Sunday, May 14, 2006

War-Gods of the Deep

Today's weird little movie is War-Gods of the Deep, a.k.a. The City Under the Sea, a 1965 Gothic tale of mayhem under the sea. It's a Corman film with Vincent Price, allegedly based on the poem "The City in the Sea" by Edgar Allan Poe. And on top of that, it was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who's best known for his earlier film noir work. You'd think all this would add up to quite a fine film, but I have to say that this one's less than the sum of its parts. Which is not to say it isn't worth watching, but I'd have to call it a curiosity, not a classic.

We can get the plot out of the way pretty quickly. Generic heroine is kidnapped by the baddie (Sir Hugh, the Captain), and hauled off to his weird lair in a ruined ancient city deep beneath the sea. Generic hero isn't ok with this, and makes his way to the baddie's lair, accompanied by his very British comic-relief sidekick, who in turn is accompanied by a pet chicken. Thrilling adventures ensue, including a long "fight" sequence involving deep-sea diving gear and crossbows. A couple of "gill men" make repeated cameos. There are several long scenes full of our heroes talking to various locals who reveal bits of the backstory, and nothing of any great consequence happens for quite a long time. After much aimless milling about, they eventually they locate the heroine, and our dynamic trio attempt to defeat the baddie and escape to the surface. Eventually they do. Also, an undersea volcano erupts and finishes off the undersea city, so we get some nice satisfying explosions right at The End.

That's basically it. There isn't much of a plot here. The poem isn't much help, either. It provides the setting, but the screenwriters then had to cook up the entire story, such as it is. The movie is a lesson in just how difficult it is to write Poe if you aren't Poe. I do give the filmmakers credit for some of the Gothic elements they dreamed up: The baddie and his henchmen have discovered the secret of perhaps-eternal life, but are condemned to remain forever in the city under the sea. Dry land is nearby, but the men can only go ashore for brief raiding parties, and then only at night. The bells that ring deep in the sea whenever Sir Hugh executes someone. The house perched on a cliff over the ocean, full of creepy guests and secret passages. The glowing undersea volcano and constant earthquakes, providing a constant sense of impending doom. A lot of the sets and visuals are pretty cool, including the main temple room (I'm guessing about the temple part) where Sir Hugh drowns his enemies. The water cascades down between the fingers of a gigantic hand, and of course the hand ends up falling on the bad guy at the end. Other nice visual bits include the matte of the undersea city and the super-cool deep sea diving helmets everyone was using. The US title of the movie is pretty great as well. As soon as I heard the title, I knew I absolutely had to rent the thing. And there's a short bit of Vincent Price reading Poe, which is never a bad thing.

Now for bad things about the movie. The worst, worst, worst thing about the movie is the interminable undersea "fight" sequence. Basically the filmmakers had a few people miling around aimlessly in diver helmets. They all have the same outfit on, and there's no dialogue, so you end up with no clue whatsoever about what's happening. The film tries to liven things up by splicing in some unconvincing reaction shots by our glorious triumvirate, and loud bombastic music to try to convince you something exciting is happening, all evidence to the contrary. This sequence goes on and on. I didn't time it, but I'd bet it ran at least 15 minutes. You keep thinking, surely they must be done now, but no. I don't know if they just needed filler material; or filming underwater was expensive, and they decided to get their money's worth by using every last minute of footage they filmed; or whether the public genuinely adored the novelty of this stuff back in 1965. But looking at it with 2006 eyes, there's just way too much boring undersea footage. And to top it all off, the undersea chase seems to be completely pointless, and our heroes end up back where they started after all that time. Although the pack of nefarious henchmen disappears from the story after this point, and we never find out what happened to them. Nobody bothers to say a simple "Whew, we lost them", or anything, so it's possible the scriptwriters just forgot about 'em after that. And those "gill-men"... Yes, they look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, except made by an 8th grade art class. If you watch the fighting closely, you can see a number of gill-man scales and costume bits breaking off. To be fair, lots of movies ripped off the gill-man idea, such as Monster of Piedras Blancas and The Phantom from 10000 Leagues. But if there's a gill-man evolutionary tree, the guys from WGotD rank somewhere near the very bottom.

I should point out that the film won no awards for acting. Vincent Price (as nasty old Sir Hugh) is his usual entertaining self, but it's all downhill from there. Both ex-teen-heartthrob (and non-action-hero) Tab Hunter, and alleged love interest Susan Hart can barely read their lines, much less sell them to the audience. He was supposed to be a big star for some reason, which explains his presence in the movie. And she got the job because she was married to James Nicholson, one of the film's co-producers. The love angle just doesn't work -- the only indication we get that they have anything in common is in the very beginning, where she remarks that they are the only two Americans among the house's guests, and she thinks they ought to be friends. That's pretty much it. And after the first few minutes, she's the only woman in the movie. A better movie might have given Sir Hugh a daughter or neice, and set up a rivalry for the affections of dreamy Tab Hunter. A better movie might even deliver a proper catfight. But not this movie.

Meanwhile, David Tomlinson (playing the English twit) is just an insufferable ham. You've seen him in all those 60's Disney movies, and in those he didn't share screen time with a chicken. Ah, the chicken. The business with the chicken is slightly amusing, very slightly amusing, the first couple of times it's inflicted on the audience. And then it happens again, and again. When Vincent Price notices the bird, his eyes light up and he hungrily exclaims "Chicken!". I had my hopes up the chicken might be a goner. But no. One of the reviews linked to below says the studio made the filmmakers add the twit and his chicken. They must've had the movie pegged as a ripoff of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, except without a submarine, or a giant squid, or any of the other things that made that movie so much fun.

So is it worth watching? Sure, so long as you don't expect a masterpiece. Or a film that makes sense, to be honest, so this may be a great movie to cook up a drinking game about. When you see the chicken, drink!

Other reviews of War Gods of the Deep:
Film Freak Central, RottenTomatoes, 1000 Misspent Hours, (with stills), Monsters at Play. DVD Drive-In, Imaginarium, and Bad Cinema Diary


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