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Saturday, October 9, 2010

War Gods of the Deep

American Pictures International had been very successful with their "Corman-Poe Cycle" of films in first half of the 60s. After 8 hits, however, the Poe well was running dry. War Gods of the Deep (WGD) was based on a Poe poem, though a shorter, lesser-known one. Veteran director Jaques Tourneur replaced Roger Corman, but WGD still starred Vincent Price, featured a Poe story, and was full of the usual gothic/horror trappings. WGD is one of those films which was thin on the usual science stuff of sci-fi, but still gets categorized as sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Vincent Price opens the film, reciting the first several lines of Poe's poem, "City in the Sea." A Mr. Penrose is found dead on the Cornwall beach. Ben Fuller, an American mine engineer, volunteers to go inform the people where he lived. At the boarding house, where pretty young Jill lives, Ben encounters a strange beast in Penrose's darkened room. That night, the beast abducts Jill. Dan, the comic-relief artist Harold and his pet chicken, go after them. The path leads down through subterranean passages to a whirlpool Dan and Harold fall in. They awaken in an underwater city. They are captives of a band of sailors, lead by The Captain (Price) who is the defacto king of the city beneath the sea. He tells the back story of the advanced civilization that built the city long long ago. When the city sank into the sea, its people adapted and survived. They used the heat of a semi-dormant undersea volcano to run their pumps and provide power. Long ago, the city people died out. The aquatic "gill men" are the "evolved" remnant of the city dwellers. The sailors fell down the whirlpool back in 1803, a smuggler crew escaping from the authroties. Once in the city, they found that they did not age. The Captain says they cannot return to the surface. UV light would make them age rapidly and die. Tremors rock the city, as the volcano grows more active. Ben, Harold and Jill manage to escape with the help of an old vicar. The don Nemo-esque diving suits and flee. The Captain and his crew don suits too and pursue. The gill men interfere with the crew, so Ben, Jill and Harold escape back to the upper world. The volcano spews lava. The city is wracked. Only The Captain escapes, but when he reaches daylight, he collapses dead, aging to a gray husk in seconds. The volcano erupts red smoke above the sea's surface. Ben, Jill and Harold watch. Price recites the last few lines of the poem. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Vincent Price is a pleasure to watch, as usual. There is a bit of Nemo and Atlantis mixed in, which has some nostalgia appeal.

Cold War Angle
This is a bit of a stretch, but imagine the volcano as a metaphor for nuclear power. Harnessed to power a civilization, grows unstable and becomes the agent of that city's destruction.

Poe -- The work which formed the inspiration for Charles Bennett and Louis Heyward's screenplay, was Poe's 1931 poem "City in the Sea." It's one of Poe's shorter works. (read it here) Where the poem is more of a requiem for the dead, the screenplay turns it into a mix of Nemo and vague Atlantis myths, though does not do too much with them.

Gothic Rut -- The popularity of the previous eight films in AIP's Corman/Poe cycle carried a certain momentum. Even though the story in WGD is a variation on the Atlantis tropes, AIP used many of its traditional gothic-horror elements: dark and stormy night, elaborate old house, candles for light, subterranean passageways, etc. etc.

"Lite" Formula -- A.I.P's Samuel Z. Arkoff had his "formula" for movie success with the youthful drive-in demographic. Have action, a novel theme, a bit of death, some speech-ifying, a little shared fantasy, and some sex appeal. WGD has all of those elements, but in reduced dosages. There are a few action scenes, but some really slow-paced ones too. The notion of eternal life, but captive to it, is novel, but doesn't get much development. There is a bit of death and speechifying. The sex appeal is minimal, resting solely in Suan Hart, her deep-cut dress and ample cleavage. WGD had all of Arkoff's ingredients, just in reduced quantities.

Prop Watch -- Quick-eyed viewers will recognize the city's generators as those of the undersea Mu Empire in Toho's Atragon ('65, USA). Appropriate enough. A.I.P. bought the rights to distribute Atragon, which apparently included re-use of footage in other projects. The gill men costume got re-used in A.I.P.'s ultra-cheap movie Space Probe Taurus ('65), again playing the part of hostile aqua-creature.

Bottom line? WGD has little "science" for the usual sci-fi fan. It is much more in keeping with AIP's Poe/horror genre. The story itself raises several interesting notions, but does little with them. Still, WGD is good for Vincent Price fans.

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