Color, 1980, 91m.
Directed by Alvin Rakoff
Starring George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Victoria Burgoyne
Scorpion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / (1.78:1) (16:9), Nucleus (UK R0 PAL), King (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
A spooky, trashy anomaly set adrift in an ocean of cinematic slasher films during the early '80s, Death Ship is the kind of movie people stumble upon late at night on TV and spend years trying to track down again. You've got all the ingredients here for a pulpy good time: a semi-celebrity cast; a supernatural high concept; a reasonable body count; and of course, an evil Nazi-spawned killer ship roaming the seas. How can you possibly resist?
When a luxury liner filled with partying guests gets blind sided by another boat, the survivors of the disaster manage to climb aboard a lifeboat. Out of the fog comes the same ship that caused the incident, a decrepit and foreboding vessel that still offers what may be their only chance of survival. Captain Ashland (Kennedy, cashing a check in between Airport and Naked Gun movies), second commander Trevor (Crenna, hot off of The Evil), and Nick (Mancuso, not so hot off of Nightwing) are among the unlucky few who decide to hang out on the ship until rescue arrives. Soon Ashland is slipping on a sinister black military uniform and acting very suspicious, while one by one, the passengers are getting bumped off. As you can probably tell from the title, this ship has some serious nasty plans in store.
Made at the height of the Canadian tax shelter exploitation era, Death Ship was picked up in America by Avco Embassy and freaked out more than its fair share of kids when its trailer ran constantly at matinee shows. The film itself didn't receive much critical love, probably due in part to the presence of Kennedy, whose name wasn't exactly a stamp of quality at the time. However, it earned a small but substantial cult following over the years thanks to its handful of macabre highlights, most notably the scene in which Nick's girlfriend (Burgoyne) gets a bloody surprise in the shower, a scene later pilfered for the ridiculous but lovable made-for-TV favorite, This House Possessed. The climax is pretty lively, too, including a truly creepy sequence involving a giant net filled with human remains. Director Alvin Rakoff was mostly known for his TV work and doesn't do much more than point the camera and shoot, but the whole film has an eerie atmosphere (heck, it's got a ship blaring Nazi interrogation commands on the loudspeakers!) and a strange, unsettling electronic score by Ivor Slaney, who had recently scored Norman J. Warren's Prey and Terror. And wouldja believe the script is based on a story co-written by Jack Hill (Spider Baby) and David P. Lewis (Klute)?
Early home video versions of Death Ship were a lousy bunch, beginning with the muddy Embassy VHS release and continuing to DVD with a very murky Japanese release. The 2007 UK version from Nucleus fared better thanks to fresher source elements and a much-touted brighter presentation of the shower scene, showing off some anatomical blood-smeared details obscured on prior editions. It also has the most substantial extras to date: an audio commentary with Rakoff and frequent extras contributor Jonathan Rigby, a fun "Stormy Seas" featurette (with Rakoff, Hill, Kennedy, and Mancuso), a batch of minor deleted footage (mostly dialogue), selections from Hill's original story, three trailers, and a poster and stills gallery. It's also worth noting that this is still the only edition in the world with optional English subtitles, a nice bonus for hard-of-hearing horror buffs.
It took another five years, but America finally got its own special edition of Death Ship as part of Scorpion's horror line, Katarina's Nightmare Theater. As you can probably guess, cheeky hostess Katarina Leigh Waters does spirited video wraparounds and even contributes a video bonus, "Learn What the Ship Is Saying," in which she offers a Mel Brooks-style translation of the death ship's German commands. There's also an isolated music score (a very nice touch considering the music never had a commercial release), those four minutes of VHS-sourced deleted scenes, the American trailer, and bonus previews for titles like Silent Scream, Humongous, The Hearse, Don't Answer the Phone, and Mortuary. As for the film itself, it looks pretty darn good; the progressive transfer on the DVD edition (the first version released by a couple of months) is given plenty of breathing room (it's a dual-layered disc with the feature taking up over an entire layer); you'll see some softness and speckles during the opening credits as usual (those optical always looked a little iffy), both otherwise it's pretty smooth sailing and very slightly reframed to 1.78:1 compared to the 1.85:1 of prior DVDs. (And yes, that shower scene is nice and clear, so no worries there.) Though you can easily toss the Japanese DVD in the trash bin, it's easy to say that this one's the best visual representation yet and worth picking up even if you have the UK disc. As usual, the cover art retains the terrific original poster art (reused again years later for Warner's Ghost Ship). The Blu-Ray version is taken from the same HD source, obviously, and features the expected bump in clarity with details like clothing patterns and facial hair registering more clearly. It's also worth noting that the color timing of this film has always been a little wonky; 35mm prints had a gray, bleak appearance (which you can tell from the similar trailers circulated on comps over the years), and while the UK disc appears to have been digitally swerved to color correct it to something closer to a "normal" palette (pumped up yellows and reds, for example) along with some sharpening in the process, the Blu-Ray in particular has a more restrained, cold appearance that, if memory serves, gets it a bit closer to the 35mm appearance. Individual tastes will vary, of course, and for the best of both worlds, fans should probably consider having both the US (preferably Blu if possible) and UK editions to get both the best extras and the strongest transfer.
For a comparison, check out this shot from the US Blu-Ray compared to this one from the US DVD and this one from the UK release.
Updated review on December 9, 2012.