I’ll admit it. I have a weakness for one particular type of film — or you might even describe it as a subgenre — one which doesn’t get a lot of attention from many critics.
I’m referring to a handful of adventure films with fantastic elements from the Sixties and Seventies which feel like they were ripped out of an early Twentieth Century pulp novel.
In fact, many of them were.
Think of The Land That Time Forgot, which was based on one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, or Hammer’s The Lost Continent, based on one of Dennis Wheatley’s. Other notable examples would include At the Earth’s Core, Warlords of Atlantis, and Island of the Fishmen. While all of these films include lost civilizations and strange creatures (and are typically set in the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Centuries), perhaps their most distinctive feature is that they take their time setting up the story, and the heroes move from one adventure to the next before they reach their lost worlds.
Now it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that AIP also made a retro fantastic adventure film, as they produced films in virtually every category you could name. What is interesting is that, while it has a lot in common with the films I mentioned, it was actually earlier and instead took its main inspirations came from Disney’s version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and AIP’s own version of The Master of the World, which starred Vincent Price.
Of course, officially it is one of AIP’s series of period Edgar Allen Poe films. I say “officially” as it has no relation to any of his stories. Instead, Poe’s poem, The City in the Sea, is the credited inspiration. Vincent Price reads parts of the poem at the beginning, end, and once in the middle of the film. I suspect that we hear the entire poem, although it has nothing to do with the film other than some vague talk about a city under the sea. They’d done more or less the same thing two years before with an earlier Poe “adaptation,” The Haunted Palace: it was actually based on one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories but took its name from a poem by Poe.
Which Vincent Price read aloud. Of course.
Tab Hunter plays Ben Harris, an American mining engineer inspecting the old workings in Cornwall, who finds a body on the shore. When he goes to tell Jill Tregillis, who just inherited an old boarding house that her lawyer is dead, he finds someone — or rather, some thing — ransacking the dead man’s room.
And later that night, the thing returns and kidnaps Jill. Ben and another guest, Harold Tufnell-Jones (along with his pet chicken) find a secret passage, and go after her down a series of tunnels, which lead them to a mysterious city under the sea…
Vincent Price plays Sir Hugh, the ruler of this city. He was the Captain of a gang of smugglers, who were chased into the mine’s tunnels and have been living in this lost city for over a Century without aging. The city itself is the relic of a lost race, who built a massive system of pumps to maintain it. These ancient people have become gill men, and are simple minded and easily manipulated. The Captain uses them to carry out raids on the world above, in the hope that someday they will find the technology they need to control the massive volcano (yes, a volcano in the sea off Cornwall!) which threatens to destroy the city in true lost world fashion. He kidnapped Jill because she looks just like his dead wife, and now hopes Ben will be able to help him.
Not realizing that 1904 technology just isn’t up to the job.
There are some minor hints of H.P. Lovecraft here, with the fish men and their fondness for human sacrifice. The City itself has a very Sumerian or Egyptian sort of look, with lots of massive statues in its temples and big halls. However, the pumps themselves look very much like a steampunk version of the Krell Machine from Forbidden Planet. The models of the underwater city are quite good and have a lot of atmosphere — although, apparently, the volcanic eruption at the end was borrowed from Atragon. The fish men, however, are a bit variable. They aren’t anywhere near as convincing as The Creature from the Black Lagoon and some of the suits look particularly unimpressive.
We do get quite a lot of underwater footage here, including a long chase in diving suits. They did an impressive job, but, as we have actors in big, clumsy suits moving underwater, it is a bit slow. The suits themselves are an interesting design, with a big metal fish for a crest, but really needed to be more distinctive and individual so we could tell the characters apart.
And I have to give them points for one of the film’s more striking moments, when someone ages rapidly: rather than makeup, they animated the change over the actor’s face. But it still works and is surprisingly effective.
Jacques Tourneur — directing his final film — gives it all a glorious look, but somehow it feels a bit lopsided. We start off with what promises to be an intriguing mystery — the dead man, the many things which regularly disappear from the boarding house, a stolen book — but it is never developed enough. Then things slow down once they reach the underwater city and the story drags a bit before it reaches the climax. They sped through the opening scenes so quickly that I found that I had to go back and rewatch some of them them to write a good summary. You’ll note that in the other films I’ve compared this one to, the adventures that lead them to those lost worlds could easily take half the film. Not everyone loves this, but to me this has always seemed a good part of what makes them or any classic adventure tale work. After all, it is the journey that matters, and not just the little bit at the end when we reach our goal.
I still like War-Gods of the Deep even if it is a bit flat and never quite becomes the film it could have been. It isn’t at all the sort of film you’d expect from a deep sea adventure featuring a lost city, and the idea of that city being populated by people who accidentally found it and set up their own little society at the bottom of the sea is an unexpected touch.
And, yes, I’ll admit that Vincent Price is reason enough to watch almost any film.
It’s a minor — but still fun — little adventure film and entertaining enough if you don’t ask too much of it.
Even if Amicus and Hammer films did this sort of thing so much better…