Ever have that hazy but marvelous recollection of some flick you saw when you were a kid that, in your memory, was this awesome, scary bundle of horror goodness, but it wasn’t really a mainstream hit; as a result, you can’t remember the name of it? It drives you crazy off and on for a few years, and then, at some point in your perusing through quaint and curious forgotten lore, you run across it…and it turns out to not be as great as you remember?
Well of course you have; that’s pretty much a universal experience for any horror fan over the age of sixteen or so. Although folks like us do have those moments when a gem from years past pops up and generates that same fear and unease we recall, more often than not we end up sitting there in front of the screen during the final credits, a little saddened to find that the flick that we thought we remembered from those younger years was far, far better than the reality we just watched.
Death Ship, from back in 1980, was one of those I remember catching on a late-night HBO showing back when I was eleven or twelve, and my recollections told me it was a spooky, atmospheric flick that stayed with me for several semi-sleepless nights.
After thirty-plus years, I’ve had the opportunity to revisit this childhood memory, and though I tried to brace myself with objectivity, I couldn’t completely hold back my anticipation.
Captain Ashland is finishing up his last cruise as the skipper of a luxury liner, and we get the impression he’s got mixed emotions; he seems reluctant to leave the sea service, but anxious to be done with the piddling about in circles and hobnobbing with passengers, a false smile on his face. He’s a ship’s captain, by God…not some party coordinator! Along on this voyage is his replacement, Captain Marshall, along with Mrs. Marshall and their two children. Ashland’s distaste turns to turmoil as, nearing the end of the voyage, the cruise liner is struck by a mysterious black freighter, sending the vessel to the bottom of the sea, with only Ashland, the Marshall family, one of the crew and his girlfriend, a lounge performer, and a single other passenger clinging to life aboard a piece of debris. Soon after the wreck, they find themselves in the looming shadow of the same black ship that (unbeknownst to them) rammed them the night before. Making their way aboard, they find the ship oddly abandoned, but choose to stay aboard anyway, believing the shelter offered by the creepy hulk to be better than baking in the sun and salt air.
However, they soon find that maybe the elements wouldn’t have been quite as vindictive as whatever restless malevolence resides in the rusty bulkheads of this craft; within moments of their setting foot on deck, the entertainer is quickly dispatched to a watery grave as the deck crane takes on a life of its own. Strange music and odd sounds lend to the notion that someone is on board, but no one is found; only varied evidence (old films, magazines, and documents) comes to light that this ship has been adrift for forty plus years, and that it’s crew were obviously soldiers of the Nazi war machine. As if that revelation wasn’t enough to cause some unrest, Ashland seems to be rather taken with the concept of being able to keep his captaincy, albeit on this ship, possessed perhaps by a long-gone spirit of a Nazi commander…and with the same bloodthirsty and unwavering commitment to serving his master as that ghostly predecessor; instead of Hitler, however, Ashland finds his master is the dark spirit of the ship itself.
Boy, was this some tough medicine. In my (admittedly aging) memory, I recalled this flick as an atmospheric, spooky time, with the stigma of Nazi evil hanging over the proceedings like a buzzard, all the while with terrifying events happening and bloody carnage.
What I saw in actuality was a poorly-paced flick with precious little character development, thus leaving me with virtually no interest in the well-being of the characters as the narrative slowly plodded along. The script is bare-bones, with little rhyme or reason given for what’s going on, and the conflicts between the characters seem pretty shallow and contrived; it’s also full of holes: why did these people, placed in so many different places on the ship, survive where no one else did? Why was the steaming Death Ship shown moving in what seemed almost full daylight towards the luxury ship which was cruising in near-pitch black darkness? These are just a couple of strange issues. I will give the film props for some creepy, atmospheric moments; at times, the direction and shot set ups created genuinely chilling supernatural unease, but these were few and far between. The acting was adequate at best, and that’s with a pretty high-end cast; George Kennedy and Richard Crenna are well-established in their professions, but here they seem to respectively be hamming it up and just trying to get through it. Nick Mancuso actually turns in a pretty good performance, but his total screen time is probably less than fifteen minutes; he is in one of the only three really viscerally “scary” scenes, involving a cargo net full of decomposing body parts. Another is a “shower of blood” scene that goes on far too long; it reaches the point of slapstick, thus robbing the film of one of its few “horrific” moments. The final one I’ll not spoil, but even it comes too little, too late.
I know this sounds like I’m trashing the flick, and that makes me feel like hell; my memory has tricked me for years into believing this was a chilling, poignant exploration of supernatural horror…and folks, it just isn’t. However, despite all I’ve said, I didn’t absolutely dislike the film upon this re-watching; the atmosphere I mentioned plus the quality of the actors (even on their worst day, perhaps) saved the film from being a total loss, but I did find myself quite disappointed, and mebbe just a little bit melancholy that it didn’t hold up to my memory.
For those of you that don’t mind a slow-burning, plot-driven tale of the supernatural with very little gory exposition, I’ll say check it out if you get the chance…
…to keep my integrity intact, however, I have to say that I wouldn’t go out of my way to track it down.
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