Australia is a nation as beautiful as it is deadly. We’ve all heard the phrase “everything in Australia is trying to kill you.” With a plethora of deadly sea creatures, snakes, bats, berries, and even snails, there is a bounty of nightmare fuel material that is desperate to be mined for horror entertainment. So, it may be surprising to know that Australia’s film industry has only recently entered its own golden age of horror within the last twenty years (no concrete dates have been set). With wide releases of films such as Wolf Creek, Lake Mungo, The Babadook, and this year’s Relic, Aussie horror’s popularity is on the rise.
I think a discussion is warranted for an under the radar Aussie horror gem, 1989’s Dead Calm, a film that holds an interesting place in cinema history overall. Based on the 1963 Charles F. Williams novel of the same name, the film was the second attempt at adapting the source material. Initially one of the later passion projects of Orson Welles, titled The Deep, the film was shot on and off during the late 60's, but was never completed due to the death of the lead actor. Shortly after Welles’ death in 1985, the rights to the novel were acquired by George Miller, creator of the Mad Max franchise. Miller took on the project as producer, but handed the helm over to Phillip Noyce, future director of the 90's Jack Ryan films, to make this ship sail.
The film follows Royal Australian Navy officer, John Ingram, played by Sam Neill, and his younger wife Rae, played by Nicole Kidman, as the two are taking a long vacation at sea, following the death of their son. Alone on the Pacific, these two lost souls feel like they’re the only ones on earth. Their boat crosses paths with a slowly sinking ship whose seemingly lone occupant rows over to them for help. The man, Hughie, played by Billy Zane, is the only survivor of, what he claims, botulism. Smelling something fishy about his story, John rows back to Hughie’s boat to inspect for himself. He’s absolutely right to be suspicious, as he finds Hughie’s victims, hacked to pieces in the flooding lower deck, a brilliantly horrific reveal. Knowing he’s left his wife alone with a maniac, John sets back, but Hughie has taken Rae captive, leaving John in open water. The chase is on with the elements against all of them.
Despite being a loose adaptation of its source material, Dead Calm is able to accomplish a cat and mouse style thriller combined with a survival horror narrative, all while having primarily three characters and taking place on the hardest location to shoot. We’ve all learned from the on-set stories of Waterworld that shooting on water is beyond daunting. However, despite the risks and the tight budget of a little over $10 million Australian, the film doesn’t suffer in quality. In fact, it makes it look easy.
Future Dances with Wolves cinematographer, Dean Semler, crafts a tense, claustrophobic film that opens with foreboding and gradually shifts into non-stop action. Couple that with the editing from future three-time Academy Award nominee Richard Francis-Bruce, and not a moment goes by where you aren’t invested. There is sparse use of wide shots that are mainly used to highlight the surrounding ocean, beautiful, yet hopeless, given the situation. This film even marks the feature debut of composer, Graeme Revell, who has gone on to have credits in all genres, but always finds his way back to horror.
Cast wise, the three leads are excellent. A pre-Jurassic Park Sam Neill brings a sense of wisdom and capableness to John. This is a character with a history that we don’t get much exposition on, but we gather that he’s resourceful and can think on his feet even when the odds are stacked against him (which they continuously are throughout). Nicole Kidman gives one of the most underrated performances of her career. She’s a character who starts the film in grief and confusion but is slowly able to find her footing and prove she is anything but helpless, even saving John when the time comes. The part was written specifically with her in mind, changing the character from the book to a younger woman.
We are right there with her in the opening scene as we witness the car wreck where her son is thrown through a windshield, leading to his death. That feeling of failure lingers as her character pushes to correct what she feels is a mistake. And pairing that with the conflict of Zane’s character adds up. This performance was so effective that when Tom Cruise saw it, he demanded Kidman be cast in Days of Thunder, and the rest is history.
Finally, there is Billy Zane as Hughie, in what was his first high profile role. Zane is an underrated actor who has been grossly miscast throughout his career. This performance, coupled with his role in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, shows that this man was born to play villains and would have made a killing playing them full time. Aside from being a sinister presence from his introduction, Zane isn’t above playing Hughie as a psychopath. There’s backstory and depth to this character that we’re able to glimpse, where Hughie is the hero of his own backstory. One is almost conflicted as to how to feel about him for a moment, before cutting back to the danger he poses to Kidman. You don’t feel too bad for him when he’s taken out in quick and spectacular fashion by the end.
Overall, Dead Calm is a film that demands rediscovery. It’s hard to believe that a film which succeeded where Orson Welles couldn’t isn’t discussed more, even by the cast and crew. Despite just barely breaking even at the box office, the film was well-received by critics. On screen and behind the scenes, all talent involved brought their A-game and have gone on to have lengthy careers. Let this be your gateway into the niche of pre-2000 Aussie horror. Dive in. You won’t be disappointed with this one.
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