Wednesday, January 26, 2011

So Bad It's Good?: Cruise Into Terror (1978)

Last year, on February 6th, I wrote a brief piece on the wretched TV movie called Cruise Into Terror. Two days before, I’d inaugurated an on-again, off-again series (mostly off) called Mini Masterpieces in Mediocre Movies. The purpose was to look at one sequence in a specific film and examine why it worked and the rest didn’t. The film I did on that occasion was James Cameron’s mediocre The Abyss. During the writing, I added a sidebar on Cruise Into Terror because its last line – “That there is a devil, there is no doubt, but is he trying to get into us or is he trying to get out” – had stuck with me (in the piece, I said it was the only good thing about the film). During the editing of The Abyss post, the sidebar was just not working out, so I removed it and planned to run it as a standalone. It was so short, we decided to title it David's Mini-Masterpiece Addendum and it ran two days later.

Over the last year, this little bitty post has become one of our most popular pieces (and hopefully not because it’s so fast to read – we timed it; it takes less than 30 seconds). Often in the top 10, it returned again this past week to top five status. So, it was decided I had to see this thing again and determine why my short post was so popular. I thought I had it on video tape, but when I went through my boxed tapes (yes, I own a functioning VCR that I still use) I couldn’t find it. My colleague, Kevin Courrier, told me the whole film, in 10 minute chunks, was posted on Youtube. So, that’s how I watched it.

And? It is still turgid, terrible, pathetic, ridiculous and unintentionally laughable. Cruise Into Terror has become something of a cult classic because it is filled with bad movie goodness. Aaron Spelling produced this number, a year after he had launched his icky The Love Boat TV series. To use a blasphemous religious analogy, if The Love Boat is Christ, then Cruise Into Terror is the anti-Christ. Where one is “cheery” and “life affirming,” the other is (supposed to be) scary and unnerving (no, The Love Boat isn’t the scary one).  The movie features an all-star cast of TV actors and past-their-prime movie stars including John Forsythe (sporting a caterpillar moustache), Hugh O'Brien (Our Hero!), Marshall Thompson (Daktari, but he only has ONE SCENE), Lee Meriwether (takin’ it seriously), Stella Stevens (the divorcee in red), Dirk Benedict (Battlestar Galatica’s original Starbuck – appearing here with a Justin Bieber haircut), Christopher George (wearing a bad toupee – it looks like polyester), Linda Day George (a really awful bleach job), Frank Converse (acting with his eyebrow – yes, singular), Roger E. Mosley (escaping mercifully early) and Ray Milland (adding a bit of dignity to the proceedings, but just a bit). The story of Cruise Into Terror is that of a small, dilapidated cruise ship that is pressed into service to get a handful of passengers (12, actually, yes…12!) to Mexico when a larger ocean liner is full. Ray Milland is an archaeologist who believes that the Egyptians were the first to colonize the Americas. According to him, the colony ultimately became the Mayans. Rumours abound of an Egyptian temple, including sarcophagus, located somewhere in Mexico.

Frank Converse, a physicist of some sort, determines that Milland’s calculations are wrong and the temple is actually now underwater just off the coast of Mexico. Conveniently, as they pass over this point, the ship breaks down and the radio dies (or was it CONVENIENCE? Duhn duhn duhn dunnnnnnnnh). After much yada yada, a shark attack, and –  this being produced by Aaron Spelling – a lot of young women running around in VERY small bikinis, they convince the Captain to let them dive down and find the temple. They do so and, within seconds, find the site, locate the sarcophagus and haul it on board. Bad mojo begins. People die. Or at least unnecessary cast members do.

Oh, I forgot to mention, John Forsythe plays a fire-and-brimstone preacher who is constantly yammering on about what the sarcophagus contains (Lee Meriwether plays his simultaneously repressed and horny wife). He somehow determines that within the sarcophagus is THE. SON. OF. SATAN!!!!! And ONE. OF. THE. PEOPLE. ON. THE. BOAT. IS. ITS. PROTECTOR!!!!!!! Amid much eye-rolling, mumble-mouthed dialogue and really terrible acting (Christopher George, as a business man who wants to sell the artifacts for big bucks, is the worst), my all-time favourite moment is when the sarcophagus starts to breath like an inflating/deflating balloon whenever it is threatened or trying to influence somebody (such as the repressed/horny Meriwether).

Lee Meriwether in Star Trek (1969)
Beyond the horrific acting and ridiculous plot, there’s the ‘special effects.’ Fitting right in with the other bad cinema goodness is the footage of a ship blowing up. Just before the ship explodes, it shudders and shakes … er, well, um at least the camera does. It is very obvious that a grip (camera assistant) was assigned the task of wiggling the camera on that day to simulate the ship shuddering. And so head-shakingly atrocious are the other effects, that when the ship ‘explodes’ you can still see the completely intact ship behind the ‘fireball’ that consumes the vessel.

There are actually two tidbits, besides the last line, that give this picture a couple of ‘that’s interesting’ moments. One is that, for some reason, Lee Meriwether actually gives a reasonably good performance as the repressed wife; and two, the start of the main theme music by Gerald Fried bears an uncanny resemblance to the opening bars of Wendy Carlos’ disturbing score for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. What’s interesting about this is that The Shining came out two years later, and Gerald Fried and Kubrick were childhood friends. In fact, Fried did the music for Kubrick’s earlier pictures, The Killing and Paths of Glory. Did Kubrick see this fine film, or hear Fried’s score, and get Carlos to do a variation on it? Enquiring minds need to know.

Now that I’ve wasted (20 years apart) almost 4 hours of the only life I will ever have watching this film twice, this review darn well better join my short piece atop Critics at Large favourites or I’ll really be upset.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.


  1. Check out this Movie Podcast review of "Cruise into Terror." Great story about that terrifying Egyptian mumbling, audio clip included.

  2. I remember seeing that film in the late '70s as a teen. I mainly remember a song about a woman named Jenny in the beginning and ending of the film, and that Jenny was the woman who was trying to convince the boat captain who had captured the beast to let him go. "Cut the cable," she pleads. I even taped some of the movie, including the song at the end (or maybe just the song at the end) with my portable cassette recorder with it's microphone! The whole film is on YouTube. The next time I'm at a computer with sound and I have the time, I'll watch it!