Saturday, July 12, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: THE RIFT (aka ENDLESS DESCENT; 1990)

In the 1980s the Italians held the world cup for gore drench low-budget horror films that explored the popular themes of the supernatural or the mad slasher. Lucio Fulci was the PelĂ© of his time, but he was part of a great team. The Spanish had pride in their team, but weren't as aggressive as Italy. In a bold burst of nationalism,  Juan Piquer Simon, better known as J.P. Simon, attacked the net with a film called THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND SCREAMS (1982), better known to the rest of the world as PIECES (1982). Backed by a brilliant American ad campaign sporting the one of the best straightforward ad lines of all time, "You don't have to go to Texas... for a Chainsaw Massacre", PIECES reworked the Italian giallo into a masterstroke of graphic chainsaw gore and wonderful absurdities. Six years later he followed up PIECES with SLUGS (1988). Based on the Shaun Hutson novel of the same name, it may have actually upped the gross-out factor with gallons of blood, half-eaten faces, exploding heads and one of the most disturbing nude scenes in a mainstream horror film of the era (remember, this is back in a time where this kind of movie was actually shown in theaters). It, like PIECES, became an instant classic among a certain group. While most horror fans considered these movies to be beneath contempt, after the turn of the century, suddenly a new crowd of fans discovered them and they have become somewhat accepted.

The big question was, how could you follow up PIECES and SLUGS? A seemingly insurmountable task that came in an unexpected form, the sub-aquatic horror film. Released exactly one year after LEVIATHAN (1989) and in the same month as THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990), Simon fused the two movies into one: THE RIFT. Interestingly, the sub-aquatic horror films of the late '80s transmogrified into the submarine thrillers of the early '90s, and RED OCTOBER was big news long before it hit theaters. In the same way that The Asylum beats the blockbusters to the punch with their quick and dirty filmmaking, so did the Italians and Simon was cut from that cloth, though it was made into a different jersey (yes, I'm still torturing the hell out of that footie metaphor). Though I should point out that the similarity with The Asylum ends there. Even the dullest moment in THE RIFT (of which I honestly can't think of any) are 40,000 fathoms better than anything The Asylum has dumped on to the public at any point in its history.

I guess those reports of Scalia's coke habit are true.

Sporting a fine B-level cast, the film starts out with Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia), a submarine designer with a rocky past, who is sleeping off a voyage to the bottom of a bottle in a hotel room. Yes, this is not your average engineer, no pocket protector here. He works hard, drinks hard and uhhh, blow dries his hair hard. After being rustled out of bed by a couple of coporate security officers, he gets his ass handed to him by the president of the unnamed corporation he used to work for. You see he was designing a sub for civilian use (what sort of civilian use that would be is not clear, perhaps as part of the Princess Cruise line), when suddenly the military blew in and wanted to make nuclear modifications. Wick, who we must assume is one of those diesel enthusiasts, got his panties in a twist and marched off of the project and lost his marriage in the process. Now the sub, Sirius I, has gone missing and the finger is being pointed at him. It's all his fault because of his crappy design. Yeah, you know how it is in the corporate world. You always gotta have someone you can throw under the sub.

Wick's mission whether he decides to accept it or not, is to head out with a surly UN team on the Sirius II, to go look for Sirius I. The team on board, headed up by spit-polished, extra-starched Captain Phillips (R. Lee Ermey), has also gotten word that everything that has gone wrong is because of Wick. Firstly, if his dunderheadedness got them into this mess, how exactly is it going to get them out? Second, why would the company tell the crew this? The answer is, because the older you get, the more you realize the adult world is just like a grown-up version of kindergarten. Fortunately someone programmed a routine into the ship's computer that brings up a graphical display clearly delineating the changes that the military made to his original plans. Not that anybody cares. Matter of fact, the Captain figures the best course of action is to squash Wick by banning him from the bridge and chewing him out in his quarters. The rest of the crew eavesdrops on this because the control panel on the bridge has a button you can press to patch in the audio from the captain's cabin. Since I didn't see it in red on the monitor, I'm guessing that was in Wick's original design. Even worse than having the crew pitted against him and the captain busting his chops, his ex-wife just so happens to be the ship's science officer. Geeze, could this get any worse? I bet it can!

While travelling down into the rift after the Sirius I's black box signal, they discover some strange plantlife that should not exist at these depths - but yet it isn't too deep to send out a diver with a wet-suit and an aqualung. In an attempt to get a sample one of the crew members finds a corpse and is suddenly attacked by something with tentacles and is ripped into a bloody shreds. Of course our crew are no dummies and they realize something is wrong when his horrible screams echo through the deck, until someone says "Captain, there's something wrong here." There's nothing I love more than seeing a well-trained technician work his craft. Soon the crew discovers what exactly it was that killed the diver as a giant tentacled blob with a single eye attacks the sub. While more jaded viewers may find the miniature sub being attacked by a rubbery creature too hokey to bear, for me it felt like a throw-back to '60s sci-fi, except in the '60s we never had R. Lee Ermy giving folks the hairy eye-ball and lashings of splattery gore. To reinforce that modernization of '60s silliness Wick gives one of the best technobabble speeches this side of STAR TREK. In order to escape the clutches of the creature Wick shouts that they should "reverse [the] polarity of the ship's radar cloaking device! This should allow the outside electrical field to shock it!" Can you explain how that couldn't work? See? They got ya there.

Naturally this plan works, but not before the thing drags the sub down to a ledge, conveniently near a cave in which the signal is coming from. In addition to the signal, they know they are on the right track as the crew of the Sirius I were obviously too busy with their training to catch any Woodsey Owl PSA spots, as their calling card is a whole mess of trash left lying around the cave. At this point the film switches from amusing sub drama to full-fledged Bruno Mattei-ish madness with the crew performing a search and be-destroyed mission in the catacombs of this cave. The air is allegedly toxic, so fortunately for them, they have white CONTAMINATION (1980) suits with re-breathers. Not only a fashion statement, but exploding heads, ripped off limbs and ruptured torsos always look better in white.

Seriously... wtf?

One of the most bizarre creatures that attacks the crew in the final half of the movie is a bunch of phallic-shaped beasts, that come out of holes in the cave walls, whose heads look like two brains and a vagina. I'm guessing the special effects man, Basilio Cortijo, spent a little too much time alone with his latex in an unventilated room. Of course the crew discover that the whole thing is a completely absurd government cover-up of a DNA mutation machine, but not before being violently attacked by a dis-embodied hand, a dinosaur and a giant Lovecraftian tentacled thing. Plus we get the added bonus of having the seaweed sample grow, take over parts of the ship and mutate crew members ala LEVIATHAN. While I've mellowed a bit on my dislike of digital effects, I would much rather see something in camera. THE RIFT delivers these old-school, budget strapped effects by the boatload. Everything from miniatures, forced perspective, water tank, animatronics, pyrotechnics and good ol' fashioned exploding squibs are on display here. Not just on display, but wallowed in. Much like PIECES and SLUGS, Simon isn't content to play the "we'll save the effects for the last 10 minutes" game. Plus, if you enjoy things like monitors showing completely unrealistic graphic displays that are clearly meant to make things easier for the audience to understand we've got plenty.

Sharp-eyed readers (yes, all three of you) will notice that we have actually done a write up of this film already, under the title ENDLESS DESCENT. EpixHD has given the world a gift in the remastered, widescreen transfer of this aquatic epic that restores it to it's original gory glory that makes it almost a new experience. Yeah, so that might be a bit hyperbolic, but this film echoes the oldies in ways that you just won't see anymore and updates it with plenty of late '80s style splatter. This is probably my favorite of the subgenre (oh I slay me).

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