Thursday, June 5, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: LEVIATHAN (1989)

Hollywood is like a daycare center. Lots of excessive mood-swings, temper tantrums and self-indugent behavior in a noisy microcosm of the real world. The introduction of a virus to the population will run like wildfire through that microcosm. In Hollywood ideas are viral. People talk, scripts are read, concepts are pitched and after a while everyone is in love with the idea, they are not so much so in paying the guy who came up with it. Thus we get a year or two that are stuffed with movies that have similar concepts and even completely identical plots and characters.

In the late ‘80s trade papers and movie magazines were suddenly brimming with info about yet another sub-aquatic genre movie going into production. DEEPSTAR SIX was the first of the cycle and inspite of being touted as a new horror film from the creator of FRIDAY THE 13 (I can see Sean Cunningham coming up with that himself), it quickly sank off the radar in the January no-man’s-land of 1989. A few short months later another film quickly surfaced. Behold LEVIATHAN, an entry in a crowded genre (at least for that year), that to this day is the Rodney Dangerfield of aquatic horror films. No respect at all.

The crew of a sub-oceanic silver mine have only three days remaining before the end of their 90 day shift. We are told this right upfront, which is pretty much like introducing a cop who is about to retire. You know someone is going to have a very bad day.


The crew consists of a diverse group of miners including a sensitive Latino, DeJesus (Michael Carmine) who is having trouble with his suit, we know this because his suit has a red, built-in warning light in the shape of a skull and crossbones that flashes at the wearer when they are about to run out of oxygen. Aside from the fact that I’m sure that some engineer thought this would be extremely helpful information, I really don’t think telling someone that they are about to die because their oxygen is low will actually help conserve air. It probably would have been a lot more helpful to have a bright green message saying “everything is fine, there is nothing to worry about,” but I guess that wouldn’t make for very interesting cinema. Geologist turned project lead, Beck (Peter Weller), finds that the burnout Doc (Richard Crenna), is nowhere to be found during this emergency and also panics, but since it’s Peter Weller, you can’t really tell. Love the guy, but there is a reason he gained fame as an emotionless cyborg police officer.

Rule #1: Never trust Meg Foster
The disaster averted, we discover that the rest of the crew consists of a gruff shop steward, Cobb (Hector Elizondo); a white-trash horndog, “Six Pack” (Daniel Stern); the token brotha, Jones (Ernie Hudson) and the way too hot to even remotely be miners, Williams and Bowman (Amanda Pays and Lisa Eilbacher). Their only contact with the outside is via the Tri-Oceanic Corp corporate liaison, Ms. Martin (Meg Foster playing the part with the oiliest of gusto). You know she is an ice-cold corporate backstabber because she goes by “Ms.”

Right before some well-deserved down time, Six Pack manages to fall off of a seacliff into a nest of “sea-worms” (hell if I know). For some reason in spite of being the sleaziest douchebag to ever work in manual labor, the crew decides to mount a rescue team. Seriously, his workplace sexual harassment could put an entire floor of HR reps into cardiac arrest with his excessive leering, groping, and foul-mouthed shenanigans. Fortunately for him, the local babage are well practiced in the art of thin-lipped smiles. The rescue team finds Mr. Pack strolling around in a sunken Russian ship that he stumbled across, The Leviathan. Once back in aboard the Nostromo – err, I mean the mining shack, the crew digs into a strongbox that has remained sealed under the sea.


As they discover, the ship has clearly been intentionally sunk, and the strongbox has some unusual contents including the files of several deceased crew members and a videotaped captain’s log. Conveniently the Doc is fluent in Russian and discovers that a virus had spread through the ship before she sank. Presumably this virus was not a script for an underwater horror movie. Because there is nothing better than alcohol that has been aged in a pewter, Six Pack manages to sneak a hip flask out of the contents of the strongbox with only Bowman being the wiser. One can only imagine how much more obnoxious he is after getting a high-pressure buzz going.

As it turns out, Beck is more of a geologist than a leader and his difficulty with his crew, including the Doc who could give a rats ass about pretty much anything, is very well trodden ground, and I don’t just mean the obvious connection to ALIEN. That said, because of the solid b-list cast, the build-up never feels strained, Daniel Stern’s scenery chewing notwithstanding. Speaking of which, Six Pack high-tails it back to his bunk to knock back the contraband hooch with Bowman who suddenly, like most single folks  realizes that alcohol will blunt the annoyingness of present company. Sure enough this turns out to be the worst idea since Hitler invaded Russia, and suddenly Six Pack has come down with a horrible infection that is causing his skin to break out and become scaly. It isn’t very long before things take a nasty turn and peeps be mutating faster than you can say “Who Goes There?”

Naturally this all leads to a creature stalking the spaceship-esque corridors and the crew being picked off one by one. Fortunately the company provided them with some much needed equipment for underwater mining, like… flamethrowers. I can’t think of anything more useful when underwater than a flamethrower. Perhaps a screen door, but barring that flamethrowers will do. Presumably the flamethrowers were needed to toast marshmallows. Hey, what is more comforting than making s’mores when you are out in no-man’s land? Gotta keep moral up. The station is also equipped with hyper-modern chainsaws which would be used for… uhhhh… defending yourself against any hostile aquatic species that manage to get past the airlock, I guess. The company must have been planning ahead.


To draw the parallels to ALIEN (1979) and THE THING (1982) even closer, there is a scene in the commissary where a toothy, snake-like creature burrows into a character’s chest (not out of, which would be completely different) and a scene in which the remaining crew discover that the creature has raided the blood supply. These moments, in all honestly, do add up to a pretty plagiaristic outing. On the other hand, director George P. Cosmatos (who Roger Ebert once called “George P. Comatose” due to the high body count of COBRA), brings a surprising amount of energy and slick visuals to the production. Also the writers, David Webb Peoples (BLADE RUNNER) and Jeb Stuart (DIE HARD), create a script that is not slacking when it comes to keeping the action moving and giving then-superstar FX man Stan Winston plenty of opportunity to throw in lots of grisly monster effects, all of these elements which DEEPSTAR SIX sorely lacked.

Back in the day I remember liking Stan Winston’s work, but feeling that he derived perhaps a bit too much inspiration from H.R. Geiger and Carlo Rambaldi’s work in ALIEN in nearly every movie he made. Ironically, both of Winston’s top monster men on LEVIATHAN, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff (who also wore the suit), went on to do the creature effects for the filmed version of ALIEN 3 (1992). This is also a point of criticism for modern fans; the script is like a cocktail recipe: 2 parts ALIEN, 1 part THE THING (1982) add a generous splash of seawater and shake vigorously. The creature mutates its victims into an amorphous blob of parts which can separate and chase after the cast members. It’s pretty ballsy to filch from a flick that set the bar for latex creatures for decades to come, and if you are going to do it, you better bring your A game. Winston’s work is good, but can’t hold a candle to the lower budgeted John Carpenter film. Also incurring the bizarre wrath of modern fanboys is one of the other great things that DEEPSTAR SIX lacked; the fetching Amanda Pays of “Max Headroom” running around in her underwear. Granted not every film can achieve such greatness, but it is truly appreciated here. Why some trolls have a problem with that I'll never know.

Rounding out the top-shelf genre crew, Dino De Laurentiis’ cousins Luigi and Aurelio produced the film and brought no shame to the family name. In addition to hiring two of the best genre screenwriters of the ‘80s, a cool cast, a top-notch effects crew and a hugely successful action director, but they also had the smarts to bring on the legendary Ron Cobb (who had worked on 1979’s ALIEN) to do the production design. Of course Ron Cobb was also hired by James Cameron to work in the art department as a conceptual designer for THE ABYSS (1989) which would be released five months after LEVIATHAN. Because of Cobb’s involvement, we get some of the best looking lived-in, slightly futuristic sets since Peter Hyams’ gritty science fiction actioner OUTLAND (1981). Clearly the set designers at Italy’s renowned Cinecitta, where the interiors were shot, were allowed a free hand as there is detail in every nook and cranny. From chotchkie's on computer monitors to strange pieces of art in the back ground, every inch of the sets can stand up to freeze-frame scrutiny.

Budgeted at a whopping $24 million, compared to DEEPSTAR SIX’s paltry $8 million, LEVIATHAN completely mopped the floor with the competition in every way, except at the box office. Sure it made more money than SIX (which pulled in just over $8 million) and hit #2 at the box office for one week, but at just under $16 million in grosses, LEVIATHAN actually took a serious beating. SIX broke even, but LEVIATHAN, in spite of being the better of the two films was a major flop. A large part of the reason for this can be attributed to “ALIEN Rip-off Fatigue” (or “ARF”). In 1989 a massive amount of genre films lifted plots, characters and most importantly creatures from both ALIEN (1979) and ALIENS (1986). If you were like me, you thrived on the ALIEN knock-offs, and less so on the ALIENS ones which became gratingly irksome well into the new millennium (thank you Guillermo del Toro). Like them or not there were a massive quantity of these movies clogging videostore shelves and mainstream movie goers were growing weary of what seemed to them to be endless rehashes. The other major factor is the “once bitten” factor. This usually happens with sequels (such as those of the JAWS franchise), but even in general trends, a real stinker can lead to a disillusioned audience. After DEEPSTAR SIX bummed on everyone’s high, it was tough to get people back into the theaters for another round of the same.

The only reason THE ABYSS (1989) made a splash was due to massive marketing hype (mostly centered around the then cutting edge CG effects), and very strong word of mouth accentuating the soppy sentimentality of the love story, appealing to moviegoers who would not normally go see a genre film. LEVIATHAN’s producers toyed with the idea of changing the film's title, concerned that it might not convey the right message to a fickle audience and they may have been right. THE ABYSS had a simple title, a simple concept, and a complex visual effect. Oh yeah, and it had Ed Harris, who was for some inexplicable reason quite popular at the time. Essentially ABYSS was a watercooler film where another ALIEN rip-off, no matter how solid, never would be.

Derivative, sure, however the sum of its parts adds up to a fast paced, highly entertaining sub-aquatic monster film that deserves a lot more respect than it gets.

Moments of Clarity:

2 Reactions:

  1. I only re-watched this on tape a few weeks back, and had a pretty good time with it. Amanda Pays was incredibly hot, but hey, that's no surprise. Was interesting to see Stern playing such an asshole, he rarely got to let off steam like that. Overall though, it had a solid cast, and the creature effects were fairly decent. It's one I fondly remember from the video shelf.

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  2. Daniel Sterns character is a ripoff of Miguel Ferrer's character from DeepStar if I remember correctly!

    It's a bit disheartening for me that most of the creature effects/gore in this movie (end monster aside) are below standard for someone of Stan's talent. The Terminator and Dead & Buried had more realistic human puppets.

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