Awesome ’80s in April: Dead Calm (1989)

dead calm movie poster

When I was a young teen, probably sometime in the late 1980s my mother’s friend Beverly had a satellite dish and all of the premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime. We only had basic cable at the time so I was in awe of all the movies she had access to. She was kind enough to allow me to send her requests of films I was interested in watching and she’d record them for me onto VHS tapes. I used to scour the TV Guide looking for movies for her to record.

When I got older and was living on my own I used to set the VCR to record old movies off of TCM and other cable channels. I had quite a collection of films dubbed off onto VHS tapes.

One film in that collection was Dead Calm. Unlike Firestarter this was a film I didn’t really know much about. Nicole Kidman was not yet a star and I didn’t know who Sam Neill or Billy Zane was. It is an Australian film and I don’t remember how much publicity it received in the USA. But at some point, I must have seen a trailer or read a synopsis and decided it sounded interesting. Thus I recorded it onto VHS tape.

But I never did watch it. It sat in that collection of tapes for years and years. When I’d go looking for something to watch I would see it, think to myself “I should watch that sometime” and then skip right past it. Many years later I got a digital copy of the film and yet I continued to put off watching it. One of the things I’m loving about this Awesome ’80s series is that I’m finally getting around to watching those sorts of films.

I should have watched this one much sooner as it is pretty terrific.

Kidman and Neill play Rae and John Ingram, a married couple who recently lost their only son in a terrible accident. They have taken off in their sailboat to sail the Pacific Ocean and forget about their troubles.

One day they spy a schooner that seems to be in some distress. They hail it to no accord. Before they can make their way over to see what the trouble is they see a man, Hughie (Zane) furiously rowing toward them in a dinghy.

He says that his boat is slowly sinking and that all the other crew is dead of food poisoning. But something seems off about him. When John indicates he’d like to sail over and check out the boat, Hughie becomes very agitated. He generally seems over-excited and behaves somewhat erratically.

When he finally crashes and falls asleep, John takes the dinghy over to the boat to investigate. What he finds is disturbing. But before he can come back to his boat, Hughie has knocked Rae unconscious and taken control of the boat.

The film becomes a tight thriller with Rae trying to escape from Hughie and John trying to survive the sinking boat long enough to be rescued. I loved the gender reversal of that. Typically in movies like this, the woman would be trapped helplessly by the villain and the male hero would rush in to rescue her. But here John must be saved by his wife after she subdues the villain.

Director Phillip Noyce keeps things moving briskly and the tension held tightly. The two boats, thousands of miles from anything but the ocean create a wonderful setting where the characters must survive on their own cunning and wits.

This was Kidman’s breakthrough role and she’s terrific. She gives her character confidence rarely seen from female characters in this type of movie, but she never loses her femininity. Sam Neill is great as well. He spends a great deal of the film alone on that sinking ship and he allows his character the fear that comes from such a situation but also a determination to survive. I’m not a huge Billy Zane fan and he doesn’t quite have enough crazy menace here, but he’s still effective.

I’m surprised this film hasn’t received more love. I’m really glad I finally decided to watch it.

4 thoughts on “Awesome ’80s in April: Dead Calm (1989)

  1. I got really good at it in the way that kids will sometimes get good at technical things adults never can seem to master. You had to set it for a few minutes before the show was supposed to come on just in case your clock wasn’t exactly right. And then you had to adjust how long you set it to record just in case something like a football game ran long or something. There was nothing worse than watching a show you had taped only to realize it cut off the last five minutes.

    • Didn’t you you have to turn off the power too? I remember the plastic dials to tune in each channel. Grew up in a rural area, no cable. When my dad got a satellite it was a whole new world. I remember before we had a motor that would turn it to tune in… one person outside cranking the handke and one person at the back door saying That’s good. I am old

      • Yes! That’s right. And you had to have the TV channel turned to the right channel (maybe channel 3?) But then I do remember a way you could watch something on one channel and still record something else. But it is all vague.

        I remember those giant satellite dishes. We never had one, but I knew people who did. You can still see some old ones cluttering up peoples yards around here.

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