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‘Dead Calm’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1989


Phillip Noyce
Sam Neill;
Nicole Kidman;
Billy Zane
Under 17 restricted

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"Dead Calm," an Australian murder mystery about three people, two boats and too many unanswered questions, grabs the hell out of you but slowly releases its grip. For much of the movie, you're enthralled. By the end, you're laughing. This is not good.

But while it's afloat, "Dead Calm" is a majestic horror cruise. Produced by George Miller and the team that gave you "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior," this movie's sails billow with promise, its images beautifully unfurled by cinematographer Dean Semler, its passengers sensitively portrayed by Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane, its expertly menacing course through the South Seas nicely captained by director Phillip Noyce.

But screenwriter Terry Hayes, eliminating excess from Charles Williams' 1963 novel, has bailed out too much character motivation and suspense with the bilge water. The vessel starts to list.

On a recuperative cruise to forget the car crash that killed their infant son, naval officer Neill and his wife Kidman discover a drifting, apparently deserted schooner called The Orpheus, with hysterical seafarer Billy Zane rowing hurriedly toward them. Zane tells the couple his fellow passengers are dead from botulism, but when Neill rows over to investigate, the stranger commandeers the new ship with Kidman (and the couple's dog) aboard, leaving Neill alone on a sinking ship.

Such fundamental questions as What Happened on the first boat? and Why? don't get fully explained, just hinted at. In this kind of horror film, you need those answers. And in this kinda horror pic, you need sustained suspense, but (at the risk of revealing too much) the apparently psychotic Zane, once he's alone with Kidman (witness to the almost certain murder of her husband), makes no attempt to kill her except in self-defense. Now, woy's thet, Sport?

Incidentally, Zane has a potential cult career ahead. A puppy-fatted, handsome Brando look-alike, he injects unforgettable humanity and evil puckishness into his role -- imagine a cross between Fletcher Christian and Norman Bates. However, in "Psycho," we eventually find out what made Bates tick. In "Calm," Zane's an inexplicably weird kid who stays weird -- and inexplicable.

Noyce's direction moves impressively from sensual tenderness (between husband and wife) to edge-of-the-seat horror. With the accomplished editing by Richard Frances-Bruce and scoring by Graeme Revell, he finds lurking dangers in quiet, peaceful waters and goes down with the good ship "Dead Calm," his head held high. If you don't mind 11th-hour disappointments (including a laughable, Hollywood-kicker ending), you'll enjoy going down with it too.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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