Death Ship (1980)

Alvin Rakoff is a Canadian television, stage, and film director who has spent most of his career working in England. This is the lone horror film on a resume that includes more than a hundred television works. It’s certainly not the only horror film on the IMDB list for co-writer Jack Hill, who wrote and directed Spider Baby, as well as Switchblade SistersFoxy BrownSorceress and so many more.

Imagine if you will — a combination of a slasher and The Shining on a boat. That’s probably how this got sold, with a logline just like that.

Captain Ashland (George Kennedy, who as we all know will never turn down a role. Sadly, this is not his worse cruise ship film, as he’d save that honor for Uninvited, a film in which he battles a genetically altered housecat on a drug dealer’s boat) is on his final voyage around the Caribbean, a fact that makes him angry about life in general. His replacement, Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna) tries to connect with him, but it isn’t happening. Also: Marshall never got that old salty sailor memo about wives being bad luck on ships.

Before the movie even gets out of port, a black freighter appears and sinks the ship, leaving a small band of survivors in a rescue boat. Don’t get to know many of them all that well — they’re fodder for the slasher gods.

Beyond Marshall and the captain, there’s Marshall’s wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes, who played Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Seriously, was Ian Fleming the most ridiculous, the most sexist or the most ridiculously sexist namer of female characters ever? I can almost see him sipping on tea and saying, “I’m going to name her Scrumptious. Truly Scrumptious.”) and kids, Robin and Ben. As the movie moves from scare to scare, Ben is truly the little engine that moves this death ship onward, all because he can’t stop peeing. Seriously — 90% of this movie is this kid looking for a place to piss and then getting lost and leading others to their doom.

There’s also a young officer named Nick (Nick Mancuso, following “The Danza” trope here; he’d go on to be in TV’s Stingray and play the improbably named Antichrist Franco Macalousso in an extension of the Left Behind franchise) and his girl Lori, as well as an older passenger named Mrs. Morgan and the ship’s comedian, Jackie (Saul Rubinek, who was in True Romance and SyFy’ Warehouse 13).

They all managed to find their way on to the black freighter — no, not the one from Watchmen — and instantly Jackie the funnyman is grabbed by a cable, held aloft and repeatedly dunked into the ocean until he’s swept away. Jackie didn’t seem like all that popular of a crewmember, because the attempts to rescue him are laughable in their half-heartedness.

In the midst of all these shenanigans, the captain meets the Nazi ghosts that run the ship and — shades of the aforementioned Kubrick film which came out the very same year — he becomes the new captain of the ship, doing fun things like menacing children and strangling old women. He even manages to find an old Kriegsmarine officer’s uniform, a fact that no one really finds as troublesome as it should be.

This being a slasher, we’re going to need some nudity and plenty of blood. A scene where Lori takes a shower — I love this character choice, made in the midst of a once-trusted captain going full on bonkers and Nazi ghosts singing in the hallways — that turns into a bloody deluge before she’s casually tossed into the drink. She’s soon followed by her lover, Nick.

Of course, the family gets away and we’re treated to the image of George Kennedy getting ground up in the gears of the ship. Speaking of ship parts — if you play the drinking game that involves having a drink every time b-roll footage of the ship’s engine room is shown, you’ll die faster than any character in this movie. Some of that footage — including the actual flooding of the ship — comes from 1960’s The Last Voyage. There’s also some footage cribbed from the 1970’s remake of King Kong!

The actual death ship used for this movie broke down in the first hour of filming, so any of the shots of it cruising through the ocean are all trick photography. That’s probably the best thing I can say about this movie, other than after watching a scene where George Kennedy is blasted full in the face with sewage for an extended period of time, I really felt for him. He had kids — and grandkids and ex-wives — to feed, so he gamely just stood there and took it right in the kisser. God bless you, George. PS — he also played Captains in three other films: Police Captain Ed Hocken in the Police Squad series, a captain in the movie Mean Dog Blues and mechanic Joe Patroni, who eventually became a captain for the truly baffling The Concorde … Airport ’79). Before you say that’s typecasting, please know that Kennedy was a captain in the U.S. Army, serving for 16 years before retiring due to a back injury. He actually broke in to Hollywood as a technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show.

You can watch this for free on Tubi or get the blu ray from RoninFlix.

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