After Roger Corman deserted the Edgar Allan Poe series for good in the mid 1960s, American International Pictures (AIP) made every attempt to keep the series and its box office appeal alive, regardless of how little it actually had to do with the legendary author. WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP is one of the earliest examples of this, a flawed film which still holds up well as good old-fashioned Saturday afternoon entertainment if you enter it with the right attitude and the fact that once again, we get to see the great Vincent Price in his prime, doing what he did best in HD!
Along the a rocky coastline in 1903 Cornwall, a body washes ashore on a windy evening and is discovered by a group of men led by young American scientist Ben Harris (Tab Hunter, SWEET KILL). The victim, an attorney, was boarding at the manor house administered by Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart, THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI), a beautiful young American girl. Harris goes to the manor to relate the fate of the lawyer to Jill and her friend, Harold Tiffin-Jones (David Tomlinson, THE LOVE BUG), an eccentric British artist obsessed with his pet rooster Herbert. Upon hearing a commotion in the adjacent study, Ben breaks down the door and finds the room in terrible disorder and a weird scaled creature -- a gill man -- within. The creature attacks him and escapes through a sliding panel that shuts after it.
Later that night Jill is left alone in the study and abducted by the gill men, leaving behind a trail of slime and seaweed. Ben and Harold find a panel and enter a steeply descending cavernous passage and a massive whirlpool which they are sucked into, ending up in the ancient city under the sea, Lyonesse. In the center of the underwater city is a sumptuous temple flanked by golden idols hinting of Egyptian and Assyrian origins. Dwarfing all of this is a huge hand of immense width intertwined with a serpent around its wrist, suggesting worship of snakes. They encounter the tyrannical Captain Hugh (Vincent Price, CRY OF THE BANSHEE) who rules the kingdom and its crew of smugglers, and is responsible for commanding the gill men to wreck havoc upon the land above. With Hugh and his crew being over a century old and not aging a day due to a phenomenon in the atmosphere, the Gill Men serve as intermediaries, as none of the human inhabitants can venture forth out of the water without rapidly aging and crumbling into dust. It is soon discovered why the mad Captain had Jill kidnapped in the first place, and Ben and Harold plan an escape (compete with clunky diving gear) before an imminent volcano destroys the entire city and its remaining inhabitants.
Based on “The City in the Sea”, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, WAR GODS OF THE DEEP was shot in Great Britain as CITY UNDER THE SEA (as it was released there), as a co-production between American-International Pictures and Anglo-Amalgamated and produced by future director Daniel Haller (THE DUNWICH HORROR). This promising venture was penned by none other than Charles Bennett who wrote the immortal masterpiece of 1950s horror, CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957), also directed by Jacques Tourneur. His script was meant to be a spirited take on Jules Verne adventures, however AIP’s Louis ("Deke") Heyward decided to meddle with the plot and gave it the needless comic relief of David Tomlinson and his chicken. This effect was tolerable in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH but was completely out of left field in this production (and by the way, Herbert does not get eaten in the film). Tourneur complained bitterly to AIP co-head Sam Arkoff who deferred to Heyward. It was at this point that the production lost its foothold and Tourneur was forced to film material that was not in his original story or best interest. Price was in total agreement with his director (WAR-GODS would be the last feature in Tourneur’s illustrious career, and it’s often cited as the one that doomed it). He told several journalists that Heyward did not have the intellect or the taste to tell a man of Tourneur's vision what to put in his film. As Vincent said, "Deke is here to write the checks and nothing else!"
In an interesting note, Boris Karloff had been cast in the Reverend Ives role though failing health prevented this (Ives, a prisoner of the Captain, is played by the dependable John Le Mesurier, Barrymore in Hammer’s HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES). Price and Karloff had just appeared in the Tourneur-directed THE COMEDY OF TERRORS for AIP, and Karloff's presence would have been a coup de grace. At this time Price had embarked on his deal with Sears-Roebuck to purchase paintings and reportedly spent thousands of dollars on artwork alone during the filming (at a time when he was questioning the quality of his job requirements for AIP). Even though Price's performance is one of his less interesting for the company (he’s basically restricted to one set and wears one outfit on-screen) and he has to deal with rather mundane, repetitive dialogue, he gives his usual tour de force performance. His splendid silky voice permeates the crashing of the waves of the sea against the rocky coastline as he reads lines from "City in the Sea" by Poe. Hart (who was soon to be the wife of AIP co-head James H. Nicholson) is terrific eye candy (and the spitting image of Captain Hugh’s long-dead wife), showing off as much cleavage as a Hammer Film starlet, and likable leading man Hunter does an admirable job. Tomlinson is in fine form, as he actually upstages Price, but his character comes off more as annoying than comical as intended.
Reaching U.S. shores with a title more akin to an Italian sword and sandal picture, WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP obviously tried to capitalize on the success of period fantasy films such as 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, but also Columbia’s acclaimed Ray Harryhausen stop-motion-animated spectacles such as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and the more recent FIRST MEN ON THE MOON. Naturally, this was done on the usual miniscule budget AIP was allotted, but it’s actually a handsome production with remarkable set designs (shot in Pinewood Studios) with respectable special effects and assorted matte shots accomplished by Frank George and Les Bowie, the latter of Hammer films fame (some machinery and destruction effects footage were taken from Toho’s ATRAGON, which AIP released in the U.S.). The underwater sequences, consisting mostly of heroic divers (stuntmen) with spear-guns against the dreaded gill men, were shot in a standard aspect ratio and then blown up to Scope, with the additive of close-ups of the main stars’ reactions behind the glass of their oversized diving helmets, which come off as awkward. The gill men themselves are like something out of a 1950s B-level creature feature, in that they are less than convincing. Their mute half-human/half fish appearance has them with claws instead of hands, scaly flesh, and webbed feet. The monster suits, constructed of rubber and lightweight plastics, are furnished with slimy flowing seaweed and other stuck-on plant life. This aquatic variant also recalls the body cast for the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" series and is appropriately creepy, especially since the camera never lingers on them for too long, as too hide their inadequacies as much as possible. A leftover gill man suit would soon show up in SPACE MONSTER (aka SPACE PROBE TAURUS), a black and white AIP cheapie made and released the same year. Instead of using AIP’s house maestro Les Baxter, veteran British composer Stanley Black (THE CRAWLING EYE) was employed to do the score, and the results are quite marvelous and definitely elevate the film.
MGM released WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP on DVD in 2001 as part of its “Midnite Movies” line (the first time it was presented widescreen on home video) and then re-released it on a double feature DVD, appropriately enough with AT THE EARTH’S CORE. Kino Lorber has licensed the film from MGM, and has undertaken their own HD transfer (which is also being made available on standard DVD), and the results are spectacular. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and mastered in 1080p, with striking colors and excellent detail throughout. Fleshtones look realistic, grain structure is solid and black levels are deep. The original elements must have pristine condition, as there’s hardly any noticeable print imperfections. The underwater sequences look a tad less impressive, and the use of matte shots and stock footage are easily detectable, but this quality is still consistently superb on the whole. The English audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio track, and is excellent, perfectly in tune with the superb visuals. No subtitle options are included on the disc.
The main extra on the Blu-ray is a “Going Deep” (11:09), a brand new interview with star Tab Hunter. The actor discusses meeting Arkoff and Nicholson and getting the job on this film after his contract with Warner Bros. was over. He has great things to say about Price (and that he first met him while making his first feature) and mentions accompanying him in some of his art-buying for Sears-Roebuck. In this solid interview, Hunter (who has aged terrifically) also talks about Pinewood Studios and the film’s sets, his two other co-stars and the director (who he describes as “easy going”). The original theatrical trailer is also included. (George R. Reis and Christopher Dietrich)
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