Dead in the water

Ship's cargo a load of Nazi nonsense

Published: Feb 06 2016, 01:01:am

Monday, May 27, 1980.
DEATH SHIP. Written by John Robins. Music by Ivor Slaney. Directed by Alvin Rakoff. Running time: 91 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: Some frightening and gory scenes.
I HAVE A SHAMEFUL secret buried deep in my past. Once, in 1964, I actually walked out on a movie.
    Seldom is a movie so bad that it makes me lose touch with my fundamental optimism. Against all the odds, I'll stick around, hoping that things will get better. Often, I'm there through the end credits, right down to the copyright infringement warning.
    There are times when it's not easy. I've learned to recognize certain names, ones that shine down from the screen with a biblical intensity, names that cry out to me "take up thy popcorn and walk!"
    "Sandy Howard and Harold Greenberg present . . ."
     Individually,  those names have sounded many a sour note. Together, they clang like a leper's bell.
    Howard is an American independent producer, born again to the faith of international co-production. He prefers to be remembered for an interesting, offbeat 1970 Western adventure, A Man Called Horse.
    Among the titles in his more recent past are 1977's The Island of Dr. Moreau, Sky RidersEmbryo (both 1976), The Devil's Rain (1975) and Together Brothers (1974). Digging more deeply, I discovered that he was responsible for a little stinker called Diary of a Bachelor, the film that I so vividly remember walking out on in 1964.
    Greenberg is one of our great Canadian film entrepreneurs. From his Montreal home base, he announces multi-million-dollar picture deals with the gay abandon of a politician in the midst of a losing campaign.
    Over the years he has enriched the Canadian film experience with such memorable screen fare as 1976's Breaking Point, Rituals (1977) and In Praise of Older Women (1978). Together with Howard, Greenberg must take responsibility for 1973's Echoes of a Summer (1976) and City On Fire (1979).
    Is it any wonder, then, that I desperately wanted to take rat's leave of their latest collaboration, the inelegantly named Death Ship?
    The plotting here is particularly preposterous. According to John Robin's screenplay, there is an aging freighter plying the Atlantic, its engines running on pure meanness, its purpose supplied by the unseen shades of the Nazi German navy.
    It stalks cruise ships, ramming them in the dead of night. It then hangs about to pick up survivors, so that it can give those hardy souls more individual attention.
    The idea, I think, was to propose a solution to the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. One of the film's sets, a walk-in frozen food locker, is decorated with the bodies of U.S. airmen, presumably a reference to 1945's famous "lost flight."
    Since none of this is made explicit in the dialogue, the obvious conclusion is that none of the people involved in the production really cared if the picture made sense. On screen, director Alvin Rakoff's Death Ship lurches from one shock effect to the next, with little regard for who, how or why.
    One example: Kate Reid, a gifted Canadian actress, plays Sylvia Morgan, one of nine survivors. For the first half of the film she hangs about in the background with no opportunity to develop anything like a character.
    Suddenly, the camera focuses directly on her. She finds a candy jar in a cupboard and tries one.
    In her next scene, she shocks us by turning a hideously deformed face to the camera. A bit of running, some piteous shrieking and she falls down dead.
    Because we never got to know Mrs. Morgan, because we're never told what killed her —a nasty Nazi poison? demonic possession? an extreme allergy reaction? — we don't really give a damn that she's gone.
    Before a movie can frighten us, it must create involvement. With Death Ship, as
with so many previous Howard and/or Greenberg projects, the packaging is more important than the picture making.
    Open a package like Death Ship, and you'll find that it's empty. It's as if the producers know only one trick: take the money and run.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1980. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In case you're wondering, I stuck with Death Ship to the bitter end. To this day I feel badly for all the capable actors burdened with its title in their filmographies. I feel especially sorry for director Alvin Rakoff. The Toronto-born director came of age at a time when talented Canadians had to go abroad to realize their creative potential. Rakoff chose London, where BBC-TV was enjoying its own golden age. Starting in 1953, he worked on every kind of show, in the process launching the careers of such performers as Sean Connery (whose first starring role was in Rakoff's 1957 production of Requiem for a Heavyweight) and Alan Rickman (casting him in the showy role of Tybalt in the BBC Television Shakespeare project's 1978 production of Romeo and Juliet). In 1979, with seven European theatrical feature films to his credit, he returned to Canada to direct four tax-shelter pictures, including the Sandy Howard/Harold Greenberg productions City on Fire (1979) and Death Ship.
    Featured on Rakoff's personal website is this quote: "No one is more surprised than me that this [Death Ship] is now considered a 'cult' film. Horror films are not my genre." To give the picture its due, it did have the positive effect of giving Canadian actor Saul Rubinek his first big screen role (as Jackie, the stand-up comic working on the doomed cruise ship). I'm inclined to believe that Rakoff signed on for his Canadian features believing (as many of us did at the time) that government support, in the form of the 100 percent Capital Cost Allowance, would create a vibrant domestic film industry. Sadly, the results were mostly embarrassing. Returning to Britain, Rakoff resumed his television career, and added directing live theatre and novel writing to his résumé. Although online references agree on the year (1927), they differ on the day of Rakoff's birth. His Wikipedia profile says February 18, while the IMDb insists it's today (February 6). Either way, he is celebrating his 89th birthday this month.