Canada’s Top 10, Doc Soup, and CanCon 101: Death Ship (1980)

January 5, 2013 | By

Perhaps inspired by the standard director intro + film screening + audience Q&A inherent to film festival screenings, The Bloor Cinema sometimes offers screenings featuring directors and guests as part of a value-added package. This week’s selection includes Doc Soup: Portrait of Wally with director Andrew Shea for post-screening Q&As; and scheduled guests for Cinema Politica Presents: Doctors from the Dark Side.

CanCon is top-lined at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’ Canada’s Top 10 which offers separate screenings of feature films and short films grouped a pair of A + B one hour programmes, and director Sarah Polley is taking part in a Mavericks Q&A this afternoon.

Now, the TBL’s series presents a contemporary selection of highly-regarded work by the country’s talent, and by and large most new works tend to get some level of play – largely because there’s a group of programmers determined to remind Canadians there are new works constantly being produced in spite of the generic American fodder that riddles the marquees of large cinemas – the chains owned & operated by primarily U.S. – based corporations with little interest in promoting local talent. If Skyfall can bring in millions in ticket and concessions sales, why bother with an indie film that gets virtually no publicity beyond coverage by attentive reviewers?

Enhance the neglect to older films, and we return once again to that vast pool of films no one knows exist, be they indie films of genuine artistic merit, critically praised classics never released on video, or tax shelter flicks larded with ex-pats for CanCon points to ensure investors earned their tax write-off.

The few tax shelter films on DVD tend to be released by American or some European labels because no one cares here, and admitted, why would a label concerned with bulk catalogue sales to ancillary markets want to spend money on a special edition, let alone a bare bones release of a banal production featuring aging stars.

The irony is that for the few that have achieved cult status (most in the horror genre), some were profitable during their theatrical, cable TV, and home video runs, and sometimes network sales. Alvin Rakoff’s City on Fire (1979) was reportedly in the black before it had completed principle photography because the savvy producers had presold it to a U.S. network. We’re talking about a low budget disaster film set in New York City, but shot in Montreal.

Come on: tell me this doesn't make you just a little curious. One of the best poster designs of the early 80s.

It’s available on DVD in Germany and Spain (of course), but not here, probably because its owners feel it’s better to license than produce. The chief problem is there aren’t many indie labels willing to pay the license rights to create a special edition release, which makes Rakoff’s Death Ship [M] the most unique; unlike Happy Birthday to Me (1981), for example, Death Ship was never distributed by a major American studio.

Death Ship is not a particularly good film. It has sloppy continuity gaffes everywhere, and yet it retains some weird cult status because of its simple plot involving cruise ship survivors trapped on a ghost ship, as originally conceived by veteran exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters).

Nucleus Films in Britain cared enough to produce a licensed special edition in 2007 with director commentary – one of the best for CanCon addicts – and a 42 minute making-of interview featurette with stars George Kennedy and Nick Mancuso, plus some readable excerpts of Hill’s unused script. The mystique for the film also seethed in the U.S., and pushed Scorpion Releasing to not only give the film its North American DVD premiere, but master a beautiful HD transfer for their Blu-ray. TVA apparently had a near-pristine interpositive, so another special edition was born.

Note how both releases were not spawned by a Canadian company, demonstrating 1) the general apathy by owners of tax shelter films; and 2) the fact some companies, while not willing to produce their own release, are at least willing to cooperate with an indie label, and hopefully not demand a ludicrous fee.

The market for specialty catalogue titles isn’t big – even with an international cult shocker like Death Ship – but if a label and its obsessive producers show owners their passion to bring out a legit release for a viable niche market, why not be reasonable and allow an idling property to make a little extra money above the TV package revenues?

I’ve uploaded a lengthy review of Rakoff’s film, as well as comparative assessments of extras unique to each edition. Yeah, I wrote 2500 words on Death Ship. The film doesn’t come close to Rakoff’s Hoffman – an odd, superbly made suspense-drama – but for a tax shelter flick to receive two international releases in 6 years, you have to reassess the blanket view that the films of that era are 100% wretched. They may not be good, but they’re a special type of native fromage that’s aged over the past 30 years into a sub-genre aptly branded Canuxploitation.

Most of the cult items tend to involve horror flicks, but I think that’s also due to horror being the most profitable. There’s a significant chunk of dramas, comedies, and other oddities that again, may not be good, but to have never been released and vanished from all forms of distribution is pretty dire.

CanCon 101 is a sporadic spotlight series featuring native titles newly and recently released, as well as gems and outright crap salvaged from TV airings, or obsolete video formats like Betamax, VHS, and (ahem) CED.

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Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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