Death Ship (1980)


This is a 1980’s video and cable classic. Many was the night that this played on HBO and other pay services that I stayed up late to watch. It was also a perennial renter. Working at a video store in the late 80’s I saw this film rent better than many “better” films. However as time has passed, the screenings have been reduced to odd ball commercial TV screenings, if its screened at all. People have all but forgotten it. I recently broke down and picked up a really neat UK release on DVD and so got my first look at the film in a decade or so.

The plot of the film has a cruise ship collide with a dark shadowy ship somewhere along its trip to nowhere. The few survivors make their way on board the new ship, only to find it empty. Well not really empty, it does have the ghosts of its Nazi crew on board and they begin to pick off the survivors. (okay maybe its not the crew but the twisted spirit of the ship, either way its haunted). Things get more complicated when George Kennedy, the Captain of the cruise ship, falls under the spell of the ship and begins to take out his frustrations on Richard Crenna, the man who was going to replace him.

Not very gory, but with mood to spare this is a film that works on a visceral level. To be certain the film doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but at the same time there is enough of a dream logic to carry it along. We can almost buy that this ship has been wandering the seas for decades, even if we’re forced to wonder what happened to everyone else who was on the cruise ship.How do people find each other when there is no way they could have heard each other? These things just sort of happen. And then there are the mistakes that work to the films advantage, the ship is suppose to be empty, but more than once we see an arm or some part of a person opening or closing a window, its a fleeting glimpse that some how helps ratchet up the tension.(maybe the dead do walk especially since we see so many corpses). Its the small moments of implication that freak you out, not the showers of blood.

Shot so that you not only have a real sense of place, you are on a ship at sea, but also to express a mood of dread, this is a rotten and decaying place and you don’t want to be there. What amazed me was seeing the film in widescreen for the first time I was struck by just how good the compositions are. Watch how the survivors move across an empty deck so that they seem to be in a vast expanse of nothing, or how the increasingly insane George Kennedy storms down a hall way almost completely filling it. Its a text book example of how to shoot a horror film and have it give you a mood before anything ever happens. What I wouldn’t give to see a film maker today shoot a film like this where the pictures on the screen are more than razzle dazzle. Honestly this is one of the best looking films I’ve seen. I’m not saying that lightly, since I realize that with a film beautiful sunsets and picture perfect moments do not result in a scary horror film.

If you can take the film for what it is, a real exploitation horror film with its own logic and made before effects and gallons of blood, then you’re going to have a good time. if you want logic and reason and gore, look elsewhere.

But what ever you do don’t watch this alone at night with the lights off.