A war we can’t win: A critical review of “War-Gods of the Deep” (1965)

Maybe it’s a little unfair to review this film during a cycle of arguably the worst cosmic horror ever. The American-British thriller “War-Gods of the Deep” – that’s the Yankee title, by the way; the original UK title is the less bellicose “City Under the Sea,” not “in the sea” as IMDb would have you believe – is not one of the worst horror films ever made. It is, however, singularly disappointing. The setup is great: American International Pictures producing, Jacques Tourneur directing and Vincent Price starring in a dark fantasy thriller with hints of Lovecraft. You could not get me to watch that fast enough. Unfortunately, the film is much less excited about its own pacing, tone and purpose.

The film opens on a Cornish beach, where a body has been discovered in the shadow of a seaside mansion. Nervous fishermen surround it, debating whether it has any connection to legends of spectral bells and cities beneath the dark waves. American engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) heads to the mansion – currently an electric power-deprived hotel – to inform the owner (Susan Hart) her lawyer is dead. When she disappears, Harris partners with an eccentric artist (David Tomlinson) to locate her. They discover a grotto beneath the mansion, and there a watery portal that leads to the crumbling ruins of an ancient civilization. Despite their age and seismic instability, the ruins are still inhabited by both men and monsters.

What makes “War-Gods” such a letdown is what it could have been. Tourneur could do atmosphere like few others – need I mention “Cat People” “I Walked With a Zombie” “Out of the Past” and “Curse of the Demon”? – and Price could handle the weight of Lovecraftian moods and themes, as in AIP’s “The Haunted Palace,” which deserves its own review some day. Also, the two could collaborate effectively, as evidenced by 1963’s “The Comedy of Terrors.” Of course, “Terrors” also had the support of a stellar cast and Richard Matheson’s smart script, both of which are lacking in “War-Gods.”

For script, “War-Gods” is as thin and inconsistent as a dying flashlight. This blog tries not to listen to grumbling from the writers’ room, but here I’ll make an exception. The original screenplay was penned by Charles Bennett, who previously wrote thrillers for Alfred Hitchcock and Irwin Allen. There was tension between the production companies, and his draft was rewritten by Louis M. Heyward, who had mostly written for television up till then (Heyward would go on to doctor the script for “The Crimson Cult,” and we know how that turned out). Heyward is the one who added the comedy and the chicken, and I doubt I’m the only one to notice similarities between that bird and the duck from 1959’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

This blog has yet to find anyone who will defend “War-Gods” for its sense of humor. The first scene is a great example. The body on the beach instantly raises intrigue. Even as the script railroads us toward convenient solutions, the mood doesn’t. Tight camera angles ramp up the atmosphere while off kilter editing keeps us uneasy and at arm’s length. We still don’t know if we’re in for a murder mystery, ghost story or dark fantasy. Then we get David Tomlinson in a kilt straddling Tab Hunter’s shoulders searching for a chicken.

This blog will agree with… another blog, who slipped out of my notes, but I’ll try to give credit where it’s due eventually. That blogger said the script sans comedy would still have been pretty mediocre. That’s fair. Even without feathers, “War-Gods” lacks focus. For horror, the film’s strategy seems to be every time there’s a problem, just toss Price reading Edgar Allen Poe at it. That works to a degree, but you need more than one option. You can’t just throw Poe, Lovecraft and Jules Verne onto the floor and hope for the best. There has to be something to glue it all together.

There are no characters on which to pin anything. Harris is a pretty anemic detective. He falls into a puddle and tries to punch people while searching for his lady friend, and that’s about it. That lady friend is also kind of a drip. She mainly gets kidnapped so that Harris has something to do. There’s a point where she learns she might be the reincarnation of a 17th century noblewoman, but that’s given all the attention of a mosquito bite.

The only character worth your time – and this should surprise no one – is Vincent Price as a villainous pirate captain. It’s still a shallowly written part (and despite being credited above the title, it takes 25 minutes for him to show up), but Price has enough grace and gravity to make it compelling. He’s violent, guilt-ridden and delusional. The problem is, we’re simply told most of this, and we get no signs of who he was before his psychological fall. I’d much rather watch his descent into madness than any number of underwater chase scenes.

That said, John Le Mesurier as an old prisoner gets to look adequately haunted and be kind of helpful, smoothing the plot along at a moment that feels almost natural. It’s one of the few moments in the narrative that feels organic. Also, as a non-human character, the city itself is pretty good. The sets are arguably the film’s strongest cinematic element, all dusty statues of animal-human hybrids, drip-drip-dripping rocks and giant hands jutting out of jagged stone.

The monster design, that’s not so good. It could have been great, sort of creatures from the Black Lagoon with witch-like seaweed hair. It’s just that the costumes look like they were stitched together in three minutes. Tourneur does his best to hide them with smart lighting and camera angles, at least in the early parts of the film, but he could only do so much. By the time we’re in the city, the creatures are being photographed swimming around with pirates in broad daylight (how that daylight reaches the bottom of the sea is anyone’s guess). There is no sense of mystery or wonder here.

I keep coming back to those first 15 minutes, when the film could have been anything. I wouldn’t have minded more mystery, more investigation above the surface and more time to make us care about the central characters. Instead, we get whisked down to the water-logged city and pretty much never leave. The characters walk back and forth as everything is explained to them in unnatural exposition. The set is small, and it does very little of the narrative lifting. Actually relying on the city as the focus would have required a greater sense of wonder and discovery – meaning more patience and daring from the producers.

The last 20 minutes of the film are a particularly obnoxious crawl. The whole thing becomes an extended underwater chase scene, with plenty of shots of people gasping inside diving helmets. Tourneur tosses in some interesting angles, but there’s only so much the man can do. Even when the actors get out of the pool, it’s just for a second to avoid some falling statues, then we go back in the water again. Don’t worry though. Tomlinson keeps the chicken dry in his helmet.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the film, but there is something almost noble about its conclusion. Given it’s the last cinematic testament of Tourneur, it feels worth discussing. The designated heroes ascend to the surface to watch an undersea volcano blow up courtesy of some footage stolen from an Ishiro Honda movie. Parallel to that, Price’s pirate captain – wounded and alone – climbs a flight of stone steps toward the surface. He stumbles and reaches for a painted backdrop, before he himself freezes like an oil painting. Is it madness or time dilation? Either way, it’s slightly surreal, dream-like, and hints at the weird fiction this film could have been. Honestly, the mashup of 18th century pirates, Victorian explorers and ancient Atlantian fishmen is kinda of cool. I hope someone eventually gives it the attention it deserves.

This blog finds it hard to recommend “War-Gods of the Deep.” Proper horror fans, even those with a taste for retro, will likely be more impressed by cinema that’s either better or decidedly campier. I suppose I can suggest it to cosmic horror completionists. It doesn’t fare too bad on our cosmic horror keyword watch. It’s slightly “Dagon” rather than squarely “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but we’re got a superstitious and xenophobic seaside town, ancient aquatic ruins, a portal that fucks with time and someone named Tregillis (get it?), as well as the fishmen, natch.

I shouldn’t have had my hopes up, I suppose. Just look at that title. I can’t figure out that hyphen, and neither can you. Anyway, that’s enough of sluggish underwater chase scenes for now. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at something more animated. Stay tuned.

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