[box cover]

Dead Calm

There is a mystery at the heart of Dead Calm — the taut, engrossing thriller is beautifully photographed by Dean Semler, excellently acted by its lead trio, and directed by ... Phillip Noyce? Really? The guy who later went on to do The Saint? The guy who has "taken over" the Tom Clancy franchise? The Australian who first came to attention via Newsfront? What does not compute here? The fact that Dead Calm is many heads above the rest of Noyce's oeuvre must be accounted for somehow, and a quick glance at the credits suggests an answer: the producer is George Miller, of the Mad Max series. Now there's a guy who knows how to put a movie together. But just how supervisory was Miller's role in Dead Calm? I suspect that Miller's imput was a lot more than just supervisory, and that when he was supposed to be setting up Lorenzo's Oil he really was putting this film together, or stepping in and taking over early for some reasons. Thematically the film doesn't have much to do with the rest of Noyce's work (except for the endangered-wife parts of the Clancy movies) and much more to do with the rest of Miller's. We may have another Poltergeist situation here, and as with that film, for Guild reasons the participants are going to go to their graves never admitting what really happened on the set. But all of this is really a side issue for Miller specialists. Dead Calm, released in 1989, doesn't seem to have been a big hit, but it does have its cults. For one thing it is a movie where you can hear Nicole Kidman speaking with an Australian accent. Also, she has a nude scene with Billy Zane (though a wide shot of her may really star a body double). Kidman almost always excels in thrillers above all other genres (see Malice — no one else did). Dead Calm is based on the novel by Charles Williams, which Orson Welles always wanted to film and which Roman Polanski, in Knife in the Water, did an unofficial version of. It's a chamber-piece in which a grieving couple floating about the South Seas unwillingly take on a hitchhiker who turns out to be the human version of a virus, drifting from ship to ship and killing its hosts. How Kidman and her husband — the admirable, manly Sam Neill — get out of this situation is clever, poignant, and genuinely suspenseful. The film is marred only by its last few seconds of "resurrected killer" suspense and his laughable dispatching (head, flare). But Dead Calm is the movie to watch if you are foolishly planning to shoot a film at sea soon. It's also the key film for girls-in-big-wristwatches fetishists. But more than all of this, it's one of the most suspenseful films ever made, if for no other reason that something real and palpable — in this case, a valuable marital union shattered by a recent death — is at stake. The DVD, released in December of 1999, is not exactly supplements laden. It has a sharp, clean, rich transfer (Panavision 2.35:1, pan-and-scan on the flip-side), and audio in the original Dolby 2.0 Surround. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.
—D.K. Holm

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