Movie News & Reviews

'Dead Calm' a little cliche, a lot creepy

If I had any ambition, first I would make that colossal plate of nachos I've been thinking about for the last hour.

Then, I would write The Serial Killer Survival Guide.

The first rule is as soon as you know you're in danger of assault, pick up a weapon. A bat, a poker, your 2002 fantasy football trophy, whatever. The second rule, and this is important, is to use it. They're "survival instincts," not "comfort-enhancement suggestions." Listen to them and you might just keep out of the trouble stirred up in 1989's Dead Calm.

Following the death of their infant son in a car crash, Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman go sailing, hoping the trip will ease their grief. On the open ocean, they pick up Billy Zane, castaway from a flooding ship. He claims his crew died of botulism, but when Neill rows over to investigate, he discovers Zane's a killer -- and has hijacked his ship, taking his wife prisoner.

Those parallel disasters -- Neill stuck on a sinking ship, Kidman at the mercy of a volatile madman -- gives Dead Calm a kick over your average serial killer thriller. Kidman's scenario gets most of the attention, but director Phillip Noyce spends enough time with Neill and his phantasmagoric sinking coffin to keep his story compelling.

Noyce does a lot with his settings too. If you're ever afraid you're in danger of being killed by a slasher or monster, the first thing you should ask yourself is "Am I somewhere ridiculously isolated? Like, the South Pole? Or floating in the middle of the open sea?" If yes, whoops. Arm up and hide out, or at least check your hair to make sure you look nice for the autopsy team. (But not too nice.) Alternately, if you're thinking about this post-2005, look at your cell phone. Is it working? You're fine.

But on a boat, your footsteps are too loud to escape the killer's notice. If you tie him down, it better be to the anchor, because a cabin's interior is flimsier than overcooked flounder.

It's tight and tense and Zane's a little clichd but also a lot creepy. Kidman's character is less impressive. Stop trying to tie him up and kill him already! It's like she's got the moral code of Batman and the fighting skills of a quadriplegic clown. And not one of the ones trained in clown-jitsu.

Still, Dead Calm's labored efforts to keep Zane coming back are my only real complaint. If nothing else, it makes his comically gruesome end all the more satisfying.

* Contact Ed Robertson at