It's almost certainly just random noise and not real evidence of a greater trend, but as I spend these weeks diving into the thrillers and horror films of the Australian film industry, I'm finding a lot more dead children than I'd expect to see in a similarly arbitrary sampling of Hollywood horror films. And with 1989's Dead Calm, we get a real doozy. The film opens with Royal Australian Navy officer John Ingram (Sam Neill) wrapping up some official function to learn that his wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) and son have been involved in a car accident: she's badly hurt, but the boy has died. As John arrives at the hospital to see Rae, her face a map of red welts, regaining consciousness, we get a flashback to the accident itself, including a terrifically vivid shot of the child sailing through the car windshield like javelin - it's not at all bloody, but it's so specific and vivid that it's pretty unnerving and upsetting anyway. And it's cruel, in a way that I have a hard time imagining a similarly mainstream American thriller being cruel, not merely broadly alluding to the traumatic events that launch the film's story into motion, but giving us ample room for the ugly weight of that trauma to permeate the film itself.

It's a gutsy opening, and it should be. Dead Calm is a pretty tightly-wound, draining thriller, and it starts working on us right from the start. I will not claim that it is flawless - its biggest flaw is pretty damn hard to miss, in fact - but it's the kind of genre film that burrows under your skin and sits there itching; the protagonists spend the whole film feeling awful and isolated and helpless, and the movie doesn't do a single thing to dilute that feeling with popcorn movie triumphalism. It's a nasty little shocker, no more and no less. An extremely well-made nasty shocker, though, and that makes all the difference.

The film was adapted by Terry Hayes (who also produced the film, alongside George Miller and Doug Mitchell), without too much burden of fidelity, from the 1963 novel by Charles Williams; the dead child is one of the film's innovations. It makes the Ingrams more desperate figures right from the start and colors our experience of the actual body of the film, which picks up several months after the accident, and a good long way into a yacht trip to nowhere in particular. The point of this is to temporarily abandon humanity, and let the couple rebuild themselves in peaceful isolation, and it seems to have substantially worked; Rae and John are both in a place of relative equanimity when we see them. In fairly short order, they come across a boat that seems to be riding low in the water, as though it's in the process of very slowly sinking; as they draw closer to see if they can help in any way, the find that the sole passenger is an American named Hughie (Billy Zane), who's at his wit's end; the other five passengers on the boat died of food poisoning, and he's been alone for several days. The Ingrams take him aboard to rest and recuperate, and John rows over to the sinking ship to see if he can validate this very suspicious story.

Of course, there's no movie is Hughie isn't a deranged psycho, and so what John ends up finding is video evidence that the people on the boat were, in fact, murdered. And then he finds what remains of their corpses. Hughie, meanwhile, has knocked Rae unconscious and commandeered Ingrams' boat, leaving us with two very different horrible situations to play out: John needs to figure out a way to keep the boat from sinking long enough to find a way back to his own yacht, while Rae must survive being trapped on a not-especially-large vessel with a man who veers randomly between jovial friendliness and raw, animal savagery.

Dead Calm is an exemplary illustration of just how far gifted filmmakers can take a strong, unusual setting. The film consists basically of the deck of the Ingrams' yacht and one room in each of the two boats, and the great terrifying expanse of the Pacific Ocean; it's about nothing else other than being in close quarters with nowhere to go, and how despairing and terrifying that can be if things go even slightly wrong. The film thrives on claustrophobia and isolation, which director Phillip Noyce visualises in some very effectively blunt ways, trapping both Kidman and Neill in medium close-ups and close-ups, including multiple scenes where we watch them try to somehow communicate with their failing radios, in a mournful parody of a shot/reverse-shot conversation. The genius of the directing in Dead Calm is that he makes it seem like a director-proof movie in a way, like it simply could not be any other way, and this is particularly true of the scenes outside on the yacht, where he and cinematographer Dean Semler (who had already made the leap to Hollywood that Noyce and Kidman were about to make, but still had this and a couple other Australian productions in him before fully repatriating) emphasise the harsh sunniness of the ocean light, and the uninterrupted flatness of the still ocean and featureless sky. There's almost a kind of minimalism about the film, extracting as much as possible from the repetition of a few visual ingredients.

That this is never even a little bit boring is testament to the primal effectiveness of the scenario, to Noyce's deft handling of pace - it is a wickedly tight 96 minutes - and to three ace performances. This was the big star-is-born role for both Kidman and Zane: her very next film, and first Hollywood production, was Days of Thunder, which came about in no small part because of how well this film showcased her talents. And Zane, well, God bless Billy Zane. He is, at any rate, genuinely excellent in Dead Calm, rotating from smug charm to bared-teeth malice and making it clear that this is about Hughie's mental instability, not inconsistency in the acting or writing. Kidman and Neill are largely reacting, though they're doing it extremely well, and in their more sedate character moments, such as the aforementioned radio non-conversations, there's a lot of very tangible human fatigue in their performances. Basically, the acting is all focused on making sure that the nasty shocks of the story are based in human truth, so we feel alongside the protagonists, rather than simply watching them have the plot attack them. And this is an important thing that elevates this thriller into the level of actual cinematic artistry, just as much as Semler's handsome manipulation of light.

It's not setting its sights above being a very good, solid thriller, admittedly, and there's one very showy scene that completely derails this as a human-scale story: at one point, to put Hughie off guard, Rae has sex with him, and it is insane that anyone thought this scene worked without completely exploding Rae's coherence as a psychological actor. It's clear enough why the scene was included: Kidman and Zane (the latter of whom is shirtless for almost the entire film) are both indescribably hot, and they were both willing to do a nude scene, and you don't last long in the "making money on movies" game if you pass up every opportunity to put gorgeous naked people onscreen. Still, it's a disastrous thing to include. Also disastrous, in a smaller way, is the ending: it's very, very clear what the final scene of the film was as Hayes wrote it and Noyce shot it, which means it's also very, very clear what scenes were added months after the fact when Warner Bros. decided that the ending was too ambiguous (when it wasn't really ambiguous at all). And there's nothing quite as disappointing as a rock-solid, tightly-wound film that falls apart right at the end, so it's the problems that seem freshest.

And there are certainly other nitpicks I could throw at it: I'm disappointed by the relative lack of Neill in the middle of the film, despite the fact that John is no less besieged, in his way, than Rae. Still, the film works extremely well at winding Rae tighter and tighter, and it has no end of fine little grace notes: the crawling sense of pure horror as John watches the video in the wrecked boat, with scrawled lettering on the screen distorting the image; the way that we can always hear Zane without seeing him, making him feel like an omnipresent threat; the violent Graeme Revell score, which feels like world music having a restless nightmare. It's a shabby little shocker, but the best kind of shabby little shocker, and it's gratifying that it represented such a huge career boost for so many of the people who made it - it's always nice to see good work rewarded, and this is wall-to-wall good work.

Body Count: 2 people we see die, the 5 people who died on the other boat before we get there, and a dog.