13 October 2002 | cjlines
Worse things happen at sea!
I first began my relationship with "Death Ship" when I were a lad growing up in the Heart of England - we had a little video library in our village that had quite a nice selection of horrors and I was always fascinated by the garish, ghoulish box art... Oh, and there were few as ghoulish as the spooky cover of "Death Ship", which I vividly remember recreating with pencil sketches in my schoolbooks. We rented it and I have VERY vague recollections of it not being very good but I never got round to see it as an adult. When the video certification act came to pass in 1984, "Death Ship" (rated X) was removed from the shelves, never to be released again in the UK. Which brings us to the present day - after all these years, I finally score a copy by chance, excitedly bring it home and, with a set belief in my mind that it's going to be a huge disappointment and a rubbish movie, I line up the alcoholic anathestic and push the tape into the cringing VCR... To my surprise, "Death Ship" turns out to be a winner! In fact, I'd file it quite high up in my "Lost Gems" folder - quite why this one has been resigned to the Dustbin of History and the Golden Turkey awards is beyond me. I was greatly impressed!
The plot is reasonably simple but inarguably bizarre. In the opening scenes, a luxury cruise ship packed with holidaymakers collides with some kind of ghastly black vessel in the middle of the ocean. The cruiser sinks, killing almost everyone on board. There are only about eight survivors who sit floating in a lifeboat, waiting for someone to come and rescue them... Unfortunately the only sign of life for miles is this horrific looking black ship that's just lingering ominously in the ocean. The cruiser's curmudgeonly Captain (George Kennedy) is becoming increasingly ill, having nearly drowned, so the group of survivors decide that they will have to board the evil looking vessel in order to get food, drink and shelter. It doesn't take long to find that the ship is completely deserted and, although no one can rationalise how or why, it seems to be running itself! Worse still, we start to see through a series of unusual events (ie: people being hit over the head with flying objects, doors locking folks in spooky old rooms) that the ship appears to want its new passengers offboard as soon as possible.
It's all quite "Twilight Zone" to begin with but as the film moves along, it gets increasingly horrific and frenzied, hurtling towards a (quite literally) crushing climax. The film is shot mostly onboard the ship and it's a wonderfully unpleasant set. From the moment they first board and get covered with oil and grease, you can virtually smell the rust on the ancient machinery and, as it develops, the stench of putrefaction. Oh, and THE SMELL OF FEAR (oh c'mon, it's a George Kennedy movie, I had to make at least one "Naked Gun" joke!)... Seriously though, it's clearly low budget, but I really enjoyed the rough and raw directorial style - the darkness and the frequent use of shaky, hand-held camera angles and really lend it an air of madness and menace. I felt the energy of the direction coupled with such genuinely ugly and sinister set pieces combined to create a very unique atmosphere that is, from start to finish, thoroughly unpleasant. There are certain scenes, mostly in the chaotic second half, which just make your skin crawl - the murder scenes aren't particularly *gory* as such, but they're shot in such a feverish manner as to prove really quite unsettling indeed. When the real identity of the ship is finally revealed and we discover what befell of the 'crew', it's an almighty suckerpunch and, again, the use of maniacal camera-work and some utterly disgusting sets just add to the overall effect.
As I said before, I can't understand why "Death Ship" gets such a bad rap. As a haunted house movie, it's one of the better ones I've seen - on top of the rabid direction and deathlike atmosphere, we even have some real quality actors in this one (Kennedy is particularly menacing as the cruiser Captain whom the death ship begins to drive slowly mad) *AND* a cracking script to boot. The storyline moves at just the right pace (the first half builds up creepily and then the second one is a breakneck descent into the inferno) and it's unusual enough to make "Death Ship" an extremely memorable horror movie. I'd give this one an easy 8 out of 10 on the Horror-O-Meter. If you can find a copy, it's well worth seeing!