Director: Alvin Rakoff
Scorpion Releasing

Hapless survivors of a cruise ship disaster board the DEATH SHIP for a “holiday in hell” courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.

A mysterious vessel rams a luxury cruise ship leaving a raft full of survivors drifting into the path of a WWII German ship anchored in the middle of nowhere. With Captain Ashland (George Kennedy, BOLERO) out of commission, Captain Marshall (Richard Crenna, THE EVIL) and crew member Nick (Nick Mancuso, NIGHTWING) get the others aboard the vessel including Marshall’s wife Margaret (Sally Anne Howes, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG!), his kids Robin (Jennifer McKinney, RUNNING) and Ben (Danny Higham, LOVE AT STAKE), tourist Lori (Victoria Burgoyne, GHOSTS CAN’T DO IT), Christian widow Sylvia (Kate Reid, EQUUS) and cheesy shipboard entertainer Jackie (Saul Rubinek, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES). Far from being a safe haven, the ship has a life of its own and starts systematically eliminating the survivors. Meanwhile, Ashland – resentful at being retired and replaced with Marshall – starts experiencing SHINING-esque visions and signs of possession by the ship’s ghosts (I guess…)

DEATH SHIP originated as a screenplay by Jack Hill (SPIDER BABY) titled “Blood Star” – who receives story credit here alongside David P. Lewis (KLUTE) while TV director John Robins (HOT RESORT) receives script credit – which frankly would have to have been more interesting than the final product. Despite a bloody nude shower scene, the film isn’t exploitative enough to be entertaining. Director Alvin Rakoff, a Toronto native who got his start in British television before moving onto films (including the May-December romance SAY HELLO TO YESTERDAY, also available from Scorpion Releasing). Rakoff is no stranger to the genre, having directed nine episodes of sixteen-season series ARMCHAIR THRILLER as well as the short TV adaptation of the vampire story MRS. AMWORTH; but it seems evident that he prefers the more restrained approach (to this film’s detriment, although it probably guaranteed a higher-profile cast). The nine characters are also hardly the amusing cross-section of humanity you usually see in Irwin Allen-esque disaster movies (although it’s only technically a disaster movie for the first 15 or so minutes). The film would probably have played better had they started after the disaster since the ocean-liner scenes introducing and establishing the characters are utterly boring: Kennedy grumbles, Crenna quips, Howes beams, Rubenik does his obnoxious entertainer shtick, the kids act cutesy, while Mancuso and Burgoyne tussle in a bedroom. The crash sequence is achieved through intercutting stock footage from an older film with a couple shots of the actors being tossed over tables in the dining room. The script offers some tantalizing ideas (the course marked for the ship goes around in circles) but the end result is a lot of wandering between death scenes shot with little flair.

Kennedy and Crenna give their best on what looks like an arduous shoot. It’s hard to take Howes seriously when she looks at the 1940s photographs, layers of dust and decay, and rusty water and says, “I wonder where the crew are?” Although Burgoyne is there to strip and die, the first half of the film at least portrays her as more assertive than the other women; and, in an interesting reversal, Mancuso is the one who gets hysterical (although his death scene is the most ridiculous and needlessly protracted sequence). The cinematography of Rene Verzier (RABID) is the film’s most accomplished aspect, but the many artfully-framed and lit shots of the ship’s surfaces and corridors hardly inspire dread. Songwriter/library music composer Ivor Slaney’s score is far less effective than his experimental score for Norman Warren’s TERROR (also available on DVD from Scorpion Releasing in a double-bill with THE DEVIL’S MEN, the longer British version of LAND OF THE MINOTAUR). The film was a collaboration between American producer Sandy Howard (CIRCLE OF IRON) and Canadian producer Harold Greenberg (PORKY’S), who had just worked together the previous year on the Canadian-produced TERROR TRAIN (as well as Rakoff’s CITY ON FIRE the same year). Producer Derek Gibson had worked for Howard until 1979 when he became head of production at Astral Bellevue, one of the companies behind DEATH SHIP (Gibson joined Hemdale in the mid-1980s and produced THE TERMINATOR and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD among others).

Opening with a Canadian TVA Films logo before the main menu, Scorpion’s dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic disc was transferred from a new HD master of the film’s interpositive (Scorpion’s Blu-ray edition – their first release in this format – has been pushed back to January). The stock footage during the opening disaster scene is now comically far more apparent, but the improved quality over the tape release also complements the shadings of Verzier’s cinematography (blue gels, shafts of light where there was previously murk). Extras are rather skimpy compared to the British Region 0 PAL disc from Nucleus Films which sported an audio commentary by director Alvin Rakoff, a forty-minute featurette on the film with contributions from Rakoff, writer Hill, and actors Kennedy and Mancuso, deleted scenes from the TV version, three trailers for the film, and a shorter featurette with script pages from Hill’s original “Blood Star” screenplay (a 2.0 LPCM track – in addition to the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track – and English HoH subtitles were also included).

Scorpion’s disc features a short trailer (0:58), presumably the same deleted scenes (4:12), the film’s score isolated on a second audio track (a nice bonus), and a comic featurette called “Learn What the Ship is Saying” (3:43) in which German-born Waters translates the ship’s various intercom warnings. Although there is an option to view the film with “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” introduction and post-script, this does not seem to be an official Katarina title. Waters’ introduction to the film is a bit lengthier than usual since she has to highlight some of the other works of the leads as well as Rakoff, Hill, Greenberg, and cinematographer Verzier, as well as US distributor Avco Embassy (although she does not mention Howard). There is no Katarina banner, and the Nightmare Theater playback option is only selectable from the extras menu rather than as an alternate play option on the main menu screen. Trailers for SILENT SCREAM, HUMONGOUS, THE HEARSE, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE and MORTUARY. (Eric Cotenas)