Not to be confused with the many, many other films called UNDERTOW, this is a 1996 made-for-Showtime thriller. The best I can say for it, I’m afraid, is that it had promise—promise that was never fulfilled.
This film is of interest because of the talents that worked in front of and behind the camera. They include ex-A lister Lou Diamond Philips in the lead role, supported by the skilled British thespian Charles Dance and former scream queen (and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF co-star) Mia Sara. The director was Eric Red, a name with which most horror fans should be familiar, and the script was co-written by Academy Award winner Katherine Bigelow, who helmed the Eric Red scripted features NEAR DARK and BLUE STEEL.
Phillips plays a drifter named Jack Ketchum(!), who crashes his car while driving through the Southern wilderness. He comes to, unfortunately enough, inside a cabin owned by the demented mountain man Lyle Yates (Dance) and his alluring wife Willie (Sara).
Lyle demands Jack leave the cabin at “first light” the following day, but a rainstorm, and the fact that Jack is strongly attracted to Willie, keeps him in place. Lyle is none-too-happy about this, and an unpleasant dynamic begins to fester. The tension is bolstered by the fact that Willie is far from immune to Jack’s charms, as well as an approaching hurricane.
What follows are a series of violent confrontations between Jack and Lyle. Eventually Jack gets the upper hand and kills his opponent, or at least appears to…
As an exercise in ultra-stripped down minimalism—the action is confined to the interior of a cabin and the area outside, and there are no supporting players or extras (all in tribute, perhaps, to the famously spare writing of the novelist who shares the main character’s name)—this film could have worked, but it would have required a more skilled helmer than Eric Red, whose self-directed movies (COHEN AND TATE, BODY PARTS, BAD MOON, 100 FEET) aren’t up to the high standards of those films he scripted but didn’t direct (THE HITCHER, NEAR DARK). The simmering tension Red appears to have been trying for never materializes, leaving us with a dull and highly stagy film.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the protagonist, as played by Lou Diamond Philips, is thoroughly unlikable. Charles Dance and Mia Sara don’t do much with their characters, and both speak in ridiculously unconvincing Southern accents.
Speaking of unconvincing, the “hurricane” that takes up much of the film’s second half is a bust, ruined by cute-rate sound design, too many cheesy flashing lightning intercuts, and a shot of an exploding tree shamelessly lifted from THE NATURAL.
Director: Eric Red
Producers: Tom Kuhn, Fred Weintraub
Screenplay: Eric Red, Katherine Bigelow
Cinematography: Geza Sinkovics
Editing: Claudia Finkle
Cast: Lou Diamond Philips, Charles Dance, Mia Sara