23 Days ’til Halloween, 2016: DEATH SHIP (1980)

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Here’s another film, like GARGOYLES, that was a staple of my childhood. Whenever it was on the local Saturday afternoon horror double feature I would watch it again…and again and again. I purchased a videotaped version of it years ago and I’m glad I found a copy as grimy and dark looking as the version that appeared on TV. With the degradation of video decay, this movie takes on a filthy veneer that would make an obsessively compulsive cleaner want to peel off their skin…it’s wonderful. I also purchased an original theatrical poster for the film which I proudly display in my hallway and, as a cleaned-up DVD version finally came out a few years ago, I’m now able to watch the beautiful original in its intended aspect ratio whenever I’m feeling generally blue…or saddened by the horrors of current events. For me it’s like seeing Jesus’s face clean and glowing at the end of Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF CHRIST.

I’m not sure why I haven’t posted DEATH SHIP here before. Perhaps it wasn’t on Youtube or I wanted to be honorable to the company that released it on DVD. Well, it’s been a few years, so I think it’s now ethical to share a free streaming version of it in the hope of building a fan base (and hopefully more buyers of the DVD).


DEATH SHIP tells the age old story of a shipwrecked group of people who, floating on life rafts, come across a dark, cavernous, ash-covered, black-oil-sludge-dripping ghost ship. Of course the ship ends up haunted. The plot and its relative originality is not the least bit important. The atmosphere is everything. In the case of DEATH SHIP, that atmosphere is…something more than evil. It’s dirty evil. It’s perverse evil. It’s really evil… Truly, though the subtext of DEATH SHIP is fairly profound, the “feeling” of the movie can be summed up in one terrifying image of a shirtless man squirming about helplessly in a wet pit of rotting corpses.

That image has haunted me for years. Perhaps it’s because I saw POLTERGEIST at a fairly young age and was impressed by the corpse filled swimming pool scene at its end…or perhaps it’s because I’ve always been intuitively aware of what Freud calls the death instinct: that strange pull of extinction and destruction that, when harnessed, can either create great examples of high culture or great examples of terrifying atrocities.

I certainly have an edge to my personality that revels in chaos. When I was a child I would run my own tricycle over and over into the cement corner of the porch and throw myself off as if I were in a deadly accident. I relish the feeling of being thrown, out of control, through space. I kind of think of that feeling as being the core of my “self.” This comfort with chaos can give me a somewhat detached attitude toward systems of control (including self-control) that can be either a blessing or a curse.

While watching DEATH SHIP I often consider these very personal existential and psychological issues, but I also consider the possible implications for the future of our country should these personal “feelings” become manifest as a wider social phenomena. I can’t help but think of the current popularity of Donald Trump’s destructive message as a kind of willing self-sacrifice: a willingness to throw the world into a pit of rotting corpses so as to make literal and confirm a certain nagging feeling of comfort in the face of horror.

In any case, I’m perhaps making this movie out to be something more than it is. It’s just good 70s campy horror fun at times and it certainly drags on for what seems like eternity at others. There’s a wacky performance of psycho evil from the great George Kennedy that borders on camp but somehow transcends it, and a whole lot of fantastically strange camera angles to make the ship into an ash-smeared funhouse of horror.

Along with a link to the movie below, I’m also sharing a short experimental film I made years ago to combine a clip from DEATH SHIP and a clip from GARGOYLES. For some reason I consider the abstract movements in these two sequences to be linked by some subtle magical formula which I have not been able to rationally explain. I think I’ve wanted to combine them into one moving image since I was a teenager and now I still consider it one of the best, if most simplistic, short films I’ve ever made.

DEATH SHIP (1980):


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