Were it not for the gratuitous gore and sex, and an ending that essentially throws away all its best intentions, "Dead Calm" might have made a first-rate slasher-on-the-water horror yarn. Going over the top might seem a requirement for the genre these days, but the audience at the screening I attended groaned in disappointment at this film's excesses.
Like all slasher pictures, "Dead Calm" requires that we believe seemingly intelligent people are capable of really stupid actions, as when Sam Neill leaves his wife, Nicole Kidman, alone on a boat with psychotic Billy Zane.
But that's getting ahead of the game.
The first hint of exploitation comes early in the film when Australian Navy officer Neill arrives home on a train and is taken by police to the hospital. His wife (Kidman) was driving when the car hit another vehicle head-on, and their infant son was killed. Not content to let us merely hear about that, however, the filmmakers choose to gives us a flashback, which graphically depicts the child being hurtled through the car window.
To nurse their grief, Neill and Kidman take a cruise on their yacht and are resting peacefully on the quiet ocean for the third week when Zane shows up in a dinghy. He's obviously strange, and more than a bit unnerved, but they allow him to come on board as he rattles on about food poisoning having killed a shipload of friends on a rented yacht that is now sinking.
Then, as Zane sleeps in a locked room, Neill takes the dinghy to Zane's boat to check it out, leaving his wife and dog to fend for themselves.
When he gets to the boat, Neill finds hacked up bodies of beautiful young models Zane had lured aboard, but by the time Neill heads back for his own yacht, Zane has awakened, talked Kidman into letting him out of the room and has taken over, sailing away from the scene of the crime.
The rest of the film is split in two, with Neill trying desperately to get the sinking death ship going — during a major storm, of course — and Kidman doing battle with Zane as he stalks her, rapes her and then has the tables turned on him.
Despite the exploitive elements, "Dead Calm" has some genuine shocks and delivers the scares horror fans seek, but then in the end it's all thrown away for one of those overworked, idiotic killer-that-can't-be-killed endings.
Gorgeously photographed, wonderfully acted by an excellent trio of performers and, except for the excesses, well-directed by Phillip Noyce ("Newsfront," "Heat Wave"), "Dead Calm" is an interesting failure that promises more than it delivers.
It is rated R for gory violence, sex, nudity and profanity.