Monday, July 27, 2020

Vamp or Not? Death Ship

B movie horror fare from 1980 and directed by Alvin Rakoff, this was, I guess, partly a naziploitation film and certainly was a strange beast of a premise with a ship that seemed to be alive. My friend Leila suggested this might be a Vamp movie in the same way that I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle and Upír z Feratu are also vampire movies – in that we have a vampiric machine at the heart of the film.

Having settled down to watch this I became, as the film progressed, less convinced until close to the end where a line made me see where Leila was coming from. There was also the use of a trope that, whilst not exclusively Vamp, certainly originates from the genre. It was fair, I thought, to examine this as a ‘Vamp or Not?’

George Kennedy as Asland
So, things start with a vessel and a voice, speaking in German, stating that the enemy is in sight. The best way to describe it is that the ghost ship gears up to ramming speed. Cut to a cruise ship and we meet some of the passengers and crew. Firstly, Captain Ashland (George Kennedy), who is a bit of a terror to his crew but who is retiring after this trip. As well as him we meet his replacement, Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna). The outgoing Captain hates doing the social thing with the passengers but he is forced, by professional obligation, to go to the party that is in full swing.

Saul Rubinek as Jackie
At the party the two Captains sit at the table with Marshall’s wife, Margaret (Sally Ann Howes), and kids, Robin (Jennifer McKinney) and Ben (Danny Higham). Margaret has Robin take the tired Ben back to the cabin. Also at the party we see crew member Nick (Nick Mancuso, Nightwing) and passenger Lori (Victoria Burgoyne) sneak off for some ‘how’s your father’ and we get some input from party compere Jackie (Saul Rubinek). Finally, Ashland speaks to passenger Sylvia Morgan (Kate Reid) before being called back to the bridge, who have detected the ship that is on collision course.

death ship
Try what they might the ship rams them and we get disaster movie scenes in montage with the idea that the cruise ship sinks quickly. We then see a raft with all the Marshalls, Jackie, Sylvia, Nick and Lori on. The obvious question was, in separate locations as the kids and lovers were, how did these particular passengers and crew all make it onto a raft (and it isn’t a lifeboat, mind) and why no one else – it is glaring, unanswered and quickly forgotten. Something is in the water and a hand breaks the surface. They pull Ashland out of the water – absolutely worse for wear. They drift until the ship (that unknown to them, rammed them) suddenly sneaks up behind them. At this point I was thinking this was a “they’re all dead and this is some form of afterlife” plot – not the case.

boarding the ship
So, after shouting for attention to no avail, they drift past a boarding ladder. They climb it, but as Nick and Marshall help the Captain up the camera cuts to the machinery of the ship, which starts to move – indicating cognitive action on the vessel’s part – and the ladder tilts and falls away. Luckily Lori manages to drop a rope ladder and they get onboard, but not without the ship dousing them with something – perhaps oil, perhaps bilge – as they climb, presumably trying to make them lose their grip. Following this the ship seems to catch Jackie in metal cables. He is hoisted, swung over the ocean, dunked then dropped – the anchor comes up and the engines start…

murdering Sylvia
From our point of view, what is important here is that we here a ghostly voice with German accent speak (telepathically, presumably) to the insensible Ashland – saying that he is the new captain of the ship. Later, when Sylvia’s face becomes lumpy (for want of a better description – possibly due to eating boiled sweets she finds), he murders her by strangulation at the ship’s urging, all the time seeing a disobedient sailor rather than his erstwhile passenger. Ashland is the embodiment of the trope I mentioned.

frozen victims
One might think that a Captain (and he dons a Nazi Captain’s uniform) is in charge of a ship but we need to remember this ship has been ghosting round the oceans for roughly forty years and presumably without a captain or crew for much of that and so does not need someone in charge. Indeed, Ashland is not in charge – though he thinks he is – the ship will not let him change course, for instance, if it doesn’t suit the ship. Ashland is very much the ship’s servant; in vampire genre parlance he is the ship’s Renfield. There logically must have been other servants as we see a freezer with past victims dangling and frozen – though Ashland seems to prefer burial at sea.

blood shower
The ship itself was a Nazi interrogation ship and is dedicated to its fascist origins – playing a film reel of Hitler at one point. We see no Nazi crew (they are long gone) it is the ship that is the Nazi. It can drop and weigh anchor of its own volition, the engines work – though the dials are all on zero and the source of its fuel is not revealed. It can also lock doors and, at one point, showers Lori in blood. Having Ashland just gives it a pair of hands (and the ability to shoot a rifle). So, why vamp?

homicidal ship
Well I struggled with this. The ship was supernaturally active but I didn’t see the immediate connection until Ashland declares that the ship needs blood, telling Marshall that it needs the blood of his family. Indeed, Ashland categorically states that its survival is dependent on getting blood. Of course, Ashland is mad, but this seems to be the primary command to its Renfield – get me blood. How it uses the blood is not revealed. We do see someone crushed in the cogs of the engine but there is no obvious indication that this feeds the ship. I wondered whether we get to see it using blood as fuel – we don’t – and one might argue that showering Lori in blood would therefore be a waste, unless of course it is recycled through the shower drain.

Into Eternity
So, is it Vamp? I think it all goes down to whether the viewer trusts the mad Renfield character’s exposition. If Ashland is correct when he says that ship needs blood to survive, then possibly yes. Even if the word blood actually means life generally, and the ship needs to take lives to survive, then there is an argument that it is surviving off victims’ life energies. Ashland gives a hint of immortality; when asked where he plans to sail her, he responds, “Into eternity, Marshall. Eternity.” Again, we need to caveat this with the fact that he thinks he is the master when he is clearly the servant and that he is mad. The problem is, this is an unashamed B piece and detailed discussion of underlying themes was not in the script as filmed.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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