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Death Ship
(1980)

Director: Alvin Rakoff
Cast:
George Kenndy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancusco


I like to think that there are certain things in this world of ours that are beyond our current level of reasoning and ability to prove once and for all are true. One big reason for this is that these things that might be true can at times seem almost magical, and wouldn't it be great if magic actually existed? For example, wouldn't it be great if Bigfoot existed, or at least one time existed? Such a creature would be a direct link between mankind and the animal world, and how fascinating would that be? Well, I have kind of doubts about the existence of Bigfoot, but there is another fantastic topic that I have more of a belief in, and that happens to be ghosts. I am pretty sure that in some form or another, ghosts exists. For one thing, I believe that there has to be an afterlife. Just think about it for a second - can you imagine yourself, after you die, to not totally exist in any form? For me, that's hard to do. Another reason that I believe that there are ghosts is that if you look at different cultures all over the world both in the present day and in the past, you will find all sorts of claims about the existence of ghosts. True, a lot of evidence has also been brought up for the existence of Bigfoot, but pretty much all of it has been eventually proven false, and I have come across well-written articles (like this one) that pretty much debunk the idea that such a creature could exist, at least right now in this day and age. Getting back to ghosts, I am very fascinated by the subject. From many reports I have read over the years since I was a kid, it seems ghosts, if they do exist, are stuck in a kind of limbo. How did they get there when the majority of people who die don't? Can they get out of their predicament? Where do they go when they are not making themselves heard or seen?

Yes, the subject of ghosts is a fascinating one. Even if you are one of the people who are convinced that they do not exist, the idea of this supernatural subject matter is interesting. Now that you know that I find the subject of ghosts to be of great interest, you might think that this movie fan would find movies about ghosts to be of great interest. But you may be surprised to find out that I do not care for ghost movies for the most part. Oh yes, there have been some that I've enjoyed - for this web site, I've written positive reviews for movies like The Doorway, The Evil, and Lost Voyage. But such movies like those are rare exceptions from the many haunted house movies I've seen. Haunted house movies for the most part bore and irritate me, even some that are considered classics. I know I may get in trouble for this, but I even disliked the 1963 movie The Haunting. Now, I admit it was better than the 1999 remake, but the movie all the same irritated me with the whiny Eleanor character, the snotty and know-it-all Theodora character, and the fact that the so-called scares were just loud noises and turning doorknobs over and over again with nothing even remotely bad happening to any of the characters until the very end of the movie. I have similar complaints about most other haunted house movies that I dislike. Characters in haunted house movies seem to be for the most part really annoying, mainly because they seem to be very stupid, whether it's their slow realization that something bad is in the house they are in, or that they can't figure out a way how to get out once they finally realize they are in deep do-do.

Another complaint that I have about haunted house movies is that in many ways most of them feel very familiar. We've seen the same scares and plot turns over and over again from film to film. At least I have, and that's a big reason why I now tend to avoid watching more haunted house movies. But recently I got in my (ahem) possession a different kind of haunted house movie that promised Death Shipsome freshness. For one thing, the movie's haunted location wasn't a house - it was a ship. True, that isn't a completely new twist if you remember movies like Ghost Ship or Lost Voyage, but it's one that hasn't been done to death. Another interesting thing about the movie was that it was Canadian. Canada hasn't made that many haunted house films; off the top of my head, I can only think of The Changeling. But most Canadian films are horrifying experiences, at least unintentionally, though this one promised to be a real movie since it was a co-production with England. The movie takes place in what appears to be the Atlantic Ocean. On a cruise ship, the soon to retire Captain Ashland (Kennedy, Demonwarp) is assisting Captain Trevor Marshall (Crenna, The Evil) with piloting the ship through the night. Then all of sudden out of nowhere, another vessel rams them, and the cruise ship quickly sinks. The next morning, several survivors are clinging to life on a life raft, including the two captains, Trevor's wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Trevor and Margaret's two children Ben (Danny Highan, Love At Stake) and Robin (Jennifer McKinney), cruise ship officer Nick (Mancusco, Ticket To Heaven), cruise ship entertainer Jackie (Saul Rubinek, Ticket To Heaven), and passengers Sylvia (Kate Reid, Shoot) and Lori (Victoria Burgoyne, Ghosts Can't Do It). Not far into that morning, the shipwrecked passengers suddenly spot an old freighter drifting nearby. It seems deserted, but the passengers reason it's better to get on board the vessel rather than stay on that raft. What they don't know is that not only is that freighter responsible for sinking the cruise ship, but it's possessed by evil spirits - spirits that are determined to add the nine survivors to their body count.

The people behind the scenes of Death Ship do have some interest. One of the producers was the legendary Canadian Harold Greenberg, who was behind such movies like Rituals and Breaking Point. As you might have guessed, he was the rare Canadian movie producer to concentrate on making real movies instead of artistic bores, no doubt because when he was active there was a tax shelter system that enabled Canadians to raise significant budgets for their movies. Death Ship was one such Canadian tax shelter production, and had several million dollars to work with. When it comes to the movie's look, the money was spent well on creating the title object. The production managed to get full use of a real old freighter, both on the inside and the outside. In the scenes on the outside of the ship, it is clearly out in deep water, and not just at one angle; the movie shoots all around the ship. The inside of the ship is also used well. It's clear that some of the interiors are the real thing and are not sets built on the mainland. Most importantly, the exteriors and interiors of the ship look old and rusted, and that does manage to occasionally generate somewhat of a creepy feeling. However, it does appear that because much of the movie's budget was devoted to making the ship look spooky, it didn't leave much money for some other production values. The opening ten minutes of the movie are at times embarrassing, with liberal use of stock footage showing a cruise ship in the middle of the night cut with newly shot footage of the death ship when there is still some light present. Also, when the death ship rams the cruise ship, I recognized the footage of a flooding engine room and other shots of ship destruction from the 1960 movie The Last Voyage. Even if I hadn't seen that movie before this one, I would have identified it as footage from another movie since the color and detail don't match the newer footage surrounding it.

You might be asking at this point what the movie's production values are like when it comes to delivering horror sequences. Unfortunately, the movie cheapens out here as well. While there are eventually a few corpses in various stages of decay found, and a couple of other moments (like a shower suddenly spraying blood) that show some work by the special effects crew, most of the horror is done in the cheapest way possible. I'm talking about doors closing by themselves, record players and film projectors working by themselves, and ghostly voices uttering various statements. Oh, that is so scary (sarcasm). Well, I guess that material could have been made to come across as creepy with the right direction, but director Alvin Rakoff (City On Fire) directs the movie in a way where the horror comes off in a blasť manner. For example, when the first of the nine survivors is killed by the death ship, the remaining survivors right afterwards seem rather indifferent to have seen their friend killed in a bizarre and supernatural manner. As the rest of the movie unfolds, there is not a feeling of building panic for the longest time, and even when the remaining survivors finally realize they have to get off the ship, the tension level isn't very high. It also doesn't help that Rakoff occasionally puts some incomprehensible touches to the horror sequences, such as confusing flash-forwards and moments where you can't tell if something is a hallucination or "real". I guess I should be fair to Rakoff by revealing was working with a script (co-written by Jack Hill, who earlier made Foxy Brown and Switchblade Sisters) that didn't exactly give him a lot of opportunity to direct some real horror. Believe it or not, in the first hour of the movie there is only a body count of two people. The rest of the time is almost all devoted to blatant padding, such as the survivors exploring the death ship, and it doesn't take long for the audience to realize that nothing of importance is happening.

There are other problems with the script. One of them happens to be the explanation for why the death ship is haunted. The eventual explanation will not only strike many viewers to be somewhat tasteless (I'll give you a hint: The ghostly voices on the ship speak German), but it leads to some unanswered questions. (The DVD for the movie features a deleted scene that gives a little more explanation.) Another problem with the screenplay is with the movie's characters. For one thing, it is extremely easy to figure out which of the characters will survive the death ship. I guess that's to be expected, like with many other haunted house movies, but there are further problems with these characters. The most pressing of these problems is that we are given very little to make us care about them. The little boy Ben has a running (and unfunny) gag about him wanting to pee, we learn that Ashland is being drummed out of his job for reasons that are not very clear, and we learn little more about the rest of the characters. As a result, I didn't feel one way or another about them, so when they started being bumped off, I reacted to it with a mere shrug of my shoulders. That is, for most of the characters. There's one character that I cared about, and that was due to the performance of the actor playing him rather than what he was written to do. As Jackie, actor Saul Rubinek (one of my favorite Canadian actors) puts a great amount of enthusiasm and humor into his character. His character does come across as somewhat of a goofball, but Rubinek's energy is infectious and fun to watch, and you can't help but pay attention whenever he's onscreen. Unfortunately, Rubinek's character happens to be the first one who is killed. But if you approach Death Ship with that knowledge, you'll know that once Rubinek's character is eliminated, there is no reason to watch the movie any further. You can at that point press "stop" on your remote and move on to another (and hopefully better) movie without thinking you are missing anything.

(Posted February 14, 2016)

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See also: Amityville Dollhouse, The Doorway, The Evil

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