Sunday, October 28, 2012

Soul Selling Mermaid

Once upon a time, there was a boy, a girl and a turtle...

Is she a poem of the sea
A sailor's reverie
A shadow of the deep
And if I doubt that she is real
then what is it I feel
that makes me so in love
Have I imagined holding her
Was it a dream my loving her
Still feel the warmth of kissing her
I'll spend my lifetime missing her

-Jules Bass

The haunting song, Jennie, and the beautiful shot of Connie Sellecca framed in a natural archway provide a potent opening to the wildly muddled, yet unforgettable, made-for-TV fairy tale from 1978 known as The Bermuda Depths.

Despite having grown up in the 70's and being a fervent made-for-TV movie acolyte, I somehow missed this odd Rankin/Bass & Tsuburaya co-production until Warner Archives released it a few years ago. Those who were awed by the movie as youngsters will testify to its strange, enduring quality. Having come upon the odd amalgamation of science fiction, fantasy and fairy tale 30 years late, I couldn't help but notice the numerous intrinsic flaws in the production, yet I was still as mesmerized as any 10-year old experiencing the movie for the first time. There are basically five elements that not only help the film in overcoming its multitude of cinematic sins, but actually make it a memorable, haunting piece.

1. The Song
Without a doubt, the Jules Bass composed song Jennie is the most valuable thing in the film. Used in conjunction with the opening credits and underwater establishing shots of Connie Sellecca swimming around the real Bermuda depths, the song is a beautiful, haunting, almost noir-sh composition that immediately hooks one in. Bits of it are subsequently used throughout the film to evoke Sellecca's character and the melody continues to work its magic for the duration of the story. If not for the song, the film would be crippled with a substantial loss of atmosphere.

2. The Bermuda Location 
Although it was only partially filmed on location, some of the shots, like a sunken ship's cannon and a bird's eye view of the city are terrific. Without these kinds of atmospheric shots, the film would have lost all sense of place and felt very studio-bound.

3. The Historical Fairy Tale
Jennie Haniver is a name that refers to a fabricated mermaid fashioned from a monkey's corpse and headless fish, or a dried and altered skate or ray. 

However, there is also a legend involving a woman named Jennie Haniver who lived in the early 18th century and ran off to Bermuda to escape an arranged marriage. She was subsequently found by her intended, but was lost at sea on the trip back. Her ghost was said to have later been seen haunting the area. This legend is used quite well in The Bermuda Depths as it sets up Connie Sellecca's Jennie as a spoiled, vain, rich girl who upon seeing her inevitable demise, disregards her fellow shipmates and makes a pact with an unknown power to live forever thus retaining her youth and beauty. The pact works, but the catch is, she must live in the ocean for eternity. This is a really nice twist on the legend, and it's delivered very quickly and efficiently in a flashback scene. 

4. The Underlying Theme
In a way, this film is kind of a serious romance for dudes. Every guy can identify with wanting to meet the adult version of that little girl he had his first childhood crush on. This film delivers that dream but as a cautionary tale about obsession. The theme not only resides in the lead character Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) who is obsessed with Jennie, but in his pals Eric and Dr. Paulis, who are hunting an oversized see creature (hello Herman Melville). Jennie, of course, has her own obsession with remaining forever young and pretty. Interestingly, the only character to make it through the film unscathed is the one that learns to let go. Pretty heady stuff from the Rankin/Bass boys, and it boosts the film from just an amusing oddity to something with a little more, well, depth.

5. Captain Carl

Yep, Carl Weathers. One thing the film would really lack without Apollo Creed is a charismatic actor. Sellecca is more mysterious than charismatic, McCloskey is kind of a pouty bitch, and Burl Ives is, well, Burl Ives - and unfortunately, being a cranky, old coot does not engender magnetism. Even though the script, director and fellow actors occasionally hang him out to dry, Weathers still comes armed with both that winning smile and the world's largest spear gun. How can you not love the man?

But for all its strengths, the film is riddled with flaws. Make no mistake, just like 1/3 of the IMDb users who rated this film a 10, I really love it. However, there are a multitude of problems that my adult, non-nostalgic eyes could see quite clearly.
TV directors aren't known for their stylish camera skills or soliciting great performances from actors and Tsugunobu Kotani, who directed the Bermuda Depths as well as other Rankin/Bass junk, is no exception. It's clear the actors are often struggling for direction with Leigh McCloskey appearing totally lost in several scenes and Burl Ives going from holly-jolly, cheerful, old man to raving lunatic at the drop of a hat. To say that the acting is alternately strained and improvised is an understatement. In one scene, Carl Weathers wrestles with a fishing net, much like Martin Landau's Lugosi takes on an inanimate octopus in Ed Wood. I can just imagine Kotani's instructions to Weather's as 'Hey Carl, just jump in the water and pretend like that thing is killing you'. The scene should foster fear and suspense but it elicits only unintended humor as Weathers struggles mightily with a small portion of fishing net. In another blunder during a conversation on the bridge of a boat, two characters speak to each other through portholes even though they're in the same room. It looks ridiculous and was obviously done to pick up an interior shot without actually setting it up. Finally, for every nicely framed shot, there's a poorly angled one to match. Several times, only a corner of the boat can be seen and characters are often unintentionally blocked from view.

The special effects are a near disaster with Rankin/Bass obviously relying on Tsuburaya Studios to cover this area with the result being a lot of toy in bathtub shots.

The sad part is many of these shots are redundant and unnecessary. At one point, we see a long shot of the real boat which is followed needlessly by a shot of the not-nearly-matching toy boat. The editor could have chopped a lot of the effects shots and it would have actually improved on the movie.
The script, while not horrible, does contain characters that show up once and disappear like Ruth Attaway's voodoo-ish Delia. There is also the age-old McGuffin engine known as The Bermuda Triangle which is mentioned once as a catch-all explanation then dropped and forgotten.

But for all of the amateurish issues the film has, it still somehow manages a unique charm and haunting romantic quality that, coupled with it's unconventional ending, make it something special. Yes, there is a turtle vs helicopter fight that's inept and ridiculous, but there's also a haunting love story and a strong message about letting go of destructive obsessions that makes the movie a worthwhile watch.

Score 6.5/10

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