‘Death Ship’ (1980) Review

“This ship needs your blood, Marshall!”

It’s October! Or the month of Halloween, as I like to treat it. For the last ten years I’ve reviewed a horror movie every day in October. I won’t be doing that this year, partly due to scheduling and partly due to needing a change of pace. I WILL be watching a mix of old and new films here and there, though, so keep an eye out for random reviews over the course of the month. (My current plan is to do roughly 13. Unlucky for some.)

There’ll be the usual ScreenAge shenanigans as well, including some horror related Canon posts and the 31 Days of Halloween – a viewing guide of choice horror (and horror adjacent) films for the month.

My first film of the month turned out to be both a surprise and a disappointment. Death Ship, by prolific Canadian film and television director Alvin Rakoff (City on Fire, Requiem for a Heavyweight (TV)) is a low-budget, early 1980’s horror film about a haunted ship. It seems like something I would have seen already and, indeed, I thought I had! It only took a few minutes of a young Saul Rubinek doing stand-up as a band leader to make me realize I hadn’t.

So that was the surprise. What was the disappointment? Well, if I say “the entire rest of the film” would YOU be surprised? Actually, that’s a little unkind – while the film is pretty bad I DID find things to enjoy in it. It’s not an undiscovered classic of horror cinema, but there are nuggets of horror to be found in between the low-budget Poseidon Adventure shenanigans and indifferent editing. And that poster is actually pretty decent, though not quite as action-packed as the Thai version.

Be aware that there is a 2002 movie called GHOST Ship that has a very similar poster, but isn’t the same film nor a remake.

The Medium
I watched Death Ship on Shudder. I’m not sure where this transfer comes from, but while it IS in HD, it’s not a restored version of the film. The picture is faded, there’s plenty of noise and scratches, and the audio is inconsistent. The movie also available for streaming for subs on Amazon Prime, AMC+ and Spectrum. It can be rented or purchased on Apple TV and Amazon. (The Amazon Prime picture seems more clean to me, but I could simply have had streaming issues with Shudder.)

There are TWO Blu-ray releases of Death Ship, both from Scorpion Releasing. The picture on both releases is apparently much improved and they have a smattering of extras, including a commentary from director Rakoff on the newest release and – perhaps most useful, a translation of the German dialogue from the ship during the film.

The Movie
Death Ship starts off like a low-budget disaster movie. Ashland (George Kennedy), the gruff and bitter captain of a cruise liner is about to hand the reigns over to the new captain, Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna). It’s a last party before the liner docks and the two men and Marshall’s family fraternize during the festivities in the (cramped) ball room.

Meanwhile, a decrepit and menacing ship makes its way towards the cruise ship, full steam ahead on a collision course.

It really does feel like a cheap disaster movie in these early scenes, with a couple of famous faces and introducing a number of minor characters like lovers Nick and Lori (Nick Mancuso and Victoria Burgoyne), passenger Sylvia Morgan (Kate Reid) and band leader Jackie (Saul Rubinek), and making sure there are family members to endanger, including the Marshall’s small children, Robin and Ben (Jennifer McKinney and Danny Higham). The cheap part really comes into play when the mysterious ship finally crashes into the liner – we don’t see the ships actually crash (merely a closeup of the oncoming ship) and there’s roughly a minute of people stumbling about, water flooding an engine compartment and stock footage of a ship sinking before it’s all over. In a standard disaster movie the disaster IS the feature, but here it’s quickly shuffled through and we find ourselves with a small group of survivors on the open ocean.

Ah, but Bob, you say, this is a horror movie, not a disaster movie, and you’re right. While the I confess to disappointment in the lackluster ship sinking at least we’re quickly getting to the good stuff and the mysterious “Death Ship” and we’re only… sixteen minutes into the film? Crap.

When the mysterious ship finally shows itself, the film immediately takes a step or two up in quality. The rusted, cramped ship has what they call in the business “production value” and Rakoff wisely lets the ship do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to setting the mood. The dark, cramped passageways and empty rooms are creepy and atmospheric and the repeated shots of various pieces of machinery moving – seemingly of their own volition – make it seem like the ship is somehow alive. There ARE shots that seem to indicate someone or something is stalking our survivors, but this isn’t followed up on and feels like either a throwaway or a forgotten plot point.

After an early death – Jackie is entangled in ropes before dropping over the side to be pulled under the ship – the remaining survivors explore the interior, looking for food, water and dry clothing. After an admonition that everyone should be safe if they “remain together” they all split up.

Yes. It’s that kind of horror film. I mean, someone will eventually find candy that’s at least 40 years old and then EAT IT. These are not the brightest bulbs.

Unfortunately for the survivors the ship is a former Nazi prison/interrogation ship and a restless one, despite being empty of anything living. The map room shows a route that takes the ship in endless circles, music plays by itself, the engines are running full-steam with no fuel and something is whispering in German to the injured Captain Ashland. At this point the film has become a ghost story, with the ship serving as the haunted house.

Not much of this is particularly well conveyed and the editing feels almost disinterested, with important details (like the fuel, for instance) going by quickly enough that I had to rewind to find out why Marshall and Nick were so concerned. That being said, there IS an atmosphere of dread that builds and, again, the ship itself is very creepy.

Poor Sylvia eats some bad candy, developing a horrible skin rash and running to Ashland for help. Bad idea, because the good Captain has become overwhelmed by the ship and he strangles her, covering it up as being a result of the bad candy. During the seaside burial service the ship divests itself of the two remaining lifeboats, trapping the remaining survivors. Despite Ashland’s obvious insanity – he goes so far as to dress in a Kriegsmarine officer’s unform – everyone else goes to bed.

Yes, you read that right.

And instead of bedding down in a single room where they can watch each other’s back they split off – even the kids get their own, unlocked room! And with Ben’s tiny bladder that means shenanigans as the kids wander the halls looking for a bathroom. You know. With a crazy, Nazi-spirit-infected guy running around. (The director then inter-cuts the Disney-esque kid antics with a scene of a woman trapped in a bloody shower going crazy, for maximum WTF.)

This is when the film ramps up the horror and gore elements, trapping Lori in a shower that begins to fill up with blood and featuring scenes of prison rooms filled with rotting corpses as poor Nick begins to go mad. Ashland prowls the passageways in his uniform, and Kennedy’s bulk really makes him seem monstrous in the tight spaces. Finally, Marshall finds life preservers and an inflatable raff in a room full of frozen Allied corpses (don’t ask) and attempts to escape with his family. Ashland and the ship aren’t ready to let them go, however. The ship, you see, needs blood to continue its endless route.

The plot, such as it is, doesn’t really benefit from paying too much attention to it. The film is mostly about running around dark passageways and finding horrible things tucked away in various parts of the ship – including a shrine to Hitler and a water-soaked hold full of rotting corpses. The individual elements have some decent mood and the actors do the best they can with what they’re given – Kennedy in particular does well as his insanity rises – but nothing really hangs together. The ship seems to abandon its interest in the Marshalls at some point and punishes its new “Captain” with a grinding death just after it resurrects him. (To be fair, he does open fire on the controls with a rifle when the ship refuses his commands.) It then moves on to a new target – but if it’s been out there for 40 years taking out cruise ships every couple of days wouldn’t SOMEONE have noticed?

The Bottom Line
No, Death Ship is not a good movie. It’s substandard in plot, direction editing, music and cinematography. There are some decently acted moments, but the script requires stupidity from the characters and so they oblige. All that being said, if you go into it knowing it’s a low-budget affair with some known faces and a great location you can have a good time, especially if you let go of logic and let it proceed as if it was a nightmare.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.