Over the last few decades, Australia has emerged as a powerful force in horror movie production. Between the classic Ozploitation movies of the seventies and eighties, such as Patrick and Razorback, to the new wave of Aussie horror that includes films like the Wolf Creek franchise and The Babadook, the land Down Under has put out some consistently terrifying movies. They’re not all B-movie schlock, either. In 1989, Australian director Phillip Noyce (Sliver, The Bone Collector) took a tiny-yet-talented cast and turned out a suspenseful thriller called Dead Calm.
Dead Calm is about a young couple, Rae and John Ingram (Nicole Kidman from The Others and Sam Neill from Event Horizon, respectively), who, after losing their child in an automobile accident, decide that the best way to deal with their grief is to buy a yacht and sail the oceans of the world. While out at sea, the couple comes across a disabled boat and notices a man rowing towards them in a dingy. When he reaches the yacht, he introduces himself as Hughie Warriner (Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight’s Billy Zane), and says that he is the last survivor of the other boat, a vessel which he says is sinking fast. The couple offers Hughie a place to rest, and when he falls asleep, John takes the dingy back to the dead ship to investigate…and finds the remains of a bloody massacre. Hughie wakes up before John can get back and promptly steals the Ingram’s yacht, kidnapping Rae and leaving John to go down with the other ship. Rae has to try and trick Hughie into slowing the yacht down long enough for John to get the crippled boat moving and catch up to them.
Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Williams, the screenplay for Dead Calm economizes the book’s story a bit. Screenwriter Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior) omits a couple of characters and switches the focus of the plot from John to Rae, thus turning the film into a highly suspenseful contained thriller. Director Phillip Noyce takes full advantage of the beautifully secluded oceans around the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia, giving the film even more of an isolated tension by showing the generous amount of nothing that surrounds the boats. Dead Calm is the perfect storm of script, direction, acting, and location, all coming together into a great movie.
Incidentally, Dead Calm is not the first attempt to make a movie out of the Charles Williams novel. In the late sixties, none other than Orson Welles optioned the rights to the book, wrote his own screenplay, and began production on his version of the story, a movie which he called The Deep. Financing dried up and Welles’ Hughie, Laurence Harvey, died, so the film went unfinished. Enough of the movie was completed for a work print to exist, but The Deep is one of the big what-ifs of Orson Welles’ career. Thirty years later, Phillip Noyce secured the rights to the book for himself, and Dead Calm became a reality.
There are only three substantial characters in Dead Calm, and Phillip Noyce could not have done a better job with the casting. Sam Neill was already a recognizable actor in the horror community by the time he starred in Dead Calm, having had leading roles in classics like Omen III: The Final Conflict and Possession. His portrayal of the calm and composed sailor aptly shows off his experience. Although Neill was the biggest name in the film at the time of its production, most of the actual screen time goes to Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane, both of whom were fairly fresh-faced and relatively unknown in 1989. Kidman and Zane exhibit an organic chemistry together while they play the cat-and-mouse chess game on board the boat, constantly chasing and catching each other, alternating between fighting and playing nice. It’s just the three actors for the entire film, and there is no room for any weak links; with such a small cast, everyone’s got to be on point. Luckily, the cast in Dead Calm is dead on.
The cinematography in Dead Calm is nothing short of breathtaking. The film was shot by Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Waterworld), and the veteran director of photography manages to capture both the open expanse of the ocean and the close quarters of the boat equally well. For external shots, Semler uses wide angles and rolling shots that take in every mile of the sea that stretches out around the yacht. For the scenes that take place inside the cabin of the boat or below deck on the sinking ship, Semler uses tighter shots to emphasize the claustrophobic feeling of the cramped quarters, tossing in a bit of handheld camera work to illustrate the rocking of the waves. Every once in a while, Semler will use a trick shot, looking through a window or peering through binoculars, to give the audience a look at the characters’ points of view. Whatever techniques are used, they are tasteful; Dean Semler’s photography in Dead Calm supports the telling of Phillip Noyce’s story in the most effective way possible.
Another element that really sells Dead Calm is the audio. Although it features an early score by Graeme Revell (Freddy vs. Jason, From Dusk Till Dawn), there actually isn’t all that much music in the film aside from the diegetic songs that come from the yacht’s tape player. Skillfully constructed by Lee Smith (The Piano, The Truman Show), the sound design makes great use of all of the little noises that would normally go unnoticed in real life, sounds like the wind, the waves, and the creaking of the boat. The subtle sounds mixed with a few extended periods of maddening silence help to emphasize the isolation and containment of the situation. That far out to sea, no one is around to hear Rae scream. The sound design echoes that fact, so Dead Calm lives up to its name.
Australia is up there with Canada and Italy when it comes to making creepy little oddball horror movies. Sometimes, however, the Aussie’s movies aren’t all that oddball – they’re just creepy. That’s Dead Calm.