Wednesday, March 7, 2012

War Gods of the Deep

Last night I indulged one of my favorite pastimes by watching a film that many would consider "trashy sci-fi" but that I find gloriously entertaining -- War Gods of the Deep, starring Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, and Susan Hart (American International Pictures, 1965).

Low-budget SF movies from the 50s and 60s have a charm that you just can't find anywhere else. It's not  innocence -- I don't think the world was ever particularly innocent, especially not in Hollywod. Maybe it's more a matter of  earnestness. Throw in some H. G. Wells/Edgar Poe flavor and it just gets better.

At least, it usually gets better. War Gods of the Deep is not a good example of the genre. Too often, the filming goes beyond low-budget to just careless. In one underwater scene, a crew diver in wetsuit and flippers swims above the gill-men. In others, you can see the actors' wetsuits through gaping rips in the gill-men's rubber costumes. The underwater scenes are incoherent. One moment the characters are locked in hand-to-hand fighting with their pursuers, then moments later they've stretched the distance beyond underwater crossbow range. It looks as if a string of random shots, angles, and action scenes were desperately stitched together into a semblance of a sequence, by someone without much sense.

The same sloppy scripting affects the underwater city scenes. The heroes who are frantically trying to escape from the crumbling city can find no exit from one chamber, but moments later the villain charges up a wide-open staircase from that same chamber into the sunlight. Even before any of that nonsense kicks in, you have to swallow the notion that there's a large, active volcano just off the coast of England. I can accept the idea of an ancient, sunken city; it's an enigma, right? But the volcano is asking a bit much.

It's a sad feature film curtain call by Jacques Tourneur, who directed many excellent horror, film noir, and adventure films, including Cat PeopleCanyon PassageOut of the PastBerlin ExpressThe Flame and the Arrow, and Night of the Demon. I like to think War Gods of the Deep would have been better if Tourneur had been given a budget that allowed for shooting more than one take of the key underwater scenes and if a bit more thought had been put into the script, which was co-credited to Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward. Bennett had an impressive list of credits, especially in collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock but also in vastly better examples of similar adventure films (The Lost World, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Heyward had been head writer on the Ernie Kovacs Show, but he'd also penned a lot of goofy surf movies, and it shows. I suspect he was in charge of the final draft.

Despite its many disappointments, War Gods of the Deep still has redeeming features. The sunken city sets and models are impressive, Vincent Price is suitably insane, and David Tomlinson is amusing as the chicken-obsessed artist. As inspiration for light-hearted pulp and SF games such as Space: 1889Spirit of the Century, or Hollow Earth Expedition, or for a lost world D&D scenario, it deserves a place on your watch list. That place is near the bottom, but hey, that's still something.


  1. Tab Hunter in this movie felt a bit like Pat Boone in Journey to the Center of the Earth. Someone thrown in for the younger female audience who really doesn't fit at all. Still, I like watching these movies as there are frequently great plot ideas to lift that were just poorly executed in the movie for one reason or another, or the movie inspires good ideas as you think about everything that went wrong in it.

    Speaking of bad movies I just watched Humanoids From the Deep, which stars an aging Doug McClure and Vic Morrow. I have also been working my way through the Gamma One Quadrilogy.

  2. I agree completely about Tab Hunter. He was one of the weakest parts of the film.

    And talk about coincidences. I just watched Humanoids from the Deep about a week ago myself, when I noticed it was available for streaming from Netflix. Not a great movie by any stretch, but it delivers exactly what it promises: humanoids from the deep.

  3. Good choice for an insomnia-movie. It's a strange mash-up, but could easily inspire a few game sessions...