Jacques Tourneur, 1965
Starring: Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, David Tomlinson
Ben Harris discovers the body of a dead lawyer washed up on the English coast late at night. He informs the young, lovely Jill of the tragedy, as the lawyer was working for her family, though she is entertaining an eccentric artist, Harold Tufnell-Jones, and his pet chicken Herbert. They hear something strange coming from the lawyer’s study and a monstrous, gill-covered being tries to attack Ben before fleeing into the dark, stormy night. Jill is soon kidnapped and Ben and Harold follow a secret passageway from her family mansion into a strange cave. This leads them down through a whirlpool into a strange city hidden under the ocean.
They learn that the aquatic city is full of 100 year old smugglers and is led by the men’s megalomaniacal captain, Sir Hugh. The smugglers have discovered that the air quality in the underwater city has slowly prevented them from aging or dying, though they are now unable to walk around on land in the daylight, because of the changing ozone. It will make them rapidly age and die. Unfortunately for them, a volcano close to their city is near erupting and will kill them all. Sir Hugh will let Ben and Harold live if they can find a way to keep the volcano from exploding, but he is strangely obsessed with Jill and has an old portrait of a woman who looks just like her...
War Gods of the Deep begins as somewhat of a Gothic murder mystery, clearly borrowing from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films with Vincent Price, but quickly transitions into a slow, low budget version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Center of the Earth. This is also known as The City in the Sea or The City Under the Sea, again to cash in on Price and Corman’s Poe series, as “The City in the Sea” is a Poe poem. There are no other connections to the great horror author other than the titular poem, which is read aloud by Price during the opening of the film.
Yet another of Price’s films set and filmed in England, there is a breathtaking set off the coast of Cornwall. The film had a somewhat complicated production history. The original script was written by Charles Bennett, a Hitchcock regular responsible for The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was later reworked by Louis M. Heyward, a producer of many of Vincent Price’s films, including The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General. He added some of the comedic elements, including the ridiculous artist Harold Tufnell-Jones and his pet chicken. Producers Daniel Haller (director of Die, Monster, Die and designer for some of Corman’s Poe films including House of Usher) clashed with British producer George Willoughby, who wound up leaving the production after Heyward’s rewrites to the script. Willoughby, Price, and director Tourneur were all unhappy with these changes and argued against them.
It’s fair to admit that the script is a complete disaster and there are a lot of troubling plot holes. But as with most ‘50s and ‘60s action-adventure films, there is really no reason to waste your time thinking about how the Gill-men came to be, the technological discrepancies, or the issue of an active volcano right up against the English coast, among many, many other things. As far as the comedy is concerned, it isn’t nearly as unfortunate as some of the comedy shoehorned into earlier Universal horror films. To be honest, the chicken is not really around that much and though David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) is supposed to be the comic relief, he has a fair number of serious scenes.
Price is great, if underused, though there are a few nice moments where he gets to recite Poe in voice over. Though this happens for no particular reason, it is a nice, atmospheric touch. A young Tab Hunter (Polyester) is entertaining, but doesn’t do a whole to save the film. He simply isn’t as charismatic as either Price or Tomlinson. Susan Hart doesn’t do much other than stand around and look pretty. She would work with Price again soon after on the ridiculous Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
This is director Jacques Tourneur’s (Cat People) final film and though it seems like an odd choice for a director known for his atmospheric, solemn horror films, it is lovely and stylish despite its structural flaws. The effects, cinematography, and underwater sets still hold up in a fun, ‘60s sort of way, and the film manages to look more lavish than the budget actually allowed. The volcano is a little silly and it’s occasionally hard to get past the Gill-man rip offs who are obviously wearing rubber suits, but there is a lot to enjoy.
I can really only recommend War Gods of the Deep to fans of campy ‘60s cinema, as there are some dull talkie moments, nonsensical plot elements, and probably the longest underwater chase scene in film history. With that said, there are plenty of fun moments and there are certainly worse ways to pass the time. Price fans will definitely want to check this out. It is available on a single disc DVD from MGM’s excellent Midnite Movies series, as well as on a great, two disc quadruple feature from MGM. It also includes The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes!, and At the Earth’s Core.