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Death Ship

Year: 1980
Production Co: AVCO Embassy Pictures
Director: Alvin Rakof
Writer: John Robins/Jack Hill/David P Lewis
Cast: Richard Crenna, George Kennedy, Nick Mancuso, Saul Rubinek

It was only the 90s mavericks like Tarantino and Rodriguez who made exploitation cinema cool after the fact. What I want to do is go back in time and ask people like Pam Grier, Russ Meyer or Herschell Gordon Lewis whether – even while they were paying their mortgages – they were at all ashamed, embarrassed or disappointed at where their careers had led them. Did they still give every movie or performance their all, or did they realise they were appearing in B grade pap that wouldn't appeal to anyone but kids at secret midnight screenings or VHS movie nights and which critics and the larger industry would pretend didn't exist?

It seems here like Richard Crenna and George Kennedy did the former. Or maybe there were just such professionals they didn't know how to phone it in, because they appear to believe in their roles wholeheartedly, no matter how lurid the subject matter.

I was never the biggest fan of this sort of thing but along with dozens of other movies, the poster art for this film was seared somewhere in my memory for decades after seeing it on the horror shelves of a hundred video stores in the VHS era. I wasn't aware of it occupying any particularly hallowed place in exploitation cinema history, but the premise was enough to get me interested. All that was left was for director Alvin Rakoff and writers John Robins, Jack Hill and David P Lewis to ruin it by not leaning into it fully enough.

They do and they don't. It takes its time exploiting the premise to the full, and when it does there aren't a lot of scenes of genuine horror or blood and guts that embrace it – just enough to keep the pace up.

The prickly, antisocial captain of a luxury liner, Ashland (Kennedy), seems to hate his job ferrying spoiled rich socialites and their brats, only in it for the spiritual pull of the ocean and the craft of sailing. His incoming replacement, Trevor (Richard Crenna) is a little more forgiving and accepting of their guests, on board with his wife and two kids.

But when the huge dark hulk of an apparent wreck rams the ship in the middle of the night and only a small group of survivors get off the crippled cruise ship before it sinks, the nightmare begins. The next day, stricken in a lifeboat, they come across the ship that hit them the previous night and climb aboard, finding only empty corridors, rusty hatches and rooms full of naval memorabilia that look 50 years old.

While everyone else tries to figure out what's going on, Ashland goes slowly mad, apparently the only one who can hear the klaxon announcements in German echoing throughout the ship and across the deck.

As is finally revealed when the survivors come across state rooms full of swastikas and portraits of Hitler, they've apparently stumbled upon a Nazi torture vessel (now there's a concept!), the ghosts of its former crew sailing the high seas looking for victims to capture and torture to their heart's content. And as the spirits get further under Ashland's skin they have a living collaborator only too willing to round up and gruesomely dispatch whoever they can get their hands on.

When things kick into high gear and the bodies really start piling up there's no real rhyme or reason to the rules of the Death Ship universe. In one instance a young lady gets locked in a shower that starts to emit blood rather than water. In another a young deckhand who dives at Ashland to attack him seems to be instantly teleported elsewhere, falling instead into a bilge net full of human corpses (and who reacts with horror that's just a little over-egged).

A stronger backbone to what's actually going on and how the supernatural manifests itself in the story would have made for a more rounded plot, but at least Death Ship doesn't take itself too seriously, embracing conventions appropriate to the video nasty movement – I was worried for awhile everyone involved would think they were making a legitimate drama thriller and eschew blood and boobs altogether.

When it was over I was left with a final thought. I'll bet David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, if they'd seen this film, might have told each other Crenna and Kennedy would have been at home in They both manage the high wire act of committing with deadpan seriousness but taking it to precipice into hysterical comedy, a quality ZAZ saw and used to brilliant effect in Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves.

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