Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Cruise Into Terror (1978)

I'm not the world's biggest sailing fan. It's not that I get seasick (or at the very least, I never have before), or that I would never go on a cruise, given the opportunity. You see, I had a bad experience at it years ago and have had no desire to revisit the activity. I was visiting an uncle one summer, and he decided that it would be nice for us to do something outside. Fancying himself the sailor, he rented a small boat, and we set out on the St. Charles River. Not fully understanding the nautical terms he insisted on using rather than tell me to duck, move left, or move right, we soon faced the very real possibility of capsizing. We didn't, but my uncle's wallet wound up in the drink, and the harder he slung the sail from port to starboard, the closer we came to sailing under a bridge, the prospect of which would mean we would have to wait to be towed back to dock. As a result, I would never have been one of the kids in peril in Jaws 2, but I could have found myself quite easily on the same ship as a certain little devil. 

Captain Andy (or as I like to call him, "Cap'n Andy," played by Hugh O'Brian) is blackmailed into taking a small group (read: microcosm) of passengers overbooked from a luxury cruise ship down to Cozumel. Problem is, his boat, the Obeah (incidentally, also a form of religious/folk magic practice found predominantly in the West Indies, the plot thickens), is not quite seaworthy, and first (apparently only) mate, Simon (Dirk Benedict) can only do so much, being torn between his job and the amorous overtures of sex kitten passenger, Judy (Jo Ann Harris). Add to that the ever-present threat of impending squalls, and the domino-like procession of malfunctions (usually in close proximity to the ship's black cat – I always thought sailors were generally a bit more superstitious), and our intrepid wayfarers find themselves directly over the site of an ancient Egyptian tomb (yes, in the Gulf of Mexico). But what's buried in it wants out, and one of the ship's passengers wants to help it.

Cruise Into Terror is a movie made for television under the production auspices of one Aaron Spelling Productions. You may have heard of them, or at least of their owner. It was broadcast on ABC in America, and it is (as television movies are seemingly moreso than cinematic exploitation) a diluted take on several crazes that were going on at the time. Ancient civilizations, the occult, conspiracy theories, and even "The Love Boat" (funny enough, also produced by Spelling for ABC) are all given a go, and it's done with Spelling's signature brand of soap-opera-style melodramatics as orchestrated by television directing stalwart (and Simon, King Of The Witches' director, for those who care to know) Bruce Kessler

The thing that television producers have always done, and done well, is give their audience the retinal and aural equivalent of comfort food. They can (and sometimes did) dip their toes into controversial subjects, but rarely (if ever) was it served up as starkly and naturalistically as in other visual media. So when television gives us horror, it is uncomplicated and never as bluntly off-putting as the transgressions of such films as The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Television producers (at least in this country) simply cannot risk offending the companies that invest advertising dollars in their productions. Of course it's not a seven course meal, but sometimes all seven courses can be stuffed into a quiche and still taste pretty damn good. 

Naturally, this cozy plainness comes at a cost, as it attempts to appeal across the broadest demographics possible. The characterization is wafer thin, with all but a few being much more than broad stereotypes. Christopher George is the avaricious businessman, whose wife (played by real life wife Lynda Day George) wants to rekindle their old passion. Hilary Thompson is the paranoid nebbish, John Forsythe is the Reverend fighting his alcoholism while his wife (played by non-real life wife, ex-Miss America, and ex-Catwoman, Lee Meriwether) wants to rekindle their old passion. Unfortunately, this also means that the identity of the devil's caretaker is apparent literally two seconds after our first sighting. The film's structure is also formulaic and fairly uniform in its pattern. You get an exposition scene, followed by a travelogue-style scene, followed by a horror scene.

The "Love Boat"-ian paradigm of the microcosm aboard a conveyance is nothing new, and it can (and has) been used to great (and varied) effect any number of times over the years. The idea is simple. Squish enough disparate personalities into a small enough area, and their innate differences will create conflict, which is the cornerstone of creating drama. Does it always work? To some degree, yes, though not always completely. For every Twelve Angry Men, there are dozens of Cannonball Runs (not that I don't like them both, and really, the Needham film is uninterested in conflict as we're discussing here). In horror terms, as in mystery/suspense, the microcosm works best as a source of suspicion. The killer is in the room with us, but who is it? Is it the maid? The butler? Palmer? The other advantage of the microcosm is that the filmmakers are encouraged (out of necessity) to use shorthand for characterization. That's why virtually every Irwin Allen movie had an ensemble cast. The characters provide a bit of melodrama to get us quickly for or against the respective protagonists and antagonists. The rest of the runtime can be devoted to the spectacle on which films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are predicated. Certainly this can be said of Cruise Into Terror as well, and once the mini-sarcophagus is hauled aboard the ship, the film kicks into high gear (or into as high a gear as it can be kicked).

What's that, you say? A mini-sarcophagus? What's in it? Angelo Rossitto? Well, no, and there's really no way to discuss this movie at all without spoiling some of it, although I wouldn't think a movie such as this one could, in fact, be spoiled, in all honesty. The sarcophagus (which can actually be seen breathing at various points in the film, the sight of which, combined with the heartbeat and chanting scared the ever-loving shit out of me as a [monster] kid) contains, according to Forsythe's Reverend Mather (I'm sure no relation to the Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials' infamy), the son of Satan. Yes, like the premise of The Omen before it, the forces of darkness must protect the Antichrist (though he's never strictly identified as such) from the forces of good, while the forces of good struggle not only with preventing the Apocalypse but also with battling their inner demons. Or as Stella Stevens so lyrically puts it (so that we plebs don't miss the point), "That there is a devil, there is no doubt. But is he trying to get in us, or trying to get out?" I say, why not a little bit of both? 

MVT: I'm going to give it to Kessler and writer, Michael Braverman (who, according to IMDB, made his Hollywood debut with this little opus). Yes, this is a fairly standard, no frills effort on just about every front, but that it is as harmlessly enjoyable as it is stands as testament to the solid sense of craftsmanship Kessler and Braverman put on display.

Make Or Break: The first time the mini-sarcophagus breathes, you'll either want to crack open a beer so you can kick back and enjoy or crack open a beer to wipe the sight from your memory. I enjoyed it.

Score: 6.5/10

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