In many ways, the late seventies and early eighties were a great time for horror movies. Supposedly important things like coherence and incisive characterizations weren't considered all that important, and plenty of character actors with great, craggy faces were available, people like George Kennedy and Richard Crenna, both of whom star in Death Ship, an at times lackluster, but nevertheless pretty cool creeper from 1980.
Kennedy plays the embittered Captain Ashland, who is literally three days from retirement, helming an ill-fated cruise ship that runs smack into a ghostly derelict vessel while on a normally boring run. The only survivors from the cruise ship are Ashland's second in command, Marshall (Crenna), his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes), their children, an elderly passenger Sylvia (Kate Reid), ship's officer Nick (Nick Mancuso), his latest sexual conquest Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), and the ships entertainer / emcee Jackie (Saul Rubinek).
This motley group is at first overjoyed when they see the drifting derelict ship, and quickly scramble aboard. The trouble starts when they try to haul up the almost catatonic Ashland. The ship seems to want to prevent him from coming aboard, what with failing ladders, and oil spewing out on Marshall and Nick when they try to drag him up by rope. And when they finally get the hefty captain aboard, the ship has just begun with its shenanigans. People quickly start to die, beginning with Jackie, seemingly done in by the sentient ship itself. And soon enough, the ship begins to work on the mind of Ashland, whispering to him in German, pushing him to nefarious deeds, to which he is all too susceptible.
The drifting hulk appears to be deserted, at least after a cursory search, so the castaways sit tight for the moment. The tentative plan seems to be to try to get some of the communications equipment working and signal for a rescue. The ship, however, has other plans. The little group can't seem to stay together, no matter their intentions, though they are preternaturally calm for people trapped in a possessed ship bent on murder, even going so far as bunking in for the night. Of course, things get progressively worse for everyone, what with Ashland growing more and more psychotic, and Lori getting trapped in a blood shower, and whatnot.
Death Ship is essentially a haunted house movie set on the ocean, and has many of the standard tropes for this kind of film in that era: creaking doors, ubiquitous cobwebs, a substantial morsel of gratuitous nudity, the gruesome reveal at the end, and of course self-indulgent slow motion shots for maximum cheesy effect. It's a good example of the genre, though, and works more often than it doesn't. And George Kennedy is surprisingly effective as a villain, with a cold and deadly serious demeanor that is quite convincing.
The kills and violence are realistically, if bombastically, portrayed, and often pretty brutal, with such things as limbs caught in engine gears, a net trap full of half decomposed corpses and frozen bodies hung up in a freezer. There are moments when the apparent budget constraints become obvious, however, such as the shipwreck shots that are clearly in the day, when the accident, and all the surrounding shots, are in the dark of night. And the plot isn't anything spectacularly unique or groundbreaking, or even really coherent. But it is fun, and that's the kind of thing that's important for these semi-ridiculous eighties horror films.
Death Ship isn't making any pretensions to high art, or even deliberately crafted suspense or terror. It's firmly planted in the boisterous exploitation horror sub-genre, and happy to be there. So don't expect to be supremely scared, or think deep thoughts about the complex issues it raises. But do expect to enjoy yourself. Recommended.
Isolated Music Score
Featurette: "Learn What the Ship is Saying"
Play Nightmare Theater
Please note that this review is based on a check disc, so no comment can be made on the quality or quantity of extras on the final product.