How’s this for a pitch? The star of Mary Poppins gets mixed up with Tab Hunter and Vincent Price and has an adventure in a city under the sea. And brings his pet chicken with him in a picnic basket.
There’s also some guys dressed up in bargain basement Creature From the Black Lagoon costumes. And the sets look like random left overs from other lost city/ancient Egypt/Biblical epic films. And Price is crushed by a giant stone hand before crawling into the sunlight and turning into a really old painting of himself. You know why this is a sure fire thing? It’s all “based” on an Edgar Allen Poe poem!
Hunter plays a turn of the century mining engineer on the English coast named Ben who comes across the body of an attorney on the beach who was doing work for a visiting American, Jill, who is living at her father’s hotel. The hotel happens to be one of those hotels built right smack dab on top of secret caves that lead to a secret underwater city! I knew I felt a draft!
Jill is kidnapped by one of the sea creatures, but Ben notices seaweed and wet footprints near the bookcase which is obviously there solely to conceal a passage to the undersea city. Once Harold’s pet chicken locates the button to open the door, Ben, Harold and Herbert the chicken are in hot pursuit!
Once in the undersea city, the trio run into Hugh (Price) who runs the subterranean show. He’s got a lot on his plate. He’s busy executing guys who are traitors. He’s holding Jill prisoner because she looks like his late wife. The pumps that provide the air to breath in the city are powered by the local volcano, but that dang thing is about ready to erupt and tear the whole place apart! And now here comes Ben, Harold and that stupid chicken asking all sorts of questions! Can you really blame Hugh if he’s a bit exasperated?
Harold attempts to buy some time by claiming that Ben can come up with a way to fix the volcano, but any pretense of that is abandoned once one of Hugh’s men offer them a chance to escape if the surface government will grant him a pardon for his century old smuggling crimes. As a result, Hugh decrees that Ben and Harold will be sacrificed to the volcano by the Gill Men.
Yet another one of the inhabitants of the Undersea City assists them in escaping into the ocean, making you wonder how with the need for all the executions and the doublecrossing he endures that Hugh keeps getting elected mayor of Undersea City.
Ben, Harold, and Jill are chased through the ocean by a combination of Hugh’s human allies and fish people. Presumably, this is supposed to be the climax of things, but watching a sluggish chase underwater with guys in fish costumes that only look slightly less bulky than the gigantic diving helmets the people wear is just as underwhelming as all the dialogue-laden scenes that came before. The cuts to closeups of the actors faces reacting in their diving helmets only provokes laughter, particularly the ones where Harold is sharing his helmet with his chicken!
Director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Cat People, The Giant of Marathon) unfortunately ends his career with one of the weaker Price/Poe pictures from American International Pictures. Once in Undersea City, the story goes nowhere and one can only assume there was no budget to shoot any sort of action. After the set up was explained (Price and crew hid there and due to the special air can live hundreds of years so long as they don’t spend time in the surface sunlight), there’s really not much more to it beyond the escape attempt.
While much has been made of the fact that War-Goods of the Deep‘s original script was rewritten to add the comic relief character and his pet chicken and though that was clearly a terrible idea, the presence or absence of that doesn’t alter the fundamental problem with the film. It’s a dreadfully dull affair full of characters standing around and talking, doing little more other than moving from cavern room to cavern room before engaging in a slow motion swim meet.
For their part, the actors were fine doing what little they were given to do (Price was watchable as always) and the sets were at least interesting to look at, but this was supposed to be an underwater adventure so it wasn’t the chicken, the constant yakking or the unconvincing special effects that finally left the audience feeling waterboarded, but those amateurish sea monsters with masks so bad you wouldn’t buy one for your kid at Halloween. As Poe’s poem so aptly puts it, “Resignedly beneath the sky the melancholy waters lie.”
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