The Film: 3/5
Also known as City in the Sea, the late (and unarguably great) Jacques Tourneur’s last feature as director, 1965’s sci-fi adventure War-Gods of the Deep, makes its debut on Region A Blu-ray as part of Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line. The film had been previously available on DVD from MGM as part of a double feature set with At the Earth’s Core (available separately on Blu from Scorpion Releasing), but now Tourneur’s fantastic voyage to an undersea kingdom fraught with peril and monsters has been remastered in high-definition and looks more colorful and explosive than ever before.
Having made his name with the noir masterpiece Out of the Past and the visually masterful RKO horror classics Cat People (the original) and I Walked with a Zombie, Tourneur was tasked by American-International Pictures chiefs Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson with making a family-friendly fantasy adventure inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe poem “City in the Sea”. Tourneur had previously made the cheeky, star-studded cult horror favorite The Comedy of Terrors for A.I.P., and though the film was neither a hit or flop at the box office Arkoff and Nicholson were clearly impressed by the famed director’s work enough to hand him the reins of one of their more ambitious productions. American-International was primarily known for delivering cheap, disposable schlock to drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas for mass consumption, but War-Gods of the Deep would employ elaborate sets, optical effects that required some serious cash to create, and the star services of horror legend Vincent Price and square-jawed matinee idol wannabe Tab Hunter.
It wouldn’t be much of a plot spoiler to reveal that Hunter is the hero of War-Gods and Price is its villain. This is not a film made to break any molds. Charles Bennett (who contributed to the scripts for some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best early features, including The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent) and one of A.I.P.’s in-house scribes Louis M. Heyward (the English language adaptation of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires) were handed the screenwriting chores for War-Gods and they crafted a solidly entertaining yarn using Poe’s haunting poem as a starting point. Handsome mining engineer Ben Harris (Hunter) and haughty artist Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson) get sucked into an amazing and terrifying world of killer mutants and delusions of grandeur when Harris’ girlfriend Jill (Susan Hart) is kidnapped from an English manor by strange, scaly creatures. Ben and Harold pursue her captors and wind up transported to an impressive underwater kingdom lorded over by a mad captain (Price) and his loyal crew.
The captain uses a group of mutated humanoid fish monsters to do his bidding in the ocean and forbids anyone to leave his lair because of a nearby volcano whose instability threatens the lives of him and anyone else unfortunate enough to occupy his oceanic fortress. Ben and Harold attempt to locate and rescue Jill especially once they discover the disturbing secret that has really kept the captain and his followers from leaving the confines of their undersea home, a secret that their insane leader will destroy to protect.
War-Gods of the Deep was filmed in location throughout England, including interiors shot at the country’s famed Pinewood Studios, and the decision to take the production out of the United States results in one of A.I.P.’s most visually spectacular releases. Filmed in beautiful widescreen, the film benefits from impressively-detailed sets depicting the Captain’s underwater domain designed by Frank White (The Brides of Fu Manchu) and solid practical effects created by Les Bowie (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Frank George (Goldfinger). Additional effects were taken from the 1963 Toho feature Atragon and were created by Japan’s beloved FX master Eiji Tsuburaya, a veteran of countless kaiju flicks. Bob Cuff (The Princess Bride) realized the gorgeous matte paintings used for War-Gods. Having such passionate creative talent from Britain at his disposal worked out fantastically in Tourneur’s favor as he was able to the raise then quality of his film’s visuals to a level of accomplishment and artistic craft not often found in an American-International Pictures release.
Regarding the story of War-Gods, we’re treading some seriously shallow waters here. A.I.P. embraced a tried-and-true storytelling template for War-Gods that worked many times in cheaper B-pictures of decades past: good-looking, resourceful hero must rescue a beautiful woman from the clutches of a sniveling monster with the assistance of a colorful sidekick or two. There’s plenty of action, effects, and it all ends with a literal bang. Why mess with a winning formula? It would go on to serve the studio and their British counterpart Amicus well in the 70’s with their Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations that were pretty popular with the kids for a while until Star Wars came along. Bennett was the first writer hired for the project and he was reportedly quite displeased with the rewrites by Heyward that were intended to add more humor to the narrative. It was Heyward’s idea to add a comic relief sidekick in the form of Herbert, Harold’s pet….rooster. That’s right, folks, Herbert is a rooster. A female rooster at that. The rooster adds nothing to the story and serves merely to be a goofy distraction, which brings such irrational story elements into direct conflict with the more serious tone that Price’s performance as the captain is intended to serve. Thankfully, there isn’t nearly enough of Herbert’s presence to sink War-Gods into complete idiocy, but it comes close at times.
Price and Hunter both do what they do best with energy and professionalism. Hunter’s performance often made him resemble Bruce Campbell if the man took himself a bit too seriously, but he’s a good hero for the story (though a little on the bland side). Price naturally hams it up, given full reign to dominate the proceedings and never without a mouth stuffed full of purple prose monologues. He even gets to quote from the original Poe poem. Disney star Tomlinson (Mary Poppins) is a daffy delight as the artist who approaches every absurd situation in the film with upper lip properly stiff, and Hart (Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, another A.I.P. title starring Price) does what she can with her limited damsel-in-distress part. Then there’s Herbert, that damn rooster. The best I can say about her (yes, again Herbert is a female) is that she never goes for any easy overacting. No fowl can get the best of the legendary Vincent Price.
I can’t believe I just wrote that. I need to lie down now.
MGM’s remastered print of War-Gods has been given a fine AVC-encoded 1080p high-definition upgrade courtesy of Kino. The picture is framed in the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio and is a definite improvement over the previous DVD transfer. Having said that, the source elements used for the new video master had minor deterioration issues that the upgrade only makes more apparent than before. For the most part, the condition of the print is stellar and what little damage remains is hardly noticeable unless you go looking for it. The vibrant color scheme that favored cool blues and fiery reds is preserved here and is astounding to watch. Sharpened detail and a fine layer of grain help to retain the filmic appearance of the transfer. Kino has supplemented the updated video transfer with a hale and hearty English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that replicates the film’s original mono sound mix for home video presentation with excellent results. Dialogue can be heard with refreshing clarity and the dramatic music score never comes close to overwhelming the rest of the soundtrack. Ambient effects in the captain’s underwater lair, such as echoes and burbling water, are pronounced and effective. No subtitles have been included.
The only new extra is a retrospective interview with star Hunter (11 minutes) where the actor goes into great detail about his time working on War-Gods with Jacques Tourneur and Vincent Price. The production and his relationship with Arkoff and Nicholson are also discussed. This is a good little video bonus. Kino closes out their modest selection of supplements with the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes), presented in standard-definition in pretty rough shape but still highly watchable.
War-Gods of the Deep is exactly the kind of unpretentious fun for Saturday matinee audiences that is sadly in short supply these days. Thanks to the good folks at Kino Lorber and MGM, at least this little slice of mid-60’s fantasy adventure looks and sounds better than it ever has on home video and this Blu-ray will likely gain it several new devoted followers.