SYNOPSIS: Magnus Dens returns to his childhood home and the scene of his father’s death in the hopes of learning how he died. He encounters a mysterious and ethereal woman who appears to live in the ocean and bears a striking resemblance to his female childhood friend. Is she real, or a figment of his damaged mind?
Tsugunobo Kotani is a film director whose name does not roll off the tongue throughout film circles. A handful of titles to his credit consist of Hatsukoi (1975), The Last Dinosaur (1977), The Ivory Ape (1980), and The Bloody Bushido Blade (1981), and there are a good number of Japanese-language titles that appear in his early filmography. An Internet search of “Tom Kotani,” the Americanized variant of Tsugunobo and the director’s name as it appears in some of his movies, yields even less information. While most people may not recognize him, there is a small but significant percentage of film viewers, yours truly included, who have been deeply affected by one of his films in particular: the made-for-television undersea effort The Bermuda Depths. Filmed in the British Overseas Territory of the Bermudas in 1977, The Bermuda Depths is mysterious for several reasons. It is a film that is difficult to categorize as it touches upon several genres: action, fantasy, romance, and science fiction. It attempts to mix several elements of the fantastic (a giant turtle and its relation to a voluptuous young maiden lost at sea) with the realistic (a young man in search of the truth behind his father’s mysterious and untimely death).
Arguably the most memorable film “inspired” by Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), The Bermuda Depths was originally broadcasted on the ABC Friday Night Movie on January 27, 1978 and was repeated on Friday, August 29, 1980. A smattering of repeat broadcasts and a curiously unheralded VHS release followed. It benefits from a touch of myth from Ambroise Paré’s “On Monsters and Marvels” and plays out in a dreamlike fashion. Leigh McCloskey stars as Magnus Dens, a drifter who returns to the scene of his father’s death hoping to find closure. He encounters an old friend, Eric (Carl Weathers), who is completing his master’s degree in Marine Biology while working for the avuncular Dr. Paulus (Burl Ives). The scientists are both interested in abnormalities and gigantism in sea life, technically known as Teratology, and are looking for any sea creatures that live in the deepest depths of the ocean to study them. At the heart of all of this is an enigmatic woman named Jennie Haniver (Connie Sellecca) who may or may not be real. Jennie lives in the ocean and comes ashore when Magnus shouts her name. Jennie and Magnus used to play together as children, and on the beach they found a large turtle upon which they inscribed their initials. Now the turtle has reached enormous physical proportions and lives deep in the ocean, occasionally rising to the surface. The last third of the film concerns Eric’s futile attempts to capture the sea creature and gives the filmmakers the opportunity to put the three men on a boat a la Sam Quint, Matt Hooper, and Chief Martin Brody, with the “Panulirus” sitting in the for the “Orca”.
If The Bermuda Depths is about anything that we can be absolutely sure of, it’s that highly successful films inevitably spurn imitations. This was certainly the case during the mid-1970’s when everyone and his brother was scrambling to re-enact the success of Jaws. The Bermuda Depths takes the unusual step of adding a supernatural love story into the mix and successfully creates a tragic tale of love and doom. Mr. McCloskey was a successful television actor by this point, best known for the Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) mini-series, and sports the natural Southern California good looks that make Magnus appealing to young women. Carl Weathers of Rocky (1976) fame embodies Eric with terrific zeal, although his truncated half-shirt near the film’s ending is a questionable wardrobe choice. Burl Ives is wonderful as the elder who tries his best to get Eric to look at the situation through scientific eyes. Connie Sellecca, in her first film role at age twenty-two, does an exceptional turn as Jennie Haniver. She possesses a magical, ethereal quality and is achingly beautiful. Julie Woodson, Playboy Magazine’s Miss April 1973, is remarkably beautiful and quite good as Eric’s wife Doshan. Ruth Attaway, who played the nurse in The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) to comedic effect, is mysterious and eerie as Delia, the housekeeper and proverbial party pooper who warns Magnus about the Legend of Jennie Haniver, seemingly a believer in the supernatural.
The Rankin Bass team responsible for their wonderful collaborations in the Sixties and Seventies on the Christmas holiday television show specials that millions grew up on, especially Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) which also featured Mr. Ives, produced the film. There is a definite “Rankin Bass” feel to The Bermuda Depths, particularly in the special effects which today look quite amateurish: the helicopter crash sequence near the film’s end looks similar to the finale of the Mad Monster Party? explosion on the island, and close-up shots of the vessel’s propeller and the trawler crashing against the ocean waves in slow-mo look as though they was filmed in a bathtub. The special effects-laden ending almost compromises the intriguing supernatural and romantic mystery that precedes it. This is a case where the film’s style almost outweighs its substance. Despite this, however, the low-budget effects add a certain charm to the film, a reminder of filmmaking from days gone by when less money and more ingenuity was considered an asset.
The film possesses more than its share of derivations: Dr. Paulus’s throwaway line about needing “a bigger boat”; Eric’s decision to pursue the turtle on the Fourth of July of all days; Delia’s unexplained disappearance from the second half of the film; and Magnus’s inquiry into his father’s death mirrors Luke Skywalker asking the same of Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom Dr. Paulus even resembles. Composer Maury Laws provides a beautiful score which I always wished would appear as a soundtrack album. Hopefully, some independent label (i.e. Waxwork Records) will give this score its due.
While the film does appear somewhat corny after more than forty years, it possesses an innocent quality about it that is sadly lacking in most entertainment product of late. The slow and languid images of Magnus and Jennie on the beach and in the cave recall a time in American filmmaking when the audience failed to be bombarded by fast editing and could actually digest the images presented to them. Unquestionably there are those who will complain about the film’s slow pace, but there are plenty of treasures here film to make it one that deserves a new generation of admirers: the eerie day-for-night photography which Mr. Spielberg also employed in the opening of his 1975 masterwork; Maury Laws’ soothing title tune “Jennie” with vocals by Claude Carmichael; and the use of Antonio Vivaldi’s elegiac “Largo” from his “Concerto for Lute (Guitar), Two Violins and Basso Continuo in D Major” as the lovers’ theme.
“I finished Rocky, and then we did The Bermuda Depths. I was off for about a week or two (in the summer of 1977), and then I went off to Europe to shoot Force 10 From Navarone in October,” recalled actor Carl Weathers at the Monster Mania 22 convention in August 2012. “Rankin and Bass were two wonderful producers out of New York who made a lot of children’s programs. They sent the script to my agent. It was an interesting sci-fi adventure about this giant mutant turtle. I and Leigh McCloskey played two guys who lived on the island. Burl Ives was in it, too, who had made “Jimmy Cracked Corn” a famous song. Burl was a really sweet man. I worked with a lot of nice people. He was not only one of the most famous folk musicians of that era, but he was also a real Lefty in the era of McCarthyism, and he was one of the ones who said, ‘Hell, no. I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’ (refusing to name names). I didn’t know that until later after working with him.” When asked if people talk to him about this film, Mr. Weathers replied, “Oh, every once in a while. Julie (Woodson) was wonderful to work with. She was a model, and I actually introduced Connie (Sellecca) to Gil (Gerard) whom she later married for a while. The most challenging part of making the film was being in the ocean a lot. I wasn’t a great swimmer!”
Rather than writing off The Bermuda Depths as just another Jaws rip-off, it emerges as a work of its own, though it was originally intended, along with the aforementioned The Last Dinosoaur, for theatrical release. The film was one of the first titles released on the Warner Archive label on DVD in August 2009. I have been hoping for a Blu-ray release for years and my prayers have been answered. Warner Archive has released it with a gorgeous transfer of the film. You have the option of watching it in either 1.33:1 (the original television aspect ratio) or the newer 16 x 9 anamorphically enhanced image for large televisions. The 1.33:1 version has a wonderful commentary with author and film historian Amanda Reyes (editor of Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999 and www.madefortvmayhem.com) and Lance Vaughan (co-founder of www.kindertrauma.com) who discuss some truly introspective elements that I had not entertained despite multiple viewings. Regardless of which framed version you decide to view, the Blu-ray restores the washed out look that was so prevalent on the VHS tape. The deep blues of the ocean are strong, and Bermuda’s Natural Arches, sadly destroyed by Hurricane Fabian in September 2003, in the film’s opening look great.
“I don’t think that too many people think about that film. It wasn’t a particularly engaging film,” said Mr. Weathers at the convention.
A lot of people, myself included, beg to differ!
For die-hard aficionados of the film, this Blu-ray is a must.