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Full Scream Ahead to the dead.
on 24 May 2014
Water may cover far more of the planet than any landmass ever will, but terribly unpredictable climatic conditions and an utter dearth of imagination tends to make movies set on water a rarity hoping to be cherished, whether the actual result deems that hope accurate. And horror on the ocean is even more scarcer, so sail forward 1980's 'Death Ship' for a cruise it can't loose, and Nucleus Films can be thanked for delivering a region 0 disc with almost as many extras as the US version has, more of that later.
The premise itself is dead on smart, and one cult floater I'd never seen, and wanting to be rammed central by it, I finally set sail. My captain's report is that it ebbs and flows with fitful moments of inspired death-scenes and mounting dread, but also threatens to deadlock aimlessly with budgetary constraints that collides unfortunately to sink certain powerful set pieces that should be pivotal, hence the liner our guests and few crew are on getting prow beaten by the death-cruiser. It may as well not have happened, the ensuing carnage is virtually nonexistent, as stock footage from old disaster movies like 'The Last Voyage' are shot through to enact the resulting mayhem, and then nothing-it dawns the next morning and the eight survivors are already in a makeshift float, barely betraying they'd experience any more than falling in the swimming pool at Aunt Coral Reef's. And not even hitting them. And no remains of the ship is in view at all. So far, so pitiful, but once that freak freighter returns to pick them up, the film begins its promise, unhelpfully slipping up yet again, though,with an accidental long-shot of a window being opened by a crew-member-you can see his arm. Minutes later, the window is opened from inside the ship with no tell-tale physicality on show, supporting the possibility the enemy is an unseen menace. So not delete that first shot?
Redubbing Sally Ann Howes, if not replacing her, as second mate Richard Crenna's wife would have been ship-shape, the stuff she literally comes out with is absurdly at-odds with the seriousness of the situation, she's the worst performer in the film, though gets by at other moments. She rivals almost the basically comatose mother in 'A Nightmare On Elm Street' with the delivery, and the kids playing her children are embarrassingly better than her.Handsome Steven Bauer lookalike Nick Mancuso drifts sadly into overacting mode in slowed-down stills that are supposed to represent a descent into madness at the mercy of the evil force on board, and the scenes of him in a big net and in a theatre room would have reverberated far more powerfully if they weren't dragged out so much. We get it, he's going mad, stop stretching the shot. Ditto a shower sequence for his girlfriend that many will liken to 'Psycho'-I care little about that, anyone can go in a shower, what bothers me if it just won't end. Sure it's memorable enough, but rather embarrassing to watch. She does it well, but once again, some producer's just have to oil up previously untroubled waters.
But the floating menace, a monstrous 2000 plus tonne lumber freighter, is the perfect monster, not living yet very much alive. It looks fantastic, a rusting, cob-webbed single-decked bringer of doom, and we're given helpful oft-shots of the working mechanics of this Nazi-nightmare: of pistons going up and down like raised guillotine heads, windows and portholes opening and slamming shut by themselves and steering wheels, levers and other parts all moving to either point an unseen enemy to be revealed later, or-perhaps the ship itself? But why, you may ask? Well, cruise with it and you'll find out. Controversially (at the time), what truly gives this horror film weight and reality-based roots is a real-life travesty not so distant yet, but hey, look what 'Cloverfield' passed off as its right to exist. Scenes of long-rotting bodies covered in cobwebs and twisted into tortured positions are generally a marvel of set design, as is old-film footage of Holocaust horror, and the musical score adds the necessary pounding terror, intercut with screaming voices of the long-dead and the whispering voice of an old dictator as it plumbs its wishes and demands into ambitiously delighted captain George Kennedy, a little hammy in bits but generally an expectantly malevolent presence. Topped off is the terrifying roar of the foghorn as the ship prepares itself for a ramming-"here I come and here you go" it could be saying. Added to this is some truly spectacular stunt-work to that regarding deaths and death attempts that often wash over stupid mishaps, like the crew-hand opening the window, and worse, one character suddenly appearing from one room to the outside deck in a badly contrived life-attempt. You want to drown the film at moments like this, but the whole obliterates and actually drowns out the missteps overall. The mono Dolby audio is wonderfully clear as well, every word spoken bell-clear, though the musical score by Ivor Stanley, while good for the most part, threatens to become shrill and tinny at times. But overall-it's all ship-shape and swimmingly done.
Plus any horror fan's got to appreciate the tidal wave of meaningful ambition and subsequent splash it truly made, rippling far and wide, becoming the biggest hit of its year-behind 'Kramer Vs Kramer' no less,whilst successfully merging the disaster movies of old with a unique horror premise, which certainly doesn't seem to have only inspired Dark Castle's 2002 'Ghost Ship', and the same year's 'Below' from 'Pitch Black' man David Twohy-set on a submarine yet with a big Nazi incorporation too. Then there's Christopher Smith's 'Triangle'-isn't it possible that these, and maybe more have cruised 'Death Ship' up and down like a forensic examiner, treading water, awaiting their sea of glory?
For a film seemingly sunk in forgotten waters, for it to resurface with such a pack of very fine extras kind of justifies the money the film just by itself is probably not quite worth, though I don't doubt its stature as a must-sea horror (sorry) in a subgenre that includes truly little. A fascinating commentary between 'English Gothic' author Jonathan Rigby and director Alvin Rakoff uncovers from the deep truly enthrall and entertain, an equally astute and compelling 42 minute featurette involving several of the actors, writer and director swims pleasingly, has a few irrelevant ducked scenes and a picture gallery, plus selected pages of the original story with its earlier working titles (about three others). The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation enhanced for HD can only rescue the film's picture quality so far, by itself the dim lighting and dull colours aren't any crime, but the early scenes right at the movie's start during the night are so static-filled and blurry they threaten to do your head in, and it also blurs out a bit at some later stages, with a few black line stains visible on the print. A shame, but if you appreciate we can only have this now thanks to a large amount of time and money spent on activating the transfer from the original Brit theatrical print, the Canadian original negatives being consigned to the deep abyss with its processing lab, it still a case of swimming over sinking. And there are worse transfers out there. Best of all-at least found footage film-making with intention to be grainy for authenticity (bull!) didn't exist back then.
Most shocking of all is Rakoff's displeasure with his finished film, and his bemusement at the high regard its now held, and I can't go higher than three stars myself, but mine is a ***(8/10) for good, not an amazon *** for fair or average, and he just doesn't seem to like horror films. But likeable this most certainly is, and durable too, especially with that wicked oil tanker of evil. Yes 'Deep Rising' is far more me-it has the monster and the budget to make a ship collision look and feel exactly what it should, plus the aftermath, but I admire 'Death Ship' for doing what only the 80's could-to take a suggestive threat conveyed with pure clarity, a main pollutant today of horror movies where all are so desperate to "keep it real" that real horror, ironically, is actually kept down so forcefully it lays down and dies, leaving a perfectly ordinary and utterly worthless thriller/drama/action film in its place. Gulity parties are all around, many in the found-footage department.
While I was surprised enough to hear ghosts were actually supposed to feature in the film from the writer and the producer, they were actually exorcised in preference for what was chosen, and as it was 1980 back then, I utterly identify that being the correct choice, because what was used was truly different and truly worked, pre-dating the Stephen King mini-series from 2002 'Rose Red' (ironically too the 'Ghost Ship'/'Below' year) in that sense. If it were made today, I wouldn't, but then it wouldn't, would it, be made today, which is exactly my point, and a far better one that the absurd moans on its release that the German dialogue (only used in scattered moments of the broadening identity of the threat wasn't understood, and it is here that audiences' patience and rationality and common sense are just undeserving of such a movie. For God's sake when a threatened animal warns you with a charge, glare or snarl it's going to attack, you don't wait and wish for it to develop human speech so you can understand its intent. For this reason, our extras seem to actually trounce the US ones which actually include the German speaking lady on the soundtrack telling you in English what she-or the ship-was saying! Seriously, whilst being bilingually challenged isn't a social inadequacy, an inability to grasp the obvious is. Whoever these fans were at its time of release, don't all gasp for air at once, talk about 20,000 leagues of lost logistics under the sea!