Dead Calm Old, But Still Kind of Creepy
By Kristin Battestella
My Mother gets the wiggins every time she watches the 1989 thriller Dead Calm. A very young Nicole Kidman and then popular Billy Zane date this drama on the high seas, but there’s enough chills to keep you on the edge of your seat.
After the death of their son, John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his young wife Rae (Kidman) take time to grieve and bond anew as they sail back to
. After a month at sea, they encounter an unresponsive ship, then its lone survivor Hughie Warriner (Zane) on a dinghy. Neill leaves his wife to care for Hughie on their ship while he tries to save Warriner’s damaged vessel. Unfortunately, once Hughie has Rae alone, his true nature is revealed. Australia
Natural suspense goes a long way for Dead Calm. There’s plenty of violence and disaster to get into on a lonely boat on the high seas. Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector) does well with the vast dangers of the sea as well as the tight, claustrophobic, and confined interiors. Who doesn’t love all that bottomless water along with all the wood and mechanics to use, abuse, and on which to get hurt? Even the dog aboard ship is used intelligently. The fine story by Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior, Payback) - based on the 1963 novel by Charles Williams- is also complete and well done in the under two hour time frame. There’s a ticking clock of rescue and seafaring desperation in Dead Calm that appeals to all our fears. Today the powers that be would make a huge action disaster picture full of computer-generated squalls and people in bikinis. While not lacking on action or congested fight scenes, Dead Calm focuses on what would happen when we add the worst of human nature to the sea.
Sam Neil (
, The Tudors) is a little old for his wife, and this strain-along with the death of their child goes a long way in Dead Calm. Neil’s authentic as a former Navy man who knows the ocean. We trust him, like him and his instincts. If John feel’s something fishy, we worry with him. We don’t doubt he loves his young and saucy wife, but John’s rigid style might not keep Rae for long. Jurassic Park
But of course Dead Calm uses all it can of the young and pretty Kidman (The Hours, Moulin Rogue, To Die For) in her first big picture stateside. Her accent, style, and mannerisms are not the elegant lady we know today-in fact, her delivery might be difficult to understand for some. At first, it doesn’t seem there’s a lot to Rae beyond the clichéd young and grieving wife and mother. However, Kidman shows her future talent with charm and chemistry with both her leading men. As Dead Calm progresses, Rae wisens up and uses her short, beachy outfits to her advantage. Naturally, a certain sexuality comes into play-and it’s all good and ambiguous. We don’t doubt Rae’s grief and devotion to her husband, but she is younger and all alone with a hot and scary guy.
Billy Zane does bad guys best: Titanic, yes, The Phantom, not so much. Built and bizarre, you don’t blame the Ingrams for being suspicious when they meet Hughie. Sure, the tale he tells of violence and marooning on the high seas might make anyone a little flaky; but Zane sells every piece of Hugie’s psychotic bend. His paranoia, quick obsession with Rae, explosives speeches, and creepy dancing seep into everyone one of our fears-we’d be afraid to be alone with Hughie at all, let alone sailing away into the worst that we can imagine. Then again, I’m sure there is an audience that will find Zane’s portrayal sexy as hell. Despite his mental instability, Hughie is vital and in control, and yes, it is rough and kinky.
Dead Calm’s styles-much like Billy Zane’s popularity, have however, waned. The clothing styles are very dated and Kidman’s bushy hair isn’t all it could be. The score by Graeme Revell (
, Daredevil, The Crow) is too overbearing and obvious as well. There’s also not much rewatchability once you know all of Dead Calm’s twists and turns. Some of the naughty scenes, however, can be studied and re-interpreted time and again. Sin City
Fans of the trio will enjoy-although, this picture is not for any one who has water or boat phobias, I must say. There’s nudity of course for Kidman and Zane lovers, too. They’ve gone on to bigger and better things, but Dead Calm has all the makings of a scary, psychological thriller. Dated, perhaps, but sex and fear never get old. Look for this high seas adventures on DVD or blu-ray.