War-Gods of the Deep (1965) War-Gods of the Deep/City Under the Sea/City in the Sea (1965) *

     The first of AIPís ostensibly Poe-derived movies that was not directed by Roger Corman, War-Gods of the Deep displays to fine effect the good sense that underlay that studioís policy of hanging onto practically every prop and piece of scenery that had ever been ordered for one of its productions. Though it was budgeted at little or no more than The Fall of the House of Usher had been, it appears far more expensive than it really was because so many elements of the sets and whatnot had already been paid for in the outlay for one of its predecessors. Unfortunately, little good comes of all that deceptive lavishness. War-Gods of the Deep is a real train-wreck of a movie, and to watch this film is to be amazed that the career of anybody involved could possibly have survived. Itís not funny, itís not fun, but it is morbidly fascinating. Where else can you see a highly respected old-time Hollywood director like Jacques Tourneur (of Cat People [1942] and Curse of the Demon fame) flailing so helplessly to make sense out of such an empty, imbecilic, disordered script? How often do you see a movie so hopeless that even the incomparable screen presence of the one and only Vincent Price comes across as nothing more than a doomed exercise in turd-polishing?

     But hey, thatís what you get when you go and make a movie out of a poem. Iím not talking about epic poetry here-- it probably would be worth trying to make a movie out of the Iliad or Danteís Inferno, and there actually is a delightfully insane movie based on the Kalavala (itís called The Day the Earth Froze/Sampo, and maybe one day Iíll get around to reviewing it). No, what we have here is a movie which claims to have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poeís ďCity in the Sea,Ē which, though itís actually a pretty cool poem, consists of nothing more than a two-page description of a sinister aquatic city, a sort of Lovecraftian anti-Atlantis a good half-century before Lovecraft. I like it about as much as I ever like poetry, but it offers damn slim pickings as the basis for a movie script.

     So then... the so-called story: It all starts when an American college professor named Ben Harris (who is in Cornwall on business that the movie never bothers to explain) discovers, in the company of several local fisherman, the apparently drowned body of the lawyer with whom he had that unexplained business washed up on the beach below the hilltop manor house at which he and the lawyer had been staying. After some superstitious mumbo-jumbo from the fisherman, Harris (Tab Hunter, whom you may remember as Todd Tomorrow from John Watersís Polyester) returns to the mansion to tell the other people there about the lawyerís demise. And what a bunch this is, man... weíve got a conspicuously untalented artist named Harold Jones (David Tomlinson, from Dominique is Dead) and his inseparable companion, Herbert the Hen (yes, I realized hens are by definition female-- Iím fairly certain thatís actually the point of the ďjokeĒ), a slew of non-entities who mainly sit around looking distrustful and complain about how much better the world was before the discovery of electricity, and a young American woman named Jill Turgillis (Susan Hart, from The Slime People and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini). Before the movie can make any meaningful headway in explaining just who these nutjobs are, what theyíre doing hanging out in this old mansion, or why they should care about the dead lawyer, a fucking gill-man breaks into the house and abducts Jill! Harris, Jones, and Herbert then follow the gill-man down a secret passage in the house that leads deep underground to this bizarre temple lined with Egyptian-looking colossi. Along the way, several earth-tremors cause strategic passageways and an apparently natural bridge to collapse, effectively sealing off the way back out.

     Anyway, Harris, Jones, and the chicken find themselves in an old pagan temple. Oddly enough, itís crawling with 18th-century-looking English sailor types (the movie is set in 1903), who are in the process of drawing lots for what seems sure to be a very unpleasant purpose. And unpleasant it is; the lucky winner gets tied to a post at one end of the temple, the rest of the men leave, and then the edifice begins to flood. After making a token effort to save the bound man (they are the heroes here, you know) Harris and company flee into what ends up being an even more extensive network of tunnels, where they encounter a team of men armed with flintlock pistols, who take them to Vincent Price.

     I hope youíre paying attention, because this is about as much sense as this movie is ever going to make. Price is in charge down here. Apparently his former career was the captaincy of a crew of smugglers back around 1800. He and his boys ended up getting caught one day, and in their efforts to escape, they blundered into the more or less intact remains of an ancient city beneath the sea, its buildings connected to the world above by those tunnels. True to form, the city had been the home of a hyper-advanced civilization, now extinct, whose only descendants have somehow degenerated (donít ask me how) into gill-men like the one that kidnapped Jill, gill-men who for reasons that are at best unclear worship Vincent Price. (They think heís their death-god-- hey, I didnít write this crap!) The reason that Price and his men arenít dead yet has something to do with the Atlantian air-conditioning machinery, combined with the protection from ultraviolet light that living under the sea affords (see my parenthetical comment above). You still with me? Good. Anyway, the underwater city is now menaced by a great big volcano (the source of those tremors a couple of scenes back), and Price has been devoting all of his energy of late to finding a way to neutralize it. To Harrisís great dismay, Harold tells Price that his companion is a world-renowned geologist, specializing in the study of seismic activity (itís not true), and Price predictably presses him into service looking for a solution to the volcano problem.

     The thing is that War-Gods of the Deep forgets all about this plot point only fifteen minutes later! This movie isnít about that at all, but rather about Jill. You see, Price had Jill kidnapped after one of his gill-men stole from the mansion a book which happened to contain a sketch of her, drawn by Harold. Okay now, everybody together: Jill bears an uncanny resemblance to Priceís long-dead wife, so he sent the gill-men to collect her so that they could be ďreunitedĒ and live happily ever after. When Ben and Harold try to lead Jill to freedom, Price wigs out and decides to hand the two men over to his amphibious worshipers, so that they can sacrifice them to the volcano. Another escape attempt follows, this one abetted by a senile ex-minister, and the whole damn movie degenerates into what was, I guess, supposed to be an exciting underwater chase scene, with Ben, Jill, and Harold (with Herbert in his diving helmet) racing for the surface against Priceís pirates, the angry gill-men, and the soon-to-erupt-cataclysmically volcano. Unfortunately for War-Gods of the Deep, the phrase ďexciting underwater chase sceneĒ is a contradiction in terms. Most humans move very slowly underwater, while the necessity for wearing an oxygen supply or holding oneís breath pretty much rules out dialogue for the duration of the chase. And in this case, thatís quite a duration indeed! It seems to take hours-- real-time hours, mind you-- for our heroes to reach safety, and neither the laborious plodding of both groups of humans across the sea floor nor the almost equally languid pelagic pursuit of the gill-men (Ricou Browning these folks ainítÖ) is a sight remotely worth the time investment.

     In its defense, War-Gods of the Deep is not a movie about which I can unequivocally say, ďdonít watch it,Ē but Iím sure as hell not going to give it any kind of a recommendation! Itís the sort of movie that is best watched when you are prevented from doing anything else more worthwhile-- when youíre in a body-cast, say, or laid up with mononucleosis. Under any other circumstances, itís a pretty safe bet that youíd be wasting your time.

 

 

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