Friday, March 15, 2019

#2,502. Death Ship (1980)

Directed By: Alvin Rakoff

Starring: George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso

Tagline: "Those who survive the ghost ship are better off dead!"

Trivia: The setting was the Carribean Sea, but the exterior water filming location was the Gulf of Mexico

Death Ship, a 1980 Canadian-produced horror film, was based on a script written by Jack Hill, the creative mind behind such exploitation classics as Spider Baby, The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Coffy. Though only billed as a story consultant (the final screenplay was penned by John Robins), just seeing Hill’s name in the credits was enough to pique my interest. And while it may lack the exploitative goodness of some of Hill’s directorial efforts, Death Ship is just eerie enough to hold your attention. 

A jam-packed luxury cruise liner, scheduled to return to dock in three days’ time, is rammed and destroyed by a ship that seemingly appeared out of thin air. Those who survived the collision include Captain Ashland (George Kennedy); his second in command Captain Marshall (Richard Crenna); Marshall’s wife Margaret (Sally Ann Howes) and their two children (Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham); Crewman Nick (Nick Mancuso) and his girlfriend Lori (Victoria Burgoyne); an elderly widow named Sylvia (Kate Reid); and ship’s entertainer Jackie (Saul Rubinek). Together, this ragtag group climbs aboard the boat that hit them, which appears to be an abandoned World War II-era German warship. The survivors make the best of the situation, searching for food and a radio to call for help, all the while wondering what happened to the crew of this ominous vessel. 

It isn’t until people start to die, however, that Captain Marshall and the others realize they may not be alone after all, and that whoever (or whatever) is in control of this ship won’t rest until every last one of them is dead. 

Death Ship doesn’t get off to a stellar start. The collision that sinks the cruise ship is underwhelming, to say the least (it’s over far too quickly to generate any real tension), and if I somehow found myself aboard an empty warship in the middle of the ocean, I’d be asking a hell of a lot more questions than the characters in this film (like, if the warship is, indeed, abandoned, who dropped the ladder that let us climb aboard?). 

Fortunately, the fright meter jumps a few notches the moment the survivors start to explore their new vessel. Simply put, the German warship is one creepy-ass boat; each corridor is darker and more treacherous than the last, and the living quarters are covered from top to bottom in dust and cobwebs. Even the usual scare tactics you find in just about every ghost story – strange voices, doors and hatches that swing open by themselves – managed to send a shiver up my spine. In addition to its extraordinarily realized setting, Death Ship features a solid performance by George Kennedy as the no-nonsense Captain Ashland, a by-the-books commander who is more than a little susceptible to the German ship’s supernatural forces. 

Though lacking in blood and gore (save one very messy shower scene), Death Ship is an ‘80s horror film that still packs a punch.

Friday, March 1, 2019

#2,501. Strange Nature (2018)

Directed By: James Ojala

Starring: Stephen Tobolowsky, Bruce Bohne, Lisa Sheridan

Cameo: Troma regular Tiffany Shepis makes a cameo appearance as a photographer

Trivia: This film was inspired by true events that date back to 1995, when deformed frogs began popping up in rural Minnesota ponds

The discovery of deformed frogs in a small Minnesota town - situated on Lake Superior - may very well be tied to a series of birth defects that are rocking the local population. It’s up to former pop star Kim Sweet (Lisa Sheridan), who has returned home to care for her ailing father (Bruce Bohne, aka Andy, the gun store proprietor in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead), to figure out what’s causing these bizarre mutations. But will Kim get to the bottom of it in time, or will nature beat her to the punch, unleashing its full fury on the residents of this backwoods community?

With its seemingly goofy premise and a brief cameo at the outset by former Troma regular Tiffany Shepis (as a doomed photographer), you might assume that Strange Nature is going to be yet another low-budget horror comedy. But writer / director James Ojala (a makeup / effects artist helming his first feature) plays it straight, transforming this 2018 eco-horror film into a deadly serious nature gone wild tale that also boasts a generous helping of impressive creature effects. 

Strange Nature does have its share of flaws: the story tends to meander, with sequences that aren’t set up properly (scenes are occasionally strung together with no rhyme or reason, hurting the overall flow). This, along with a clumsy romantic entanglement (designed solely to introduce an unnecessary plot twist) and a few loose ends that are never tied up (so was the salmon infected or not?), prevents Strange Nature from being a breakout success. 

That said, the movie does have a few things going for it that are sure to impress even the most apprehensive of genre fans. 

First and foremost is actress Lisa Sheridan, who delivers a solid performance as Kim Sweet, the washed-up pop star who, soon after hitting it big on the West Coast a decade or so earlier, gave a series of interviews trashing her home town. Now she is forced to return to that very community to care for her sick father (played extremely well by Bohne). Older and a bit wiser, Sheridan’s Kim is a determined, likable heroine, and we root for her every step of the way. 

There are other decent performances as well, including John Hennigan as the rough-around-the-edges yokel who serves as the movie’s primary mortal villain; and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (best remembered as Ned, the pesky insurance salesman who hounded Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day) as the town’s mayor, who, like all authority figures in these sort of horror stories, ignores the facts that are staring him in the face (in one of the film’s few humorous moments, an exasperated Kim even says to Tobolowsky’s character “God, you’re like one of those movie Mayors”). 

But what really lifts this 2018 horror flick to the next level are its makeup and creature designs. Under the watchful eye of director Ojala himself (who had previously assisted with the makeup and effects on such big-budget spectacles as X-Men: The Last Stand and 2011’s Thor as well as the 2008 indie horror film Deadgirl), the effects in Strange Nature range from serviceable to extraordinary (Ojala and his small crew do an especially remarkable job depicting the various birth defects). In addition, the movie’s final act features a handful of grisly moments, including one of the more disturbing throat rips I’ve seen in some time. 

Though it does sometimes struggle with the same issues that plague many low-budget horror films (along with the problems mentioned above, a few of the supporting performances are sub-par), Strange Nature proved a pleasant surprise.