Friday, March 10, 2023

American Gothic Week: The waves have now a redder glow—the hours are breathing faint and low


Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Charles Bennett, Louis M. Heyward, and David Whitaker

Spoilers: moderate

In 1964, Roger Corman made The Tomb of Ligeia, his eighth and last film based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as his last collaboration with Vincent Price.  It was as worthy a final statement on long-pursued themes as one could hope for, and Corman considered his work complete, shortly leaving American International Pictures to take a sojourn across several major studios.  This turned out to be one of the most unsatisfying (and for Corman, shockingly unproductive) phases of his career, but while he returned to AIP briefly before achieving his dreams of mini-moguldom with New World Pictures, when he did it wasn't to do more horror, but to explore or invent whole other areas of psychotronic cinema, like biker films, post-apocalyptic films, and films that are literally just Peter Fonda doing acid.

AIP, however, desired to keep right on using Poe, maintaining their unofficial monopoly on adapting the public domain author's works; Ligeia had not been any huge success, and Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson might have had an inkling that they were already pursuing diminishing returns, but Poevian horror had been (grading on a curve) their studio's most prestigious product, and at these budgetary levels I expect it was an easy fad for them to ride till the wheels fell off.  Of course, they also still had their big star, Price, and Price doesn't seem to have ever gotten tired of Gothic horror, accepting the narrowed but numerous opportunities that his late career had afforded him with the enthusiastic aplomb that is, in no small part, what makes him such a beloved legend.  The studio also still had their deal with Anglo-Amalgamated, taking advantage of cost-sharing and tax breaks to make films in Britain; and they still had two more pictures left in a three-picture deal with Jacques Tourneur, hypothetically a great director himself.  And so, for 1965, they cranked out yet another Poe.

Or, as had been increasingly the case even when Corman was making them, a "Poe."  Only in Britain was it even released as The City Under the Sea, which is to say, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's half-page metaphorical poem, "The City In the Sea."  In America, they either decided the title needed punching up, or they were beginning to become mildly ashamed of their Poesploitation, or (and this is probably more like it) they decided an obscurish poem wasn't actually a draw.  Hence it was released instead as War-Gods of the Deep, and the poster's reference to Poe is so small and unobtrusive that I doubt more than a handful ever noticed it.  It's easy to forget it has any Poe in it at all, for its debt to the author is discharged almost immediately by Price reciting several lines of the poem over the opening (he recites several more at the end), much as he had with "The Raven" in The Raven, except The Raven at least resembles the poem, rather than solely using the title as a jumping off point (if "City In the Sea" even was a jumping off point).  Nevertheless, "War-Gods of the Deep" might be even less descriptive than City Under the Sea.  It is punchier, that's undeniable, but I'd absolutely love that title if the movie lived up to it.

"The City In the Sea" is, of course, not a poem that could be "adapted" in the first placeit's less narrative than morbid doodleand so we have a situation basically akin to The Haunted Palace, likewise "based on" a Poe poem, though here instead of secretly adapting an H.P. Lovecraft story, it's not really adapting anything whatsoever, an "original" with a rather liberal attitude towards its influences.  This includes Lovecraft but not really very specificallyhis Innsmouth stories are evoked, but mostly just because it's underwater, so what minor Lovecraftian vibe persists is down to the idea of a fallen prehistoric civilization and the large stretches of time devoted to characters wandering around hallwaysbut there is a whole heap of Jules Verne.  By which I mean Jules Verne movies, particularly Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but also AIP's own, Price-starring Master of the World.

So, let us hark back to the turn of the 20th century, on the Cornish coast of Britainseems like it ought to be eastern Britain and the lost city Doggerland, but I suppose they didn't know about its prehistoric status as dry land yet.  Anyway, American mining engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) is in Cornwall on business, and, along with the local fishermen, he comes across a dead body washed up by the tide.  He brings the news to the local hotel, where lives a fellow American of his acquaintance, Jill Tregellis (Susan Hart), presently entertaining her guest, eccentric artist Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson) along with his, ahem, chicken, Herbert (Herbert the Chicken, credited along with the other performers).  Ben's arrived just in time to find an intruder fleeing his room, having apparently taken no more than a single geology textbookand while Ben knows he must be wrong, he's not sure what he saw was human.  (We get a good enough look to know he's right.)  The intruder gets bolder: upon his return, he takes Jill.  Ben and Harold give chase, and rapidly discern the creature's path, a secret network of tunnels beneath the hotel.  They make their way in, but they lead only to empty caverns, the most prominent feature of which is an unusual whirlpool.  By accident, they fall right in, and it turns out they've gone the right way after all, for now they find themselves before Sir Hugh (Price) and his men, and like Jill, they're his prisoners.

Hugh begrudgingly relates the history of his secret world to his captives: though now ruins, their surroundings were once a mighty city, parts kept dry by the unknowably-advanced technology of the people who lived there, though the city's original population is now represented only by those like the intruder Ben saw, descendants of those whose bodies changed to match their new submarine environment but whose civilization crumbled in the process, so that they've reverted to savagery and can only see Hugh and his men as gods.  For Hugh's part, once he was the captain of a crew of ordinary smugglers, chased into the caverns and into that whirpool.  Over the many decades of their confinement, however, they realized that something about the city's air keeps them alive, perhaps forever.  Eventually, they learned of alternative ways back to the surface world, but now they truly were trapped, for like the gill-men they too have been permanently altered, and outside of their protective bubble, they would perish in minutes.  It is for this reason that they think they could make use of Ben, a geologist, for the volcano that sank the city is on the verge of a new eruption, this time destroying everything for good.  Thus is Ben given his task: stop the volcanoor, more practically, as Harold suggests, making a clutch of 18th century criminals believe that a 20th century scientist can stop the volcano, while what he and Harold actually do is buy time for their escape.  As for Jill's purpose, Jill's hot.

I'm not too terribly down on this, as a premise, though it probably isn't the best version of itself even thenthe film was the result of dueling screenwriters Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward, the former claiming to have written a much better script that the latter subsequently mauled with comic relief.  Given Bennett's c.v., this is dubiousdecades prior, he'd written some Hitchcock movies, but more proximately, he'd written Irwin Allen's The Lost World, which besides numerous sins not of Bennett's making, is pretty irritatingly glib and wasteful of its setting's majestybut either way, the comic relief is not actually one of War-Gods' severer flaws.  (Which probably sounds surprising given there's a character whose entire purpose is to serve as a chicken wrangler, but it's better-integrated than you'd assume, though not as well-integrated as Rhubarb the Cat's participation in Tourneur's previous AIP Gothic, an actual comedy, The Comedy of Terrors.  The more annoying part, then, is that it's secondhandsecondhand in another way, I guessand this zany birdman sidekick, not to even mention the caverns and the Don't-Call-It-Atlantis lost city, is what War-Gods got from its chiefest influence, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth, when it went for its third pull from the Recent Jules Verne Movie Grab-Bag.  The movie's nervous enough about this to concede its "homage," having Tomlinson utter to his soaked chicken something to the effect, "I wish you were a duck.")

I'm not sure a horror movie should generate a paragraph's worth of consideration of a comic relief animal, but that gets us to War-Gods' mid-level serious problems.  One of those is that it's only horror by pedigree rather than by any particular design; it has monsters, but not especially threatening ones (and monsters that are either decent budget-conscious Black Lagoon knock-offs, or grown men in terrible children's Halloween costumes, depending on whether they're swimming or not).  It's much more a pulpy adventure and that's where the extremely constrained creativity of it starts to festeronce we arrive in Hugh's underground chambers, that's basically it (except when it gets worse, but we'll get there)and one is increasingly aware that not a lot about this movie would change if, instead of being set in a fantastic lost city, it were just set in ordinary caves occupied by ordinary smugglers discovered by some grown-up Hardy Boys because the smugglers' boss got wistfully rapey.  They don't even really do much with Harold's geological subterfuge.  (I don't like to indulge too much in "make a different movie" criticism, but it seems like War-Gods might be more fun if Price and company were themselves Atlantean descendants, and I would've liked it if there was any kind of society to explore here rather than just the background players from Captain Clegg.)

I was snarky earlier, but Jill genuinely seems to be here only because an AIP movie needs a babe, and if you can put her in a low-cut 19th century gown so much the better, but this still implies that the movie is interested in Jill somehow, and it's simply not, barely finding her useful even as an offscreened maguffin.  As for Hugh's fixation on her, we get a painting of the lost wife Jill looks like, and this feels like somebody told Bennett that Vincent Price would be in it, so he merely copied, in shorthand, the basic Vincent Price Character Motivation of roughly eight of the last dozen Vincent Price movies before calling it a day.  (I'd assume that one of this screenplay's drafts actually explained his apparently-psychic connection to Jill, but Tourneur and the shooting script don't even remember it was established, though, oddly, Hart herself might have.)

Price himself is fine, though without the material, even he can't brute-force Sir Hugh into the shape of one of his compellingly tragic figures.  He does what he canwhich, thankfully, isn't nothingwith the world-building exposition with which he regales his prisoners in a combination of awe and contempt for the mighty civilization in whose abandoned trash he's made his home, as well as with the monologues that paint him as a doomed megalomaniac grasping irrationally at one final hope, so that he does, at least, feel like the kiddie matinee version of a man who's been wandering the same corridors for a century.  I'm almost willing to credit this distractible quality for almost rendering plausible the film's abiding problem, which is that Sir Hugh is the most astonishingly inept captive-taker, so negligent with his prisoners that he leaves them alone and unguarded roughly every five minutes in an open room; but "two guys meander about and keep getting caught until it's time for the climax" is a fairly dull, repetitive structure for an adventure film to take on.

It compensates, a little, with dank, dreary, decadent atmosphere; by this point in AIP's history, Corman's Poe film art director Daniel Haller was moving up the ranks, and he produced War-Gods, which checks out, for it feels exactly like 1)a film produced by an art director and 2)a film produced by someone who was not an experienced producer.  On the former count, interesting sets do dry up by the time the main phase of the narrative sets inby the 35 minute mark, we've seen everything we're going to seebut up till then, actual art director Frank White, whom we can reasonably assume is taking cues from his producer, does a solid job conjuring a sense of ruined grandeur on a small budget, with a large and nearly-persuasive temple set ornamented with the sea-dwellers' dead gods (whether they're war-gods or not being purely speculative) that gets a real workout once the volcano does its thing.  And even before this, there's some good dark house atmosphere in the hotel and a real "you guys have seen a Mario Bava movie, haven't you?" feel to the lurid volcanic cave lighting that makes the spelunking around during the first act more interesting than it strictly had to be and gives Price's exposition a real apocalyptic cast.  Tourneur can be inconsistent with his directionthere are precious few really memorable compositions, one involving the chicken's basket, and perhaps the only other one involves Price groping his way through a hole toward the peril of the light, and even this is actually several one-second shots interrupted by other stuffbut Stephen Dade's Eastmancolor photography is, indeed, reasonably good throughout, insofar as a slightly-slurried gold-greenish sludge spiked with hellish reds is what the setting asks for.  The effects shots of the volcano are charming, too (because they're taken from Toho's Atragon).

Accordingly, I was ready to suppose that, on the level of junky pulp it prefers we meet it at, War-Gods is almost successful.  It's not exciting, but the argument would go that an 85 minute movie from 1965 wouldn't need to be, if it delivers on enough of the promise contained within its legitimately awesome poster that you can dimly perceive those unknown elder worlds and abysses beyond time still peeking through the crummy B-movie cracks.  I don't believe I would have actually agreed with that argument; the problems here are too bone-deep.  But I would have borne War-Gods no malice, and put it back on my shelf, never to be seen again but occasionally kindly recalled.

And then it makes damned sure that benign indifference is impossible, slamming into an underwater chase climax that is absolutely brutal in ways that only an underwater chase climax could be.  Maybe there's a reason Tourneur didn't finish his AIP contract, and War-Gods represents his final film: this sequence is completely undirected, a failure on Tourneur and Haller's parts alike, and so purely a creature of the underwater cameramen it's barely really even "cinema" anymore.  It's just a collection of loosely-associated shots of three people in old-timey diving suits, being chased by several other people in identical old-timey diving suits, sometimes joined, mostly according to the Kuleshov effect (though you rarely see the most fundamental force in filmmaking rendered weaker than it is here), by "gill-men" whose masks don't even rise to the level of "unconvincing," as "unconvincing" is still a higher tier than "it doesn't appear to be on correctly."  These shots, which must have been taken during an unstable current as the frame keeps shifting randomly, are smashed together in a manner that is physically horrible: Tourneur, apparently aware of the extreme, unbearable slowness of men in heavy suits moving underwater and pretending to chase something offscreen, attempts to fix this by cutting them together very fast and against dozens of studio close-ups of our leads, and combined with the chaotic movement, it's all nausea and headaches, on top of it already being really fucking boring, and it keeps happening for nine minutes.  The best part of the bad part, by an infinite degree, is when we discover in an intercut close-up that Tomlinson is sharing his suit with Herbert the Chicken, because this happens early on and it's whimsically funny.  So obviously it'll be just as funny the next two, three hundred times Tourneur cuts it in.  Even a great movie couldn't have survived this, and War-Gods of the Deep was on the bad side of marginal already.

Score: 4/10

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