Release Date(s)1965 (August 11, 2015)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
For me, seeing the American International Pictures logo at the beginning of any film elicits an almost Pavlovian response – my whole body chemistry immediately changes because I know I’m going to see something entertaining. Founded in the 1950s by Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson, for three decades (until they merged with Filmways, another company that makes my heart race) AIP cranked out an astonishing number of exploitation pictures, many produced or directed by Roger Corman and most marketed toward teenagers – everything from monster movies to biker flicks and sex comedies, with blaxploitation and slightly more upscale horror films like The Amityville Horror entering the mix in the 1970s. The great thing about AIP’s sensationalistic model was that the movies were always worth watching – when they were legitimately good, as in the case of Corman’s The Wild Angels or Michael Schultz’s Cooley High, that was a great bonus, but even when they weren’t good they were fun because of the abundance of sex, violence, and juvenile energy.
Released in 1965, War-Gods of the Deep fits right in with the AIP formula in terms of its title and content, but the treatment is a little unusual thanks to its underrated director, Jacques Tourneur. The final film of Tourneur’s career, it brings him back full circle to his origins; his career took off in the 1940s when he worked for Val Lewton’s RKO unit making now classic thrillers like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. He would go on to make a series of excellent movies across a wide range of genres (his 1955 Western Wichita is particularly worth seeking out), but by the mid-sixties he was back where he started, in low-budget suspense. War-Gods of the Deep (which was also released under less bombastic titles like City Under the Sea and City in the Sea) tells the story of a two men (Tab Hunter and David Tomlinson) who discover a secret underwater world when they go after a pretty woman (Susan Hart) who has been kidnapped. It turns out she’s been abducted by a kind of gill monster that lives in the sea as part of a mysterious city overseen by a ruthless Vincent Price, who tries to keep the two men down there until they mount a daring escape plan. Along the way there are unusual scientific discoveries and underwater action sequences, all juggled skillfully by veteran screenwriters Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward in their adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story.
Although War-Gods of the Deep appears to be a relatively big-budget production for AIP – it was shot at Pinewood and shares a similar aesthetic with Roger Corman’s glossy AIP productions Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum –Tourneur’s background in low-budget filmmaking serves him well in terms of making the most of his limited resources. The movie only takes place on a handful of sets but never feels constricted thanks to the detail and color in those sets, as well as Tourneur’s striking widescreen compositions and subtle, elegant camera moves. Tourneur’s overall visual sensibility meshed well with low-budget genre pictures, since he was essentially a “less is more” guy – his preference was to show as little as possible and let the audience’s imagination do the work. Though this rule was occasionally broken (usually at the behest of producers or financiers), Tourneur’s best work – Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past – takes place in the shadows. Most of his films exhibit a refined sense of taste, regardless of genre, and War-Gods of the Deep is no exception.
As a result, War-Gods of the Deep is both classier and slightly less audacious than many similar pictures of its period and type. Its visual pleasures are abundant, and some business with David Tomlinson and his pet chicken is hilariously eccentric at times, but the movie always feels like it’s holding a little something back – Tourneur just can’t bring himself to go as crazy with his premise as Roger Corman or one of his protégés would. The movie comes across as strangely restrained for an AIP undersea monster movie, which works for my taste but makes it a bit of an oddity in the Arkoff-Nicholson oeuvre. The advantage of Tourneur’s approach is that the creatures, though we don’t get as much of them as we might like, are genuinely creepy when they do appear – the director never lingers on them long enough to reveal the seams in the costumes or the cheapness of the materials. The idea of a “respectable” film with the title War-Gods of the Deep might seem peculiar to some, but Tourneur pulls it off.
The director’s striking use of color, the rich details of his graphic design, and his subtle lighting effects are beautifully preserved on the Blu-ray transfer, which is a massive step up from the previous MGM edition of the film. The clarity and tonal range are exquisite, with the only flaws being ones that probably existed in the original negative – degradations of the image due to poor optical work in the effects shots. The stereo DTS-HD 2.0 sound mix is excellent as well, with a perfect balance between clear and audible dialogue, music, and effects. The only extra feature on the disc, aside from a theatrical trailer, is an eleven-minute interview with Tab Hunter in which he discusses working with Tourneur and Vincent Price and tells a few funny anecdotes about shooting in England. It’s not particularly insightful or revelatory, but it’s a lot of fun – as is the movie itself.
- Jim Hemphill