Monday, November 14, 2011

Dead Calm (1989)

Directed by Phillip Noyce
Starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill, Billy Zane
Rated R
Australia

"This is a low production."

Based on a novel with the same title (which, hopefully, fleshed out some of the  WTF moments in the film version), Dead Calm is a thriller-slash-survival horror flick that presages wave (ahem) of ocean-bound cinematic  horrors produced in the wake (again!) of 2003’s Open Water.

Aussie alpha-ginger Nicole Kidman stars as Rae, a perfectly happy wife of a naval officer, John (Sam Neill) and ,mother of a bouncing baby boy. Or, at least she was happy. Rae’s life is shattered to bits in the startling opening scene. Sam is on shore leave for Christmas break, patiently waiting  for Rae and the baby. But they never show up.

Cut to: Rea, driving  through a furious rainstorm to get to her hubby. This kid’s in the back seat, gurgling away. Everything’s hunky dory. But then, the kid pops out of his car seat, mom swerves, there’s another car, and blammo, the kid sails through the windshield – graphically – in a flurry of blood, shattered glass, and baby-brains.

So that’s why she’s late.

So, where the hell do you go from there? Well, the open seas, apparently. To deal with their grief and reconnect, John and Rae head on a sailing boat (with a motor, you know the kind) and  float listlessly in the Great Barrier Reef. Rae gulps down fistfuls of sedatives and occasionally shrieks in her sleep, but what the hell, they’re  working through some heavy stuff.


Their bubble of pain and solitude is burst by the sudden appearance of a mysterious black schooner dead ahead. It appears to be abandoned. The couple  give it a closer look with their binoculars, and Rae spots a solitary figure in a dinghy, rowing  furiously away from the black boat and towards theirs. As he gets closer, they can make him out: a young-ish guy (Billy Zane), clad only in shorts and a straw hat, slathered in sweat and twitching. He’s so desperate to get away from the other ship that he plows right into theirs. Then he jumps aboard, runs downstairs to their cabin, and hides in a corner, wrapped up in a fetal ball.

The couple are more bemused than alarmed. Rae gives the guy some water and, eventually, he starts talking. Says his name is Hughie, and that there were five other people on the black boat, but they all died ten days ago from eating canned salmon.
“Probably Botulism,” says John.
“What the hell is Botulism?” Says Hughie.


John suggests they go back to the black boat to see if anybody’s still alive. Hughie  tells him to forget it, that he’s never going back there again. Which I suppose is understandable, but also a little (damn  it!) fishy, as well. Anyway, Hughie’s tired. Furious rowing is a bitch. John suggests he take a nap in their living quarters, and once he heads in there, John padlocks the door. Just in case. Then he leaves Rae in charge, and takes the dinghy out to check out the black boat.

When he gets to the boat, he finds the naked corpses of several women  and a fat guy floating around. Also, even though the electricity is fried, there’s a TV set on that’s playing  a videotape of the crew’s antics. Turns out that they were all on a Girls-Gone-Wild-on-the-High-seas type of adventure. Four girls, the captain-slash-producer, and Hughie, the cameraman. As the footage rolls on, Hughie gets more paranoid and delusional, until at the end, it’s all just screaming and running and crashing around.


Huh. So it wasn’t salmon. It was crazy Hughie, murdering everyone on board. Hughie. Who’s on the other boat with John’s wife.

Now it’s John’s turn to row frantically. But by the time he gets back, Hughie’s already knocked Rae out and commandeered the vessel. And he’s headed in the opposite direction. John’s forced to head back to the corpse-stuffed black boat – which is now rapidly sinking – and hope for the best.
Meanwhile, terminally depressed Rae has to snap out of it, subdue this lunatic, race back to the black boat, find it in the fuckin’ dark, and rescue John before he sleeps with the fishes.

But how?


Well, first she makes sweet love to Hughie.

Then she wrestles with him in her underwear.

And then she picks up a spear gun, and things get a little nuts.


Dead Calm’s crazy meter dips substantially after the toddler-splattering opening, but the tension level never lets up. It’s almost pornographic in its single-minded obsession with unease. Nobody’s happy, every moment is fraught with fear and violence, and even If the couple survives their ordeal, they’re left with even more trauma than the dead-kid issues they started with. This is one ugly joyride. Zane’s off-the-charts nuts, Neill’s a better action-hero than you might expect, and Kidman – well, even when she’s desperately trying to kill a maniac with a spear gun and she’s covered in bruises and crusty blood, she still looks good. And her hair is amazing.


All in all, a tight, taut, (very) 80’s thriller. Just be ready for some darkness.

- Ken McIntyre

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