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June 3, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #74 - Dead Calm

Dead Calm is one of those movies that completely shaped my view of how efficient a film could be.  I spent many of my teenage years educating myself on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and it quickly became my opinion that not many people have come close to making a thriller as effectively as Sir Alfred did.  But there was a word I'd read in some of my "video guides" - which, to you young folks, were basically paper copies of the IMDB that existed before the internet - and it was a word that intrigued me greatly. Hitchcockian.  I couldn't find it in the dictionary - Urban Dictionary hadn't happened yet either! - but the way the word read seemed to imply that there were films that had similar qualities Hitchcock's work.
Dead Calm was among the first films I ever checked out based on a review containing that cinematic buzzword, and it left me refreshed.  It wasn't a Hitchcock film - I'm smart enough to know he didn't make any movies in which a 21 year old Nicole Kidman banged a crazy Billy Zane - but it had something Hitchcock's films had.  It was tense.  I don't mean it was tense like we usually use the word when talking about movies, I mean it was tense like the ropes holding the boat in the film's sail in place.  There wasn't filler, there weren't lulls.  It seemed to know exactly what it wanted to be doing at every moment of its runtime, and it held to its plot's course without wavering.
I suppose it's easier for you to understand how tense the film is if I talk about what the film is.  Sam "I Survived the Dinosaurs" Neill and Nicole "Hey, I was an Australian Redhead once" Kidman star as a grieving couple who hit the high seas alone in an attempt to deal with the death of their son, which is shown via foggy flashback in the opening scene.  Kidman's Rae is struggling mightily with the loss, while Neill's John seems to be bound and determined to help his wife get through by any means possible.  You know who doesn't give a crap about this whole situation? Billy Zane.
Zane appears as a fellow named Hugh shortly into the film, frantically rowing a life boat toward Rae and John's boat.  Looking back from this day and age, one might assume Zane's character from Titanic - who I believe was named Evil Rich White Guy - has gone back in time, but Hugh is a bit more disheveled than ERWG was.  He never wears a shirt, and he frantically states that the boat he was on is sinking and that everyone on it died of food poisoning before passing out.  Being the "I don't give an eff, I survived the dinosaurs" type dude he is, John decides he should go check out the doomed ship and find out what really happened.  As he leaves, the seemingly unconscious Hugh pops up, shows off his craziness, and takes the boat with Rae on board.  John is left behind, knowing his wife is trapped at sea with a crazy person, and is forced to scour the sinking ship for supplies and deadly information.

I know I'm not giving the setup a serious rundown here, and I assure the film isn't as tongue in cheek as my synopsis.  But I have a good reason for talking about the film with such a jovial tone.  You ever have one of those moments where everything's all dreary or sad or serious and the tone is just so overbearing that you want to laugh just to break the grip of that invisible force that's holding everyone captive?  Dead Calm is a movie that's all about those moments.  You've got a grieving mother trapped at sea with a raving shirtless lunatic while her husband is stranded on a sinking ship with a bunch of naked corpses with hairy crotches.  It's not exactly Sesame Street.
Hitchcock knew that the best suspense could take energy from its viewers, but he also knew how to parlay that suspense into a feeling of relief.  And that's how he made his thrillers efficient - by sucking the audience into a tense world, then leaving them excited by what they'd seen when they came out the other side of the film.  Dead Calm helmer Phillip Noyce - one of the the more underrated imports from Australia to Hollywood cinema - uses the same idea here.  He sucks us in so that we become a part of the film and never looks back.
My recent revisit of Dead Calm was - as far as I can remember - the first time I've ever watched the film with a group of others.  I'm not sure why Dead Calm slipped my mind for the last few years, nor am I sure why I never showed it to others back when I first fell for its simple, one-track charms.  But I do know that this viewing, like that first viewing when I was a teen, reminded me just how good a human-based thriller could be in the right hands.  And as the rest of the group vocalized their excitement with a chorus of gasps and expletive filled proclamations of glee....Dead Calm and I kind of fell in love again.
Maybe it's not traditionally a horror movie - there's nothing supernatural at work and most of the film takes place in broad daylight - but Dead Calm knows how to create unease, and does so right up until the cathartic - if not slightly silly and probably tacked on - finale.  If you're looking for a tense thriller that takes simple steps to keep us worried - and comes with a dose of psychosexual intrigue that I haven't even touched on - Dead Calm might be the kind of 1980s terror you're waiting for.


deadlydolls said...

Firstly, I adore the tone of your review. I *like* Dead Calm, but the final scene REALLY bothers me. It's SO 90s and theatrical, and kind of takes something away from Kidman's character. That being said, I am a Billy Zane apologist and will never complain about a) him being in a movie b) him acting crazy or c) him not wearing a shirt. Oh, and I actually really like --and this will sound really bad-- the sort of morally complex rape/non-rape/sex scene because it's so loaded (no pun intended) in different ways for the two characters. OH and how can I forget, I'm a dog lover, but I wanted to kill the mutt in this film. He's the worst pet ever.

Enbrethiliel said...


I remember this! There are few settings more claustrophobic than a boat--especially when it's a tiny blip in the wide expanse of ocean and sky.

And I agree about the flawed ending. =S As it is, it's kind of Slasher-ish, in the sense that the villain who should be dead survives for one last scare and spectacular "offing" by the survivors. It didn't really fit the rest of the film.