Sunday, June 8, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: THE EVIL BELOW (1989)

It is kind of amazing how quickly the (water)bubble burst when it came to the underwater flicks that flooded theaters for eight months in 1989.  DEEPSTAR SIX flopped harder than a fish out of water in January; LEVIATHAN did marginally better in March, but still sank like a stone; nobody except Mark Tinta and his two friends went to see Concorde’s LORDS OF THE DEEP in April; and THE ABYSS – the one that was supposed too be “the big one” – choked for air in August, crushed to death in a summer box office tsunami featuring Batman, Indiana Jones, Shrunken Kids and Steve Martin (yes, THE ABYSS failed to unseat Martin’s PARENTHOOD at the box office its opening weekend).  Perhaps most hurt by this though was the little guy hoping to ride this wave to box office treasure. (Damn, have I gone overboard on water puns? Overboard, ha, I kill me.) Unfortunately for screenwriter-producer-director-actor Wayne Crawford, the crest had fallen by the time he got THE EVIL BELOW (1989) onto video store shelves.

Crawford – an exploitation vet who got his start as a jack of all trades with the redneck-ploitation flick GOD’S BLOODY ACRE (1975) – was deep into his second cinematic decade when he started making this one.  But it wasn’t the first time he tangled with the deep waters as he had previously co-written, co-produced, co-directed and starred in the JAWS (1975) cash in BARRACUDA (1978).  So when news hit of an impending flood of underwater movies being planned, you would think Crawford couldn’t get his crew down to South Africa fast enough to film this.  The funny thing is he actually started filming this before all of the other films and THE EVIL BELOW has nary an underwater alien in sight.  Instead, it comes off like a decade-late rip off of THE DEEP (1977) and, as Tom perfectly said, them’s some choppy waters.

The film opens as all undersea flicks should – above the water!  We see a ship crashing off the coast of San Sebastian during a raging storm in 1693.  Cut to modern day San Sebastian and we finally find ourselves submerged as two scuba divers are swimming around when they find the remains of the sunken ship, El Diablo. That name is certainly a harbinger of bad things to come.  In fact, they come rather quickly as a giant barracuda chomps on one of the divers while the other photographs it (someone obviously saw JAWS 2 [1978]).  Topside we meet boat captain/huckster Max Cash (Crawford), who is taking some tourists deep sea fishing.  It must be a slow day as all they reel in the severed leg of the female diver. Good luck getting that stuffed and mounted on your wall.  Apparently Max Cash has bigger problems though as he has a hard time living up to his name since he owes 4 months back rent in dock fees (“At least your father paid his bills,” says his land…er, sealord?).  Not to worry as Cash has spotted a hot lady in the hotel bar and soon they are making out in her hotel room.  Well, it lasts for about thirty seconds as she suddenly says something unintelligible and starts crying.  Spotting a red flag big enough to please Mao, he splits and returns to the safety of his squeeze/deckhand Tracy (Sheri Able).

Unfortunately for Max, the next day the hot lady shows up at the dock and is looking for a boat to charter.  Turns out she is Sarah Livingston (June Chadwick) and she believes she has located the fabled El Diablo.  The story behind this ship is some heretic priests made off with a bunch of stolen religious artifacts.  Showing she is as mentally sound in her life choices as she in the bedroom, she later tells Max and Tracy that she has invested her life savings in finding this treasure because she read about it in a book. Run, Max, run!  It turns out that she may be right though as soon an island priest is calling his superiors about the rumor and Tracy’s hotel room is ransacked.  Max suspects it was his rival, Ray Calhoun (Graham Clarke), and his two sons.  Unfortunately, their first several dives prove treasure-less.  Max decides to visit his dementia-suffering dad to see if he ever spotted this wreck.  Yes, your best bet is to always consult with a person who has no control of his mental faculties.

Pops is of no help, but Sarah does pick up a piece of red coral in his place that she later finds a gold doubloon in. What great luck! Well, except for dad who is soon found shot in the head.  Max again suspects Calhoun and beats the crap out of him. His mourning, however, is brief as the next day they are out diving again and find a cannon, which may have come off the military ship chasing El Diablo. They take their news to local island historian Adrian Barlow (Ted Le Plat).  If that name weren’t enough to convince you he is the villain, they also have him in a red velvet smoking jacket.  He dismisses their find as inconsequential and warns that “curiosity killed the cat.”  You know what else curiosity killed? My enthusiasm for this movie.  Anyway, Max and Sarah keep looking and through the magic of a diving montage they find a spoon from El Diablo.  They are getting close, so they decide they need to sneak into Barlow’s place because this dude is hiding something.  Like the fact that he is a 300-year-old guardian of El Diablo that practices black magic. What? You thought he was just your average baddie?

The film's highlight right here:

I know we said one of our rules for Abyss-mal Cinema was the films spend a significant time underwater.  But we don’t care about the rules! THE EVIL BELOW gets lumped in here because it really captures the exploitation magic of that sinking year of 1989. Essentially not a cash in on THE ABYSS, it still manages to hook susceptible viewers via that evocative title and a really eye catching VHS box from RaeDon (the German DVD art at the beginning of this article is even better).  Unfortunately, what viewers ended up getting was a clumsy production that defines the term cheap.  Tip offs occur as early as the opening with some suspect miniatures for the sinking ship, which may or may not be stock footage from another film.  An underwater epic lives and breathes on the exotic submerged footage.  While some of the initial treasure hunting scenes capture some nice sea floor scenery, all of the stuff involving the sunken shipwreck is downright terrible. The “wreck” consists of what look like several sawed up picnic tables turned sideways at the bottom of someone’s pool and you never get to see a full glimpse of it.  Even worse, these scenes are filmed in a white filtered haze that you can’t make stuff out.  For example, Calhoun gets attacked by an undead Barlow during the film’s climax.  And dead guy walking around at the bottom of the ocean should be a great visual, but you can’t see anything here.

This is disappointing because you know Crawford should do better.  Hell, he made this just a few years removed from producing VALLEY GIRL (1983) and NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984).  Those are films that look like real films.  This looks like something slapped together by Bruno Mattei but without any real exploitation factor.  It is doubly disappointing because Crawford is pretty amusing in the role.  Reuniting with Chadwick after the previous year’s horror flick HEADHUNTER (1988), Crawford is funny as the way-down-on-his-luck captain who can’t seem to give a shit about anything. Well, except beer. Unfortunately, THE EVIL BELOW comes off looking as nothing more than an excuse to visit South Africa and get a free vacation.  And as ostensibly the captain of this voyage, Crawford must go down with the ship.  Two thumbs twenty thousand leagues down.

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