Classic? Me thinks that’s a stretch.
A cruise ship, on its voyage home, is rammed by an unknown vessel and destroyed during the night. The nine survivors lie adrift for a while in the vast ocean before coming upon a rusty old freighter that seems to appear out of nowhere. The survivors manage to board the ship, only to find it covered in cobwebs and suspiciously deserted. But they quickly discover that things are not what they seem. Machines on board seemingly operate themselves, the electricity appears to have a mind of its own and, perhaps most alarmingly, the boat is plowing through the water, full steam ahead, despite all the fuel gages reading “empty”. Realizing something is horribly wrong, the remaining survivors quickly try to formulate a plan to leave. But now that the ship has them on board, it seems dead set on making them all stay.
I just wanna go on record saying that I really, really, really hate this font.
Death Ship is an American mystery/horror from 1980 and is based on a story by Jack Hill (Spider Baby, Foxy Brown) and features the talents of a young Saul Rubinek, of Warehouse 13 fame (though he’s not there long, so don’t get too excited). The story is your typical ‘haunted house’ tale, but set out at sea, and on paper I’m sure it sounds pretty great. You’ve got a deserted location, a derelict ship where things move around on their own, a slew of talented film and television actors (George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes) and one of the most solid villains you can put in a horror movie: evil ghosts. Except in this case they’re evil Nazi ghosts, which makes it even better. In theory, at least. Unfortunately, the film takes the rather bad-ass concept of a bunch of everymen giving one last finger to some of the worst bastards in history and adds just enough WTFuckery to turn it into a cheesefest.
These are the only survivors from a whole cruise ship? Damn boat was more poorly managed than the damn Titanic.
The thing that really brings the film down is the many oddities that lie within the plot. Not the plot itself, mind you. The general story is actually pretty straight forward and follows the typical “haunted house” formula, except that in this case the house has been replaced by a boat: People become stranded, bad things happen, people try to leave, the house/boat goes “lol no” and tries to kill them all. Pretty standard stuff.
Wow. They even kept the freezer going. Way to redirect all that supernatural chill, ya’ll.
What’s not so standard is how the house, or in this instance the boat, decides to screw with everyone and knock them off, and how the characters react to situations. For every decision made that makes sense, the film seems to like to throw two or three others at you that make you scratch your head. And the oddities start off fairly early. As soon as they get to the boat, most of the survivors climb aboard via a rickety ladder and wait for the surviving members of the crew to carry up their unwell captain. Predictably the ladder gives out and the three of them fall into the ocean, an act that’s meant to be suspenseful and terrifying and all that shit. But then the film cuts back to the other survivors on deck and they’re just…staring down into the water with blank looks on their faces. And I know what happened. The film was made on the cheap and they’re reusing footage from a couple minutes before (and it’s not the only time they do that, btw) when everything was still hunky-dory. Except it’s not now, so it makes the survivors on the deck look like a bunch of braindead assholes. Or at least really slow assholes, because it still takes them a few more seconds to seem to realize “oh yeah, that’s bad” before they do anything to help.
Gee, don’t all rush to help at once.
And of course that’s not the only time when the character’s brains just seem to up and go “derp!” That particular condition seems to be a running theme throughout the film. People emphasise the need to stick together, then split up seconds later… and then choose to sleep in rooms decks appart. Characters state that they’re going to look for fresh clothes despite clean jackets being in clear view right in front of them. There are cobwebs everywhere, yet no one questions why the mints in the candy jar haven’t melted into a glob of gelatinous goop. The children have a tendency to run off at every available opportunity, yet no one deems it necessary to keep an eye on them, even after their captain has gone a little crazy (Then again the kids are rather annoying, so maybe they wanted them gone…). It’s like once they got shipwrecked all aspects of logic flew right out their brains.
Remember sweetie, Mommy loves you. Just not enough to keep an eye on you or your brother.
Some of those instances could be forgiven for the sheer fact that this is a horror movie, and a horror movie isn’t a horror movie without one or more characters doing or saying something profoundly stupid. But unfortunately similar head scratching moments also pop up in the rest of the film. Rooms are only covered in dirt and cobwebs if it suits the plot. There’s a movie theatre on board and, although it’s already been established that they’re on a German boat, the only movie they find is an English speaking short, 1936’s Everything Is Rhythm. If candy is old enough it can, apparently, make you start to decompose if you eat it. A guy drowns in less than a second after a net, limply, folds itself in two….or does the net break his neck? I’m still not 100% sure on that particular death. Even what may be the film’s most singular well-known moment – when a woman is trapped in a shower that spews blood at her – ends up getting borked, because the film spends so much time focusing on her and her panicked wailing that the scene stops being scary, or even titillating, and just ends up being overly voyeuristic and thus super awkward.
See what happens when you ignore the expiration dates?
Jeebus, dude. You act like you haven’t seen a dozen wet, soggy, decomposed bodies before.
While none of these singular instances are particularly egregious enough to be able to point at Death Ship and go “That’s it! That’s where the film lost me!”, all of them together end up making the film feel off-kilter. Like the movie isn’t so much a ‘movie’, and is instead more of an excuse to string together a lot of striking visuals and fun set pieces, and then they tried to patch a movie around it. Except they didn’t do a good enough job and there are a bunch of holes you have to gloss over. Which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, mind you. The film does have some good aspects as well. The movie looks surprisingly good and has a strong sense of color and atmosphere.
See, it has its moments.
Also, slightly annoying and stupid kids aside, the acting is actually quite good, likely better than a movie like this deserves. It just ends up being the type of film that works best if you turn your brain off a little before you watch it, because if you stop to think too much about the little details you’ll get supremely distracted. So if you can do that and you like slightly cheesy ghost stories, then Death Ship might not be a bad option.
Death Ship is available on a variety of streaming services.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.