15 January 2013

Childhood Resurfaced: The Bermuda Depths on DVD

The Bermuda Depths (1978)
Directed by Tsugunobu “Tom” Kotani. Starring Leigh McCloskey, Carl Weathers, Connie Sellecca, Burl Ives, Julie Woodson.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The rise of Manufacture-on-Demand (MOD) DVDs from major studios has at last permitted numerous obscure and second-tier features to reach the trembling hands of collectors. Movies that a small coterie of fans despaired would only be available on bootlegs are now only one-click shopping away on a DVD-R. MOD eliminates the need for “demand” and “profitability” that once stood between the collector and a decent legal copy of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

Apologies to that great Burt Reynolds Western, it’s The Bermuda Depths that best exemplifies the MOD movie and gives a reason for the format to exist: a work unknown to most, but holding in the minds of a few the status of a childhood Holy Grail. And now the Warner Archive Collection, the MOD branch of Warner Home Video, has made available the first and only romantic tropical ghost story with a giant turtle.

Released in 1978, The Bermuda Depths is a quintessential “Did I Dream It?” nostalgia pic. All of us can recall some movie from our elementary school days—glanced late nights on television, on a slow Sunday afternoon, or rented on a blurry Betamax tape—that captivated our imagination in a fuzzy way. It left fleeting, haunting impressions, so that ten years or more afterwards it feels that maybe the movie never existed at all and we made it up from the flotsam of other childhood ephemera. We wander through life occasionally asking others if they recall “that film where…”, and then getting uncomprehending slow blinks in response, followed by:
“You made that up.”

“No, I swear I didn’t. I mean… I don’t think so. It was this film with a ghost girl on a beach, and she had glowing eyes, and then there was this gigantic turtle that knocked over a boat…”

“It must be a Gamera film.”

“No, no! I saw a lot of Gamera films. Yeah, I can’t tell them apart, but I know this wasn’t a Gamera film.”

“You’ve just got a Gamera film crossed with something else. Look, eat your yougurt and take your pills. I’ll call the doctor.”
No, you were not crazy. This is a case where the memorial reconstruction dredged up from the back of the old junk drawer is exactly right. The Bermuda Depths is indeed “That movie that took place on a tropical beach with this beautiful woman who might have been a ghost and had glowing eyes and there was also this giant turtle that had something to do with it.” That rambling sentence is a spot-on description of the plot and experience of this movie.

It exists. And, unfortunate to report, it isn’t as exciting to revisit as its description might indicate.
Coming up for air in the surface world of facts: The Bermuda Depths was made as part of a production deal between Rankin/Bass, makers of fine animated holiday specials, and Japan’s Tsubaraya Productions, makers of that nation’s most beloved superhero show, Ultraman. This may sound like a bizarre pairing of talents at first, but both companies had a flair for creating children’s programming that sticks around for ages. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman still show up on television every December, and the Ultraman series remains as big in Japan as it ever was, with a significant cult following stateside (to which I unashamedly belong) and new shows coming out each year. In the childhood development sections of cerebellums around the world, Rankin/Bass and Tsubaraya Pro own permanent luxury condos. They even bought out some Sid & Marty Krofft property.

The first product from the Rankin/Bass-Tsubaraya partnership was 1977’s The Last Dinosaur, a wonderful low-budget “Lost World” adventure that pits Richard Boone against a Tyrannosaurs rex inside a prehistoric preserve. This was a huge film for me as a boy, and Warner Archive has thankfully released this on MOD as well. The effects haven’t weathered the ages, but they’re still classic-style Japanese giant monster work, so who cares? It is nonstop Saturday morning fun, and with some surprisingly strong characterizations as a bonus. I may get to talking about that one in a future post.

The Last Dinosaur was supposed to get a theatrical release in the U.S., but at the last moment it landed on TV as an ABC Movie of the Week. The Bermuda Depths ended up going the same distribution route, although perhaps the producers realized as they filmed it that it was destined for the small screen. It feels like a tinier and less visually ambitious film. Like The Last Dinosaur, The Bermuda Depths did play in theaters internationally. In Japan it was released in 1979 as Bamyuda No Nazo, “Mystery of Bermuda.”

Most of the same team came together to film this second giant monster fantasy: director Tsugunobu “Tom” Kotani, writer William Overgard (from a story by Arthur Rankin Jr.), composer Maury Laws, and visual effects director Kazuo “Mark” Sagawa. But The Bermuda Depths took a bizarre turn away from the more conventional story style of the movie before it. Ostensibly a copycat of Jaws (as was every other genre movie of the time) the screenplay of The Bermuda Depths somehow took the long scenic route of a paranormal romance on the way to reaching its giant monster.
The end product is a puzzling, intriguing, and frustrating film. That it could weave a spell over the unsuspecting children who came across the early broadcasts is no surprise; that it might entertain them as adults beyond its utter peculiarity is unlikely. The Bermuda Depths is original, but not necessarily enjoyable. Let me put it this way: there’s far less “giant turtle” in this movie than you’re hoping for. As in only about ten-minutes total, and all that occurring during the last half hour. The rest of the movie belongs to a romantic ghost story in the tropics that in no way sets up monster turtle mayhem.

The movie signals its languid and thrill-free approach from the start: after the underwater credits sequence (set to the evocative original song “Jennie” written by Jules Bass and sung by Claude Charmichael), almost twelve minutes of film unspool with no more dialogue than a boy occasionally shouting “Jennie!” A young man sleeps on the beach; a beautiful woman rises from the ocean to watch him. Flashback to the man as a boy and the woman (apparently) as a girl playing on the same beach. They watch a sea turtle hatch. The animal grows and they carve their initials in a heart on its shell, all to a pretty arrangement of “Largo” from Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Lute, Two Violins and Basso Continuo in D Major.” (You would recognize it if you heard it.) The girl swims out to sea with the turtle and then seems to vanish. The boy’s scientist father dies in an accident in a grotto under their home.

These opening scenes are lush and romantic—Vivaldi certainly helps—and they genuinely feel like a childhood dream of young love and first tragedy. But they also stretch on eternally without a hint that the story will verve into an ocean battle with a sea monster.
The youthful flashback concludes and the story proper begins. The young man, Magnus Dens (Leigh McCloskey), returns to the island where he spent his youth. He tracks down his old pal Eric (Carl Weathers), who is now working at the Bermuda Biological Station with Dr. Paulis (Burl Ives, narrator of Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph). Dr. Paulis is investigating unknown, possibly gigantic sea life, a project he once worked on with Magnus’s father before the man’s mysterious death. But while Eric and Dr. Paulis make minor headway locating a possibly gigantic undersea creature, Dens hangs around the beach and his ruined childhood house, running into an enigmatic and gorgeous swimmer who calls herself Jennie Haniver (played by an even more gorgeous Connie Sellecca). Magnus realizes this is the same girl he used to play with as a boy, and now he’s fallen madly in love with her.

When Magnus tells Dr. Paulis about this woman, the scientist laughs it off: “Jennie Haniver” is a local myth, a name attached to desiccated rays that wash up on shore that have humanoid shape. (Interestingly, this idea was not invented for the film.) Local legend says that Jennie Haniver was an eighteenth-century woman who made a pact with the Devil to save her from a shipwreck. The Devil—or “whatever,” since the script avoids giving the power a specific name—answered her request and tied her forever to the sea as an immortal spirit. Magnus won’t believe it: he’s sure his Jennie is real.

After about an hour of this, with only marginal headway made on the “giant turtle” front, Eric decides to ride out to sea and make a serious attempt to capture the large creature that so far he has only the slimmest evidence may exist. Dr. Paulis refuses to support his partner in his quest, but Magnus agrees to go on the expedition with his friend. Finally, with barely fifteen minutes left to go in the movie: giant turtle! Jennie pops up again, metaphysically confusing the whole issue for the befuddled finale. See, the giant turtle is apparently the same turtle Magnus and Jennie scratched their initials onto all those years ago, and Dr. Paulis’s gigantism theory is right! Or else the turtle is the representative of the Devil who controls Jennie and has always patrolled these seas! Or both or neither. The turtle also apparently killed Magnus’s father because he knew too much—although the turtle wasn’t fully grown at that time… unless it was actually the Devil…

Well, now I know why people thought movie this might be a dream. It has the same logic.

As a giant monster film—a Japanese giant monster film—The Bermuda Depths is a belly flop. The turtle looks good as a model, fabricated with a realistic design that matches the small turtle seen at the beginning; but we don’t get to see any part of it until sixty-two minutes into the running time. For a movie that lasts ninety-seven minutes, that’s an unacceptable waiting period for the supposed feature creature to make its entrance. There’s a scarcity of tension or monster action in the last half-hour, and only a few major visual effects shots. The super turtle gets to knock a helicopter from the sky (which Jaws 2 would attempt only a few months later) but there are no other special effects set-piece to speak of in the finale.
And it isn’t as if the turtle gets a superb build-up in the story before it appears. Little of the plot or dialogue in the first hour gives any indication of its existence. Eric finds an impression of a giant creature on the beach, and Dr. Paulis mumbles theories about gigantism in deep sea animals. When Eric at last pulls his Captain Ahab act about going out on his own to catch the beast, he has nothing to go on except a snapped cable and the marks on the sand. Magnus, the main character, has almost zero connection to this business between Paulis and Eric aside from the laughable idea that the turtle may have killed his father. It’s a terrible way to move into the last act.

The effects will get laughs from modern viewers, but they’re no worse than most of what Tsubaraya Productions was doing in the 1970s. Water poses the biggest obstacle, since it never scales believably in the model work. But what really holds the effects back is that that isn’t enough of them; even viewers who snicker at this old style of movie magic would appreciate having a bit more to snicker at.

The love story with the ghostly Jennie Haniver fills up most of the screen time, and the movie feels more confident with this material. McCloskey is a dull male lead, but Connie Sellecca walks away with all the scenes and pretty much the film as well. She has scant dialogue, but has a mesmerizing presence (not to mention breathtaking beauty) that is otherworldly and inscrutable. Jenny Haniver truly is a youth’s dream of tragic romance brought to life: a perfect unobtainable beauty. The scenes between the two lovers are slow and poised, but Sellecca drapes them in so much allure that they do cast a certain spell over viewers.

The deliberate, dreamy pacing in the romantic scenes would work fine if they were sole point of the story. But since this is heading toward a showdown with a giant monster, the lethargic love scenes end up taking the winds from the sail and sending the plot coasting drowsily into port.

Sacrilegious as this may sound coming from a hardcore giant monster fan, I think The Bermuda Depths would work better if it dropped the giant turtle entirely. A subtle horror-romance story lies here somewhere, buried under having to cram in a Jaws-imitation final act. A piece like Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie feels more native to the style on display in the ghost scenes and the folklore background. Because one of the two production companies is a visual effects studio that specializes in giant monsters, I have to imagine that the super turtle was always part of Bermuda Depths’ concept, and the paranormal romance started expanding during development (possibly to reign in the budget?). But on screen it feels the opposite: a spooky love story that a producer decided needed into get redone as a Jaws copycat at the last minute.
Yet even if it fails to fulfill the promise of its genre, The Bermuda Depths does leave a lasting impression. It is simply too strange a movie to slip away entirely. Maybe it’s Connie Selleca, maybe it’s that a giant monster is giant monster no matter what, or maybe it’s the beauty of the tropical surroundings. Most likely it’s all of these things, adding up to a movie that you can at least say is unlike anything else you’ve seen before or since.

Aside from McCloskey, the cast lends fine support to the wobbly movie. Burl Ives is the best Burl Ives in the business, and Carl Weathers is stolid as the action half of the two heroes, even if his Quint-like obsession with the turtle makes no character sense. And Sellecca, Sellecca, Sellecca.

None of Warner Archive’s MOD releases has gone through any restoration or remastering, but The Bermuda Depths looks fine—certainly better than the bootlegs that have made the rounds for years. The DVD-R transfer comes from the best video master Warner Home Video had available, and it probably looks as good as when the movie was first broadcast on television. The Warner Archive’s website advertises an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen TVs, but this is inaccurate. The movie was shot for television and then cropped for its various theatrical showings, so the “full frame” 1.33:1 presentation on the disc is correct and shows the maximum amount of image. The sound is a murky Mono 1.0 that makes some of the quieter dialogue unintelligible on low volumes, although the score comes across nicely. As with other MOD releases, the menu is a generic title screen with a single option (PLAY MOVIE), and chapter stops are placed at ten-minute intervals without regard to content.

I have to go order The Last Dinosaur now.