DEAD CALM (1989)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Written by: Terry Hayes

(based on the novel DEAD CALM by Charles Williams)

Starring: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman & Billy Zane

DEAD CALM is a thriller that left more of an impact in cinema history than you might believe. Charles Williams’s novel of the same name was partially adapted into film form by Orson Welles, but the troubled production (and an actor’s death) halted the movie before filming was completed. This 1989 adaptation received some acclaim from critics and made enough of an impression to be adapted by THE SIMPSONS in one of their final good TREEHOUSE OF HORROR episodes. However, taken purely on its own merits as a film, DEAD CALM is a mixed bag of Hitchcockian suspense, clichés, and stupid decisions.

After the tragic loss of their son, John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his deeply depressed wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) take their yacht to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to recover. Rae’s fragile mental state seems to be slowly healing with the calm environment. The couple’s vacation takes a turn when they happen upon a sinking boat and meet sole survivor Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane). Hughie claims that his fellow crew members succumbed to deadly food poisoning. Curious about inconsistencies in Hughie’s story, John boards the sinking boat…only to discover a gruesome crime scene. Meanwhile, psycho Hughie wakes up and takes the John’s boat…with an unconscious Rae still onboard. Now, Rae must contend with a murderous psychopath to stay alive and John desperately tries to salvage the sinking death-trap of a boat.

DEAD CALM has a simple premise and three characters. Unfortunately, for this plot to kick off, otherwise rational human begins make irrationally dumb decisions in order to keep the story moving forward. Obviously, this happens in the unconvincing move that John would paddle out to a sinking boat and leave his mentally unstable wife with a creepy stranger who he already believes is lying. A few stupid decisions are made later in the film too, though luckily for the viewer (and the film’s characters), John and Rae seem to regain most of their brain functions and common sense after their first disastrous incident.

As John and Rae, Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman have convincing chemistry. You can feel a connection between their characters early on and will likely find yourself rooting for them to reunite. Sam Neill spends a majority of the running time alone…trying to save himself and rescue his wife. The film milks tension out of little things that frequently bite this character in the ass. These problems mainly involve ocean water seeping into the boat and pieces of the boat falling apart. There was originally going to be a scene in which Neill’s John gets harassed by a shark, but this was removed from the final cut. Strangely enough, I was expecting a shark to pop up because there are shots of blood in the water that could attract a hungry finned menace and the film could have benefited from that extra threat.

In an overly familiar and clichéd plotline, Nicole Kidman maintains a charade of civility to keep Billy Zane’s psychopath at bay. Kidman’s Rae has a few smart moments that will likely have the viewer cheering, but she also makes simple mistakes (missing prime opportunities to kill the killer). The worst performance of the film easily belongs to Billy Zane as would-be sympathetic psychopath Hughie. He’s unbelievably over-the-top in his manic mood swings and murderous tendencies. The film attempts to make him more human, but this character falls apart simply due to Zane’s inability to convincingly emote.

Besides suffering from stupid character decisions and a very corny performance from Billy Zane, DEAD CALM tries to substitute shocks for suspense in spots. There are numerous sequences of escalating tension and the story’s high stakes are sure to keep the viewer curious about how the couple will possibly escape this mess, but this movie isn’t above showcasing a graphically murdered dog and a baby flying out of a window. The score seems to be composed of heavy breathing and gasps, which becomes distractingly annoying at points. The ending also feels wildly out of place as test audiences were unsatisfied with the original conclusion, so the studio threw in an unconvincing stinger that had me to rolling my eyes and laughing at its sheer silliness.

DEAD CALM contains enough suspense and cheap thrills to be an okay-at-best time killer. Unfortunately, the film’s good qualities are frequently overshadowed by dumb decisions that seem included to further the plot along and Billy Zane’s hammy bad guy. The final scene is beyond laughable in its ineptness and serves as a prime example of how cinematic decisions made by audience screenings (instead of filmmakers) can really leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. To be fair though, Orson Welles’s planned version doesn’t sound like it would be too much better than this mixed bag thriller.

Grade: C+

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