Wednesday, February 3, 2010

DEAD CALM (W.B. 1989) Warner Home Video

Based on Charles William's suspense laden novel, director Philip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989) is a mixed bag of cliché and melodrama that capitalizes on the isolationism of the open sea for much of its taut thrills. Although it has its moments, the film never quite comes off as a nail biter, despite good performances by Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill. The greatest challenge to overcome is a rather turgid script by Terry Hayes and an utterly ineffectual turn from Billy Zane - cast as the sulking, rather than sinister, villain.

The story opens with Capt. John Ingrim (Neill) returning home from a voyage with his crew. However, as their train pulls into the station, Ingrim's wife, Rae (Kidman) is nowhere to be found.

As various anxious sweethearts collect their mates on the platform it becomes apparent to Ingrim that his wife is not among them. Unhappy circumstance for the Captain, who quickly discovers that Rae and their young son have been involved in a horrific car accident en route to the station. The Ingrim's son has died after being jettisoned from the vehicle and Rae is barely clinging to life at the county hospital.

From here Haye's screenplay takes a quantum leap forward, with a restored Rae waking up screaming from another nightmare about the crash aboard her husband's plush yacht. Ingrim comforts Rae with promises of a future free from fear - all evidence to the contrary as their yacht approaches the Orpheus; a black schooner bobbing about the open waters. Upon closer inspection, Ingrim and Rae take notice of a solitary sailor mercilessly rowing for all its worth toward their vessel.

The man, Hughie Warriner (Zane) tells a harrowing tale of escaping near death after his ship's food supply became tainted with botulism. Five shipmates were not so lucky. Unconvinced by the story, Ingrim encourages Hughie to go below and rest, then tells Rae he intends to board the Orpheus to conduct his own inspection. What Ingrim discovers once aboard are the gruesomely dismembered remains of four young women and another man. There can only be one conclusion; Hughie Warriner is a sadistic murderer.

Meanwhile, Hughie awakens from below deck. Realizing what Ingrim must have discovered aboard the Orpheus, Hughie takes command of Ingrim's yacht, abandoning Ingrim to the black schooner and kidnapping Rae into uncharted waters.

What follows is supposed to be a heightened game of cat and mouse with Ingrim employing his vast knowledge of ships to resurrect the Orpheus from sinking so that he can pursue Rae and Hughie. Instead, Ingrim discovers that the black schooner is mortally wounded and destined to sink, leaving Rae as his only hope for survival.

Here, however, the tale becomes quite convoluted and slightly ridiculous. For although Rae has a double barrel shotgun and harpoon at her disposal - as well as ample time to sneak either or both away from Hughie and use them in her own defense - she instead spends the first two thirds of the film whimpering in corners, attempting half hearted and badly planned escapes, as well as, allowing Hughie to ravage her sexually to bide her time. At the last possible moment, Rae harpoons Hughie in the shoulder before tossing his unconscious body into an inflatable raft, then cutting him loose from the yacht.

As the Orpheus sinks further into the sea, Ingrim learns from the ship's video log that Hughie was a mate hired to take photographer, Russell Bellows (Rod Mullinar) and four aspiring female models for a cruise to shoot some nude photographs. Why any of this should matter to the overall plot of the film remains a topic never discussed.

Meanwhile, as night falls, Ingrim douses the Orpheus in petrol, setting it afire as a beacon for Rae to find. She does, and Ingrim is rescued. The next afternoon, Rae and Ingrim come across the inflatable raft. But there are no signs of Hughie, except two bloody palm prints rubbing against their yacht that neither Rae or Ingrim see.

Ingrim goes below deck to prepare breakfast for his wife, leaving Hughie to make one last attempt at strangling Rae with her own towel. Ingrim returns, sees the act of murder in progress and fires a solitary flair into Hughie's head, thereby effectively killing him.

Thus ends, Dead Calm on a rather blissfully obtuse note - without pomp or much of a resolution for that matter. The greatest folly of the film remains its knotting of more than a handful of ambiguous plot threads into a narrative that never entirely gels. As the audience, we are led to believe that Hughie has murdered Bellows and his beauties after being ruthlessly badgered by Bellows and laughed at by the models; hardly a decisive or plausible reason for all of the carnage.

This scenario would work if Hughie exhibited more psychotic episodes once left to his own devices with Rae. However, upon ditching Ingrim in the middle of nowhere, Hughie makes every attempt to be a rather amiable and playful suitor for Rae. He makes no threat or even menace of rape and only after Rae plays along with his romantic advances does Hughie decide to engage in intercourse with her. Hence, when Rae finally decides to attempt to poison Hughie then shoots him with the harpoon, a rather strange sense of empathy for Hughie emerges as the byproduct. She has misled him and he becomes a wounded animal in need of rescue who is instead unceremoniously put to death.

The other tragedy from which the film never recovers is Billy Zane's abysmally dull central performance as Hughie. Zane is much more the fop than the romantic interest and ever so much more the lover than the fighter, leaving the audience to speculate just how it is he might have been able to murder the Orpheus' entire crew single handedly when he cannot even handle one frightened woman once alone on Ingrim's ship. In the final analysis, Dead Calm has its moments but there is far too much 'calm' in between them to make an impact one way or the other.

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray transfer is a reason to rejoice however. The image throughout is bright, sumptuous and beautifully contrasted with a quantum leap forward in fine detail. Age related artifacts are nonexistent for a smooth and satisfying visual presentation. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequately reproduced herein. Save a cropped theatrical trailer, there are no extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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