Release Date(s)1978 (March 30, 2021)
Studio(s)Rankin/Bass Productions/Tsuburaya Productions (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
What do you get when you cross Rankin/Bass, Burl Ives, Carl Weathers, Connie Sellecca, the Bermuda Triangle, Moby Dick, Jaws, a saccharine but memorable title song, and, oh, a giant sea turtle as well?
The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
The Bermuda Depths was the second of three telefilms that Rankin/Bass made in collaboration with Tsuburaya Productions between 1977 and 1980, along with The Last Dinosaur and The Ivory Ape. Those of us who saw it when it originally aired have had images from it seared into our brains ever since then. Unfortunately, while The Last Dinosaur was relatively easy to catch in reruns, The Bermuda Depths sank without a trace, leaving little but memories that grew hazier and hazier over time. Those dreamlike mental images were all that most of us had as proof that the film ever existed, as it remained largely missing-in-action on home video for decades. As the years went by, I actually wondered if I had just imagined the whole thing, since there were very few ways to research obscure productions like this during the pre-internet era. While Warner Bros. did eventually release it on VHS in 1992, that wasn’t a tape that was easy to find everywhere, and it was also a shortened version of the film. When Warner Archive finally issued an uncut manufactured-on-demand DVD in 2009, it was a cause for celebration. I bought a copy, but sadly, I could never get the MOD disc to play on any of my players. Fast forward to 2021, and Warner Archive upgraded that disc to an honest-to-God Blu-ray, remastered in glorious high definition. The stuff of dreams finally became reality, forty-three years later.
It’s fair to question those fuzzy childhood memories of seeing an eerie film about a giant mystical turtle, because the entirety of The Bermuda Depths is bathed in an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere. Reality and imagination blend all throughout the narrative, with the perceptions of the protagonist Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) being openly questioned by all of the other characters. His mental state remains a matter of debate from beginning to end. Since we see nearly everything through his eyes, including events that he couldn’t have witnessed personally, it’s fair to question the reality of what appears to be happening on screen. That’s also why the inherent artificiality of the stylized visual effects from Tsuburaya Productions works perfectly in this context. The miniatures look like children’s toys, and given the nature of the story, that’s exactly what they should look like. Even the fact that the giant turtle incongruously sounds like a humpback whale makes perfect sense when considered from that perspective. (It’s also an excuse for the fact that Carl Weathers badly mispronounces the word “coelacanth” at one point, since Magnus himself probably wouldn’t have known how to pronounce it correctly.)
Screenwriter William Overgard openly lifted his Moby Dick-inspired ending from Peter Benchley’s Jaws, but since Carl Gottlieb had completely rewritten that ending for Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, it doesn’t feel derivative in The Bermuda Depths. More importantly, the supernatural overtones that Overgard added to the story gives his ending a completely different feel, especially in the way that the coda plays out afterwards. Everything remains indeterminate, and that’s part of what makes the film so haunting. Ultimately, the question of whether or not the entire story is reality or fantasy isn’t a particularly important one. All that matters is that viewers have been given a subjective experience from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know the difference between the two. For Magnus, perception is reality, and that’s equally true of the nature of cinema itself. That’s what gives The Bermuda Depths a timeless quality that transcends any dated elements, and so it continues to resonate decades after it originally aired. It’s an eclectic potpourri of ideas borrowed from other works that manages to combine them into a uniquely surrealistic experience that lingers in the mind’s eye long after the closing credits roll. If you dismiss this memorable Rankin/Bass production as simple “kid’s stuff,” it’s your own loss.
Cinematographer Jeri Sopanen shot The Bermuda Depths on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses. As a made-for-television production, it was originally shown full-frame at 1.33:1, although it was matted to 1.85:1 for its international theatrical release. Both versions are offered here, but Sopanen clearly framed for 1.33:1, as the image is too cramped at 1.85:1. This presentation utilizes a 4K restoration performed by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging, and while the Warner Archive press release didn’t specify that it was a scan from the original camera negative, it couldn’t possibly have been anything else. The results speak for themselves—the crew at MPI gave this transfer an abundance of TLC, one frame at a time. While the opening tiles and any optical composites naturally look softer and grainier than the surrounding material, that’s baked into the elements, so those flaws are reproduced accurately here. Everything else is finely detailed and immaculately clean, with nary a speckle in sight, let alone any signs of significant damage. The encoding is nearly flawless, and despite the fact that both framings are included on the same disc, the bit rate for the 1.33:1 version stays consistently above 35 Mpbs for all but the simplest of shots. Contrast and black levels are both excellent, and the colors are simply gorgeous—the lush greenery and the dazzling azure blues of the sea and the sky really add to the heightened atmosphere of the film. This is a reference-quality transfer from Warner Archive, and fantastic work from everyone involved.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The clarity is good, and there’s no audible noise, hiss, or distortion. Since the original mix favored production audio, the dialogue is generally well-integrated into the soundstage. There’s not much in the way of deep bass, but the score by Maury Laws still has some depth to it, and his unforgettably maudlin title song rings through loud and clear. (The lyrics for it were written by none other than Jules Bass himself, and they’re arguably a bit too clear, so try to ignore them if it’s your first time watching the film—he gave too much of the story away up front.)
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Amanda Reyes and Lance Vaughan
- 1.85:1 Version
The commentary features Amanda Reyes, who is the editor of Are You in the House Alone: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999, as well as Lance Vaughan from the website Kindertrauma. Interestingly, they point out the fact that other people have wondered if they just dreamed about seeing the film, so that appears to have been a universal experience. Reyes and Vaughan spend plenty of time addressing the dreamlike, storybook quality of the film, as well as offering an abundance of background information. They cover the cast and crew, including director Tsugunobu Kotani (aka Tom Kotani), who helmed all three of these telefilms for Rankin/Bass. They also talk about the relationship between Rankin/Bass and Tsuburaya Productions. While Reyes struggles with the pronunciation of many of the names, she freely acknowledges that fact, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the breathless energy that both of them exude throughout the entire track.
Since The Bermuda Depths was composed full frame at 1.33:1, Warner Archive elected to include the 1.85:1 version as an extra, rather than as a primary viewing option. It’s a matted version of the same master, but they prioritized the 1.33:1 version when authoring the disc, so this one runs at a significantly lower bit rate. It still shares similar qualities to the main feature, but it’s offered here for the sake of completeness, rather than as a compelling alternative.
The Bermuda Depths may have a loyal fanbase, but it’s still a small one, so kudos to Warner Archive for giving the film this kind of loving attention. Here’s to the hopes that they’re able to give The Ivory Ape and especially The Last Dinosaur equally stellar Blu-rays—Richard Boone’s scenery-chewing performance in the latter really deserves to be seen in high definition. Regardless, The Bermuda Depths is proof positive that when it comes to quality home video releases, all you need is love (well, having a little bit of a restoration budget doesn’t hurt, either).
- Stephen Bjork