Written by: Jack Hill and David P. Lewis
Directed by: Alvin Rakoff
Starring: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna and Nick Mancuso
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Those who survive the ghost ship are better off dead!
Even though it was released first by a couple of decades, Death Shipís alternate title might as well be ďno, not Ghost ShipĒ since that 2002 Dark Castle joint stole the whole killer boat thunder. Oddly enough, Ghost Ship shared a title with a couple other flicks (such as the Val Lewton one), but it wasn't an update of either; instead, itís a vague remake of Death Ship, mostly because there are ghosts and a ship in both. And gold. In this case, itís Nazi gold, and if weíve learned anything from the movies, itís that Nazis are more homicidally protective of their gold than leprechauns. Theyíll even defy death and helm a big, spooky ship for all eternity if they have to.
The film begins not on a ghastly ship but a regular old cruise ship captained by Captain Ashby (George Kennedy), who is overseeing his final voyage in the company of his successor (Richard Crenna). Heís cranky and old and certainly has no intentions of attending the nightís festivities since he's a little miffed about being replaced. It turns out to be a masquerade ball, which would make for a killer Terror Train on a boat setup (Terror Boat, naturally), but the partyís crashed when the boat rams into a mysterious vessel, causing it to sink. A handful of survivors (including Kennedy and Crenna) manage to escape on a lifeboat before everyone decides to board the big, rickety ship that caused them to sink in the first place.
Upon boarding, they discover that the ship is abandoned and creaky, though it seems to be haunted by some sort of presence. Maybe itís being captained by the spirit of Rube Goldberg since it immediately conspires to off the intruders in elaborate fashion. To its discredit, the killer ship receives a lot of help from its stupid new victims; for example, when a cable snags one of the guys by the leg and seems to make a conscious attempt to drown him, everyone just sort of stands around slack-jawed and never tries to pull a lever or cut a cord or anything. All jokes aside, the scene is pretty terrifying on a visceral level because the poor bastardís just dangling there while the ship attempts to slowly drown him, which seems like a horrible way to go. But, still, would it have killed someone to at least try and help the guy out? Now that I think about it, I guess it would since they're on a killer boat.
The entire movie doesnít consist of spooky Final Destination-style stuff, though; despite being released just as the body count cycle was about to kick off in earnest, Death Ship is more of an outlier thatís drifting in some residual (and stagnant) haunted movie waters that seeped in from the 70s. Itís more Amityville II on a boat than it is a supernatural slasher, with the main through line centering on Kennedy becoming possessed by the spirit of a dead German officer (presumably the captain). If you thought this guy was a little cranky before, wait until heís suddenly an honorary member of the Third Reich and terrorizing everyone on board. The script doesnít exactly spell a lot of this out explicitly--thereís a lot of German chatter and some cool elliptical flashes to help fill in the gaps before Kennedy is suddenly walking around unhinged and spewing German commands himself. Director Alvin Rakoff makes an admirable and passable attempt at making a genuinely eerie ghost story out of the schlocky (and sometimes nonsensical) material, and there are some creepy flourishes, such as a weird, extended establishing shot of the ship thatís upside down.
Some other nutso moments (like a bloody shower scene) pepper the mostly waterlogged proceedings, as the film lurches from one set-piece to the next. Some are more inspired than others, and it even resorts to the old kids in peril trick to drum up some suspense. Even though the film is quite small scale, the effort is pretty sincere: its one main set is quite well-dressed and trimmed with an adequate amount of ominous imagery, and itís certainly populated with more talent than youíd think something like this would deserve. Kennedy once won an Oscar (not for his performance here, though), and he acquits himself pretty well despite his career slipping into a phase that found him starring in a bunch of junk. Likewise, Richard Crenna was pretty well decorated before boarding Death Ship, though his career was about to get a bump thanks to the Rambo series; at this point, heíd just done battle with The Evil a couple years earlier, so heís back for another round of haunted shenanigans. Heís pretty good as the natural good guy here, and heís a good counterbalance to Kennedyís cantankerous old asshole act.
Mostly, though, the appeal of this one isnít much different from a body count movie since it exists to set up cast members before knocking them down. Save for a gnarly climactic scene, their demises arenít quite as memorable as the occasional weird bits, though, so it actually does function pretty well as a haunted house movie on a boat at times. I wonder if Jack Hill didnít have something a little bit more on his mind when he came up with the story before handing the script off to John Robins; speaking of unexpected talent, Hill helped to cook this one up before hanging Ďem up a couple of years later, just before his 50th birthday. That might give you the impression that Death Ship was some sort of career killer, but itís hardly that; itís actually kind of a likable, atmospheric little horror movie.
In the boating Nazis horror canon, itís no Shock Waves, but, then again, what is? Death Ship went on to become popular in the video store and cable era, but it didnít earn a DVD release until earlier this month, when Scorpion released it as part of its Katarinaís Nightmare Theater series. Boasting a newly restored anamorphic transfer struck from the original interpositive, the presentation accurately reflects the filmís moody, steel-grey cinematography. Deleted scenes, an isolated music track, an original trailer, and a featurette round out the special features on a disc that should please fans who have been waiting for Death Ship to receive an official release. Theyíll also appreciate that Scorpion has retained the original VHS photo art, which no doubt would have compelled many people to pluck it from rental stores. Itíd still work today if video stores werenít ghosts themselves. Rent it!
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