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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/7/00

Dead Calm
1989 (1999) - Warner Bros.

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Dead Calm Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/D

Specs and Features

96 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full-frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English and French (Dolby Digital 2.0), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned

Billy Zane sweats. I mean, man - this guy sweats a lot. Maybe it’s because he's crazy. I hear that's what crazy people do, they sweat. One could argue, by watching Dead Calm, that Zane is sweating because it's summertime, the sun is blazing down and he's in the middle of the ocean. To counter that, I present Nicole Kidman, who doesn't sweat... er... I should say, glisten... once during this entire movie, not even while he is attempting to kill her. Kidman doesn’t even break a bead while she's having sex with him to try and get him not to kill her. I found myself wondering if having sex with a deranged killer would actually work in order to sway their opinion of who to kill and when. It seems to work in movies, but I don't know anyone willing to be that guinea pig. It's the moments like these that undermine the genuinely scary and tense setups of Dead Calm.

After the losing their child in a car wreck (one of the sillier moments of the movie - it looks as if a Chucky doll flew through the windshield), John and Rae Ingram (Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman) decide to head to the seas for a little mind and body healing. A couple weeks into their vacation, they spot an abandoned schooner. Hughie (Billy Zane), the one surviving passenger, boats over to John and Rae's ship. He explains that the entire crew of the ship died from a bad case of food poisoning. As he's resting, John leaves Rae alone with Hughie, and rows over to the schooner to check out Hughie's story. Naturally, his story is balderdash - everyone on board the fast-sinking ship died at his hands.

The really good parts of the movie are the scenes that rely on action, rather than dialogue, between the characters. The camera work and scenery are exhilarating and had me wanting more. Phillip Noyce, who would later go on to direct Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, forms a taut web of suspense in two separate story lines. In one, John is trying to escape the fast-sinking schooner while trying to stay in touch with his endangered wife. In the other, Rae is trying to stay alive and avoid further torture by Hughie. During these parts of the movie, I was really involved and on the edge of my seat. I wish there were more of them.

So, what do you do when you're in the middle of nowhere and there's nowhere to hide? Well, if you're Rae, you just sort of keep yourself in constant peril. There are opportunities in the movie for Rae to really give it to Hughie and end her torture. But in the interest of keeping the pace of the movie up, she instead teases him with death. Sure, she could easily kill him at several points in the movie, but she has a conscience... even in the face of his constant taunting and punishment. Her character is otherwise written much more intelligently than this, so these parts don't sit well with me.

In paying more attention to the action elements of the story, some of the performances suffer. Billy Zane's performance is too exaggerated to be believable. His constant zig-zagging between "desperately wanting to be understood" antics and "maniacal killer on the edge" craziness is hard to follow. I don't necessarily want to know why he wants to kill them, but I do want to understand him and believe that he would do it. We, as viewers, are left to figure out why he would kill a whole boat full of people and leave himself stranded in the middle of the ocean. Sam Neill's performance is the stand out of the three. My guess is that since he is by himself most of the movie, he is relegated to more physical acting, and Sam Neill is a strong physical actor.

The video presentation of Dead Calm is pretty good. The blacks are solid and there was only a small amount of artifacting. Parts of the movie are really high on the edge enhancement, resulting in some heavy halo effect, and the colors look a bit washed out. Aside from that, this is a clean print with a nice anamorphic transfer. The surround mix is also good, but I would have liked to have heard more usage of the surround speakers. They can be particularly useful in thrillers, and with all the action and environmental noise of Dead Calm, it would have added a lot to the feel of the movie.

Warner's DVD budget line is not heavy on the features. The theatrical trailer, with an anamorphic treatment, and a French language track with subtitles, is all you get here. What else can you ask for at the $15 price level most places charge for this disc? Maybe trailers for other movies in Warner's catalogue would be a good suggestion.

If you can turn on the part of your brain that allows the willing suspension of disbelief, Dead Calm is a very enjoyable movie. The ending asks a lot of that willing suspension, and is very cornballish, but most of the movie is suspenseful and lots of fun. With a cheap price tag attached to it, this is a nice addition to Warner's budget line.

Dan Kelly
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