Dead Calm (1989)

MARCH 20, 2010


Any doubts I had that Dead Calm was a horror movie were squashed when Nicole Kidman, chased by a deranged killer on her boat (that alone should qualify it, no?) fires a harpoon at the door, only to kill her dog (who, we had learned earlier, was smart enough to open doors). As she goes out to inspect, Billy Zane jumps out from behind another door, not unlike Michael Myers busting out to kill Bob in the original Halloween.

Plus, the film’s two death scenes are as exploitative as you can get (three if you count the poor dog, whose carcass is left pinned on the door). In the first, Kidman gets into a car crash, which results in her young son flying out of the windshield (from the back of the car) and sailing through the air in slo-mo. Usually such scenes are presented rather tastefully (with a horrified parent’s look, or maybe the kid’s balloon floating away), but this? I could practically hear the New Beverly Grindhouse Night crowd cheering and laughing. And (spoiler) Zane’s death involves his head being immolated by a signal flare, though I wasn’t surprised to learn that this was a studio demanded addition after preview audiences balked at the original, more ambiguous ending (it is unclear if the same preview audience demanded to see a toddler smash through a windshield and soar like eagle).

Otherwise, it works as a pretty decent, if somewhat pace-challenged thriller. The individual suspense bits are terrific, such as Sam Neill pumping his sinking boat even as the water level reaches his neck, or the numerous scenes of Kidman doing something sneaky (you KNOW Zane will eventually catch her in the act, but the film offers so many such moments, you’re never sure which ONE he will interrupt). And the limited cast sort of spells out the dog’s doom from the second he’s introduced, so you’re always tense when he’s on-screen, knowing that he’s not long for this world.

But everything moves a bit too quickly. Zane gets on their boat claiming to be a survivor of a ship that’s about a half mile away (sorry, KNOTS - though I haven’t a clue how many), but Neill is immediately suspicious and takes off to investigate. And Zane attacks Kidman a few minutes later. Sure, we know he’s crazy, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing him play victim for another few minutes, or at least offer a one on one scene between him and Neill (something we don’t get at the beginning OR the end of the film - if not for the reshoot, Zane and Neill would never share a scene after the film’s first 20 minutes).

Even more troubling is when Kidman allows Zane to have his way with her (she’s even on top at one point!). Again, it comes too quickly (heh) but it also doesn’t even seem particularly necessary - if she was trying to distract him away from something Neill was doing, it would be one thing, but at the time Neill is simply trying not to drown. A kiss and a flirtation is one thing, but full blown lovemaking seems a bit ridiculous. The film is based on a novel by Charles Williams, and I am sure it makes more sense there - maybe some Stockholm Syndrome had settled in, or she was just mentally troubled by the death of her son and wanted to “feel SOMETHING!”, but whatever the case it just seems gratuitous at best. On that note, the death of their son also seems to be a non-factor in the proceedings. Unlike Antichrist, the loss doesn’t seem to have disrupted their marriage (another thing that would have made the lovemaking scene a bit more plausible) - the two seem to get along fine. And when the dog dies, it doesn’t seem to really effect her to lose another “child”, but her rather blasé attitude about it doesn’t seem like a side effect of her being “numb” after the kid’s death. Whether Kidman’s performance was lacking or simply something not on the page, you could honestly cut the entire opening 10 minutes out of the movie (and just start with them on the boat) and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. Nice to see her assets back when she was still attractive though (i.e. before she got plastic surgery and began to resemble a creepy motion cap character in a 3rd rate PS2 game).

Zane is a delight, and it’s a shame he didn’t get to play more psychos (this and Demon Knight are the only ones that come to mind; he’s the “villain” in Titanic, but there he’s just an arrogant prick). I wish we could have seen more of his “home movies” with the people on the boat, or, again, some battle of wits stuff with Neill, but it’s not a storytelling flaw in this respect; I just enjoyed his scenery-chewing when he got the chance to do it.

It’s equally bumming that Philip Noyce never really dipped into horror/thriller territory again (unless you count Bone Collector, but who wants to be reminded of that?). For a movie that takes place entirely on a small boat, he manages to make it visually interesting throughout, and I loved some of his off-kilter editing choices. For example, early on, when Neill has figured out Zane is up to no good and tries to get back on their boat, we stay with Neill (in a dingy) as he approaches his boat. As he pulls alongside, we see Kidman and Zane engaged in a brawl in the background. Most directors would cut to a closeup of them fighting, with lots of edits to make it seem more exciting, but Noyce sticks with Neill - it’s a cool little moment.

Speaking of Neill - the guy doesn’t age. This movie is from 1989, which would make him 42, but if I had to guess he only looks about 5 years younger than he does in Daybreakers (filmed in 2008). If he and Kidman were to remake the film today, their characters would seem like they were the same age, instead of what looks like at LEAST a 10 year (actually 20!) difference here (another missed opportunity - Zane seems more Kidman’s “type”, but it’s an aspect left unexplored).

I have to mention the music. It’s fine for the most part, but composers Tim O'Connor and (or?) Graeme Revell tosses in these breathing sounds over large chunks of it, and they sound ridiculous (especially when used in a scene where the character is indeed gasping for breath - I thought the film was just horribly out of sync at first). Needless to say, I would not be buying the rare import score for this movie at a horror con.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve certainly seen a number of terrific claustrophobic thrillers, and I would put Dead Calm in the middle of the pack. It’s not a complete home run, like The Descent is, but the characters are likable and for the most part, the concept is plausible, unlike say, Black Out. Changes aside, I think for once that reading the book first would help - you can project all of the character development into the film and make it a little more interesting psychologically. And be spared the nonsensical, “supposed to be upsetting but it’s more just comical” image of the kid playing Superman.

What say you?

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  1. hm....Quite old.. Is there any new remake of this movie??

  2. Geez, haven't seen this one for years. Not sure if I'll revisit it soon...... cause you just about spoilt the entire plot! Bit long winded but hey thanks for the revisit. Damn love Aussie made creepy flicks!

  3. I've always liked this movie, mostly because I like all three actors. Even though I've seen it a ton of times, I never really noticed the 20 year age difference between Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman. Interesting point. I've always laughed at the flying kid, though.

  4. i totally remember this movie! I think its a big steve fave, i havent seen it in forever though. i'm surprised you hadnt seen it sooner!

  5. great review, I laughed whenever u mentioned the dog's scene

  6. Interestingly, there is no sex scene in the Charles Williams book upon which this movie is based. The book also had two other characters who are completely left out: the Zane character had a wife back on the sinking ship, and there was a guy traveling with them who had served as an antagonist to Zane, partly leading to his going crazy. The Neill character ends up having to play referee between them while also trying to keep the ship from sinking. Worth reading, if you can find a copy (it's a pretty old book).


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