DVD Review Of War-Gods Of The Deep

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/07


   War-Gods Of The Deep is one of those films whose title really makes no sense, but is right in keeping with the whole tenor of the film. It was made in 1965, the first of the famed American International Pictures post-Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe-themed horror and sci fi films of the 1960s, that started with The House Of Usher in 1960, and was a part of the Big Four of horror and sci fi films of that era. The three other competitors in the field were the giant monster films from Japan (Godzilla, Mothra, Gammera, etc.), the stop motion action-adventure-monster films of Ray Harryhausen, and the British Hammer Studios horror films. That War-Gods Of The Deep was set in England, even though made by AIP, and featuring two American B film superstars like Vincent Price and Tab Hunter, and based upon a poem by American poet and writer Poe, is just one of its many ironies. Yet, that still does not explain its odd title. The alternate title was The City Under The Sea, which makes sense, since that’s what it is about, a city reputedly called Lyonesse- not any War-Gods. It was based upon the Poe poem The City In The Sea, which is quoted by Price at film’s start and end, and begins:


Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.


  Suffice to say, the poem was not one of Poe’s great classics, and the film derived from it is not one of AIP’s better Poe themed films. War-Gods Of The Deep was the final film in the storied career of Jacques Tourneur, probably the greatest B film director in cinema history, and one of the true masters of the black and white medium. While better known for his classic films produced by Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie), Tourneur proved he could make great horror films on his own. In 1957 he directed the British horror classic Night Of The Demon (Curse Of The Demon in the U.S.), and even in this color film, with its thin premise of a sunken city off the Cornish coast, unaging sailors from the Eighteenth Century, who do not age because of an imbalance of oxygen from an undersea volcano and some nonsense about ultraviolet light on the earth’s surface in daylight (huh?), Gill-Men who are third rate Creatures From The Black Lagoon, and other assorted lunacy- such as a British comic foil for Hunter who carries about a chicken with the male name of Herbert, the film actually entertains, even if it lacks real chills.

  Part of the reason is that Tab Hunter is gleefully moronic as the beefcake lead, American geologist Ben Harris, who is in the U.K. for no discernible reason. As the film opens, a body washes on shore, and Hunter and some Brit fishermen wax profound (or try to) on its meaning. Failing that, Ben goes to the nearest house to tell the inhabitants what happened. There he meets the sexy brunet Jill Tregellis (Susan Hart), also an American who’s merely a guest at the house, for no apparent reason save that the local villagers seem to have a thing for attractive Americans with little gray matter. Also staying at the house, again for reasons unexplained, is the wacky Brit with the chicken, Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson), a minor portrait artist who is an admitted coward. Tomlinson, however, is actually quite good in the role, even though the screenplay, at a macro level, is nonsensical and filled with plot holes as wide as the volcano’s rim, as much of the plot is pushed by the Dumbest Possible Action trope by both the heroes and villains- who never think to even lock their captives in a room, nor with chains, to prevent escape. The overall screenplay was penned by Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward at the last minute before shooting. Yet, at a micro level it is filled with great and witty dialogue- the best of which goes to Tomlinson, whose wacky Brit role would be deftly parodied just a few years later in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, by Jack MacGowran. This schism is because while most of the plot and dialogue was written by Bennett and Heyward, the wittier banter was written by David Whittaker, and his better writing is manifest. Character development, and one liners, are easier to pop off at the drop of a hat than a believable tale. As example, at one point, Harold tells Ben he needs a good night’s sleep, for he is going to get up early in the morning to paint a sunset. Ben asks why he’s going to paint a sunset in the morning, and Harold replies, naturally, ‘I’m a slow worker.’ Ba-dum-bum! As for the rest of the plot, within a few minutes of their acquaintance, the Gill-Men kidnap Jill and Ben and Harold are after them, down through subterranean caves that seem like leftover sets from the 1960 H.G. Wells film The Time Machine, but really were leftovers from other AIP films. They then fall down a sinkhole that’s alarmingly like a giant toilet; perhaps an apt metaphor for any semblance of realism in the film’s remainder. Unfortunately, there are no Morlocks, merely the wretchedly costumed Gill-Men, the unaging sailors, and their ‘King’, Captain Sir Hugh Tregathian (Vincent Price)- sort of a Captain Nemo on the dark side; a pirate and smuggler.

  Of course, here is where, even were this film not helmed by a true talent like Tourneur, it would have gained a few notches simply by Price’s magisterial presence. He could bring pathos and depth to even the most absurd situations and dialogue, and does so here. He has kidnapped Jill because she looks just like his dead wife from over a century before- an old trope that never seems to lose its usefulness in inspiring B film madmen, especially Price, who made a specialty out of longing for dead spouses on film. Of course, what makes this film work is that Price never concedes, with even a wink nor nod, that he is in a B film. If only he had been allowed to do Shakespeare in an A film, how much richer American cinema would have been, but he was consigned to B films because of his odd physical features, and slightly fey mannerisms.

  After some great nonsense soliloquies by Price, odd whisperings from the rocks of the cave, and some lunacy from Tomlinson and Hunter, the trio escapes to the surface, by killing the Gill-Men and Price’s sailors in an underwater battle, that is the worst part of the film, for it goes on far too long, long before aqualungs were really in service, and Price also ends up making it to the surface, as well- after being left for dead (of course) by the heroes, with his world destroyed, only to age and shrivel in the morning sun like a vampire- no oxygen imbalance from the volcano to save him!

  The film has several layers to it. Watching it today, one must bear in mind, with the film over four decades old, yet the story is set in the more distant past of 1903, with characters who came from their even more distant past of decades, and even over a century, earlier, that this was made right at the beginning of notions of Postmodernism; which shows mostly that PoMo and B film psychology are kissin’ cousins. What this says for both mindsets and pulling the wool over one’s eyes  is open for debate. The film also makes great use of its recycled AIP wares from prior movies. AIP reputedly never trashed old sets, and art director Frank White makes the most of the sets and miniatures that comprise the underwater city. The film also seems to be a scrapbook of ideas from other, better films, like the aforementioned Poe films, and The Time Machine. But, it also recalls the stellar Forbidden Planet by having the underground city being powered by huge pumps and machinery built by a long destroyed society that is no longer, having degenerated into the Gill-Men. The underwater cinematography by Neil Ginger Gemmell and John Lamb is also excellent, for a B film, even though the divers are all manifestly in a pool no more than fifteen or twenty feet deep, not leagues under the sea for the surface can be seen a few feet above the divers’ heads. There are even some chuckles to be had when Harold sticks his chicken Herbert inside his diving helmet. The rest of the cinematography, by Stephen Dade, is merely solid, although there are some moody moments captured seemingly inadvertently, with miniatures.

  The DVD is another part of the MGM Midnight Movies Double Feature series, along with At The Earth’s Core. It comes only with the theatrical trailer, but that gives away a good portion of the film’s climactic scene. It is, however, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and from a very good color print. For what it is, War-Gods Of The Deep is a serviceable film- not a classic, but not a piece of schlock either. Yes, there is the requisite suspension of disbelief- as water pressure would crush Price and the rest, and the escapees do not get the bends, but, that aside, it is escapist nonsense that is perfect for a late Saturday night’s unthinking entertainment. That the same can be said for most modern Hollywood adult A films says far more about the sorry state of cinema in America today than it does about the B films of Price or Tourneur. Godspeed, and full fathom five!

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]

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