War-Gods of the Deep is one of those movies whose title makes no sense but is right in keeping with the whole tenor of the movie itself. Made in 1965, this American International Pictures production the studio’s first non-Roger Corman release based on a Edgar Allan Poe’s story, and was a part of the Big Four of the horror/sci-fi genre of that era. The three other competitors in the field were the giant-monster films from Japan (Godzilla, Mosura / Mothra, Gammera the Invincible, etc.), the stop-motion action-adventure-monster films of Ray Harryhausen, and the British Hammer Studios horror productions.
That War-Gods of the Deep was set in England – even though it was made by AIP, it featured American B-film stars Vincent Price and Tab Hunter, and it was based on a poem by American poet and writer Poe – is just one of its many ironies. Yet, that still does not explain the odd title. The film’s alternate title was The City Under the Sea, which makes sense since that’s what it is about: A city reputedly called Lyonesse.
In fact, War-Gods of the Deep was based on the Poe poem “The City in the Sea,” which is quoted by Price at the film’s start and end. The poem begins thus:
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
Suffice to say that the poem was not one of Poe’s great classics and that the film derived from it is not one of AIP’s better Poe-themed productions, either.
War-Gods of the Deep was the final film in the storied career of Jacques Tourneur, probably the greatest B-film director in cinema history and one of the true masters of the black-and-white film medium. While best known for his classic films produced by Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie), Tourneur proved he could make great horror films on his own, e.g., the 1957 British horror classic Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the U.S.). And even in this color film, with its thin premise of a sunken city off the Cornish coast, perennially young sailors from the eighteenth century who do not age because of an imbalance of oxygen from an undersea volcano (plus some nonsense about ultraviolet light on the Earth’s surface in daylight – huh?), Gill-Men who are third rate “Creatures from the Black Lagoon,” and other types of lunacy – such as a British comic foil for Hunter, who carries about a chicken with the male name of Herbert – the film actually entertains despite the absence of real chills.
Part of the reason is that Tab Hunter is gleefully moronic as the beefcake lead, American geologist Ben Harris, who is in the U.K. for no discernible reason. As the film opens, a body washes on shore, and Hunter and some Brit fishermen wax profound (or try to) on its meaning. Failing that, Ben goes to the nearest house to tell the inhabitants what happened. There he meets the sexy brunet Jill Tregellis (Susan Hart), also an American who’s merely a guest at the house, for no apparent reason save that the local villagers seem to have a thing for attractive Americans with little gray matter.
Also staying at the house, again for reasons unexplained, is the wacky Brit with the chicken, Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson), a minor portrait artist who is an admitted coward. Tomlinson, however, is actually quite good in the role, even though the screenplay, at a macro level, is nonsensical and filled with plot holes as wide as the volcano’s rim, as much of the plot is pushed by the Dumbest Possible Action trope by both the heroes and villains, who never think of locking their captives in a room to prevent escape. (The overall screenplay was penned by Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward at the last minute before shooting.)
Yet, at a micro level, the screenplay is filled with numerous bits of witty dialogue – the best of which goes to Tomlinson, whose wacky Brit role would be deftly parodied just a few years later by Jack MacGowran in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. This schism occurs because while most of the plot and dialogue was written by Bennett and Heyward, the wittier banter was written by David Whitaker (who penned several episodes for the Doctor Who TV series), and his better writing skills are manifest.
Character development and one liners are easier to pop off at the drop of a hat than a believable tale. As an example, at one point Harold tells Ben he needs a good night’s sleep for he is going to get up early in the morning to paint a sunset. Ben asks why he’s going to paint a sunset in the morning, and Harold replies, naturally, ‘I’m a slow worker.’ Ba-dum-bum!
As for the rest of the plot, within a few minutes of their acquaintance the Gill-Men kidnap Jill. Ben and Harold go after them, down through subterranean caves that seem like leftover sets from the 1960 H.G. Wells film The Time Machine, but that were in fact leftovers from other AIP films.
They then fall down a sinkhole that looks alarmingly like a giant toilet; perhaps an apt metaphor for any semblance of realism found in the rest of the film. Unfortunately, there are no Morlocks, merely the wretchedly costumed Gill-Men, the unaging sailors, and their ‘King,’ Captain Sir Hugh Tregathian (Vincent Price) – a sort of Captain Nemo on the dark side; a pirate and smuggler.
Of course, even even if War-Gods of the Deep had not been helmed by a true talent like Tourneur, it would have gained a few notches simply by Vincent Price’s magisterial presence. Price could bring pathos and depth to even the most absurd situations and dialogue, and he does so here. He has kidnapped Jill because she looks just like his dead wife from over a century before – an old trope that never seems to lose its usefulness in inspiring B-film madmen, especially Price, who made a specialty out of longing for dead spouses on film.
Of course, what makes War-Gods of the Deep work is that Price never concedes, with even a wink or a nod, that he is in a B film. If only he had been allowed to do Shakespeare in an A production, how much richer American cinema would have been. However, this actor was consigned to B fare because of his odd physical features and slightly fey mannerisms.
After some great nonsensical soliloquies by Price, odd whisperings from the rocks of the cave, and some lunacy from Tomlinson and Hunter, the trio escapes to the surface, by killing the Gill-Men and Price’s sailors in an underwater battle. That is the worst part of the film, going on far too long, and long before aqualungs were really in service. Price also ends up making it to the surface, as well – after being left for dead (of course) by the heroes – only to age and shrivel in the morning sun like a vampire. No oxygen imbalance from the volcano to save him, apparently.
War-Gods of the Deep has several layers to it. Watching it today, one must bear in mind that this four-decade old production is set in 1903, with characters who came from their even more distant past. The film itself was made right at the beginning of notions of Postmodernism; which shows mostly that PoMo and B film psychology are kissin’ cousins. What this says for both types of mindset and pulling the wool over one’s eyes is open for debate.
War-Gods of the Deep also makes great use of its recycled AIP wares from prior movies. AIP reputedly never trashed old sets, and art director Frank White makes the most of the sets and miniatures that comprise the underwater city. The film also seems to be a scrapbook of ideas from other, better films, like the aforementioned Poe adaptations and The Time Machine. It also recalls the stellar Forbidden Planet by having the underground city being powered by huge pumps and machinery built by a long-destroyed society that no longer exists, having degenerated into the Gill-Men.
Neil Ginger Gemmell and John Lamb’s underwater cinematography is also excellent for a B film, even though the divers are all manifestly in a pool no more than fifteen or twenty feet deep – not leagues under the sea, for the surface can be seen a few feet above the divers’ heads. There are even some chuckles to be had when Harold sticks his chicken Herbert inside his diving helmet. Elsewhere, Stephen Dade’s cinematography is solid. There are even some moody moments captured – seemingly inadvertently – with miniatures.
The DVD is part of the MGM Midnight Movies Double Feature series, along with At the Earth’s Core. It comes only with the theatrical trailer, and that gives away a good portion of the film’s climactic scene. War-Gods of the Deep is, however, presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and from a very good color print.
For what it is, War-Gods of the Deep is a serviceable film – neither a classic nor a piece of schlock. Yes, there is the requisite suspension of disbelief – as water pressure would crush Price and the rest, and the escapees do not get the bends – but that aside, it is escapist nonsense that is perfect for unthinking entertainment on a late Saturday night. That the same can be said about most modern adult Hollywood A films says far more about the sorry state of cinema in America today than it does about the B films of Price or Tourneur. Godspeed, and full fathom five!
© Dan Schneider
War-Gods of the Deep / The City Under the Sea (1965). Dir.: Jacques Tourneur Scr.: Louis M. Heyward and Charles Bennett; additional dialogue by David Whitaker. Cast: Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, David Tomlinson.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.