Dead Calm

Dead Calm (1988)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Sam Neill, Billy Zane, Nicole Kidman
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

The first time I was watching "Dead Calm", I remember that I was completely captivated by this menacing thriller. Although I was familiar with Sam Neill at the time, mostly from hisdiabolic performance of Damien in "Omen III: The Final Conflict", "Dead Calm" was the movie that really brought Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane to my attention for the first time. Any feature film that boasts a cast of only three characters invariably falls and rises entirely with the quality of the cast. The fact that "Dead Calm" had me in its grip until its final seconds was proof enough for me that I had not heard the last thing of these actors. And as time should prove, I was correct. All three stars of the film have since established themselves in illustrious careers and have graced a great many movies. Warner Home Video now offers us a great opportunity to see how they began in director Phillip Noyce’s 1988 thriller "Dead Calm".

After a terrible car accident that cost the life of their only child, Rae (Nicole Kidman) and John Ingram (Sam Neill) decide to take a long ocean voyage on board their sail yacht, to settle down and recuperate from the trauma and horrors the accident has caused.

As they sail along aimlessly, they come across a crippled schooner and its sole survivor, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane). The couple offer the completely exhausted stranger help and refuge, but completely agitated and obviously confused he refuses to tell them exactly what happened or what scared him off his own ship. While Hughie is sleeping and recovering in one of the yacht’s cabins, John decides to take a closer look at the schooner to find out what caused the apparent problems, and he soon finds out that their new passenger has a very dark secret. He tries to get back to his own boat to warn his wife, but Hughie has already taken control and seized the yacht, knocking Rae unconscious and sailing off while John is left on board the sinking schooner.
Soon a psychological war ensues between Rae, who desperately tries to find a way to save her husband and the agile Hughie, who is in complete command of the boat. She devises a plan to rid herself of the stranger who has taken control of her life, but Hughie always seems to be one step ahead.

As you can see, "Dead Calm" is a story that is completely revolving around three characters. Apart from the opening minutes, the entirety of the film is set at sea with the main characters being the only people around. It is obvious that it requires a solid script, cast and direction to turn such a daring set-up into a successful movie. "Dead Calm" succeeds entirely, and although certain elements are predictable, the film never loses its tight grip and tension and there are more than a few unexpected turns that take viewers by surprise. There might be moments where we feel that Rae is doing the wrong thing, but let’s face it, if she simply pulled the trigger the first time she’d have the chance to, the movie would be over after 15 minutes and we would have missed out on all the great suspense the film manages to deliver over its course.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of the boat and the sinking schooner enhance the feeling of helplessness that comes from the story and we watch feverishly as Rae tries to overpower the manic stranger. From the set-up of the movie it is obvious that there will be no outside help and that Rae needs to pull all her strength together to rid herself of Hughie. The portrayal is simply stunning and the feeling of agony, hatred and fear is unmistakably penetrating the entire picture.

Despite its relatively low key and recognition, "Dead Calm" has a solid foundation in terms of people that were associated with the film. Director Philip Noyce is a specialist in thrillers of all sorts and his most recent release "The Bone Collector" has gathered a lot of attention. But also co-producer George Miller is certainly known to many as the creator and director of "Mad Max", the movie that made Mel Gibson an international superstar. As a matter of fact, most of the crew consists of people who have been involved in the Mad Max movies.

Warner Home Video has now created a great looking DVD version of this movie.
The disc contains a <$PS,pan and scan> version of the film as well as a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> transfer that restores the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The <$PS,pan and scan> version crops large parts of the image on the sides, oftentimes destroying much of the beautiful cinematography of the movie. As such there can be no doubt that the <$PS,widescreen> version is preferable at any cost. Given the increased level of detail in that version, this decision should be very easy for most viewers of this DVD.

The transfer is generally clean, although slight speckles and dust marks are evident in the film print. The film also contains some grain, as a result of the film stock used to shoot this picture. "Dead Calm" was originally shot using <$16x9,anamorphic> lenses and film material and given the nature of the film and its location on sea with a clearly defined horizon, barrel distortion that comes with the usage of such <$16x9,anamorphic> lenses is evident in certain scenes on this DVD.
The transfer itself is rich in color with deep blacks and well-balanced highlights. Color reproduction is very neutral and the disc has a very natural looking image throughout. Especially fleshtones are rendered very faithfully. The compression on this release shows some signs of <$pixelation,pixelation> and dot crawl, mostly due to the quality of the original film material. It is never distracting from the actual experience however.

The disc contains <$DS,Dolby Surround> audio tracks in English and French. The quality of these tracks is excellent with a wide frequency response that gives the presentation a very natural sound. Dialogues are very well integrated and always understandable. The disc also contains selectable subtitles in English and French, but other than the movie’s theatrical trailer, no additional supplements are part of this release.

"Dead Calm" is far from being dead calm. It is a gripping thriller, created by masters of their trade and brought to life through riveting performances of the cast. Warner Home Video’s release on this DVD is giving this often-overlooked movie a startling new life. Check it out, and I guarantee you that this film will have you spellbound from its opening minutes all the way to its great finale.