Tuesday, 10 March 2009

War-Gods of the Deep (1965)

Through the 1950s and 1960s, one of the hottest names in Hollywood was American International Pictures. An upstart company formed in 1956, AIP rose to prominence by their concentration on easily palatable and marketable films on controversial subjects oriented towards the younger demographics in less typical theatrical venues. In other words, they made popcorn b-movies for the drive-in crowd, and plenty of them. AIP pioneered biker and dragster films, imported many of the Japanese giant monster films including Godzilla himself, made Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello stars through a series of "beach party" films and even classic blaxploitation films like Blacula.

What really put AIP on the map, though, was a series of horror films ostensibly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, produced and directed by Roger Corman, and starring a baker's dozen of classic horror stars like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. The starring role in these films, however, was given to a relatively new leading man in horror... A statuesque man with a frightening cackle who has been forever enshrined as one of the epitomes of cinematic horror: Vincent Price.

For as much success and notoriety as films like The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of Red Death, Tales of Terror and The House of Usher, they did tend to stray from the source material. They could not help it, for the source material from Poe was usually little more than a poem, or a mood piece with little real story or exposition. But Poe was free from licensing, had a solid reputation to draw from, and was a strong American contrast to the contemporaneous films being made by Hammer Films in England.

One such Poe film that is quite liberal with an unfruitful source is War-Gods of the Deep. Starring, of course, Vincent Price, the film ostensibly finds its inspiration in the Poe poem The City in the Sea, by way of the legends of sunken Lyonesse. From these proto-Lovecraftian beginnings, AIP's War-Gods of the Deep blends the more typical Gothic setting common to their horror films, Poe or otherwise, with a good dose of Jules Verne.

Not a company to miss a beat, AIP had already capitalized on the Atomic Age resurgence in Scientific Romances by producing Jules Verne's Master of the World with Vincent Price in 1961, and followed up 1965's War-Gods with 1967's comedic Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon. The combination, which waxes and wanes, alchemically creates a Gothic Scientific Romance that has its moments, both good and bad.

The story begins on a murky English coast on a stormy night in 1903, where the ringing of an otherworldly bell announces a body that has mysteriously washed up at the base of the crags beneath a foreboding old inn. The recovered corpse turns out to be the lawyer of the American woman staying at the inn, and so she, an American geologist, and a British artist with a pet hen named "Herbert" (in a direct lineage from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's Esmeralda the Seal and Journey to the Center of the Earth's Gertrude the Duck... The only thing missing is James Mason) are embroiled in the plot. Scouring the inn by candlelight, the girl is suddenly abducted through the secret passages behind the bookcase. The only clue to her kidnappers are small piles of seaweed which lead the stalwart and eccentric men, respectively, to the caverns beneath the inn and a whirlpool that drags them into the sea.

At the end of the high Gothic plot set-up, War-Gods takes a left turn into quasi-Nemoic, semi-Atlantean territory. The heroes are taken to Lyonesse, the City in the Sea... An ancient, labyrinthine edifice built eons ago by a mysterious race of gill-men who fed it air and power through the advanced technology of thermal vents connected to a nearby volcano. Since then, these gill-men have devolved into pure brutes at the command of Vincent Price and his crew of smugglers who discovered the city and the longevity its gases provide in 1803. Price himself has designs on the girl, and the gill-men demand blood sacrifices in the stone halls of their Babylonian gods... The only escape for the interlopers from the surface is the open ocean beyond the metal gates and the Vernian diving suits that will protect them in it.

All in all, the whole thing sounds rather delightful, and frequently delivers insofar as 1960's B-movies can. The set, miniature and matte work is sublime, and save for a few unfortunate conceptualizations of an underwater volcano, is extremely well done and capable at evoking the feeling of an ancient, submerged city. Vincent Price himself is, as always, magisterial and giving his all to a performance that legend says he didn't even have the script for until days before shooting.

The main problem is just that what he's given is a little slight. As the AIP Poe mysteries go, this one mostly regurgitates the basic tropes, and one can almost glimpse a few instances of Price sleepwalking through it. It's also weakened by obvious attempts to regurgitate tropes of Atomic Age Scientific Romances, such as the chicken and her eccentric owner, played by David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins). Worst of all, however, are the degraded gill-men... Apparently a significant component of their cultural and evolutionary decline was a change into absolutely wretched costumes. These poor sots got the worst part of the Creature from the Black Lagoon's gene pool.

War-Gods of the Deep is a success despite those flaws. It's simply that the bar of success for it was substantially lowered. As it stands, it satisfies exactly what it was supposed to be. All chickens aside, it is a good solid b-movie for fans of AIP Poe stories and Vernian fantasies alike.


baralier said...

I don't think I've ever got around to seeing this. I've heard of it plenty of times but must track down a copy to watch.

andyO said...

I cant remember the name but this is called something else in Britain. It used to crop up on the BBC from time to time. Its got some good ideas and Ive always liked David Tomlinson so I dont mind the stuff with the chicken.

Cory Gross said...

In the UK it's called The City Under the Sea, which is closer in title to the original Poe poem.