Death Ship

Death Ship

Death Ship

Death Ship

One of the best things about DVD for me isn’t merely the novelty of watching recent blockbusters with 5.1 surround sound on a big screen in my own home, but being able to see seemingly lost films that I’d either missed, or purposely avoided during their initial release. DEATH SHIP falls into that latter category, I probably picked up the Thorn/EMI video in our local newsagent, back in the early 1980’s, and thought, “There’s no zombies in that one - so it can wait till later”. The high watermark for seagoing nazi zombies had of course been set in 1977 with Ken Weiderhorn’s SHOCK WAVES, and at the other end of the scale, is Jean Rollin’s much derided ZOMBIE LAKE (1981). I never did get back to DEATH SHIP, so I was pleased to see Nucleus giving it the DVD treatment nearly 25 years later.

Whilst there are no swimming-dead featured as in the two nazi zombie films mentioned above, DEATH SHIP does give an effectively creepy, nautical spin to the archetypal haunted house theme. The film was written by genre movie legend Jack Hill (writer-director of a seemingly endless list of cult favourites including SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, FOXY BROWN, COFFY and SPIDER BABY) and starring Oscar winning actor George Kennedy (THE BOSTON STRANGLER, JUST BEFORE DAWN and CREEPSHOW 2), Richard Crenna (THE EVIL and FIRST BLOOD), Nick Mancuso (NIGHTWING), Sally Ann Howes (CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) and Saul Rubinek (TRUE ROMANCE and UNFORGIVEN).

Of course this nautical spin is nothing new; the story of the abandoned ship is a traditional one. The most famous tales being those of the “Mary Celeste”, the subject of one of the first Hammer films, which also starred Bela Lugosi, and “The Flying Dutchman”, which crops up in various guises throughout horror film history. Instances of the latter story can be found in Dracula; the abandoned Demeter and the more recent GHOST SHIP (2002), which also took the liberty of imitating the poster artwork for DEATH SHIP.

DEATH SHIP begins with vacationing passengers partying the night away aboard a luxury ocean liner, but their holiday is about to come to a very abrupt and watery end. Veiled in the darkness of the open sea, a mysterious vessel is approaching on a deadly collision course with the cruise ship. Stock footage of pistons and levers operating without a crew indicate that unseen forces control the vessel.

Despite a desperate attempt to avert disaster, the warning comes too late and the liner goes down with all passengers and crew on board save for nine survivors, including the ship's soon-to-be-retired captain, Ashland (George Kennedy), his successor Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), Marshall's wife (Sally Ann Howes) and their two young children. Left adrift at sea, the castaways are given a lifeline when they manage to clamber aboard a passing freighter. But, once aboard the obviously derelict vessel, they soon realize they may be facing an even worse fate than their late fellow passengers. An office full of military regalia is discovered, along with a medical room with a drawer full of discarded gold teeth and watches. It would seem that the ship was formerly a floating Nazi interrogation unit, where torturers had stuck in ‘das boot’, but which now appears to host a malevolent presence that craves blood.

Val Lewton’s GHOST SHIP (1943), with its murderous, authority obsessed Captain Stone seems to be something of an influence regarding the psychology of the captain. Ashford loves being in charge of his ship, but he hates the commercial package holidays and cruising around in endless circles. He is forced to suffer endless nights in the company of dreary, obsequious tourists whilst an awful band, and comedian (admirably portrayed by Saul Rubinek), provide painful entertainment. Marshall points out that he can’t deal with people, only ships. Ashford is about to retire, and this is his last voyage before he hands over his command to Marshall, his frustration manifests itself in his impatience with his crew. The DEATH SHIP seems attracted to the Captain who relishes the chance to command a ship again - free from the toadying general public. It promises him a new ship and a new command.

In the ship’s office a circular course is marked out in red on a chart echoing Ashford’s complaint of cruising in endless circles. The film is full of such omens and portents; the rust-filled, filthy water predicts the bloody shower scene, the burial at sea heralds a less formal version of the same and Ashland’s impatience with his cruise ship crew is repeated when he loses control of the DEATH SHIP and shoots at the controls. Mind you, the tendency to flash forward to gory scenes could have been a cunning device to ensure that the audience remained interested in the film.

Rakoff makes full use of the ship and its equipment to create a creepy atmosphere. Its black keel streaked with blood-red rust, dark metal corridors, clanking rusty doors and ladders, ringing phones and static transmissions all contribute to the effect. This is complimented by a score featuring a mixture of orchestral music, and minimal electronics which were very popular at the time. You can blame John Carpenter for this, but personally I love it. There are several continuity errors, some of which serve to heighten the films strange atmosphere, and also moments of humour; the weak-bladdered kid is a recurring joke. It’s hardly surprising he has a dodgy bladder though as he barges into the decrepit galley and tries to gulp down a cup full filthy tap water. But he isn’t the only survivor who isn’t too fussy with their eating habits; Mrs Morgan tucks into a pot of 40 year-old boiled sweets.

DEATH SHIP was a Canadian/UK co-production, and had a 5-week shooting schedule. Rakoff had worked for the BBC and had an impressive track record. He didn’t like the script but he was told he would have a pseudonym. This, of course, didn’t happen. I found it quite difficult to locate any contemporaneous genre magazine reviews. On the commentary Jonathan Rigby cites a positive review from The Listener. But the film has gathered something of a cult following anyway. The reviews of the film that I did find are mostly negative. Alan Frank thought it was “Laughable”, Chas Balun, in the Gore Score called it “Missable”, and Jonathan Rigby, in English Gothic, referred to it as “Brain-dead”. Rigby must have must have cringed when he landed the job of interviewing Rakoff for the DVD commentary.

DEATH SHIP was previously only available on Thorn EMI videocassette (details from the pre-cert archive here ) and this will be the only DVD release for the foreseeable future as the US rights to the film are currently tied up. The original negatives are lost, so this DVD is culled from a BFI film, and consequently suffers from scratches and lines. But this shouldn’t detract from the enjoyment of a sterling effort from a non-horror director and – something of a rarity these days - an original idea.

Features:

Newly created widescreen 1.85:1) presentation enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs
Audio commentary by director Alvin Rakoff, moderated by English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby
"Stormy Seas: The Journey From Blood Star To Death Ship" an all-new featurette featuring director Alvin Rakoff, writer Jack Hill and actors Nick Mancuso and George Kennedy
Deleted scenes (from early 1980s TV version)
The "uncensored" Bloody Shower scene
Picture gallery (posters, stills, press books, video art)
Jack Hill's original "Blood Star" story – selected pages from the vaults of Jack Hill
Theatrical trailers (3)
English 2.0 (original Mono); optional subtitles for the hard of hearing
Nucleus Films promo reel
Nucleus Films trailers.