Cruise Into Terror

Cruise Into Terror

The best and best-remembered TV horror movies of the 70's and early 80's don't need excuses for their format or their time-period. They understood our deepest vulnerabilities as well as their theatrical counterparts did, and they were surprisingly aggressive about revealing them to us. Offhand, I can think of three famous TV movies of the time which ended with the deaths of their heroines and the triumph of evil — not what many of us were expecting from Prime Time fare. 1981's Dark Night of the Scarecrow dealt with murder of the handicapped and child molestation. 1982's Don't Go to Sleep made everyday objects like watermelons and pizza cutters into objects of terror. And even the movies that didn't succeed as well still found other ways to disquiet us — for example, in their casting: Dr. Cook's Garden featured genial Bing Crosby as a murderer; while (even more terrifying to us kids) A Howling in the Woods gave us "I Dream of Jeannie"'s Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman as a couple facing that ultimate 70's calamity: divorce! My God! If Jeannie was divorcing Major Nelson, what chance did our families have!? I'll bet every kid who grew up during the Golden Age of Television Horror has at least one TV-related trauma to look back on.

Of course, there were plenty of made-for-TV horror flicks that didn't try nearly as hard — which simply played to whatever trends were current at the time. Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby! (1973) comes to mind. But here's the funny thing: even the least effective potboilers of the 70's had so many solid professionals working on both sides of the camera that they've retained their entertainment value well into the present day.

And in my opinion, there are few more entertaining bottom-feeders than 1978's Cruise into Terror.

The setup reads like a catalogue of fads from the mid-seventies. It's as though the writers made a list of everything even vaguely supernatural or pseudoscientific that was current in the public imagination, and wrote their script around it... for instance:

King Tut: The famous Tutankhamun exhibition came to New York for an epic run between 1976 and 1979. Eight million people came to see the treasures of the boy king. Since most of us weren't sure how to pronounce the Pharaoh's name — was it "Tootin' common" or "Tutt-anchorman"? — we all just called him "Tut". Along with the exhibition came the oft-repeated tales of the Curse of King Tut's Tomb, in which is was said that everyone who had desecrated his burial chamber had died horribly shortly thereafter. It was all crap, but it made for a catchy story.

The Antichrist: The Omen had come out in 1976, replete with tales of devilish chaos on-set as Satan himself tried to interfere with the film. 1977 saw the publication of The Amityville Horror, which convinced all-too-many people that the Evil One was waiting in their closets. What The Exorcist (1973) had started in its deeply Catholic way spread to American mainstream Protestantism, as folks dug out their Bibles and began to furrow their brows over the Book of Revelation. Pop culture had done what blood-and-thunder preachers had tried and failed to do for over a century. Not that the preachers had stopped trying: The Late, Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey's 1970 dispensationalist Armageddon-porn, said the Antichrist's arrival was imminent... and by 1978, the book had become a multi-million copy best-seller. Of course, the eighties came and went, and with them went the political underpinnings of Lindsey's "prophecies"; but that's OK — Hal is still predicting the coming of the Antichrist. Any day now, Hal; any day now.

The Bermuda Triangle: The most liberally-defined triangle in the history of geometry, the so-called "Devil's Triangle" is a stretch of ocean in which ships, planes and for all I know pedestrians and Amtrak trains disappear without trace. As the "triangle" seems to consist of the entire Gulf of Mexico and about two-thirds of the southern North Atlantic, it's not surprising that some craft have gone missing in it. But thanks to Charles Berlitz and TV's "In Search Of...", the mysterious Bermuda Triangle was a hot topic of discussion in the late 1970's.

Thor Heyerdahl: Though he'd been around for years before, Heyerdahl's stock was never higher than in the 1970's, after the release of his 1972 film The Ra Expeditions. I even remember that Kon-Tiki was, for some reason, assigned on my 9th grade summer reading list for English class in 1980. Heyerdahl's contention was that Polynesia had been populated by travellers from South America, and in the 1950's he attempted to generate support for his theory by building a primitive boat and sailing it from Peru to the Polynesian islands. Then, in the late 60's, he theorized that South America might in turn have been visited by the Egyptians... so in 1969 and 1970, he mounted expeditions to sail from North Africa to South America in boats made of reeds. Today, genetic studies have shown that Heyerdahl's visitors, if indeed they ever did migrate as he theorized, didn't have very much effect on the populations of their host environments. But by comparison to, say, Erik von Däniken and his then-popular theory that South America had been populated by people several galaxies further away than Egypt, Heyerdahl seems pretty reasonable...

So, thought the writers: what would happen if a group of people stumbled on the Antichrist buried in an Egyptian sarcophagus in the Bermuda Triangle? Hmmmm... All they needed was to add Bigfoot on a CB radio, and they'd have had all their bases covered. I'm sure they considered it.

Oh — and naturally, since this was an Aaron Spelling production, they set the action on a cruise ship.

"They say it all started in Egypt 2000 years ago. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn't.

An Egyptian tomb at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico? Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But I'm recording the events as they happened... though there's no way I can record the human terror of those bizarre few days..."
These are the musings of Captain Andrews (Hugh O'Brian), master of a worn-out ship-of-all-trades called the Obeah. Though he claims to be unable to convey the "human terror of those bizarre few days", that's exactly what he goes on to attempt. Maybe he can. Maybe he can't. But he's certainly helped out by the music: he is accompanied by an orchestra with a prominent low-brass section, a pipe organ, and a chorus of VERY DEEP MALE VOICES, playing a distorted version of the famous Dies Irae chant.

Forget Egypt 2000 years ago: for us, it all starts when Andrews is told by the director of his shipping company that his ship has a new mission. It's been commandeered to take on eight passengers from an overbooked cruise ship. Andrews sputters that the Obeah is hardly equipped for that sort of thing: it's badly in need of repair and may fall apart before it reaches its destination. But the boss is adamant: take the passengers to Cozumel, or be out of a job.

As Andrews storms off, his employer sidles over to the telephone and tells someone on the other end that the Obeah is ready, and that he can board it at any time (though I'm not sure how the person on the other end can hear him over the trombone chords, and all that chanting on the soundtrack...) "God save our souls," he sighs, as he places the phone back on the hook.

This is the cue for an out-of-control fork lift to crush him under a pile of heavy boxes.

The first Special Guest Star we're introduced to is the ship's cat. SPOILER ALERT: All expectation to the contrary, nothing bad happens to the cat by the end of the movie. I know that's a bit of a shock; in most horror movies, if a cat is given more than a few seconds of screen time, it usually means it's going to be torn to pieces at some point. Let me reassure animal-loving horror fans everywhere that this movie is the exception.

(I wish I could say the same about our second Special Guest Star, Roger E. Mosely as Nathan the ship's porter. Nathan is the only black character in a mid-seventies horror movie. Would you care to guess how far into the movie he survives?)

The first actual passenger up the gangplank is Stella Stevens as Marilyn Magnusen. Ms. Marilyn Magnusen, she takes pains to point out. No-fault divorce was a huge and controversial issue in the 1970's, as state after state allowed couples to separate voluntarily without allegations of criminal or immoral behavior. Since 1971's A Howling in the Woods, when Barbara Eden's character had been forced to move back to Nevada and establish legal residency before filing for divorce, both laws and attitudes on no-fault divorce had softened: Ms. Magnusen could now be portrayed as a happy divorcée without casting aspersions on her moral character. Well, unwelcome aspersions, at any rate.

Next, laden with trunks and sporting a natty straw Panama, comes Dr. Isaac Bakkun, archaeologist and Biblical scholar ("Take two aspirin and call me in a thousand years," quips Andrews). Bakkun is played by none other than Ray Milland, midway between Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby! and The Sea Serpent (1984) — slumming, yes, but having a hell of a good time doing it. He turns out to be a sort of Heyerdahl figure, notorious for his theories that the ancient Mayans were in close contact with the Egyptians.

After Bakkun come Christopher and Lynda Day George, playing (here's a stretch) a married couple: Neal Barry is a workaholic businessman, whose wife Sandra is desperate to get him out of the office and back into the mood for love. Following them, we have the Two Swinging Single Chicks: Judy (the Hot One) and Debbie (the Wallflower — i.e., the Hot One with Glasses). Judy and Debbie are played by TV regulars Jo Ann Harris and Hilary Thompson. Having trouble placing them? Yeah; me too... but you'll have no trouble recognizing Simon, the ship's officer who comes drooling across the deck to escort them: it's none other than Dirk Benedict, Starbuck himself, appearing mere months before the premiere of "Battlestar Galactica". Bringing up the rear, we have the Reverend Charles Mather (John Forsythe) and his much-younger wife, Lil Mather (Lee Meriwether). John Forsythe's Charlie always seems to have a way with the younger women, doesn't he?

And last of all comes Frank Converse as Matt Lazarus, mathematician and amateur scientist. Matt is a disheveled mess, with no idea where he's left his ticket; Captain Andrews tells him not to worry about it for now. He'll radio the shipping company once the voyage has started, and if Lazarus turns out to be a stowaway, they'll just throw him overboard.

You may have noticed that that's nine out of eight passengers who've just come aboard. This is because one of them — SPOILER ALERT — is actually the Guardian of the Antichrist.

Can you guess who it is? Could it be the newly-divorced Ms. Magnusen, who's managed to change from her white summer outfit into femme-fatale scarlet just in time for Rev. Mather to board? Could it be Mather himself, in the grand tradition of Least Likely Suspects? Could it be Debbie, hiding behind her plain-girl glasses?

Here's a hint for you: in one of the strangest bits of parallel casting I've ever seen, Frank Converse appeared as a guest star on "The Love Boat" one day after Cruise Into Terror premiered. Read into that what you will.

As the voyage begins, the cramped conditions on the ship mean that everybody's forced to get to know each other pretty quickly.

Lazarus, the shy Popular Science whiz, recognizes Dr. Bakkun at once, though Rev. Mather knows him by reputation. It seems that Bakkun's life-long project — proving that the Egyptians sailed to South America and founded the Mayan civilization 2000 years ago — has never been taken seriously by his professional colleagues. I know how he feels. I've had the same problem with my life-long contention that Japan and Great Britain — both being island nations with an imperial histories, oddly rigid caste systems and bizarre rituals involving tea — are in fact the same country (think about it: have you ever seen them together?). Some day, Dr. Bakkun and I will get the recognition we deserve!

Anyway... Bakkun's on board because he's on his way to look for an Egyptian tomb somewhere in Cozumel. That's right: there's an unheard-of archaeological find, right in the middle of one of Mexico's most popular resorts! Bakkun's evidence is a piece of "ancient papyrus" that he found in Egypt, which reports that Cleopatra VIII built a tomb "where the sun hits the sea". That narrows it down, doesn't it? Mind you, Cleopatra VIII never reigned in Egypt, but I suppose that's a quibble at this point.

Bakkun believes if he can find the lost tomb, it will prove his theory that the Mayans were really Egyptians — in spite of the thousands of years of Mayan cultural history that dates before the year 1 CE, and in spite of the total lack of linguistic or genetic connections between the two. After all, the Egyptians, having built the tomb, found themselves in Cozumel... a romantic and popular honeymoon destination. Why go back to Egypt when they could go snorkeling, take long walks on the beach, found an entirely different civilization...?

The big question, though, is this: why did the Egyptians feel the need to build the tomb so very far away from Egypt? Who — or what — was buried there? Bakkun frankly doesn't care for minor details like this. He just wants to find the tomb.

In the meantime, Simon and Judy exchange some sexually-charged banter, while the bookish Debbie goes for a walk on the deck with her copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Startled by the cat, Debbie accidentally bonks her head — twice — on a lifeboat, losing her glasses in the fall. Naturally, without her glasses, Debbie is even more attractive than the Hot Chick unable to see anything clearly; so she's startled to see a pair of glowing red eyes moving toward her in the dark. Terrified, she loses her balance (again) and falls overboard...

Debbie's screams bring the other passengers and crew out to the deck, where Andrews and Simon find her clutching a stanchion for dear life. The two men manage to pull Debbie back aboard; but even though she's been rescued, the mood on deck is curiously somber. The glowing eyes are long gone... there's nothing left in front of them but Debbie's glasses and a seriously pissed-off cat.

Perhaps it's the trombones and the chanting in the background that are disturbing them?

Captain Andrews is convinced the "glowing red eyes" Debbie saw (if "saw" is the right word for someone with Debbie's myopia) were actually the lights on two distant channel buoys. If that were the case, one of the glowing eyes would most likely have been green; but again, I quibble. Simon, though, isn't convinced that distant buoys would be enough to frighten a girl off the side of the ship.

Rev. Mather decides he'll try to give Debbie a little counselling in the morning. The priest, a recovering alcoholic, feels that this trip — this "journey", as he calls is — is God giving him a new start... a new chance to be of use in the world. His wife, though, wishes he'd practice his laying-on of hands a little closer to home, if you know what I mean.

But it's not all angst on board: the following day Andrews drops anchor near a reef to allow the passengers to have a few hours' swim. I'm sure the Obeah's single functioning engine appreciates the rest. While most of the passengers relax and enjoy themselves, Lazarus corners Bakkun for a chat on pyramidology that will make your brain hurt if you have even a smidgen of sense. He goes into the usual nonsense about the Great Pyramid: for instance, he claims the dimensions of the pyramid are mystically connected to the ratio pi. "The Mayans and Aztecs had the value of pi," he says, "though the ratio wan't officially discovered until the middle of the fourteenth century..." Officially? As in, by white people? Oh dear.

"If you measure the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza," he continues, "the total number of inches is 3-6-5-2-4." (Note: No, it isn't. This old myth requires the existence of a special unit of measure called the "pyramid inch", which never actually existed. Furthermore, the faulty measurements on which this whole idea is based fail to take into account that in ancient times, the pyramid had an outer layer of stone which is now missing. So much for the precision of their calculations.) "Three hundred sixty five point two four is the exact number of days in a year!" Fascinating. I'm not sure how this proves the pyramids are related to pi, but Bakkun takes up the discussion with enthusiasm: "The same number appears in the sacred Mayan circle at Chichen Itza... hundreds of years before Western civilization even discovered there were 365 days in a year!" (It doesn't help Bakkun's case that he pronounces "Mayan" as in "mayonnaise".) Convinced he's found a kindred spirit, Bakkun invites Lazarus back to his cabin to admire his ancient scroll.

But before Lazarus can take Bakkun up on the offer, there comes a shout from Andrews: he's spotted — let's see; what else were we afraid of in the 1970's? Oh! Right! There's a shark in the water!

Who's a good wittle sharky?

"O HAI!"

And it's the cutest little shark you ever saw. It may indeed be dangerous, but it looks like an overgrown dogfish. Andrews orders the swimmers out of the water — which is sensible enough, I suppose — but then, he does something completely loony: he grabs a toothpick  letter opener  knife and dives in! Seeing this, Lazarus does something even loonier: he dives in without a knife! I suppose the sheer shock of all that testosterone hitting the water makes the shark think twice about attacking, because he turns around and swims away.

Nathan the porter is deeply disturbed by this: "A hundred times we come to dis reef," him say — no, sorry: he says. "Man-eating shark never come in dis current." (Note: by the look of things, it still hasn't.) "Is not his waters. Somet'ing wrong, Captain. Somet'ing wrong!"

Andrews stares his rugged stare out at the disappearing fin. After a long, tense pause, he replies:

"I know."

When Lazarus does have a chance to examine Bakkun's papyrus, later that evening in the ship's common room, he points out that the Professor has his calculations wrong. He's figuring the position of the place "where the sun hits the sea" according to the skies of the modern world.

"The earth's relationship to the sun and every other star in they sky is completely different now," he explains (I blame no-fault divorce). According to Lazarus, the actual place where the sun sinks into the ocean every night is "41.7 miles north-northwest of Cozumel, Mexico"... in the middle of the water. Lazarus speculates there must have been an island chain there at one time, because hey! that makes about as much sense as anything else he's said.

Neal Barry perks up his ears at this. Didn't the Egyptians cram all sorts of treasures into their tombs? He asks the Captain: since they're passing that way anyway, why couldn't they make a brief detour and investigate? Judy and Simon think that's a great idea; but the Captain thinks otherwise. Bakkun and the Reverend agree: an archaeolgical expedition is no place for giddy treasure hunters.

But the next day, Andrews is perplexed by the ship's depth soundings: they should still be in deep waters, but the readings indicate an unexpected shelf. They're not where they're supposed to be: in fact, they're (wait for it) 41.7 miles north-northwest of Cozumel. And at exactly that spot, the overworked remaining engine of the Obeah finally gives out.

Bakkun is furious when he finds out that the Obeah has stalled directly over his site. He accuses the Captain of deliberately rerouting the ship to go looking for the treasure, and demands the ship be started up again at once. Lazarus steps up and works on Bakkun's vanity: can't he picture the looks on his colleagues' faces when he returned with proof of his theories? What's to stop his triumph from beginning right now? Bakkun is swayed a little too quickly by this argument, and before long the whole group of passengers is swept up by the whole "Hey, kids! Let's put on an archaeological expedition!" buzz.

Well... almost the whole group. The Reverend Mather doesn't quite cotton to the idea of exhuming the dead. But Bakkun insists: "That tomb belongs to us now!" he cries.

Andrews gives them one hour. Lazarus, Sandy Barry, Judy and Debbie (without her glasses!) suit up and prepare to go SCUBA diving... looking for a tomb, on the surface of the sea floor, in one of the most frequently-dived parts of the world. Along with them goes Nathan, since Andrews and Simon are busy repairing the ship. That is, Simon is busy repairing the ship; Andrews is fully-occupied staring soulfully out at the sea, where the lonely and age-appropriate Ms. Magnusen finds him and engages him in some equally-soulful conversation. This is an Aaron Spelling shipboard drama, after all. But perhaps you'll have realized: four passengers are going into the water with the ship's token black character... and said token black character is wearing a red suit. Hmmmm...

At first, the divers don't find anything unusual. There's a sunken ship, but it's obviously not Egyptian. Phoenecian, perhaps. As for that downed flying saucer? Amelia Earheart's luggage? The remains of Flight 19? Still not what they're looking for. But eventually they do find some broken columns and stone stairs that suggest they're on the right track.

They're able to pry loose a small golden tablet and bring it to the surface. Milland's Bakkun at least attempts to show the tablet has some heft to it... but Jo Ann Harris's Judy ruins the illusion for us by waving it over her head like the piece of cardboard it probably is. Bakkun exults over the plate, which is inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics, and speculates that the sarcophagus itself should be nearby. But Rev. Mather, taking one look at the tablet, is horrified, and commands the divers to come back to the ship at once.

Amid the hieroglyphics is the image of the "serpent-headed bird", says Mather, and that's a warning that the tomb should be left unprofaned. He then launches into a thinly-disguised version of the Curse of King Tut's tomb (this time referring to the Pharoah "Ramses Amun-ankh", which means "Let's throw in every Egyptian word we know"). It may seem a little strange for a Christian priest to be worried about the wrath of Osiris, but bear with him: he also points out that Bakkun's papyrus called for the tomb to be opened and inspected every thousand years. And here's the connection: "A thousand years is a Biblical millennium!" he announces.

(This must mean something: by a shocking coincidence, it's also a millennium in every other tradition in the world!)

Mather goes on to explain that around the year 1000 — just at the time the tomb was first scheduled to be opened — the Mayan people disappeared mysteriously. Yes, that's right: they vanished — except for the 7 million or so that still live in Central America to this day. The next Biblical Millennium is scheduled for the Year 2000, "the time the forces of Evil will be at their full power!" Yes; we all remember how that turned out. Obviously the buried Egyptian sarcophagus must contain some sort of Ancient Evil, and if they go ahead and retrieve it, they'll be responsible for setting it loose on the world. Next thing you know, David DeCoteau will make a movie about it, and then where will we be?

Mather's argument doesn't seem to have much impact. Neal Barry accuses him of wanting to delay them, so he can sneak back and claim the treasure for himself. Bakkun thinks he's a superstitious fool — and he's not about to allow some wacky made-up fantasy distract him from proving that the Mayans were really Egyptians, damn it! Once again, it's up to Lazarus to step in as the reasonable voice. The tomb's value to science, he suggests, certainly seems to outweigh any possible risks. When the other passengers pipe up that they're still excited about the search, Andrews gives in and allows them to continue... but only until the ship is repaired. As soon as the engines are working again, they're all getting out of there.

So the dive team goes back in the water, and this time — right on schedule, you might say — they find an enormous stone box containing a golden ankh. This enormously valuable relic then disappears from the story and is never mentioned again. Not far away, and close to the surface, they find a curiously-unrotted sack... and within the sack is a child-sized golden sarcophagus. Perhaps they should be concerned about the dry-ice fog that bubbles out of the sarcophagus when they pull it to the surface. I suppose they don't really have time to; because no sooner do they gather to examine the find, when they learn that one of the divers has been killed by a freak underwater rockslide.

Would anybody care to guess the identity of the character who's been killed? That's right: it's Nathan, the token black guy. Andrews instructs Simon to radio the Coast Guard, but it's too late even for that: the radio's now as dead as the engine. They're stuck in open water, with no means of reaching or even communicating with the shore.

And the sarcophagus is on board...

"So that's how you're going to do it," whispers Mather. "Take us one by one, the most expendible innocent first...!"

It isn't long before Mather figures out who's interred in the little casket. "[The] papyrus said the child in that coffin was born in the year 1 A.D.," he says, "The same time another Child was born in Bethlehem. God sent his Child to save the world... who sent this one?"

(I guess there must be some scholarly elision going on here; but the way he phrases it, I can't help but wonder: how did the Egyptians came to use the B.C./A.D. calendar when Jesus was still supposed to be a baby? Even if they were paying special attention, the Anno Domini date system didn't get started until the sixth century.)

Mather pleads with the others to toss the sarcophagus overboard, before the seal is broken and the Antichrist is let loose on the world. Bakkun thinks he's nuts, especially since chucking the coffin would mean losing the evidence his theories were correct. Barry thinks he's nuts because the casket is covered with gold, and must be worth a fortune. Everybody else thinks he's nuts because, well... the whole idea is nuts.

But it's about to get nuttier: for some reason, the Reverend has brought with him an extremely dodgy book called The Key of Solomon, which is apparently a Renaissance book of black magic. How this ended up in a clergyman's shipboard reading, I can't even begin to speculate. I guess it's better than Danielle Steele, but that's not saying much. Anyway: in the Key of Solomon, it specifically says that twelve souls shall gather and release the Son of Satan into the hands of his guardian.... and then they'll all burn in hell in unimaginable torment; have a nice day. According to Mather, the passengers and crew of the Obeah, including the late Nathan, are the twelve.

Barry interrupts him: counting poor Nathan, there were 13 aboard ship (I haven't mentioned one crewman, who barely has any role in the goings-on). Yes, says Mather: there were thirteen people, but only twelve souls. The thirteenth is the guardian, who has no soul.

I notice that nobody mentioned the cat.

You can see where this is all going, can't you? The Antichrist has lined up his victims and put them in a confined space: there's the priest of shaky faith; his sexually-repressed wife; the prideful captain; the vain professor; the greedy businessman; the lustful ship's officer; the lustful divorcée; the lustful young girls; the... OK, so one of the deadly sins seems a little over-represented. Still, you get the idea. So when I tell you that Lil Mather decides to switch teams — to offer herself to the spirit in the sarcophagus in exchange for some physical gratification — you probably won't be terribly surprised.

Nor was I terribly surprised, when I saw the movie in February 1978. I was eleven years old, and by that time I'd seen enough horror movies that this one seemed pretty routine. Egyptian tombs and mummies didn't hold any terrors for me, considering I'd been fascinated by them since I was a toddler. The Antichrist was a scary concept for us kids, it's true; but there was nothing particularly frightening about the way he appeared in this movie. He didn't bring along any zombies this time, or devil dogs; there were no impalements or mysterious decapitations... no suns turning black, or seven-headed dragons rising from the sea. All we got were a bunch of talky actors on a boat. Big deal! If this was the Son of Satan, he seemed strangely unambitious.

But then...

Ohhhh, but then...

Here's where I'm forced to admit that this movie, wretched as it is, gave me one of the last Defining Moments of my childhood. You see, at this point in the story the possessed Lil Mather goes to visit that child-sized sarcophagus. As she stands in front of it, running her hands over her body suggestively (or at least as suggestively as you could manage on Prime Time TV in 1978)... the sarcophagus itself starts to breathe.

Cruise Into Terror: the breathing sarcophagus

Yes, I know it's impossible. Yes, I know it's irredeemably silly. Even if there was something breathing inside the casket, there's no way the wood-and-metal box itself would start to expand and contract along with it. I can look back now and laugh at the absurdity of it all.

But when I was eleven? Oh, hell no. The sheer unexpectedness of it, combined with the deep, eerie chanting on the soundtrack, was just too much for me. When you're a kid, you can never tell exactly what's going to reach into your brain, grab hold of your medulla oblongata and squeeze very hard. This moment did it for me.

I mentioned in my review of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark that in spite of that movie's effectiveness, I wasn't scared by it, because I'd already been prepared for it. Well, I had no preparation for this — especially not from the tedium of the movie so far. But even though Cruise Into Terror doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Cruise... was the movie that really did traumatize me. The image of that living, breathing coffin kept me awake for the rest of the year.

There's certainly little else in the movie to match that one grisly image... especially not the inevitable fiery climax, where the doomed characters, good and bad, stand in the middle of the (cough) inferno looking like they have no idea what to do next. There's no real reason for any of them to be trapped in the blaze, and the actors seem to know it. Finally there's a poorly-matted explosion, and the surviving characters pilot the ship's boat off into the morning mist... while the sarcophagus, still breathing, sinks to the bottom of the sea once more...

Aaron Spelling's career as a producer got a good boost from the Made For TV Movie boom of the 1970's. Early on in the cycle, his Aaron Spelling Productions produced one of the bonafide classics of television horror, Crowhaven Farm, a chillingly downbeat saga of witchcraft and reincarnation. Among his other early genre entres are the slightly less well-regarded films How Awful About Allan!, directed by one-time avant garde film-maker Curtis Harrington, and John Moxey's tepid The House that Would Not Die. At the same time, the Spelling-Goldberg group produced the infamous Satan's School for Girls and a classy little mystery called Death Cruise, for which Cruise Into Terror is sometimes mistaken. After Cruise Into Terror, Spelling went on produce the movie I've always thought marks the end of the era, 1982's classic Don't Go To Sleep. In the interim, of course, came the legion of TV shows that made Spelling a household name: "The Love Boat", "Fantasy Island", "Dynasty", "Charlie's Angels"... and so on ad infinitum.

Cruise Into Terror seems like a huge comedown from Crowhaven Farm, but the whole "Love Boat meets the Devil" vibe, complete with a roster of familiar faces, is so tough to take seriously that it's actually aged better than "The Love Boat" itself.

Still, nobody's going to mistake this for a good movie. Sure, the setting and the details are memorably bizarre; sure, the cast of old-school professionals grapple mightily with their underwritten rôles; sure, the crew does the best they can to generate some suspense, in a story where nothing suspenseful really happens. But all the best efforts fail to disguise the fact this is the same threadbare story we'd seen over and over by 1978. The breathing sarcophagus may have scared the hell out of me as a kid, but it's hard to stay scared of an Antichrist whose deadliest action turns out to be falling off a table. Cruise Into Terror certainly deserves to be remembered. Just not necessarily with respect.

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