1989 was a busy year for underwater adventures. Bringing the raddest decade in history to a close was four different features, all taking place in the icy depths of the ocean floor. Undoubtedly the most widely known of the lot is James Cameron’s The Abyss, that made its appearance in the theatres in August, ranking as number two in the box office (Ron Howard’s comedy Parenthood keeping its place as #1). The film had been long time coming. Cameron had written a short story revolving around group of deep-sea scientists when he was mere 17 years old and kept developing the story over the years. While making Aliens in 1986, he was inspired by a documentary about remote operated vehicles used deep in North Atlantic Ocean and together with the producer Gale Anne Hurd, he decided that now was the time to bring the story from his boyhood to the big screen. The Abyss was a grandiose project and as is often the case with such projects, it came riddled with problems. The enormous tank used for the underwater scenes kept leaking and needed special attention from dam-repair experts to be fixed. Filming dragged for months on end and the gruelling days of underwater work took their toll on the crew and actors alike. Good times had by none.
While The Abyss’ production struggled on, three other deep-sea features where on their way to the theatres. You might ask yourself, how exactly did four films set deep on the seabed get made in such close proximity to each other? Perhaps Cameron, riding on the height of the Aliens and Terminator fame, was rumoured to be filming something along those lines, which gave others a boost to create something similar? Or maybe it was just one of those idiosyncrasies of Hollywood where a number of films revolving around the same theme all come out at once. We can only speculate. Whatever the case may be, the other three projects to be released in 1989, took the same claustrophobic setting of deep-sea exploration, but applied a much darker tone to the stories, and while The Abyss might have worked as a catalyst for some of these projects, the true inspiration behind them lies elsewhere.
A whole decade earlier, in 1979, a young director by the name of Ridley Scott frightened a generation of movie goers with very similar means. The setting was claustrophobic, a monster like nothing ever seen before, and escape nearly impossible. That film, of course, was Alien. Due to its enormous success, Alien had naturally already spawned its fair share of copycat projects and films such as Alien 2 – Sulla Terra (Alien 2: On Earth, 1980), Contamination (1980), Inseminoid (1981), and Creature (1985) did their best to mimic the winning formula of Scott’s film. However, in the late 1980’s the terror from the stars found a new home down in the deepest, most hostile parts of the planet and the ocean floor was to become the stage for a new wave of aquatic horror.
First one of the four films to hit the cinema screens (in January of 1989) was Sean S. Cunningham’s Deepstar Six. The action takes place in an underwater US Naval facility here a crew of military personal and civilians are running a test for underwater colonization methods and installing a nuclear missile storage platform. The project hits the rocks when a massive cave system is found and subsequently collapsed using depth charges, creating a sizable fissure on the ocean floor and letting an ancient sea creature loose into the surrounding waters. It won’t be long until the whole base is near collapse, and the crew members are making terrible decisions to survive.
Deepstar Six takes its sweet time to get going and a large portion of the film is dedicated to different crew disputes rather than the actual monster. Much like the monster in Alien, the ancient sea creature does not make its appearance until halfway through and even then, a lot more running around ensues until we get to the more substantial monster segments of the film. The sea creature itself is fairly well executed and definitely gives several of its contemporaries a run for their money. And no wonder, the man behind the design is Chris Walas: the special effects master behind such films as The Fly, Gremlins and Naked Lunch (also Humanoids from the Deep and Up from the Depths, but these may not be something he wants to brag about). The final touches were provided by the make-up artists Mark Shostrom, who also comes with an impressive pedigree, providing special make-up for films like From Beyond, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1,2 and 3) and Videodrome, and together the two have managed to create a relatively terrifying underwater adversary.
The film suffers slightly from some inconsistencies, such as the creatures changing size dramatically from radar readings to face to face encounters and the highly trained staff of Deepstar Six generally making more than questionable decisions that make one query their expertise and common sense. In fact, the plot is mainly moved forward by one character’s bad decisions, which admittedly is not great writing, but does offer a few good laughs with its sheer stupidity.
Only two months after its release, Deepstar Six was followed by George P. Cosmatos’ Leviathan. The basic premise is almost identical, with the story taking place in an undersea mining station where a crew of miners and geologists are about to finish their three-month stint in the facility. Only days away from well-earned time off, a crew member called Sixpack (Daniel Stern) discovers a sunken Russian ship and salvages a safe he finds inside. Much to Sixpack’s disappointment, the content consists mostly of medical files and a captain’s log. He does however manage to pilfer a flask full of Russian vodka and with it, a key to his own doom. The said flask just so happens to come with a deadly parasite, causing its new host to die and mutate into a horrific monster and it does not take long for Sixpack and another unfortunate crew member to fall victim to it. Things are not helped by the mining company refusing to send a recue vessel, blaming bad weather for the delay and leaving the remaining crew to fend for themselves.
The similarities between Deepstar Six, Leviathan and Alien are obvious to anyone. Both underwater stories brazenly use the elements of claustrophobia and isolation in a very similar manner to Alien, making them as big a part of the suspense as the monster itself. Similar character types from a plucky hero to a sketchy corporate type are also present in all the films. Leviathan however takes to mimicry ever so slightly further. Both Alien and Leviathan kick into action with an investigation of an “alien” ship: in the case of Alien an actual alien spaceship, in Leviathan a sunken Soviet shipwreck. Both ships contain a creature needing a living host to bring about its true form, and what shape that final form takes depends on the host that it takes. Corporate culture of space commerce and undersea mining also suffers from same type of greed as both the crew of Nostromo and the miners of Tri-Oceanic Corp. are as expendable as paper plates at a summer picnic. Even the title Leviathan, seems like a slight nudge towards Alien as the ship Nostromo was originally going to be called “Leviathan” (after the name “Snark”, based on Lewis Carroll poem The Hunting of the Snark, was passed on).
But Leviathan does not simply borrow from one classic but has also incorporated story elements from another landmark of sci-fi cinema: John Carpenter’s, The Thing (1982). From the medical officer Dr. Glen ‘Doc’ Thompson (Richard Crenna) running a mutation simulation on his computer (with daunting results), to a purposely sunken ship (purposely destroyed Norwegian research station), and dead bodies coming back to life in new, tentacle wielding, truly horrific form, Leviathan certainly owns a big debt to Carpenter’s masterpiece. Admittedly Leviathan does not reach the hights of suspense of the aforementioned films, nor does it possess a script as well-crafted, but it is nevertheless damn good fun in all its schlocky glory. You not only get to enjoy performances by such actors as Peter Weller (as wooden as ever), Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Amanda Pays and even evilist of evil, Meg Foster and her piercing, blue eyes, but Leviathan also offers a decent amount of screen time for the monster itself. Behind the creature effects was Stan Winston (The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Jurassic Park, just to name a few) and his crew from Stan Winston Studios, bringing together some formidable talent for the project. The scenes of the mutating monster and its sustained attacks on the inhabitants of the mining station are all great quality and can proudly stand alongside any of the bigger budget films of the time
Roger Corman naturally also jumped into the underwater bandwagon and the April of 1989 saw the release of Corman production, Lords of the Deep. With the director Mary Ann Fisher at the helm, Lords of the Deep moves in a very similar waters than Leviathan and Deepstar Six. The story is set in an underwater laboratory where great scientific minds are trying to find new ways for humanity to survive. While the crew is waiting for a relief team to arrive, on board biologist Claire (Priscilla Barnes) is having psychic flashes that seem to be stemming from a bizarre new lifeform the crew has found and captured in the bottom of the ocean. Mystery and intrigue ensue as the relief crew’s submarine is attacked by an unknown force and no trace of the crew members can be found. Things get even worse when people in the laboratory start dying in weird circumstances and the psychic stingray communicating with Claire escapes the lab. Claire and her lover O’Neill (Daryl Haney) must find out just what the heck is going on before they too fall victims of these strange events.
Corman (of course) had already had his hand in copying Alien with his productions of Galaxy of Terror (1981) and Forbidden World (1982), but that did not stop him from doing the same underwater. Lords of The Deep was a typically speedy Corman production, shot in only four weeks; a fact which is evident from the quality of the story and the footage. Any seriousness the project might have had is completely lost in the cheesy acting and incredibly cheap set-design and special effects. If you imagine cheap 1960’s sci-fi sets (the kind where cardboard walls might fall down any minute) with a submarine crew in 1980’s ski costumes, you pretty much get the idea.
What is slightly baffling about Lords of the Deep is that it seems to not so much to be ripping off Alien, but instead shares blatant similarities between Deepstar Six and The Abyss. Considering its release date, it seems impossible that even Corman could have ripped off either of them, but the similarities are nevertheless staggering. From larger story arcs to the fact that the psychic stingray bears more than passing resemblance to the aliens found in Cameron’s underwater romp, it is enough to make one wonder about Corman’s own psychic abilities.
While that was the end of deep-sea horrors for 1989, early 1990 brought one more project to the party; The Rift (also known as Endless Descent). Directed by Pieces (1982) director Juan Piquer Simón, it tells a tale of experimental submarine Siren II, which is sent to find its missing sister vessel, Siren I. After tracking the ship’s black box down to an underwater rift, the crew of Siren II get much more than their bargained for, as alongside Siren I they find new lifeforms that do not take kindly to visitors.
The Rift is only a step above Lord of the Deep in production value and the story department. The interior of these experimental sea vessels and hight tech secret laboratories look like they were cobbled together with a bit of plyboard, grey paint and colourful lightbulbs. The characters largely act in the most illogical ways imaginable, and the science is not only farfetched, but nonsensical. Nevertheless, it all somehow makes up a very entertaining little B-feature with surprisingly good special effects. With a running time of only 83 minutes, the ludicrous action rolls forward at a steady pace, with no room for boredom. As an Alien copy, The Rift is on the further end of the scale and if it was not for the fact that it obviously rides on the same bizarre wave of underwater sci-fi as the films mentioned above, the link between the two might not be instantly obvious.
While deep sea stations such as the ones present in these films are still just as much science fiction as the space travel of Alien, setting the story on Earth brought that same horror ever so slightly closer to the viewer. The likelihood of running into a deadly xenomorph from unknown corners of the universe is slim to none but running into a deep-sea creature woken from its eternal slumber or perhaps a genetics experiment gone wrong and now prowling the deep waters of Earth’s oceans, is at least seemingly more likely.
There is a noticeable shift from the themes of earlier in the decade, as the concerns over pollution or genetic manipulation no longer play a part in the genre. Instead, these underwater adventures followed along the big trends of the day and focused on offering the audiences an action-packed horror experience, only purpose of which was to entertain. Safe to say that most of them do this very successfully and copycat projects or not, they nonetheless formed a steady framework for any deep-sea features that would follow in the future. Admittedly, it would be a long while before another serious underwater monster mash would make its way to the big screens, but the genre of aquatic horror was by no means dead or forgotten. The following three decades would bring more monsters that you can count into the genre, as well as seeing a more serious side to things with stories based on real life events. But that is another story…