The Bermuda Depths
28 years ago today a movie aired on television that would impact me in a huge way. Hindsight being 20/20 I now know that it had more to do with my relating to the plight of the young boy at the films start than of any desire to conquer a giant turtle at sea a la Quint, Hooper, and Brody. THE BERMUDA DEPTHS is hardly what I would consider a horror film in the Horror Express sense of the word, but ever since I saw this hypnotic sci-fi/fantasy film at the extremely impressionable age of nine it has appeared in my dreams every seven or nine years. Ive spoken to other people who have been equally touched by the film and Im writing about it to bring it to your attention if you have not already heard of it.
Broadcasted on Friday, January 27, 1978 on the ABC Friday Night Movie, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS is an American made-for-TV movie that was released theatrically in some foreign countries soon afterwards. Often sought out as the giant turtle movie or that movie with the girl with glowing green eyes by IMDB.com and Ebay searchers who cannot remember the films title, its rarely seen anywhere anymore, and this is a great shame because it is unlike other films.
It begins with a relaxing underwater opening credit sequence to the tune of Jennie sung by Claude Carmichael, which is about a lost love. This sets the tone for much of the rest of the film. As the credits end, the frame is suffused with a bright image of Bermudas Natural Arches towering over 22 year-old Magnus Dens (Leigh McCloskey) sleeping on the beach. Peering through the Arches we can see a distant Mystery Woman who slowly approaches him. As she comes closer, we see that it is a ravishing Connie Sellecca in her pre-Hotel days. As she touches Magnuss face, Antonio Vivaldi's elegiac "Largo" from his "Concerto for Lute (Guitar), Two Violins and Basso Continuo in D Major" plays over the soundtrack, a theme that will re-appear throughout the film. In a flashback sequence, we see a young boy and girl, presumably little Magnus and the Mystery Woman as children. Little Magnus calls to his friend Jennie to show her what he has found: a large white bubble on the beach. Eventually, it is born into a large turtle, and we flash forward five years to see an older Magnus and Jennie inscribing their initials J+M into the now extremely large turtles shell in the shape of a heart in a sweet gesture of puppy love. As young Magnus relaxes on the beach, he sees Jennie riding on the back of the turtle out to sea. He chases and calls out to her, but she goes further and further out to the ocean, and never responds to his calls. Later that evening, we hear the cries of a creature near Magnuss house near the ocean as a storm begins brewing. Magnuss father, Lionel Dens, puts him to bed for the evening. Dr. Dens then retreats to his scientific underground laboratory which is housed in a cavern of stalactites. Working on his scientific experiment, a seemingly supernatural force overcomes him and partially destroys his lab, sending him into the water to a certain death. Magnus is also awakened, and part of his bedroom collapses onto his bed.
Suddenly, the adult Magnus wakes from this horrific recollection from his childhood. He collects his things and looks out to the ocean and sees a woman swimming in the water. We then see the remnants of his childhood home overlooking the rocks.
Magnus rides his moped into town. Once there, he recognizes his old childhood friend Eric (Carl Weathers) who is stunned to see him. Eric is climbing aboard the fishing trawler the Panulirus, and asks Magnus where hes been for the last few years. Magnus explains that he traveled around a lot, read all of Erics letters, but just drifted.
Eric introduces Magnus to Dr. Paulus (Burl Ives), the man Eric works for as he finishes his Masters in Marine Biology. Dr. Paulus knew and worked with Magnuss father and welcomes him on board. Suddenly the boat is rocked violently, and Eric retrieves his net from the water its torn wide open, the first indication that all is not right with the ocean.
After introducing Magnus to his wife Doshan (Julie Woodson, Playboy Magazines Miss April 1973), Magnus joins Eric, Doshan, and Dr. Paulus at the doctors home. Prior to dinner, Dr. Paulus explains to Magnus that Teratology, the branch of biology concerned with the development of malformations or serious deviations from a normal type of organism, is his current field of study, and that he and Eric are currently looking for evidence of monstrous creatures living 20,000 to 30,000 feet deep in the ocean. According to Eric, scientifically, the deeper an animal exists, the larger it grows. HOW they hope to accomplish this is another matter altogether. Eric hands Magnus a cut-out from the Bermuda Sun with the headline TRAWLER SNARES GIANT SEA CREATURE OFF NEW ZEALAND and tells him about their plans to capture a specimen.
Delia (Ruth Attaway), who apparently takes care of the doctors house, cooks dinner for them. Magnus cant help but notice the necklace shes wearing it bears a resemblance to his young friend Jennies. Just before leaving for the evening, Doshan picks up on Magnuss emotional instability and mildly opposes Erics offer to let Magnus stay at their apartment. Eric later scolds her and professes his desire to help Magnus after all hes been through. Magnus lost his mother and father when very young, and was shuffled from psychiatrist to psychiatrist. Dr. Paulus allows Magnus to stay with him.
Despite nearly being asleep at the dinner table, Dr. Paulus is pressed by Magnus regarding the details surrounding his fathers death. Magnus walks outside to the beach and sees a woman swimming far out in the ocean. He swims after her, only to almost drown and be saved by her. When he awakens, the woman, who is clearly his young friend Jennie, is saddened that he doesnt know who she is. She finally tells him her name and swims off. Magnus returns to Dr. Pauluss house and tells him he met a beautiful girl on the beach named Jennie Haniver. Dr. Paulus laughs and claims theres no such person. He shows Magnus a trinket shaped like a sea monster fashioned out of cured and dried sealife, called a Jennie Haniver that has magic powers and is sold to superstitious people and souvenir collectors. Magnus is offended and storms out to the beach wherein Delia tells him that Jennie Haniver lives out in the Bermuda Triangle, where He lives (He being the Other Devil in this case, the turtle) and has lived there for almost 200 years. Jennie appears to some people as a little girl, and as to others as a young woman. Delia says that Jennies parents were wealthy ship owners in the 18th Century and never wanted her to marry. Jennie spurned the affections of men, was proud and had enormous vanity. Sometime later she met a rich and handsome man from the mainland who showered her with gifts and affection. She agreed to marry him, and prepared to meet his parents. Jennies father built a sailing ship for her and named it after her. A month later, Jennie was traveling without her fianc over the Bermuda Triangle with a crew on her ship. They encountered a terrible storm. She fell to her knees and prayed to the One Below, begging that she be preserved and to let the rest drown. The One Below called out her to come to him and her beauty and youth would be preserved. Magnus writes this off as a stupid kids ghost story and runs off. Delia warns him that Jennie is rumored to appear before men who are about to drown.
The next day the local police call Eric to the scene of an enormous and unnatural formation in the sand. Its 40 feet across and shows evidence of 10-foot flippers. Meanwhile, Magnus runs to the beach and meets Jennie. He now remembers that shes his former childhood friend. He takes her up to the ruins of his childhood home and reminisces about his family. Likewise, Jennie talks of the quadrilles that her father used to host, which might be the first clue about her actually being an 18th Century resident.
Magnus is called away by Eric. They both meet Dr. Paulus on the Panulirus who confirms that the shape of the beach impressions that Eric measured were characteristic of a giant turtle. But right now, they can only speculate that such a creature exists. This is followed up by another attack against the boat that results in Eric having to cut the cable.
Later that evening, Magnus returns to the beach to hear the sounds of a sea creature and sees something moving about in the ocean. As he runs closer, Jennie emerges from the water and they swim together to the grotto of his fathers underground lab where they briefly make love. Jennie swims off and Magnus hears Dr. Paulus calling to him. At this point, Magnus presses Paulus for the details surrounding his fathers death and discovers that Dr. Dens was eaten by sea life. Magnus then tells Dr. Paulus how he carved his initials into the turtle as a child and that his friends name was Jennie Haniver. Dr. Pauluss face drops.
The next day Dr. Paulus argues with Eric regarding Erics plans to capture the creature using whatever means necessary. Eric wants to use the Hora, a bazooka gun-driven weapon that would ensure certain death to its recipient. Paulus withdraws from the expedition citing the use of the Hora as a moral issue, and accuses Eric of being a cowboy. Eric and Magnus set out on their own to capture the turtle. Eric ventures into the water with a handgun-sized harpoon and fires into something which turns out to be Jennie Haniver. At this point Magnus brings up Jennie in the conversation, the woman he meets on the beach, and tells Eric that he used to play with her as a child. Eric drops a bombshell: there was no little girl. Magnuss parents used to laugh and kid each other about how Magnus had an imaginary friend. Magnus refuses to accept this.
Just then, their boat is attacked, forcing Eric to use the Hora. The boat then loses power, and the compass goes haywire they are in the midst of the Bermuda Triangle. Back on land, Doshan and Dr. Paulus try unsuccessfully to contact the Panulirus by radio.
As Eric takes a nap, Magnus goes out to Starboard and sees Jennie who has climbed onboard to persuade Magnus to free the turtle.
Doshan urges Dr. Paulus to go out to help Eric and Magnus, which he does by helicopter. He gets too close to the waters surface, however, and the turtle rises up and sends the helicopter crashing into the ocean. Eric runs outside and comes face to face with Jennie Haniver (Shes said to appear only before drowning men!), and the turtle capsizes the Panulirus, which drags Eric to his death. Magnus once again washes up on the beach, and Jennie is there by his side. She returns to the ocean, destined to regrettably spend eternity young, beautiful, and forever alone.
Magnus visits his parents graves in the local cemetery. Doshan walks up to him and asks what hell do now. He has decided to leave, and says goodbye to a heartbroken Doshan. Upon leaving by boat, Magnus removes the necklace he received from Jennie when he was a child, and throws it into the ocean, effectively closing the door on this tragedy and his childhood.
If THE BERMUDA DEPTHS is about anything that we can be absolutely sure of, its proof positive that highly successful films inevitably spurn imitations. This was certainly the case during the mid 1970s when everyone and his brother was scrambling to make the next JAWS success. Films like JAWS OF DEATH (1976), ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE (1977), and PIRANHA (1978) to name just a few made the same mistake that all the slasher films which came after PSYCHO became a huge hit made: they jettisoned interesting characters and groundbreaking cinematic storytelling techniques in favor of in-your-face theatrics that essentially reduced themselves to much less than the sum of their own parts. THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, JAWS being the obvious primogenitor of this supernatural tale, takes the unusual step of adding a supernatural love story into the mix and successfully creates a tragic tale of love and doom. Leigh McCloskey (Magnus Dens) was a successful television actor by this point, best known for the Rich Man, Poor Man mini-series, and possessed the natural Southern California good looks that make Magnus appealing to young women. Carl Weathers of ROCKY fame plays Eric with terrific zeal, and Julie Woodson is also very good as Doshan. Burl Ives is wonderful as Dr. Paulus, the elder who tries his best to get Magnus to look at the situation through scientific eyes. Ruth Attaway, who played the nurse in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, is mysterious and eerie as Delia as she tells Magnus about the Legend of Jennie Haniver. Connie Sellecca, in her first film role, does an exceptional turn as Jennie Haniver. She possesses a magical, ethereal quality and is achingly beautiful.
The story was written by Arthur Rankin, Jr., and the film was produced by the Rankin Bass team, so notable for their wonderful collaborations in the Sixties and Seventies on the Christmas holiday television show specials. There is a certain Rankin Bass feel to the film, especially in the special effects which, today, look quite amateurish: the helicopter crash sequence near the films end looks similar to the end of the MAD MONSTER PARTY explosion on the island, and close-up shots of the Panuliruss propeller and the trawler crashing against the ocean waves in slo-mo look like they was filmed in a bathtub. A few other minor annoyances: the slight but unmistakable hand cue of a crew member to the extreme right of the frame instructing Leigh McCloskey to run towards the beach; Dr. Pauluss throwaway line about needing a bigger boat; Erics decision to pursue the turtle on the Fourth of July of all days; Delias unexplained disappearance from the second half of the film (was she silenced by Jennie or the One Below?); Magnuss inquiry with Dr. Paulus into his fathers death mirrors Luke Skywalker asking the same of Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom Dr. Paulus slightly resembles; and Erics desire to explore the deepest depths. Even in James Camerons THE ABYSS, made 11 years after this film with far more advanced computers and ROVs, it was almost impossible for a human being to be submerged in 13,000 plus feet of water, let alone 20,000 to 30,000! Yet for all of it, these bete-noires are just that, and are by no means confined to this film alone. Even the ski resort town in SNOWBEAST (1977) was willing to look the other way because it needed tourist dollars to stay open.
The low-budget effects add a certain charm to the film, a reminder of filmmaking from days gone by when less money and more ingenuity was considered an asset. Despite the obvious JAWS references, the beach scenes actually predate THE BLUE LAGOON by two years, and composer Maury Laws provides a beautiful score which I always wished would appear somewhere on a soundtrack album.
While the film does appear somewhat corny after all these years it possesses an innocent quality about it that is sadly lacking in most entertainment product of late. The slow and languid dreamlike images of Magnus and Jennie on the beach and in the cave recall a time in American filmmaking, presumably inspired by the great and occasionally pretentious European art films of the Sixties and Seventies, when the audience wasnt used to hyper-fast computer editing and could actually digest the images presented to them. Indubitably there are those who would complain about the films slow pace, there are plenty of treasures in this film to make it one that deserves a new generation of admirers: the eerie day-for-night photography; Maury Laws soothing title tune "Jennie"; the use of Vivaldi's music as the lovers theme"; and 22 year-old Connie Sellecca's astonishing beauty.
The special effects laden ending almost ruins the intriguing supernatural and romantic mystery that precedes it. This is a case where the film's style almost outweighs its substance. Still, the film holds a special place in the minds of those who saw it when they were very young.
The film was released on NTSC VHS cassette some years ago but it is long out-of-print. It can be purchased on Ebay, but ideally the film needs to be released on DVD. I created a petition online in the hopes of expediting the film's release on DVD format. Please go to http://www.thebermudadepths.com for a link to the petition and please sign it. The film is reported to have scored the highest made-for-TV movie ratings for ABC-TV up to that point, so a DVD release should be a no-brainer.
All in all, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS is a wonderful little film and deserves a new generation of admirers.
- Jonathan Stryker