The 1980 film, Death Ship, opens with a black freighter ominously sailing across the ocean in the middle of the night. The freighter appears to be deserted but, when a cruise ship appears over the horizon, we suddenly hear disembodied German voices announcing that the enemy is in sight and it’s time to take battle stations. The freighter changes direction and starts to rapidly move straight towards the cruise ship.
On the cruise ship, a really bad comedian named Jackie (played by Saul Rubineck) is telling a series of unfunny jokes. Fortunately, before he can further offend anyone else’s comedic sensibilities. the freighter crashes into the cruise ship and sinks it. The next morning, we see a small group of survivors floating on a piece of debris. There’s the firm and harsh Captain Ashland (George Kennedy), who was on the verge of being forced into retirement before his boat sank. There’s Mrs. Morgan (Kate Reid), the odd religious passenger. There’s Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), his wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes), and their two annoying kids. There’s a guy named Nick (Nick Mancuso) and a woman named Lori (Victoria Burgoyne), who are in love but obviously doomed. And then there’s Jackie. That’s right, Jackie survived! And he’s still telling bad jokes!
Suddenly, the survivors spot the freighter in the distance. Not realizing that it’s the same freighter that previously rammed them, they board the boat and discover that it appears to be totally abandoned. Jackie stands on the deck, encourages everyone to be positive, and makes more jokes. Suddenly, a cable wraps around his ankles, one of the ship’s cranes suddenly moves, and Jackie is tossed back into the ocean. The comedy Gods have spoken.
Anyway, once Jackie is no longer around to make them laugh, the cruise ship survivors set about going crazy. It’s not that difficult to do because it turns out that not only is the freighter full of ghosts but the ship’s engine is fueled by pure hate. That means that one passengers takes a shower just to have the water turn to blood. Another makes the mistake of watching an old movie and eating a cursed piece of hard candy. Yet another ends up getting tossed into the gears of the ship and loses an arm.
Meanwhile, Captain Ashland stumbles around the ship and hears voices telling him that the ship is now his. After Ashland discovers and then puts on an old officer’s uniform, he declares that he’s in charge of the freighter and then he proceeds to try to kill everyone else on the ship. Captain Ashland is possessed and there’s not even anyone on the boat who can make a joke about it.
Death Ship is a dumb but crudely effective movie. This is one of those films where everyone could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by sticking together as a group instead of splitting up to search the freighter but it’s not like you’re watching a movie called Death Ship because you’re looking for a coherent narrative or anything. The main reason you’re watching is so you can see George Kennedy get possessed and go crazy. Fortunately, George Kennedy was just the type of character actor who you could depend upon to act the hell out of getting possessed. There’s not a hint of subtlety to be found in Kennedy’s performance and, if nothing else, that certainly makes him entertaining to watch. Kennedy attacks this role with the ferocity of a cheetah pouncing on a gazelle in a nature documentary. He basically grabs hold of the film and snarls at the rest of the cast, “This is my movie! If you steal a scene from me in your dreams, you better wake up and apologize!” It’s fun to watch.
The same can be said about Death Ship, which is a totally over-the-top movie but which, thanks to Kennedy’s performance and a few atmospheric shots of the freighter, is also far more entertaining than it has any right to be.