Monday, August 6, 2018

Death Ship (1980)

... aka: Blood Star
... aka: Deathship
... aka: Le bateau de la mort (The Boat of Death)

Directed by:
Alvin Rakoff

After spending 40 years at sea, luxury cruise ship Captain Ashland (George Kennedy) is on the verge of retirement... and just in the nick of time! He's burnt out, looks completely miserable and is grumpy as fuck and doesn't even want to attend the final "Over 50s" costume party on his own ship. But this is his last voyage, it's over in just a few days and he's about to hand over the reins to Co-Captain Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna) after warning: "Maybe you'll get used to all this. I never did. Cruising around in endless circles..." Gee. Such a beacon of hope. But if it's excitement Ashland wants, it's excitement he will soon get. Retirement, though, not so much. For starters, a mysterious ship is bearing down and about to crash right into them. Said collision will knock a hole right in the control room, causing water to pour in and the ship to sink.

After brief introduction to the poorly-drawn and dull main characters and a lazily-done flurry of stolen shots from the disaster film The Last Voyage (1960) in lieu of shooting new footage, we meet up with a handful of survivors aboard a life raft the next morning. Trevor, his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes) and (ugh) their two young kids, Robin (Jennifer McKinney) and Ben (Danny Higham), are among them. There's also crewman Nick (Nick Mancuso) and his British lover Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), religious kook Sylvia Morgan (Kate Reid) and corny M.C. / ship entertainer Jackie (Saul Rubinek). As for Captain Ashland, he's not on the life raft at first but instead miraculously floats up from the depths of the water... and he's still alive. No one really raises an eyebrow about it either.

The life raft eventually runs into a large abandoned ship; the same ship that rammed into and sunk the cruise ship, which is strangely just anchored in the middle of the ocean. Although it's a rust bucket and there's no crew on board, it's certainly better than the alternative of bobbing up and down in the middle of the ocean on a cramped raft. Conveniently, there's even a lowered metal ladder on the side... almost as if the ship is inviting people to hop on board. Since this particular ship happens to be possessed by an evil spirit or twenty, and it thrives on victim's blood, that's exactly what's happening. And, since "Death Ship" apparently has the patience of a toddler, it wastes no time trying to waste the cast.

After almost everyone's on board, the ship tries to drown some of the guys by toppling the ladder and then attempts to kill them again by covering them with oil as they try to climb up a rope ladder. After it's unsuccessful there, it starts its own engine, raises the anchor, starts moving, wraps a wire around Jackie's ankle, lifts him up and then drops him in the water. He's then pulled under the ship and drowns. All this before the survivors even have a chance to look around! Even witnessing this clearly supernatural death, they're still in the middle of the ocean so it's either stay there and try to figure out what's going on or jump back into the ocean and die. Still, that's really no excuse for the cast to keep wandering off by themselves like morons.

It's determined that the ship is German in origin, it hasn't been occupied by humans since the 1940s and is a World War II ship that was used by the Nazis. Captain Ashland, who never quite regains his oomph after almost drowning, starts hearing German voices and then becomes possessed by the previous Captain ("No one can leave my ship!"). Other discoveries along the way include a screening room for old Hollywood musicals and propaganda films, a walk-in freezer full of Nazi corpses, a Nazi memorabilia room complete with a framed painting of Hitler, a dentist's office where gold teeth were extracted from prisoners and even a torture chamber full of dead bodies.

I've read both positive and negative reviews of Death Ship and I'm siding with the naysayers this time out. The direction, dialogue, acting, pacing and editing (including a bunch of useless split second flash forwards of what's to come wedged in here and there) are all uniformly terrible. The characters aren't the least bit interesting, the plot is underdeveloped and the director seems incapable of generating tension and suspense, leading to a film that comes off as dreary and unpleasant over creepy and scary. As far as the death set pieces are concerned, a few are fairly well done. There's a hand ground up (and ripped off) by gears, a mutation caused by poison peppermint candy (?!) and someone smashed in a fishing net trap full of skeletons. Perhaps most memorable is Burgoyne's death in a blood shower, though it's probably more memorable for the exploitative camera angles than the actual death itself. Laughably bad dialogue and some major overacting (including a hammy Kennedy) don't even help this rise to the level of guilty pleasure camp.

Worst of all is what a waste the whole thing is. The 3.5 million budget (which would be around 11.5 million these days after adjusting for inflation) afforded quite a bit in 1979 when this was filmed. It afforded effective sets / art direction and a great shooting location (both interiors and exterior) on an old ship, which makes this reasonably atmospheric almost in spite of itself. It afforded a cinematographer (René Verzier) who does what he can to give this some polish and was smart enough to spice up the countless foreboding ship shots with creative camera angles. It afforded some real actors. But, ultimately, the good that is present only makes one yearn for a better directed and written film.

Though John Robins receives screenplay credit, sources claim he didn't actually write this and was billed as such only for financial reasons through the Canadian government. Cult director Jack Hill and David P. Lewis, who are credited with the story, actually wrote the script under the title Blood Star. One of the five production companies who worked on this is called Bloodstar Productions. It was filmed in Quebec City, Gulf of Mexico and Dauphin Island, Alabama and grossed less than half of its budget in U.S. theaters.

An AVCO Embassy release, this has had numerous DVD and VHS releases over the years, starting with a video from Embassy. The DVD distributors include Scorpion Releasing (USA; they also released a Blu-ray this year though that's not what I watched), Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Creative Films (Spain) and Nucleus Films (UK). In Stormy Seas, a 40-minute documentary feature available on the UK release, director Rakoff makes it clear that he dislikes horror films, which is pretty evident in the finished product, while Hill (rightfully) seems displeased with what they did with his script and claims he'd have taken a completely different approach. Too bad he didn't get to direct it himself.

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