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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

VHS Vednesday: Death Ship

DEATH SHIP (1980). Directed by Alvin Rakoff. Starring George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, and Nick Mancuso.

I didn't really intend for "VHS Vednesday" to be a mostly-horror review site (and I've tried to strike a balance among genres), but let's face it, that's where most of the crazy stuff can be found. Case in point, the 1980 Canadian horror flick Death Ship.
George Kennedy stars as Captain Ashland, a career sailor bitter at being reduced to the head of a cruise ship, and further enraged by his imminent forced retirement from even that post. Accompanying him on his last voyage is his soon-to-be replacement Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), Marshall's wife (Sally Ann Howes) and children (Danny Higham and Jennifer McKinney). The personal conflict between Ashland and Marshall is soon displaced by a bigger problem: A mysterious derelict vessel that appears out of nowhere and rams the ship. Only a handful of survivors make it onto a single lifeboat (despite all of them having been scattered throughout different areas of the ship at the time of the crash): Besides Ashland and the Marshall family, there's a young crewman (Nick Mancuso), his girlfriend (Victoria Burgoyne), a kindly middle-aged widow (Kate Reid), and the ship's stand-up comic (Saul Rubinek).
After drifting for a while, the castaways finally find a ray of hope when they come across another ship...unfortunately, it's the came craft that sank them. (Though they don't realize this...and why should they, when it's reappeared so far away from the crash?) Exploring the ship, they keep finding evidence of activity (noises in the distance, a running movie projector, etc.) yet no sign of any crew. When the injured Captain Ashland regains consciousness, he begins hearing strange voices speaking to him in German...and then the deaths begin.
As the movie progresses, any semblance of realism is abandoned in favor of atmospheric dream-logic imagery (Captain Ashland's sudden appearances out of nowhere, a movie screen being torn through to reveal more screens behind it, etc.)...and I found that a good thing. It's cheaply made and exploitive (as in the gratuitous shower scene that turns into a literal bloodbath), yet nonetheless effectively chilling.
A small aside: While I'm willing to accept many of the movie's inconsistencies as part of the nightmarish milieu, there is one extremely minor quibble that nagged at me...why, on an abandoned Nazi ship, are there Betty Grable pin-ups pasted on the walls? I guess horniness knows no national boundaries (at least among the rank-and-file sailors).
Who's Leaving This Off Their Resume?
Death Ship boasts quite a number of talented stars who would no doubt like this forgotten; all the performances are quite effective (even when George Kennedy goes way over the top, it's entirely appropriate to the movie), with the exceptions of Victoria Burgoyne (whose shrill anguished cry of "IT'S BLOOD!" during the shower scene comes across as laughable) and the too-cutesy kids. Sally Ann Howes (star of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) ended her screen career with this, turning her attentions to more rewarding stage work (and a couple of TV appearances). The distinguished stage and screen actress Kate Reid, in the same year as Death Ship, won a Genie Award (the "Canadian Oscar," so to speak) as Best Supporting Actress in Louis Malle's Atlantic City (a clear-cut case of "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times"). However, perhaps the most embarrassed performer is Saul Rubinek, whose brief screen time consists almost entirely of a few lame jokes and an undignified death. It was nowhere to go but up from there...



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