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Death Ship (1980)

“This old ship seems to have a life of it’s own”

This Canadian made production has always been one of those low budget terrors that I love to revisit. I guess it brings me back to my early years when I was trying to get into theaters and see the Rated R horrors that of course I was too young to see. Thankfully the VHS tape changed all that.

As an added bonus to this seafaring thriller, we get George Kennedy and Richard Crenna playing the leads. Two recognizable actors who both have name recognition for the paying customers. So clearly with the two of them taking center stage, this Alvin Rakoff film is more focused on delivering some chills then it is watching teenagers have sex in the woods and doing their best to avoid an indestructible masked killer.

When a cruise ship is targeted by a ghost like “Death Ship” two things come to mind. A twist to the Poseidon Adventure and that’s not an iceberg headed towards Capt. Kennedy’s ship that he is overseeing for the final time. He’s due to retire when it reaches port and his second in command, Richard Crenna, will assume the Captain’s duties. The two are polar opposites. Crenna is a likable family man with a wife (Sally Ann Howes) and two children making the trip while Kennedy is a stern task master who has little time for family, children or those that don’t adhere to his orders exactly as he issues them.

Just as host/comedian Saul Rubinek is entertaining the dinner crowd the cruise liner is hit by the Death Ship and to save on the budget the production lifted some interior shots from the 1960 ship goes down flick, The Last Voyage. Cut to Crenna and his family joined by another member of the crew Nick Mancuso and his girl friend Victoria Burgoyne, Rubinek, Kate Reid and coming up from the depths, Kennedy, who is in rough shape when they pull him onto the raft.

The group is more than happy to see a ship within paddling range but are mystified when they board it. It’s a rusted derelict of the past. The boarding won’t go very smoothly and please try not to laugh at the atrocious wig that Kennedy’s stunt double is wearing. Now that the group has reached the deck topside, it’s time for the Death Ship to claim it’s first victim. Farewell to …..

Now short one survivor, Crenna and company are trying to find supplies and answers as to the ship’s origins. They won’t like what they discover. Cobwebs and classic photo’s of Betty Grable grace the walls while old German magazines are lying about. Then there are the German voices that Kennedy can hear and he’s soon to become host to the spirit of the ship’s war time captain. Rotting corpses chained in irons. A doctor’s office that serves as a torture room that houses the remains of it’s victims. Nazi propaganda covering the walls of the captain’s quarters that also includes a shrine to Adolf Hitler. The group are soon to learn that the ship was essentially a floating concentration camp housing a bloodthirsty past.

Time for another victim so it’s goodbye to whoever thinks that the jar of candies found in the ship’s hospital might make for a tasty treat.

Crenna has quickly come to realize that the ship has a life of it’s own and that Kennedy has gone over the edge as it’s new self appointed Captain. Crenna’s going to have to find a way to get everyone off this floating house of horrors. Horrors that include a shower that substitutes blood for hot water, a net full of skeletal remains in the hull and a freezer full of cadavers.

Enough to drive the majority of our passengers past the edge of sanity should they survive. And Kennedy? He’s long past the point of no return.

One name that stands out in the credits if you’re observant is Jack Hill. He scored the “story by” credit. Hill is a popular name on the cult circuit having written and or directed a number of memorable drive-in classics. Titles include Blood Bath, Spider Baby, The Big Bird Cage and Foxy Brown. Born in Canada, director Rakoff, was active between 1953 and 1997. Though mainly in television he did helm some feature films beyond Death Ship including Hoffman with Peter Sellers and Crossplot with Roger Moore.

Having seen this film a number of times after it’s release to VHS with school buddies of the day it actually took me many years to see it again. I could never locate the VHS tape in my many journey’s through second hand shops and find it rather comical that as I sit here in Canada I had to order a Canadian made production from a distributor in South Korea. That was about ten years ago. The copy arrived and the print was fine. I actually used to order a number of hard to find titles from the distributor and still have some of them on the shelf including Anthony Quinn’s 1967 wartime drama, The 25th Hour. More recently Death Ship has turned up here in North America on blu ray so now I have a copy from Scorpion Releasing to revisit when I feel the need to see Kennedy losing his sanity and a pre-Colonel Trautman, Richard Crenna, battling the forces of evil.

Far from flashy I like the premise of this horror title and as a fan of both Kennedy and Crenna, it makes for an easy rewatch. One that I can easily recommend if you’re not expecting too much. Just 90 minutes of above average chills delivered on a tight fisted budget. Now while it took me years to acquire my own copy of the film the same can’t be said for the original one sheet. I’ve had this stellar looking poster in my collection for a good thirty years or so I should think.

7 Comments »

  1. Wow Mike another gem in the MTOTM vaults. What a great poster.
    It’s amazing how many George Kennedy films you keep on finding.
    Not sure I will be getting to this one anytime soon but big thanks for shining a light on it.

    • Yeah that poster is a gem and am quite sure an easy sell to collectors if that day ever comes…. Worthy of a viewing if it ever turns up in your path and yeah Kennedy like many of his generation did a lot of work and “descended” into the low budget thrillers of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

  2. I remember this movie when it came out in 1980, and thought the poster was sufficiently eerie…but why I never saw it, I don’t know. Maybe because our local sixplex wouldn’t open for another few months after its release…but I’d love to check it out now. And it’s funny how the poster states “Those who survive the ghost ship…”, then the title reads ‘Death Ship’! But I guess saying “Those who survive the death ship are better off dead” doesn’t quite have the right ring to it. Would it have made more sense to call the film ‘Ghost Ship’? Or does that sound too Scooby Doo?

    • Great idea for a rewrite. Sub Crenna and family with teens looking for sex and rock’nroll (that’s original!) climbing aboard and running into Kennedy who gets a chance to say “Those meddling kids.”

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