War-Gods of the Deep
The City Under the Sea
½*/**** Image A Sound B
starring Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, David Tomlinson
screenplay by Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward
directed by Jacques Tourneur
AT THE EARTH'S CORE
½*/**** Image A Sound B
starring Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro, Cy Grant
screenplay by Milton Subotsky, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
directed by Kevin Connor
by Walter Chaw Jacques Tourneur kicks all kinds of ass. He shone in the Forties with his Val Lewton collaborations and his magnificent, atmosphere-laden pictures Night of the Demon and Out of the Past. Having turned his attention primarily to moody Joel McCrea westerns and adventure pulpers in the Fifties, Tourneur, by the time the Sixties rolled around, unfortunately found himself outside his black-and-white comfort zone (his last great work is probably an episode of the original "The Twilight Zone", "Night Call") and at the helm of productions starring people like Steve Reeves and Vincent Price. One of his last pictures--1965's abominable War-Gods of the Deep--finds its way onto DVD via MGM's admirable "Midnite Movies" line as the front end of a double feature. It's a flat, fish-eyed stinker that positions itself as a ripper of both the Price-anchored Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films and the bona fide cycle of Jules Verne spectacles that began with Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), continued through From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and culminated in 1964's still-creepy First Men in the Moon, to which this film might owe its greatest debt. Ostensibly based on a Poe poem called "The City in the Sea," War-Gods of the Deep grafts its gothic settings (complete with another voiceover intro of Price reading a poem) to a Verne-like tale of a mysterious egomaniac (named "The Captain," of course, and played by Price) living in a giant, velvet-lined mansion beneath the sea, just off the coast of Cornwall.
The whole thing reeks of crass commercialism and a bald lack of imagination. Start with the magnificently disinteresting Tab Hunter as generic man-of-action Ben: One of two Americans staying at a creepy boarding house along with doe-eyed generic woman-of-inaction Jill (Susan Hart, married at the time to James Nicholson, who produced a lot of these Corman/Price/Poe flicks), he discovers a corpse washed ashore and then...and then he meets a guy (Harold (David Tomlinson, still hot from Mary Poppins)) whose best friend is a chicken named Herbert; uncovers a secret passageway after Jill disappears; and ends up at the bottom of the ocean with a monologue-spewing Captain, who's flanked by bearded henchmen and a small retinue of "gill men" sort of suspended there, trying conspicuously not to drown. The sets are impressive and the palette is amazing, but the story is confused beyond salvation--none of it aided in the slightest by Harold's "veddy British" asides to his bird.
It seems The Captain has kidnapped Jill because she looks like his long-lost love--long-long-lost, actually, because something in the air down there keeps the underwater citizenry nigh ageless. Cue the requisite oil painting portraiture at which doll-eyed Jill will gape as precious time ticks away during their really boring and protracted escape. The Captain kidnaps all sorts of other people periodically, too, in the vain hope that one of these landlubber hostages will know how to stop a volcano from exploding and swallowing up his beloved mantation beneath the waves. It's not much to hang a movie on and, sure enough, War-Gods of the Deep's 80 minutes creep on by with the studied insistence of a bad dental appointment. The final chase, in particular, wherein the participants don heavy deep-sea diving suits, plays like some kind of sick joke. I like Tourneur enough that I was actually sort of pained watching this film. With almost nothing to recommend it, the only purpose War-Gods of the Deep serves is to remind that the mighty only have that much farther to fall.
Flip the disc and prepare to encounter a weird, Troll-like take on one of Edgar Rice Burroughs's novels, At the Earth's Core. One of a number of Burroughs adaptations brought to shambling half-life by schlockmeister director Kevin Connor, producer John Dark, and paunchy, Al Franken-looking leading man Doug McClure, At the Earth's Core takes Burroughs's fascinatingly-loaded idea of "Pellucidar"--a self-sustaining land inside the Earth's crust--and makes of it this silly joke of a Z-grade picture. Peter Cushing lends some kind of credibility, I guess, playing the doddering Victorian man of science, the inventor of the "Iron Mole": a giant drill that he and David (McClure) take on a very short journey to the "Land of the Lost" wonderland in the middle of the Earth. Instead of dinosaurs, though, there are giant telepathic parrot-saurs; and instead of Sleestaks there are Rachel Welch-like wenches à la One Million Years B.C. and badass disco-brother precursors to Walter Hill's The Warriors. It sounds like a campy blast, doesn't it? But somewhere along the route of your cruel tourism in the land of the truly inane, you'll find that it's getting late and you're running out of gas. You know you're in trouble when not even the appearance of a guy in a giant iguana suit breathing fire does anything to raise the pulse or arch the eyebrow.
MGM does yeoman's work on both War-Gods of the Deep and At the Earth's Core, providing the former with a genuinely eye-popping 2.35:1, anamorphic widescreen transfer sourced from what appears to be a print in near-mint condition. There are a couple of burps late in the proceedings--bad splices in the midst of the final non-water escape--but the film, originally shot in "Colorscope," has probably never looked better than it does here. (Certainly not on home video.) Saturation is exemplary, blacks are consistent, and though a few banding artifacts creep in now and again, let's just say that if this film were any good, I'd watch it again for the sake of staring at it. Similarly, At the Earth's Core docks on the format in a very fine 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation that exhibits a lot of grain in the climactic fight sequences but, as those scenes are partially obscured by smoke, I imagine that it was unavoidable. Both films feature DD 2.0 mono audio that preserves the original tracks with a surprising amount of depth, while their respective trailers round out each side of the disc. Originally published: November 29, 2005.