Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jacques Tourneur's Final Film: War-Gods of the Deep

Star Susan Hart later married AIP
founder James H. Nicholson.
When a solicitor's body washes up on the Cornish coast, mining engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) goes to the local hotel to see the dead man's employer, fellow American Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart). Jill only knows that Mr. Penrose, the solicitor, went missing. When Ben enters the dead man's room--darkened due to a power outage--he discovers a human-like creature that seemingly disappears. A short time later, Jill is kidnapped and Ben and hotel guest Harold (David Tomlinson) discover a secret passage that leads from the hotel to (pause for effect) an underwater city.

It's a fabulous start to what promises to be a rollicking turn-of-the-century adventure in the vein of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unfortunately, War-Gods of the Deep (also known as the more obvious City in the Sea) fails to deliver on its promise. One can't fault a game cast and a fine director working on his final film at age 61.

After directing such classics as Out of the PastCat People, and Berlin Express, Jacques Tourneur turned to television for employment in the late 1950s and 1960s. He directed episodes of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and other series. He still helmed occasional films, including the 1958 gem Curse of the Demon, but he was more likely to be offered pictures such as the Italian import Giant of Marathon (1959).  Then, in the mid-1960s, American International Pictures (AIP) signed him to do the funny horror spoof The Comedy of Terrors and War-Gods of the Deep.

A glimpse of the creature!
Tourneur makes War-Gods look much more expensive than its budget. He also infuses the opening scenes with a mysterious atmosphere, with the whistling seashore winds and overhead shots of the steep cliffs. He employs careful lighting that provides a perfect glimpse of the creature that kidnaps Jill (reflecting mentor Val Lewton's contention that showing less is always scarier). The underwater city's sets, bathed in orange, blue, and red, are fairly impressive, too. It helped no doubt that Daniel Haller was one of the film's producers. Haller spent much of his career as an art director, working with Roger Corman on films such as The Pit and the Pendulum. Haller built his reputation on creating expensive-looking sets on a dime.

Vincent Price as the ruler of the
city under the sea.
With a better script, Tourneur might have made a "B" movie classic--but it's the script that dooms War-Gods of the Deep. The original screenwriter was Charles Bennett, who worked on several Hitchcock films (The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Foreign Correspondent) as well as Curse of the Demon. However, Bennett wasn't used to working under AIP's short production schedules, in which a script had to be written from start to finish in under three weeks. Additionally, the only source material was Edgar Allan Poe's poem The City in the Sea, which doesn't have a plot (of course). In Tom Weaver's book Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, screenwriter Louis M. Heyward recalls:

War-Gods was being shot in England and they ran into problems with the then-producer....I called, and he said, "Dear lad, the script's impossible." I said, "Most of our scripts are impossible!" (And the ones that weren't impossible were improbable!) He said, "I can't possibly shoot."

The beautiful Cornish coast.
AIP executive Sam Arkoff asked Heyward to rewrite the screenplay and, according to actress Susan Hart, the script was tweaked as Tourneur shot the film. Heyward's contributions, including a humorous character played by Tomlinson (who totes around a pet chicken!), don't salvage the film. There are far too many scenes where the characters just stand around and talk once they reach the underwater city. There are hints that the city's denizens are immortal, but that angle is never fully explored. Finally, the climax--which takes place largely underwater--looks like slow motion and is practically incomprehensible because (except for the close-ups) you can't tell who is who. (In general, I am not a fan of protracted underwater scenes; I have similar issues with Thunderball.)

As for the cast, Vincent Price makes a believable villain, Tab Hunter is an acceptable hero, and Susan Hart looks stunning in what is actually a small role. Hunter and Hart also appeared together (as a couple no less) in the much more enjoyable Ride the Wild Surf.

War-Gods of the Deep is not a dreadful film. It's a frustrating film--with a great opening that leads nowhere.


  1. Oh boy, it's such a disappointment when a promising film doesn't live up to its promise. However, your review is so well written, Rick, that you've sold me on this film.

  2. What a fascinating review! Jacques Tourneur, the lovely Susan Hart, Vincent Price, and an underwater city all together in one movie. The elements for entertainment certainly seem to be in place whereas the chicken doesn't quite fit. I certainly did enjoy reading about "War-Gods of the Deep."