Death Ship (1980)
Death Ship (1980)

Genre: Supernatural Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.

Release Date: March 7th, 1980 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Alvin Rakoff Actors: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Victoria Burgoyne, Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham, Saul Rubinek

 


 

C

aptain Ashland (George Kennedy) is strict, precise, and no-nonsense. In three days, he’ll be relieved of command from the luxurious cruise liner he currently helms – a job he doesn’t particularly respect, crewed by sailors who certainly won’t miss him, as they all regard him as an iron-fisted, cold-hearted tyrant. Ashland attends a costume party that evening, along with his first mate Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), but it’s an unwelcome routine in a celebratory environment with which neither is entirely comfortable.

As the voyage comes to a close, the ship is mysteriously possessed by unseen forces that draw it into the path of another vessel. Despite futile efforts to change course, they’re rammed by what appears to be a derelict ship, causing major damage to the engine room, plenty of casualties, and the stranding of a handful of survivors aboard a lifeboat. Marshall and his family (a wife and two children), along with the captain, a widow, two lovers, and a band leader (played by Saul Rubinek, sporting an unfashionable unibrow) manage to climb aboard the abandoned, iron monstrosity, though it seems to be stifling their every move – from squirting oil at them to engaging the engines full force to snaring one of them with a tackle to be thrown out into the ocean.

“This old ship seems to have a life of its own.” Doors and windows open and close by themselves; the hallways are littered with cobwebs; lights flicker; a record player starts up spontaneously (in a refreshing change-up, the solitary woman who stops it decides not to return to its location to investigate when it suddenly begins playing again); and the ship’s wheel steers itself. Even the internal phone system calls up other rooms, as if engaging in an elaborate prank. It’s a haunted house at sea, and it’s a superb twist on a standard premise, made more sinister by the revelation that the freighter is of Nazi origins.

For a horror film, “Death Ship” is unusually brightly lit, and it takes place mostly during daylight hours. Yet the tight spaces and claustrophobic corridors are altogether unnerving. Marshall attempts to explain away the various oddities as an old ship being an old ship, but it’s not long before the creepiness is too severe to ignore. Rapid cuts to disturbing imagery represents ghostly possession, and a hint of religion from the widow is designed to counter the inherent evilness in the air, all while eerie, quivering musical tones by Ivor Slaney perfectly establish this brilliantly morbid set.

In another prematurely smart move, Marshall and Nick (Nick Mancuso) decide they need to get off the ship as soon as possible (specifically because of wicked presences), though their desertion plans are quickly thwarted by the motives of the supernatural. Trapped, cornered, and killed off one by one, “Death Ship” follows anticipated horror movie tropes (children wander off alone, the lovers can’t remain clothed despite their terrifying situation, and foreshadowing ruins the surprise of a few good scenes – such as a blood-soaked shower moment), but they’re each treated with a welcome level of seriousness and in an infrequently used locale. It’s not the most polished of frighteners, and the characters don’t always react convincingly, but “Death Ship” is generally more effective than it isn’t, resulting in a ghastly little sea-faring thriller worthy of a viewing.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10