Sometimes the production saga of a classic Canadian tax shelter production is more interesting than the finished product, but Death Ship has lived on as a brooding cult film whose must-see status was enhanced by a period of unavailability video, especially in home & native land.
In 1975, Britain and Canada established a co-production treaty to re-ignite a local Canadian film industry and save what was left of Britain’s own disintegrating theatrical production base – a move not unlike the multi-party European co-productions which balanced a peculiar quotient of French, German, Italian, and / or Spanish talent. Unique within Canada was the point system that allowed investors to recoup the bulk of their cash as a tax write-off. A key provision was a minimum of 6 ‘CanCon points’ which could be drawn from directors, writers, producers, and stars still in possession of their citizenship papers.
Under the auspices of, and occasionally genuine intent to do something good for the nation’s culture, a significant bulk of films involving ex-pats were produced, and the plus side included the use of emerging local talent, and setting the roots for a production and post-production talent pool that became first-class.
However, the film’s didn’t necessarily have to be good, nor make much sense, nor be made under the most ideal circumstances, and certainly within Canada, they didn’t even need a wide theatrical release, if any. Locally, Death Ship may be best remembered for its brooding trailer, stellar poster campaign, and multiple late night TV airings that fulfilled minimum CanCon broadcast requirements, not to mention being one of the first horror films to enjoy home video distribution; in terms of living up to the hype, however, it falls short in many areas.
Canadian-born Alvin Rakoff was lured from his home base in England by fledgling producer and Astral Bellevue Pathe head Harold Greenberg to direct City on Fire (1979), a disaster film based on a story by exploitation veteran Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters), and co-written with David P. Lewis, a TV writer whose best work was the rare feature film script Klute (1971).
Hill had written a horror script called Bloodstar which attracted the interest of veteran schlockmeister Sandy Howard (The Neptune Factor, Embryo [M]), and with Greenberg interested in the project, Bloodstar was redeveloped from a mystical ghost ship story to a roving ex-Nazi concentration camp on water, a ‘death ship’ with a purely evil mandate.
Hill’s script was more ambitious and less gory, whereas the revisions and rewriting added an opening sequence where the death ship collides with a cruise ship; a new finale; and new dramatic episodes of the ship trying to kill the cruise ship’s survivors rather than malevolent ghosts taking over the survivors and wreaking primarily psychological havoc.
Rakoff was never pleased with the final shooting script, but he took the directing assignment under the verbal agreement that his real name would not appear in the credits, and made the best with what was a low budget film shot in Quebec, the Gulf of Mexico, and Dauphin Island, Alabama.
When the film was released (with Rakoff fully credited instead of an Alan Smithee variant), Death Ship was making money; perhaps it fulfilled a void for horror when the rest of North America was more interested in seeing the disintegration of a marriage in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer, hence Death Ship coming in as the second top-grossing film one week – just under Kramer.
While apparently reviled by Canadian critics as another wretched tax shelter film, Death Ship strangely grew into a cult film – and not just north of the 49th parallel. Released around the world on VHS during the format’s rapid acceptance by average households, it was among a batch of shock films which, owing in large part to its arresting cover art, left an impression.
Unsurprisingly, after its run on VHS, Death Ship did the rounds on local TV stations due to CanCon regulations, albeit perhaps shorn of its most notorious material – a ‘blood’ shower where breasts and beaver were plainly visible – and then, as with most tax shelter films, Death Ship vanished because either no one knew who owned the film’s rights, or the rights holder simply felt there was no market beyond the odd cable airing as part of a packaged deal.
It comes as no surprise to Canadian film collectors that Death Ship has appeared on DVD outside of its main country of origin. Canadians having to import their classic and not-so-classic cinematic history isn’t new, but it’s more than common when it comes to the tax shelter shockers because no one up here really gives a damn, and is willing to spend a dime to release their wares on video. Perhaps the lone blessing is that owner TVA came through in licensing the film to two releases which remain distinct.
Right from the main titles, one gets a sense the film was quickly assembled because the title design – a somewhat illegible, quasi-Germanic font over ‘death ship’ footage – looks washed out, and it might be another indication that co-producer Greenberg was a bit too ambitious in thinking his company, Astral Bellevue Pathe – was ready to tackle theatrical quality film opticals. (This isn’t a flippant observation. Greenberg also co-produced Rituals, and in prepping their stellar DVD release, label Code Red discovered the lab had bungled the processing of the final reels, pretty much ruining the intended dark lighting of the climactic scene.)
The film’s credit sequence is broken up over a ‘Poseidon Adventure’ styled montage where the film’s flat characters are introduced on a bland cruise ship, and during a celebratory dance, the ship is struck by the death ship and sinks in seconds. Stock footage was roughly intercut between material partially shot on a ship (the bridge) and likely on some soundstage in Quebec (the ‘ball sequence’ features the worlds smallest cruise ship vacationers), and neither the badly tinted day-for-night death ship footage nor the crude nighttime footage of said cruise ship match whatsoever – a portent of innumerable sloppy continuity errors which the film’s editor was either oblivious to, or didn’t care to fix.
Most of the ‘crash footage is reportedly assembled from the 1960 MGM disaster flick The Long Voyage, and it’s just a rudimentary montage that espouses to convince one of the death ship’s immense kill power. The choppy opening sequence soon moves to the survivors floating on a raft, and it’s here where one gets a sense the film originally began after a series of post-production reshoots. (In reality, Hill’s script actually starts at this stage, but the opening was indeed part of the film’s principle photography. In an interview on the Region 2 UK DVD, co-star Nick Mancuso recalls there was additional raft material that didn’t make the final cut.)
It’s pretty much from this stage that Death Ship goes through the superficially intriguing motions of survivors floating up to the derelict ship, climbing aboard, settling in, and quickly realizing there’s something very creepy about the craft which, in addition to running on its own power, is causing the cruise ship’s captain (George Kennedy) to assume command wearing the immaculate WWII uniform of the ship’s dead Nazi captain.
Strange events, hallucinations, and ridiculously contrived positioning of the characters on the ship lead to assorted shocks, deaths, and conflicts, but like any standard haunted house mystery, although everyone knows they ought to stay together and never stray far from their home base, they don’t. The film’s most infamous sequence – the blood shower – was mandated by co-producer Howard and inserted by Hill in his final draft, and even director Rakoff was forced to retain the overlong sequence. Rakoff’s handling of the film’s shocks is neither pedestrian or adept; they’re basically functional, but he does make good use of the ship’s interior and exterior details. The production made use of a hideously rusting hulk for the exterior shots filmed in Alabama, and a gloomy ship docked in Quebec doubled as for the crew quarters and engine interiors.
The next memorable scene – Mancuso caught in a net of cadavers – comes out of left field, and while Rakoff argues the abrupt scene transition was inspired by the discontinuous editing in popular commercials, it does feel like a clever cheat to both get rid of one character, and get another face to face with the film’s only humanoid villain. Both the UK DVD and the Region A Blu-ray feature deleted material culled from a TV edit which offers more dialogue and makes the conversation and subsequent stabbing less spastic, but the extra dialogue also disrupts the theatrical cut’s faster tempo.
Death Ship’s finale, changed from Hill’s original concept, is worth mentioning because it’s more traditional for the genre – the villain loses the power bestowed upon him by the ship and becomes mere fodder for its blood-hungry gears; and the hero and heroine manage a quick recovery courtesy of a fly-by search party who amazingly never see the death ship in spite of it being a clear, bight sunny day. The closing montage – in which the death ship locks onto another nearby vessel as its next target – is just as choppy as the opening sequence, but leaves the film open for a potential sequel.
While there wasn’t a follow-up film, there are striking similarities between the film, Hill’s script, and Dark Castle’s messy 2002 production Ghost Ship [M], which looks like a hybrid of the two scripts even though there’s no formal connection between the films (although one can assume its poster design was directly inspired by the 1980 poster campaign). Ghost Ship is about a group of salvagers stranded on the drifting wreck of a lost ocean liner, and their gradual loss of sanity as the ghosts of its killers play mind games to murder the humans, if not drive each other to murder. The finale involves the ship’s destruction, but not before the ‘lost souls’ of its innocent victims swarm up from the depths much in the way ghosts attempt to escape from the ship in Hill’s unrealized draft.
Death Ship isn’t remarkable save for its novel concept of a haunted house that seeks to possess, control, and kill the strangers forced to find security from the elements within its studded hull. While never really gory, there is a strange atmosphere which propels the film, if not a no-nonsense editing style that likely hacked away excessive dialogue to keep characters moving in & out of rooms, up & down decks, and into grievous situations.
The cast is a typical blend of primary U.S. talent supported by U.K. and Canadian talent to satisfy CanCon and co-production funding criteria, but there’s something clever in seeing veteran disaster actor Kennedy play a less than nice character, and Richard Crenna gives genuine credence to an otherwise banal heroic archetype. Sally Ann Howes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is slightly miscast as the heroine and mother of two annoying brats (Jennifer McKinney and Danny Higham) who are strikingly reminiscent of The Poseidon Adventure’s own nosey brats (played by Pamela Sue Anderson and Eric Shea); and character actress Kate Reid (The Andromeda Strain) gives full gravitas to a straight frumpish role. Saul Rubinek has a small role as the jokey cruise ship emcee whom the death ship immediately discards, whereas Mancuso fares better (and lives longer) as the film’s de facto stud who beds and attempts to save the de facto babe (lovely and occasionally naked Victoria Burgoyne) from the bloody shower.
The compositions by cinematographer Rene Verzier (Rituals) are sometimes ruined by choppy editing, but he manages to give the film a docu-like feel which enhances the already strong ship locations.
The Home Video Editions
Back in 2007 Britain’s Nucleus Films released a DVD featuring what was at the time the only known 35mm print (housed at the BFI, of all places), but in the U.S., Scorpion Releasing managed to use a near-pristine print from TVA for their HD transfer. From a transfer stance, the 2012 release is the best, whereas the extras from the R2 DVD are the most important.
Nucleus’ DVD includes a superb director commentary with author / moderator Jonathan Rigby, both of whom cover the film’s production history and the uniqueness of the U.K.-Canada co-productions, and the tax shelter films. Rigby is extremely well-prepared with notes, review quotes, and assorted ephemera, and Rakoff manages to maintain his demure surprise that a film very low on his preference scale has outlived the more prestigious TV work he’s done in Britain.
The R2 disc also includes a 42 min. making-of featurette with lengthy interviews from co-stars George Kennedy and Nick Mancuso, director Rakoff, and co-writer Hill, and all share many candid memories and observations. Readable excerpts from Hill’s draft are also archived on the DVD, focusing on the opening and finale dropped by the filmmakers and re-writer John Robins. The deleted scenes culled from a Betamax tape copy of the TV version are identical to the extracts on the Scorpion BR, although the latter label chose to drop the ‘alternate blood shower’ because all that was done is replace boobies and beaver shots with black frames.
Scorpion’s BR contains only one trailer over the 3 different (and meandering) ones on the R2 release, but exclusive to the BR is an isolated mono track of Ivor Slaney’s rather workmanlike score. His final film score is a sometimes awkward shifting between synths and orchestra, and Stanley’s background is mostly in B and exploitation fodder, including Norman J. Warren’s Prey and Terror (both 1978).
Neither release contains a booklet, but Scorpion’s release includes a Katerina Nightmare option, and in a separate featurette, the emcee providing a translation of the German dialogue that George Kennedy hears from the ship’s ghost captain. Strange how it was spoken only in German, but the R2 DVD contains a subtitling of the dialogue (in German only).
Fans wanting the best of both worlds will have to get both 2007 and 2012 releases, but they’re extremely well-produced and will no doubt further baffle director Rakoff, given this cult tax shelter shocker has been treated with such appreciation – which is quite frankly the way it ought to be done for any cult film. Perhaps Scorpion might tackle Rakoff’s City on Fire, since it’s only been released overseas. (A 2-disc German edition reportedly sports the feature film and reductive Super 8 versions.)
Alvin Rakoff’s CanCon films include City on Fire (1979) and Death Ship (1980) for co-producer Greenberg, plus Dirty Tricks (1981), King Solomon’s Treasure (1979), and the horror anthology Three Dangerous Ladies (1977) with directors Robert Fuest and Don Thompson. Although he’s primarily worked in television, his best theatrical film is probably drama / psychological suspenser Hoffman (1971), starring Peter Sellers and Sinead Cusack.
George Kennedy’s other (sort of) CanCon classique is the Japanese disaster epic Virus / Fukkatsu no hi (1980), whereas Richard Crenna co-starred in Stone Cold Dead for director George Mendeluk (The Kidnapping of the President). Nick Mancuso and Saul Rubinek co-starred in the underrated drama Ticket to Heaven [M] (1981).
Sally Ann Howes retired from feature films after Death Ship, whereas Victoria Burgoyne wasn’t able to sustain a lengthy career in spite of appearances in TV’s Doctor’s Daughters (1981), Howards’ Way (1989), and Doctor Who (1992). Her feature films are few and far between, although she did appear in Adrian Lyne’s 1976 short Mr. Smith.
Under Harold Greenberg’s tenure, Astral Bellevue Pathe produced a string of films between 1974-1985, of which the most notable are Oliver Stone’s Seizure (1974), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Peter Carter’s Rituals (1977), Allan King’s Who Has Seen the Wind (1977), George Kaczender’s In Praise of Older Women (1978), the classic spy series A Man Called Intrepid (1979), Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980), Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1972), and Gilles Carle’s Maria Chapdelaine (1983).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan