Dead Calm (film)

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Dead Calm
Dead Calm poster
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Produced by Terry Hayes
George Miller
Doug Mitchell
Screenplay by Terry Hayes
Based on Dead Calm 
by Charles Williams
Starring Sam Neill
Nicole Kidman
Billy Zane
Music by Graeme Revell
Cinematography Dean Semler
Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Roadshow Entertainment (Australia, theatrical)
Release dates
  • 7 April 1989 (1989-04-07)
(U.S. release)
Running time 96 minutes
Country Australia
Language English
Budget $10.4 million[1]
Box office $7,825,000[2]

Dead Calm is a 1989 Australian thriller film starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane. It was based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Williams. The film was directed by Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce and filmed around the Great Barrier Reef. It was the first film for which Graeme Revell composed the score.

Plot summary[edit]

A couple, Australian naval officer John Ingram (Neill) and his wife Rae (Kidman), lose their son in a car crash. John hopes that some time alone will help Rae cope (she was driving the car) and the couple head out for a vacation alone on their yacht. In the middle of the Pacific they encounter a drifting boat that seems to be taking on water. A man, Hughie Warriner (Zane), rows over to the Ingrams' boat for help. He claims that the boat is sinking and that his companions have all died of food poisoning.

Suspicious of Hughie's story, John rows over to the other ship, leaving Rae alone with Hughie. Inside, John discovers the mangled corpses of the other passengers and video footage indicating that Hughie may have murdered them in a feat of extraordinary violence. John rushes back to his own boat but is too late as Hughie awakes, knocks out Rae and sails their yacht away, leaving John behind.

As John attempts to repair Hughie's ship from sinking and catch up with them, Rae awakens and tries to convince Hughie to go back for her husband. Hughie denies her request and keeps on sailing, alternating between kindness and bouts of rage in an effort to charm Rae despite her insistence on turning the boat around. John manages to get through to his wife on the radio, but the water damage makes him unable to reply save for clicks on his receiver. He can only respond to her suggestions. John assures her that he is following close by. Rae tries to stall the yacht by turning off the engine and tossing the keys overboard. Her dog jumps in to retrieve the keys and brings them back as he had done earlier with his fetch ball. Hughie starts the yacht back up and persuades Rae to be friends with him. Rae accepts, attempting to earn his trust. After a while she goes back to the radar room to contact John. A blip appears on the rim of radar's range, signifying the damaged boat. She soon learns that it is too far gone and will sink in the next several hours. With John unable to come to her rescue, Rae realizes that she alone must act and save her husband. Before she has a chance to assure him, the wreckage is out of range and the radio shorts out. Unable to get a response from him she begins to cry.

Hughie comes down and sees Rae in tears. He moves in closer, hoping to soothe her. Desperate to gain control of the boat, Rae devises a plan to take advantage of his desire for her. She seduces Hughie on the floor and then stalls their foreplay by telling him that she has to go use the bathroom. In reality, Rae heads up on deck to assemble the shotgun. Impatient, Hughie gets up to look for her. Just before Rae has a chance to load the shotgun her dog shows up and begins to bark drawing Hughie's attention to her whereabouts. In panic Rae leaves the gun behind and grabs nearby cigarettes as an excuse to be on deck telling Hughie they're for later. She then proceeds to kiss Hughie and takes him to bed as a means of luring him away from the deck. The dog later shows up in the bedroom watching as Hughie moves on top of Rae. Rae tells Hughie she wants to take the dog back on deck, but Hughie successfully orders the dog to leave before Rae has the chance to get out of bed. Unable to think of a way out of her predicament, Rae gives in to Hughie's advances and has sex with him.

Afterwards, she sits on her bed feeling guilty and devises another plan to bring him down. She fixes some lemonade, putting a heavy dose of her prescription sedatives into his drink. Claiming to go get dressed, Rae heads back for the shotgun, and is discovered soon after. As a fierce storm approaches, Rae and Hughie come to blows. Hughie takes hold of the shotgun, but the effects of the sedative cause him to poorly aim and shoot the radio by mistake. Rae eventually takes hold of a harpoon gun and locks herself in the bedroom. As the door opens she fires off a harpoon. Seeing blood she pushes it open only to discover she killed her dog. Hughie comes out of hiding to strangle her, but passes out from the drugs. Rae ties him up and sails back to rescue John. Hughie comes to and cuts himself free with a shard of broken mirror, but is soon knocked unconscious after making his way to Rae. She then sets him adrift in the boat's life raft and continues to look for her husband.

Meanwhile, the damage and the storm have caused the other boat to sink almost completely. The storm comes down in full and breaks the boat's main mast as John is trapped below deck. The water rises and he is soon he in over his head, only able to breathe through a piece of pipe leading to the deck. A fish appears near his face. The only way he can go is down into the boat's hull, in search of the opening. He takes one last breath from the pipe and dives.

Through the gaping hole in the boat's bottom, John emerges back on the surface. He sets the wreck on fire to signal his location to Rae, who is now desperate to find him. Dusk sets in as Rae notices and sets course to the faint fire on the horizon. Without any means to signal his wife, all John can do is wait on a piece of floating debris. After night falls, the pair reunite when Rae arrives and pulls John aboard.

Later they find the life raft empty before Rae shoots it with a flare, setting it on fire. The next day they are relaxing on deck when John takes a break from washing Rae's hair to prepare breakfast for her. Her eyes closed, Rae feels a pair of hands begin massaging her scalp and assumes it is John, but when she opens her eyes she sees a bloody Hughie, who begins to strangle her. While Rae struggles, John arrives from below deck. Seeing her being attacked, he shoots Hughie in the mouth with a flare, killing Hughie.

Main cast[edit]


The movie is based on the novel Dead Calm by Charles Williams, which Orson Welles had started filming in the late 1960s but never completed. Producer Tony Bill had tried to buy the rights from Welles but never been successful. He mentioned this to Phil Noyce, giving him a copy of the book in 1984. Noyce enjoyed the book and showed it to George Miller and Terry Hayes who were enthusiastic. Miller managed to persuade Oja Kodar, Welles' companion who controlled the rights to the novel, to sell the book to Kennedy Miller.[3][4]

Other than character names and the scenario of a woman trapped on a boat with a psychopath, the film bears little resemblance to the book, which had several other main characters (including Hughie's wife and another couple), and presented Hughie as a nominally asexual manchild.[citation needed]

The movie was filmed over a 14-week span in the Whitsunday Islands in the winter of 1987. George Miller directed some sequences himself, including one where Sam Neill's character is tormented in the boat by a shark. This scene ended up being dropped from the final film. The final coda sequence was filmed at the request of Warner Bros seven months after principal photography finished.[3]


Dead Calm has an 82% "fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews, albeit significantly lower with audiences culminating a score of 62% "fresh", and a critical rating of 7.6/10.[5] According to Variety, Kidman is "excellent throughout, ... [giving] the character of Rae real tenacity and energy;" and the picture is "handsomely produced and inventively directed."[6] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that the film "generates genuine tension."[7] Desson Howe of the Washington Post praised the film's creators: "Noyce's direction moves impressively from sensual tenderness (between husband and wife) to edge-of-the-seat horror. With the accomplished editing by Richard Francis-Bruce and scoring by Graeme Revell, he finds lurking dangers in quiet, peaceful waters."[8]

On the other hand, Caryn James of The New York Times felt that the film was "an unsettling hybrid of escapist suspense and the kind of pure trash that depends on dead babies and murdered dogs for effect," and that Dead Calm "becomes disturbing for all the wrong reasons."[9] A number of critics faulted the film's ending as being over-the-top, with the Post's Howe writing, "... while it's afloat, 'Dead Calm' is a majestic horror cruise. ... For much of the movie, you're enthralled. By the end, you're laughing."[8]

The acting was generally considered excellent, with Zane being cited for injecting "unforgettable humanity and evil puckishness into his role"[8] and being "suitably manic and evil." And while Rita Kempley of The Washington Post wrote "what's most fascinating about it is Rae's place in the pantheon of heroines, an Amazon for the '90s,"[10] the Times' James called Kidman's character "tough but stupid."[9]

The film is listed on The New York Times Top 1000 Movies list,[11] derived from editor Peter M. Nichols' The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (St. Martin's Griffin, 2004).

Box office[edit]

Dead Calm grossed $2,444,407 at the box office in Australia,[12] which is equivalent to $4,253,268 in 2009 dollars. It grossed $7,825,009 in the U.S.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ NEXT YEAR'S 10 BEST FILMS By Garry Maddox 13 July 1987 Sydney Morning Herald p 16
  2. ^ a b "Dead Calm," Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  3. ^ a b David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan MacMillan, 1990 p263-265
  4. ^ Brian McFarlane, "Phil Noyce: Dead Calm", Cinema Papers, May 1989 p6-11
  5. ^ "Dead Calm (1989)," Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  6. ^ Dead Calm review Variety (1 January 1989).
  7. ^ Dead Calm Chicago Sun-Times. 7 April 1989
  8. ^ a b c Howe, Desson. 'Dead Calm' Washington Post (7 April 1989)
  9. ^ a b James, Caryn. "Critics' Pick: Reviews/Film; A Psychological Drama Of Nightmares and Death," New York Times (7 April 1989).
  10. ^ Kempley, Rita. "‘Dead Calm’," Washington Post (7 April 1989).
  11. ^ Top 1000 Movies List New York Times.
  12. ^ Film Victoria - Australian Films at the Australian Box Office

External links[edit]