War-Gods of the Deep

Synopsis: Master of suspense and horror Vincent Price takes on square-jawed Tab Hunter in this fantastic underwater tale teeming with adventure! Co-starring David Tomlinson (Dominique), Susan Hart (Pajama Party and a rough-and-tumble rooster!), This turbulent thriller pits gill-men against he-men with a sexy woman caught in between as it surges with “excitement from initial fade-in to climatic fade-out” (Boxoffice)!

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War-Gods of the Deep 6.75

eyelights: Vincent Price. its ambitious sets. its central conceit.
eyesores: its performances. its corny humour. its underwater cinematography. its underwater fight sequences. its shabby mermen costumes. its special effects.

“Atlantis? Perhaps; a name is as good as another.”

Edgar Allan Poe and science fiction? Could one ever imagine a more disparate pair? Well, apparently the people at American International Pictures thought not, as that’s exactly what they did with ‘War-Gods of the Deep’, the 1965 motion picture co-starring Vincent Price and Tab Hunter.

Perhaps in an attempt to ride the science fiction wave of such undersea adventures as ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘The Underwater City’ all the while milking their Edgar Allan Poe cash cow, AIP decided to take EAP’s poem “The City in the Sea” and transform it into a feature-length film.

Thus was born the misnomered ‘War-Gods of the Deep’ (which was known as ‘City Under the Sea’ outside the United States).

There’s very little Poe connection, frankly, as the picture deals with an entirely different plot than in the poem. Its only real connection is in some Poe readings by Vincent Price at the onset and midway through the picture, a formula that AIP had also followed with the Roger Corman/Poe set of films.

Here the plot revolves around the inadvertent discovery of an undersea kingdom by Ben Harris and Harold Tufnell-Jones after their friend Jill Tregillis is kidnapped. There they fall prey to a group of immortal men and mermen led by the glacial and cruel Sir Hugh, and try to escape with Jill in tow.

The picture is a loosey-goosey mélange of limp scares, corny humour, and half-baked romance wrapped up in a science fiction setting. It gives audiences an affable but impotent hero in Tab Hunter, a Rob Schneider-esque dork in the form of David Tomlinson, and a pretty but flavourless damsel in Susan Hart.

And then there’s Vincent Price.

Price is the only person providing the cast any sort of credibility. Though he tends to ham it up at times, he’s positively surgical in his delivery compared to the other cast members. One feels his character’s shadow lurking everywhere our heroes go – we have no doubt that he is right behind them.

And he usually is.

If the picture evokes any sense of threat it’s because of Price’s sinister presence as Sir Hugh. Nothing else is as scary as he. Even the eerie mermen don’t deliver shivers due to poor direction and some spectacularly inept costuming – not only do they look cheap, but they’re set under a spotlight.

The only times that they come close to spooking the audience is in their early appearances, which are mostly staged in shadows – which prevents us from seeing the rubbery faces and glassy eyes that make them look like rejects from ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’. Too bad that this didn’t last long.

Having said this, those early scenes are marred by poor directorial choices, in that Jacques Tourneur decided to show us the creatures – instead of putting us in the heroes’ place, making us only privy to a few creepy clues. Instead, we’re shown everything, leaving us waiting for Ben to catch up.

Oh, the tension!

Really, ‘War-Gods of the Deep’ doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a horror film? Is it an adventure film? Is it an action film? A comedy? Is romance the focus? Or is science-fiction? Who knows. It certainly doesn’t. Maybe it wanted to be everything to everyone, keeping all of its bases covered.

And, in so doing, it fails.

It also fails on a technical level. Admittedly, AIP wasn’t exactly a big Hollywood studio and they tended to cut corners – especially with the notoriously frugal Corman. Here they invested in maquettes, costumes and underwater camerawork, but they don’t do them well at all. No budget or inexperience?

Either way, we had endless looks at the crummy underwater kingdom, which must have been made for someone’s bathtub, the costumes were clunky if not ridiculous, and many of the underwater scenes were shot with fish-eyed lenses or were blurry. And when they weren’t, they had no punch.

Instead, we’re treated to lengthy scenes in which the participants can only be distinguished by close-ups that don’t blend with the rest of the film, who fight anemically and use underwater crossbows (seriously!) – all backed by some generic adventure music instead of a proper action movie score.

It’s really pathetic.

(‘Thunderball‘ would come out only a few months later and show the world how it should be done.)

Thankfully, the picture isn’t entirely indigestible. Though it feels low budget and crummy in some respects, it nonetheless maintains enough mystery to keep it interesting. And the sets are well worth seeing, especially the ones for Sir Hugh’s headquarters under the sea; they are truly lavish by AIP standards.

But is that and Vincent Price enough to overcome the corniness of the script, which was butchered in a rewrite during a struggle between some of the producers? It depends on the audience, I suppose. If one were to expect a family-friendly Sunday morning sleeper, then it might just do the trick.

If one expects ‘War-God of the Deep’ instead ‘City Under the Sea’, however, one will be sorely disappointed; this is not a movie with either war gods or any significant action. But if the appeal is exploring an underwater world and its denizens, then this picture fulfills such ambitions adequately.

But not especially skillfully. Or with any depth.

Story: 6.5
Acting: 6.0
Production: 6.5

Chills: 1.0
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 3.0

Date of viewing: March 7, 2017

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