31 Days to Scare ~ Dead Calm (1989)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After tragically losing their son, a married couple are spending some time isolated at sea when they come across a stranger who has abandoned a sinking ship.

Stars: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane

Director: Phillip Noyce

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When recommending 1989’s Dead Calm, I also wish there was a way I could wave a magic wand and clear your mind of the last thirty years of movies its three stars and director would make.  All have gone on to be involved with massive projects (and even win one Oscar) and you can’t help but look at this gripping thriller they made before becoming Hollywood commodities in a different way than you would have back when it was first released.  Though the film remains a bona fide nail biter, I think the “before they were stars” wonder of it all could lessen the impact slightly for a viewer in 2021 as opposed to someone that sat down in a theater in April of 1989 when Dead Calm sailed onto U.S. shores and changed many careers.

The history of Dead Calm begins all the way back in 1963 when it was written as a novel by Charles Williams and attracted the attention of legendary director Orson Welles.  Welles liked it so much that he began filming the movie soon after but left it unfinished.  Years later a copy of the book fell into the hands of Australian director Philip Noyce (Above Suspicion) who got fellow Ozzies George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Terry Hayes (a collaborator with Miller on The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) involved and the rest was, uh, smooth sailing.  The cameras rolled in mid-1987 and the shoot took place over six months on the open sea. 

Like Jaws, Noyce benefited from the location in giving the audience a sense of isolation for an unlucky couple trying to forget a recent tragedy and the trouble they unknowingly welcome aboard in the from of a stranded stranger.  When the stranger turns out to be a psychotic that has sunk his own ship to hide a bloody crime, he manages to get the husband off the boat long enough to take control of the new vessel and the wife.  Now the couple must find a way to communicate and independently stay alive from the dangers present on both ships.

While Billy Zane (Ghosts of War) was the true fresh face of the bunch, the Hawaiian-born, Australian-raised Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) was already an established star down under.  It was Sam Neill (Peter Rabbit) who was considered the veteran, having played Damien Thorn in a third Omen film and weathered the nightmare horror experience that was Possession.  Just coming off A Cry in the Night (aka Evil Angela aka A Dingo Stole My Baby: The Movie) with Meryl Streep, Neill was a considerable “get” for this small-ish picture.

You can see what attracted a filmmaker like Welles to the original story. There’s a tortured soul living in all three main characters and the novel expands on this more, lessening some of the vice grip tension the screenplay from Hayes employs.  That’s why the film Noyce has made is so much of a thrill, because you never know quite what’s about to happen or where the characters might be headed next.  Kidman’s grief-stricken spouse was involved in a horrific accident that claimed the life of her son and always carries the guilt of that with her, unable to share intimacy with her husband out of shame because of it.  Without admitting it, the husband might be directing some of that guilt her way as well, though he makes a good show at hiding it.  Zane’s monstrosity picks up on this once he gets them separated and manipulates that…but also misjudges just how deep the earlier life changing event has bonded the couple, preparing them for what is currently taking place.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the overly commercial ending was a studio intervention to add an extra shot of adrenaline, but the movie succeeds just fine without it.  Dead Calm had already completed its carefully plotted voyage without capsizing its precious suspense cargo in the process.  I wish we had the option of watching Noyce’s original cut instead of the one with the tacked-on joy buzzer of a climax but at least it gives us a few more minutes of the gorgeous cinematography from Dean Semler (Razorback and an Oscar winner for Dances with Wolves) because the work he does is truly magnificent.  Surprisingly, this was a bit of dud at the box office but cleaned up nicely on home video and yes, it holds up like a watertight seal all these years later. It all worked out fine for those involved. The next year Kidman would star in Days of Thunder with future husband Tom Cruise and Noyce’s follow-up film would be 1992’s Patriot Games, the sequel to Sam Neill’s next movie, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. Zane would have to wait through a few years of forgettable films before scoring big time with his next sea faring flick…1997’s Titanic.