid little film that seems to be completely forgotten today.  Crenna would soon leave the tax-shelter world behind and enjoy a major career resurgence as the rich husband offed by his adulterous wife's lover in 1981's BODY HEAT and as John Rambo's fatherly mentor Col. Trautman in 1982's FIRST BLOOD, which he joined during production as an emergency replacement for Kirk Douglas, who quit the film after a couple days of shooting over script disagreements with Sylvester Stallone.  Crenna reprised his signature Trautman role in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) and RAMBO III (1988) and remained constantly busy in tons of other theatrical and TV movies, continuing to work until he couldn't, appearing on the CBS series JUDGING AMY at the time of his death in 2003 from pancreatic cancer.  Crenna remains one of Hollywood's great "working actors," doing plenty of big-screen projects throughout his long career but also a familiar and reliable figure on the small screen.  He was one of those guys who moved from job to job, never considering himself better than the material, and always giving 100%.  A lot of mediocre movies were made better by the presence of Richard Crenna.  DEATH SHIP is one of them.

DEATH SHIP is just out on DVD from Scorpion (the Blu-ray is coming later in December or possibly January) and it's a very nice-looking transfer at 1.78:1.  Slaney's score is given its own separate audio track, and other extras include a trailer and deleted scenes that were included in the TV version to get it to the standard 100 minutes to fill a two-hour prime-time slot (I could be wrong, but I seem to recall this airing on NBC at least once).  All in all, DEATH SHIP is not a very good film, but watching it again definitely takes the graying horror nerd back to those influential days of childhood when everything was awesome, before seeing so many movies turned a lot of us into jaded cynics.  So in that respect, I'm happy that this finally got a quality DVD (and very near-future Blu-ray) release.

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