By Jerry Chandler
Okay, so let’s set the stage for this one. Arthur Rankin Jr.- he of Rankin/Bass Productions fame -decided he wanted to creatively branch out a bit. So, after decades of becoming famous for children’s holiday specials like Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town, Mad Monster Party, Frosty the Snowman, and variety shows like The Jackson 5ive and The Osmonds, he decided he wanted to make more adult oriented television movies with 1977’s lost world adventure The Last Dinosaur and 1978’s horror offering, The Bermuda Depths. There would also be a third film, 1980’s The Ivory Ape, but the less said about this film the better. Having had some luck working with Japanese production companies years earlier with 1967’s King Kong Escapes, and possibly because everyone else laughed at the proposals for the films, he struck a deal with a somewhat past its prime Tsuburaya Productions to handle much of the monster FX works. So, basically, you’re talking about a great recipe for total disaster.
As it stands, while still a bit of a turkey, The Bermuda Depths was not a disaster. It was certainly not the unintentional comedy and so bad it’s good train wreck that The Last Dinosaur was, but more on that film next week. What the various ingredients involved did produce was a film that, in order to enjoy it as a horror film, you’re best introduced to before you pass your mid-teens. As a childhood favorite that many people remembered for many decades as little more than a hazy memory, it was a chillingly atmospheric tale of monstrous danger on the high seas that tied into the huge pop culture explosion in the popularity of things like the Bermuda Triangle. It can then be viewed through the filter of nostalgia in the adult years and not seem quite as bad as it may otherwise come across. If you encounter it for the first time as an adult, it’s largely DIY MST3K fodder for you and your friends.
Our story starts with a flashback. Our story’s lead, Magnus, played by Leigh McCloskey, is sleeping on a beach as a woman, played by Connie Sellecca, walks up to him and looks at him longingly and lovingly as if she knows him. We get to see a dream sequence where Magnus is remembering his time there as a young child. We see him meet a young girl on the beach and find a large egg. Through the dream, we see time pass and see a slightly older set of the children playing on the beach with a grown turtle. Magnus carves and M and a J into the shell of the turtle before drifting off to sleep. The young Magnus wakes up in the dream and sees Jennie riding the turtle out to see before disappearing beneath the waves. The woman leaves the sleeping Magnus at this point and a few minutes later he awakens with a start. As he stretches and shakes off his sleep, he looks up and for a moment sees a woman swimming out in the water before disappearing beneath the waves.
Magnus heads towards town and runs into his childhood friend Eric, played by Carl Weathers. We learn that Magnus has been drifting for a while, having finally returned to Bermuda wanting to know more about his father’s mysterious death. Eric introduces him to Dr. Paulis, brought to life by Sam the Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Sam is also occasionally known when away from the world of Rankin/Bass Productions as Burl Ives. Magnus doesn’t actually learn anything of any real substance about his dad’s death from Eric and Paulis, but what he does get seems to work for him and he starts going out with Eric and Paulis on Eric’s boat. It’s on one of these trips where the trawling cable catches something that causes the boat to almost capsize before the line is cut.
During this time, he once again sees a mysterious woman swimming in the water and almost drowns while swimming after her. She finds him on the land again and tells him her name is Jennie Haniver, but he seems to have little idea of who she is. When they meet again the next day, he recognized Jennie as the girl he knew when he was young. When he tells Paulis about Jenny, he seems to blow it off as nonsense. When he tells Eric about her and the times he and Jennie played together as children, Eric says he doesn’t know anything about her and refers to her as an imaginary friend Magnus must have had as a child.
Somewhere along the way Magnus confronts Paulis once again about his father’s death. Paulis finally tells Magnus that his father was likely eaten by something. He explains that his father was running tests involving mutations in sea life. Magnus thinks again about his days as a child and tells Paulis about the turtle he carved the initials into.
The movie suddenly turns into Moby Dick and makes it clear that Eric will be playing the part of Captain Ahab. Magnus and Eric head out to sea with a giant harpoon cannon that Eric uses to attach his boat to a creature three times larger than his boat. Because, you know, when I want to stay alive at sea, I always think doing minimal but painful damage to something that can turn my boat into toothpicks is a great idea. This ultimately ends about how you think it does. They find the giant turtle, they hurt the giant turtle, Jennie shows up and makes her eyes glow at Eric, the turtle destroys the boat and, as bonus, leaps out of the water to kill Paulis by whacking his helicopter out of the sky, and then Eric finishes his Captain Ahab impersonation.
Magnus drifts at sea in a raft before finding his way to a beach. As he lays unconscious on the beach, Jennie walks up to him from out of the waves, kisses him, and returns to the sea. Later, we see Magnus and Eric’s wife in a graveyard where they discuss the deaths of Eric and Paulis. Magnus announces that he’s leaving Bermuda and wants nothing more to do with the sea or being near it. As he leaves the graveyard, he walks past a statue marking a grave. The camera shows us the inscription "Jennie Haniver, 1701- , Lost at Sea."
As Magnus leaves Bermuda, he takes ride on a ferry. Because, you know, a plane might make more sense given what he’s seen and just said, but, hey, they needed their ending shot setup. He removes a necklace that was given to him by Jennie when they were younger and throws it into the sea. The camera follows the necklace as it sinks into the Bermuda depths, passing the giant turtle. The camera now stays on the turtle as it swims away, letting us see the initials Magnus carved into it years earlier.
Mixed into all of this, there is an attempt to explain something of Jennie and her origins, but it’s not really well done and doesn’t totally work with the story we see.
There’s a reason these types of movies were few and far between under the stewardship of Arthur Rankin Jr., and that would be because he was not quite as good at this type of thing as he was doing the other types of materials that have made his name so famous with generations of holiday TV viewers. The story for The Bermuda Depths is credited to Arthur Rankin Jr. with the screenplay written by William Overgard. The story itself is somewhat paper thin when stretched out to feature length, and the screenplay by Overgard might be a good example of why he has so few credits in television and movies. If anything, his greatest claim to fame was his long run on the Steve Roper comic strip. If you have no idea what that is, you’re probably far from being alone.
While Tsuburaya Productions is a company that many a kaiju and rubber suited monster fighter fan will sing the praises of until they have no more breath to give to the effort; even they will admit that Tsuburaya Productions was well past their best days long before joining up with Rankin for the trilogy of monster films they did together. Some of the monster and miniature effects looked more like toys in a bathtub than even some of the lower budgeted films Tsuburaya Productions had been connected with in their earliest days, and their turtle had even fans of 1965’s Gamera: The Giant Monster questioning the quality of the workmanship on it.
Much of the acting comes across as a bit stiff, and Leigh McCloskey as Magnus seems to have little to no chemistry with anyone he’s on screen with. At other times the acting simply feels wrong for the scene it’s in, such as the last moments Paulis has on screen before his death. Some of the physical exaggeration this and other scenes by the actors involved may have been due to the direction of Tsugunobu Kotani (under the name Tom Kotani ) who was filming the movie with both an eye to American television release as well as Japanese theatrical release. But, no matter the cause, the occasional bit of odd acting makes some of the scenes feel more like farce and parody. Still, it had to have been traumatizing as hell to any children watching this movie as they listened to Sam the Snowman squealing in terror just before death.
This film is an absolute turkey in so many ways, but it’s also a nostalgic favorite with a large following that gets high ratings by fans. The reason for this is because, despite all its faults, the film is still amazingly watchable. As I referenced earlier; it’s probably more watchable if you have a nostalgic attachment to it, but that’s not actually required. It is fun watching on a lazy evening for anyone old enough to purchase their own adult beverages who is willing to shut down some of the critical parts of their brain for a bit, and it’s probably still an effective horror film for some of the younger set. There are even a few scenes in it, mostly in the last half hour of the film, that are actually effectively shot bits of horror.
The Bermuda Depths is available through online sellers in the print on demand, DVD-R format through the Warner Brothers Archive Collections. It typically runs close to $20, but can often be found much cheaper than that when on sale.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He can occasionally be heard on the Pro Wrestling Roundtable podcast and regularly on the Assignment: Horror podcast. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.