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Back in 1974 when this TV-Movie first aired, I saw the first twenty minutes or so and was enthralled by the premise: A submarine trapped at the bottom of the ocean with a pack of deadly snakes slithering around. It seemed like a can't miss thriller. Because I was a kid though, I had to go to bed! I recently found the film on video and was ecstatic to finally see the whole show. However, I should have let my childhood dream of a can't miss thriller be as this movie was incredibly bad. It is very cheap looking, even for that time period and the actors play their scenes with so much indifference that it's hard to care about their plight. The biggest mistake is that the snakes are only peripheral to the plot. Most of the movie is taken up with the crew's attempts to dislodge themselves from the rocks they are trapped against, making it more of an adventure film than a thriller and it's not even a good adventure film. At least I now know why the film was so hard to find all of these years. WKRP fans might want to check it out for an early look at Frank Bonner (AKA Herb Tarlek) as the dopey sailor who brings the snakes aboard the sub.
The Navy nuclear sub Fer de Lance is in South America to pick up an
international team of SeaLab scientists conducting pressure research.
This includes the science support, medical research and diving teams.
Meanwhile, one of the sailors on shore leave buys a basket full of
poisonous fer-de-lance snakes to bring back on board as souvenirs. Of
course the snakes escape and start biting people, and while that
doesn't seem to kill them, they start hemorrhaging and go into shock.
One of the stricken crew is manning the trim system and the other is at
the helm and so the sub goes into a quick dive to the bottom of the
There's a lot that I like about this movie, such as the claustrophobic feel of it taking place in a Navy sub. But most of all, I like the intelligent dialogue, even the parts that I didn't understand. I enjoy all the Navy speak. Drifting at a depth of 290 feet, they want to bring it up to 190, so they "blow the main ballast." But they rise too high, so then the order is to "flood her back down" to 190. Unfortunately, that's when the crew members really start getting sick and the uncontrolled descent happens. With the senior officers in the torpedo room checking on the first two crew members who were discovered unconscious, they're away from the control room (the conn) when the sub starts to nosedive. Lieutenant Whitehead was left in charge and he's not making good decisions. The Chief of the Boat (the COB), though lower in the chain of command, is the most experienced sailor on board and he tells the lieutenant what to do instead. "Back full, get the stern down." "Redline it." "Flood her just enough to take hold." "We're slowing down, now blow everything." It might have worked, except the helmsman falls unconscious and instead of surfacing they go into a deep dive. End result: the sub is wedged in by rocks, the snakes are still on the loose, and the oxygen will run out in 12 hours.
The crash is pretty exciting. The surviving crew and passengers work together on rescuing the sub. This movie is a suspenseful drama about extricating the sub off the ocean floor and less about the snakes. The Weapons Officer, Lieutenant Nicholson, is competent but young and looks to the COB for advice. COB says, "You take the conn." The lieutenant replies, "I've got five years in, mostly shore duty. You're the COB, Russ, tell me what to do." Lots of snappy dialogue. The Italian and Japanese divers get in on the action too. The doctor helps with the scuba tank air mixture and decompression procedures.
I paid closer attention on my second viewing because I didn't want to miss anything that was said. Yes, I've seen this movie more than once. I'll admit, the premise is kind of laughable, but it really grew on me. David Janssen plays Russ Bogan, the COB. He looks the part he never looks like he's acting. He's an effective leader and the exchanges he has with the others are sharp. Ivan Dixon is also very good. And Richard LaPore too. All are very low key and solid, giving the impression that aside from the knucklehead who brought the snakes on board, this is a very professional crew.
I found it to be an absolutely first-rate, really enjoyable movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an obscure American television movie, which mixes in a
claustrophobic submarine thriller setting with the horror element of
killer snakes to create a unique atmosphere of fear. Despite being made
on a fair budget and without the capacity - or need - for groovy
special effects (much of the underwater photography is murky, giving
the film a real, frightening angle), DEATH DIVE packs more tension and
suspense into its running time than many a modern film costing ten or
twenty times its budget. In many ways it's a product of its time yet
the submarine setting and the fact that the majority of the cast are in
uniform mean that it's not dated too much.
All of the usual submarine dangers are present and correct. As well as the killer snakes (which make for an effective menace as the lurk on pipes, ready to drop on heads), we have an injured man who loses his rag and goes on an insane shooting spree, someone getting electrocuted, flooding chambers, freezing temperatures inside the sub, and in the film's terrifying highlight, a man who ventures outside to clear the rocks gets his hands stuck and is unable to free himself! To just imagine yourself being in that situation is a terrifying prospect and DEATH DIVE conveys that fear very well indeed.
The cast is mainly populated by unknowns who acquit themselves well with their roles. Although the film doesn't really focus on characterisation, instead on the situation, we do learn to like and care about the people involved which is always a good thing. David Janssen (star of TV's THE FUGITIVE) plays the captain and, with his years of experience, can do this sort of thing in his sleep. Hope Lange (DEATH WISH) is also effective as his sympathetic doctor. Although we know that things aren't going to get too nasty because this is a television movie (and you just know that they're going to escape in time for a happy ending), DEATH DIVE still offers up a number of nail-biting moments and is occasionally brutal in places, making it an interesting obscurity.
Before "Snakes on a Plane" and "Snakes on a Train", there was this 1974
made-for-television mid-week suspender snakes on a submarine
(Fer-de-Lance is the name of the sub). When a happy go lucky seaman
returns from shore leave with a shaman's gift of live snakes, he sets
off a succession of catastrophes that places the stricken sub's
surviving crew in peril, and forces reluctant hero Janssen to assume
responsibility for an almighty mess, a job he clearly relishes as much
as a poke in the eye.
As the sub flounders on the ocean floor, the remaining crew must make repairs to extricate themselves before the oxygen levels dissipate, while silently stalked by the highly toxic stowaways. Director Mayberry takes a rather old-fashioned approach with his limited material, focusing more attention on the salvage efforts than the snake threat which becomes the sub-plot in the latter half. The performances are strictly B-grade all round, and include one of Janssen's more ambivalent characterisations (though this was his trademark) as an uninspired, less-than enthusiastic naval instructor who's reluctantly foist into the captain's seat when all the senior officers are killed off during the initial catastrophe. Hope Lange is similarly propelled into heroine status, with her medical knowledge proving critical to the defensive effort against the marauding reptiles as one-by-one, the survivors are taken out. The movie labours to a mechanical conclusion, and though not without some intellect, the action is far too sporadic and there's little suspense.
It's perhaps no surprise that this largely forgettable TV movie has been resurrected in the wake of the "Snakes on a Plane" popularity, although it's well down the hierarchy of motion picture asps. A strong cast delivers intelligent dialogue, but the one-dimensional, melodramatic treatment sinks not only the submarine, but also the movie.
Fer De Lance (1974)
** 1/2 (out of 4)
The screw of a submarine has good and bad news. The good news is that they are stuck on the ocean floor with boulders holding them down. The bad news is an idiot brought several deadly snakes on board that can kill within minutes of their bite. This made for TV flick is pretty good for the first hour but after that thing get tad bit boring, although the ending is good. The second half takes the focus off the snakes, which I feel was a mistake. There's no real violence to speak of but the director uses this to his benefit. David Janssen and Hope Lange star.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
No crucial spoilers -- not that anyone would likely care...
It was a long time ago, and I don't remember too much about it. The guy brought the snakes on because the submarine was named "Fer de Lance" and he thought it was cool to have the snakes, like as mascots or something (not a really good idea).
One of the people bitten is the guy driving the sub, so it crashes into the sea bottom or a rock outcropping or something, so that causes more problems.
I won't tell you how they got rid of all of the snakes you'll have to watch and (endure) that yourself. Typically mid-70's movie-of-the-week fare.
I was 12 and the premise sounded great--a TV movie about a submarine
trapped underwater with deadly snakes on the loose. I remember watching
and, after a while, became increasingly bored. The script was
by-the-numbers (there were no surprises or anything even slightly
original), the cast looked either bored or had a sad let-me-out-of-here
look of their faces (David Janssen). By the end I was fighting to stay
awake! Dull dull DULL.
It's hard to believe but this was released as a theatrical feature in Europe! Some poor suckers had to PAY to see this! I can imagine the reactions where this played. This IS worth seeing if you have insomnia--this will cure you completely!
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