Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: SECTOR 7 (2011)

As someone on Facebook said: "I can't believe I'm getting nostalgic for the '90s".

I don't know about you, but a whole mess of movie nerds - I mean scholars, that's it scholars, in the late '90s discovered that the little country of South Korea could make some great genre movies.

Mostly known for Ki-duk Kim's silly (but fun) ecologically-aware kaiju epic YONGARY (1967), South Korea overcame that stigma in 1999 with an anti-terrorist action-thriller SHIRI. SHIRI sported slick visuals, a fast pace and universally appealing themes: secret agents, high-tech terrorists, star-crossed lovers and shit blowin' up. Arguably this was the first Korean blockbuster. So blown away by this $5-8.5 million film that it kicked the crap out of the box office record held by the bloated $200 million TITANIC (1997) which had dominated the box offices throughout Asia. TITANIC had held the record at 4.3 million tickets sold (remember South Korea has a population of 46 million in 1999, as opposed to the US which had a population of 275 million), which was smashed by SHIRI with 6.5 million tickets sold, which means three out of four people in the country bought a ticket to the film. Hollywood execs would murder their favorite coke dealer for those kind of numbers.

In addition to SHIRI (which is a Korean freshwater fish, but in Japanese means "ass"), 1999 saw the release of TELL ME SOMETHING, an extremely dark and bloody homage to Italian giallo films of the '70s and '80s that even got coverage in Fangoria magazine - two years later. These two films sparked a new wave of South Korean filmmaking that continues to this day. Well, sort of. Unfortunately, like all successful cinema, the creative and intelligent side of this new wave only lasted a few years before corporate mentality took over. Suddenly a big business, by 2004 the scripts had become tedious, homogenized rehashes of stale Hollywood cliches. You still have the occasional break-out pop culture hit, such as THE HOST (2006), but they are hip with the kids, not because they are really all that good, but just because the kids don't know much about movies made before the new millennium. Yes, I'm being an elitist. I'm fine with that.

Fast forward to 2011 and South Korea decides it is time to jump on the deep sea bandwagon and in 3D no less! Little did I suspect that their concept wasn't the only thing that was tragically dated.

Opening with a prologue set in 1985 (presumably to try to fool the audience into thinking that they are predating Hollywood's brief deep water fetish), a Korean oil platform off of Jeju Island (South of Korea and West of Japan) sends a diver down to the ocean floor to see why their drill is stuck. Once down there the floor cracks and little glowing fish swim out followed by a roar and we fade to black. Things can only go up from here. I say, "go up from here". ...because he is on the ocean floor. Oh never mind.

Picking up 16 years later, the ill-fated diver's daughter, Cha (Ha Ji-won, best known for romantic comedies) nicknamed "Hard Ass", is now a roughneck on the very same rig. In addition to being improbably hot, she also is better at the job than the rest of the crew, who are all men of course. Apparently she's been calling the shots on where to drill and they still haven't tapped the motherload. Of course this being an Asian film, they are a team and will overcome all obstacles to reach their goals. Unlike Westerners, who would just sit around drinking coffee and bitching about their bonus situation.

In no time at all, the little glowing fishies start showing up, but only in time for the operation to be shut down by the nameless powers that be. Of course the team's hard work and determination are validated when Cha's uncle Lee (Ahn Sung-ki), a high-ranking muckymuck (we are never told what his rank or position is) flies in and because of their plucky spirit, allows them to keep drilling... Presumably for an interesting script. Says Cha while gazing into the sea, "the ocean is beautiful because it holds oil." Jeezus, it's like she running in the Alaska primary.

Pretty soon they discover that the pretty fishies actually put a hell of a welt on you if they sting - this is played for comic relief as the idiot who is short of a village tries to hit on one of the female scientists with a swollen face and all the subtlety of Jerry Lewis on bath salts.

All the archetypes are represented here. We have the captain (Jeong-hak Park) who gets no respect because he is a bit of an insecure prick who just graduated from the "captain's academy" - presumably an institute of navel contemplation. Hell, this schmuck doesn't even have a scar to show off while they drink beer around one of those cute little Asian barbecues. While everyone shows off their scars the captain earns their trust by telling his crew that he doesn't have any because scars are an indication of carelessness. Even Kim Jong Un couldn't force people to like this guy. Not even with Dennis Rodman.

In addition to the anime drama characters, we also have a pop-rock music montage where Cha and her would be suitor Kim (Oh Ji-ho) are racing motorcycles around the rig. Yes, motorcycles. On an oil rig. And you thought flamethrowers in a sub-oceanic mining shack were implausible (though we find out they do actually have these on the oil rig also. I repeat: Flamethrower. Oil rig.). We know these two are destined to be together because both have the ability to keep themselves clean, their skin soft and have immaculately coiffed hair. Even when it is messy, it's stylishly messy. Come to think of it, the rule of the rig seems to be that one must have perfect hair, unless one is wearing a wig that appears to be ripped off from a dollar store in East Oakland.

What died on this man's head?

Wait, I hear you say, isn't there supposed to be a monster in this? Keep your banpal on chingu! First things first. We need to have the female scientist plummet to her death, only to have Mr. Swollen-Mouth accused of killing her because there is a glob of goo on her neck that the MD on board announces as semen! Whaaaaa? Who wrote this? As we find out later (not really a spoiler at all because you already know there is a monster involved at some point) that it not in fact semen, but some other substance that is never explained and no, she wasn't killed by the monster. Whaaaaa? Oh, and we need a cheap scare to keep the audience awake, so when Cha opens a random cupboard in the med lab, a black rat leaps out at her (oddly, not at the camera, being 3D and all). How that rat got on the rig, much less in the cupboard is never explained either, but it sounds like the basis for a Disney animated hit if I've ever saw one. I'm thinking RATATOUILLE II: OILS WELL THAT ENDS WELL.

Finally the LAWNMOWER MAN-era CG monster shows up out of nowhere and chases the crew around some hallways, frequently roaring CG spittle into the camera and pausing in its pursuit long enough for characters to have frivolous conversations discussing their next move, the monster, how scared they are, and possibly hair-styling tips.  At one point the monster whips Cha's uncle around a room with its prehensile tongue. While being flailed around like a ragdoll, uncle manages to look over to the shelves and pick out a bottle of acid and wind up a pitch throwing it directly in the monster's mushy mug. This is probably one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in a film. Ever. I'd recommend avoiding this movie like a Detroit prostitute with the bubonic plague, but if you really do want to watch this movie spoiler-free, skip the next two paragraphs.

In addition to being the lamest blobtacular monster since your mom tried to make "savory" jell-o molds back in the '70s, the idea is that it (I shit you not) bleeds oil for blood and was created by Cha's uncle back in the day by using the little glowing fishies as a genetic base. Why? Well that's easy, though they don't really spell it out, he decided, fuck all that hydrogen/electric power crap, some big, dangerous mutant creature would make a great alternative fuel source that would never run out! The trick is, we are told, that their blood will burn for three days. In spite of this, our troupe sets the monster on fire, and it only burns for several seconds. Oh well, back to the drawing board! Well, as soon as the monster stops killing peeps anyway. Unfortunately it will never stop, ever, until they are dead. Yep, this sucker has more lives than the freakin Terminator as I actually lost count of how many times the monster is "killed" and then suddenly returns to terrorize the crew all over again. Things get so absurd in the final act that if I had taken a shot for every time the monster appears to be dead, yet roars back to life, I'd be loaded like a frat boy on game day.

The absurdity reaches a crescendo when Cha is able to save Kim from plummeting into the jaws of the monster in the nick of time by tying a rope on to a magically appearing motorcycle (yes, you knew they would figure in at the end) in less time than it takes to fall off a log. As if that wasn't ridiculous enough, Cha proceeds to lead the CG monster on a CG motorcycle chase through the CG rig. This is actually worse than it probably sounds, and it sounds pretty bad.

As much as I am really very forgiving of this DIE HARD-logic type of scenario where you simply change the setting to create a totally original film ("it's a monster on a ship", "it's a monster in a research facility", "it's a monster on a plane"), this is probably the most lazy, careless and embarrassingly halfassed excuse I've seen for a monster movie since the last time I watched an Asylum flick. Shot in 3D, but making little use of the format, the script by writer-director Kim Ji-hun is a tired retread that throws a few ideas on the table and promptly forgets to follow through with them, instead allowing the bulk of the movie to be the cast yelling hysterically and screaming each other's names. Ironically Ji-hun's next film was titled THE TOWER (2012) and was about a luxury high-rise that caught on fire... hmmmm, why does that sound familiar?

Could they not afford a men's room?
While Cha is set up as this beautiful, empowered icon of female masculinity, when it really comes down to it, the screenwriter simply has her neatly stereotyped in an archaic female role of staying virtuous by refusing to even kiss the rig's local pretty boy and doing little more than reacting to situations by screaming names in horror. After about the fifth time you hear someone screaming "Doonggssoooooooooo!" you'll be begging for the film to end. The only other thing she does, aside from telling the guys exactly where they can stick pretty much everything and playing impossible-to-get, is getting teary-eyed over her father who she never really knew and has been dead for sixteen years! Pretty much a metaphor for my feelings about South Korean films. Except after all this time, I'm pretty much over it.

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.

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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DEEPSTAR SIX (1989)

Welcome to our newest “Theme Week” (guaranteed to last a month).  Yes, we’ve recovered from covering Bud Spencer and his EXTRA LARGE world that we felt we could handle another run of quasi-related reviews.  We’ve been all over the map with regard to our choices in the past, so we figured why not hit the biggest location of them all: the ocean.

Covering 70% of our little globe (thank you, Google) the ocean has long been a source of human nightmares.  From the Ancient Greeks to JAWS (1975), we’ve always found a way to scare the hell out of ourselves thinking about what lurks in the deep blue sea.  While it would be foolish for us to lay the genesis of cinema’s obsession with all things aquatic at one thing, we’ll do it anyway.  Jules Verne’s 19th century novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea will always bee seen as a crucial point of oceanic fantasy authority. The book’s profound influence on the shaping of cinema can be seen early on as Georges Méliès adapted it into a ten minute silent short in 1907; a feature length silent version from Universal emerged nine years later in 1916.  Most folks, however, will cite the 1954 Disney version 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA as a defining moment in combining science fiction and the sea.

It is precisely that combination that has spurred filmmakers ever since and what has drawn us to covering this world. (Okay, I’ll be honest.  It was a badass Thai poster for DEEPSTAR SIX that got us on this topic.)  While planning this, we had few basic rules.  First, a majority of the films had to take place underwater.  This will keep aquatic beasties who come to land like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) or HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980) out of our overview.  Second, an underwater station as the main location was preferable.  Finally, the most important rule, Tom had dibs on reviewing J.P. Simon’s THE RIFT (1989), even though we already reviewed it.  Anyway, if you feel like throwing on your wetsuit and going for a plunge, join us as we dive into Abyss-mal Cinema.  Just make sure you come up slowly as you don’t want the bends.

Naturally, a great place for us to take our first plunge is in the waterlogged year of 1989. Now think what you want about James Cameron, but there is no denying he was a powerhouse at the time with THE TERMINATOR (1984) and ALIENS (1986) being considered insta-classics.  Being huge box office hits didn’t hurt either.  So when the sci-fi wunderkind announced in 1987 that his next project was going to be about aliens found underwater, everyone quickly followed (wet)suit.  Every producer suddenly had an entry in submerged cinema under development; from big studios like MGM to the ever reliable exploitation master Roger Corman (our review of his 1989 entry LORDS OF THE DEEP can be read here). First to make a splash theatrically was Sean S. Cunningham of FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) fame as he got DEEPSTAR SIX into theaters in January 1989.

The film drops the audience 5,200 fathoms (approximately six miles) into the deep sea at Deepstar Six, a state-of-the-art underwater construction facility tasked with building missile platforms for the U.S. Navy.  After some gorgeous underwater credits, we open with submarine pilot McBride (Greg Evigan) in bed with Joyce Collins (Nancy Everhard) as they discuss the relationship that has blossomed between them in the six months they’ve been down here.  Care to guess which two characters are going to survive the events of this film? McBride is quite a charmer, telling her she wouldn’t like a loner type like him and no doubt knocking her off her feet by saying, “You’re like one of the guys.”  We quickly meet the other members of this cranky, eleven member crew.  There is Dallas played by Tom Skerritt and Parker played by Yaphet Kotto…ah, crap, wrong film.  We have station captain Philip Laidlaw (Taurean Blacque); project head Dr. John Van Gelder (Marius Weyers); marine biologist Scarpelli (Nia Peebles); other sub pilot Jim Richardson (Matt McCoy); Russian geologist Burciaga (Elya Baskin); Navy mechanic Snyder (Miguel Ferrer); underwater construction dudes Hodges (Thom Bray) and Osborne (Ronn Carroll); and doctor Diane Norris (Cindy Pickett). Pop quiz – looking over that cast, can you tell me who is going to be the asshole who finally snaps under the pressure?

The plot kicks into motion when a cavern is discovered right where the team is supposed to place a missile platform.  Of course, Van Gelder freaks out for some reason and wants those missiles in place “by the end of the week.”  And you thought your job was high stress?  The team decides the best course of action is to blow up the cavern to see how deep it is.  Get used to the idea of these supposedly smart folks doing dumb stuff. Hodges and Osborne send in a remote camera and promptly lose the feed.  So what do they do?  Disengage their sub and go after it against orders.  Bad news as we get a recreation of the “they’re closing in” monitor scene from ALIENS as the duo’s sub is taken out by something huge. Collins and Burciaga are in the monitoring post when they lose contact and then were get a second recreation of that ALIENS scene as something huge rams their station.  Back at Deepstar Six, they can’t reach either team so Laidlaw and McBride head out to investigate.  Once again, we get the ALIENS blip scene for the third time in fifteen minutes as something huge comes charging at their mini-sub, but backs off when they kill the lights.

Docking with the teetering observation post, Laidlaw and McBride find Collins and Burciaga up to their necks in water.  Oddly, McBride never asks a simple question like “what happened?”  Burciaga shows his flair for Russian dramatics as he dies the moment the rescuers arrive.  During the rescue Laidlaw gets nearly split in half when a metal door collapses on him.  He screams, “Save yourselves” before opting to flood the entire vessel.  Jeez, was he trying to “out drama” the Russian guy?  And, yes, there really are buttons on the wall that say FLOOD and PURGE on them.  McBride and Collins make it back to the mini-sub just in time and you just know he is finally going to ask her what happened.  Nope!  He gives her his wet sweater to warm her up and they hold hands and talk about how much they love each other.

Back at the main base, Collins finally tells someone what happened.  Naturally, her description of something huge attacking their vessel piques the interest of Scarpelli and she suggests it could be a phenomenon where aggressive fish are drawn to bright light.  While getting checked out by the doc, it is revealed that Collins has two different heartbeats. “What was that,” wonders the dense McBride. “That was our baby’s heartbeat,” Collins says.  Oh Jesus. Like bubbles through the snorkel, so are the days of our lives. Can we have somebody get bit by a sea monster now? With four casualties in one afternoon, the group gets the go ahead to abandon their work and head topside.  Of course, Van Gelder is pissed.  He tells Snyder to secure the missiles and this leads us to perhaps the greatest/stupidest plot contrivance every put on film.  I’m not kidding you.  I’ve seen a lot of films and this one is a doozy.  In typing up the commands to secure the missiles, Snyder is prompted by the computer for a reason.  He is given three options for the missile shutdown: 1. Repair or removal 2. natural forces or 3. an act of aggression.  He calls Collins to re-verify her story and ask what he should put in.  She says it was aggressive so he goes with choice three.  This results in the computer stating that all the nuclear missiles will be detonated.  Let me repeat that – all the nuclear missiles will be detonated!  Snyder somehow doesn’t feel the need to confer with anyone about this and within a minute they have several nuclear missiles exploding about a mile from them.  The resulting shockwave rocks the station and, naturally, incapacitates anything they need like oxygen or the decompression unit on the escape pod.

Hey, didn’t the poster for this film say something about underwater aliens on it? Finally, sixty minutes into a ninety minute movie, we start to get some crustacean creature action.  They send Jim out in a big ass diving suit in order to repair a broken line or something.  He says he thinks he saw something (you and me both, pal) before losing contact. They pull him back into the loading area and – finally – that big ol’ monster leaps in and chomps him in half. Well, we assume that is what happens as he is whole in one shot and in half in the next as the scene obviously got ravaged by the MPAA.  As they struggle to shut the tank, no one notices this big monster sliding in.  Soon it makes a meal of Scarpelli (Italian food is the best) and our five remaining survivors safely lock themselves away from it.  That is until they realize they need to repair an air line…in the same room the monster is chilling in.  Armed with shark darts and shotguns (your guess is as good as mine as to why they have shotguns), they reenter so that McBride can fix this hose. Of course, the monster pops up and Snyder proceeds to chicken the fuck out.  He accidentally stabs Van Gelder in the back with a dart, causing his chest to explode (another victim of MPAA cutting).  And now we are down to four as you the remaining folks must find a way to defeat this monster and deal with Snyder cracking up.

Sorry if this review is a little more plot point by plot point centric, but there really isn’t much to talk about in terms of action in this film.  I saw this theatrically back in the day and during my revisit the memories of why I didn’t like it came – pardon the pun – flooding back to me.  For a majority of the film, nothing happens!  In the race to be the first underwater action/sci-fi on the block, Cunningham seems to have forgotten the basics when it comes to making an action movie.  Filmed as DEEP 6, the script, written by Lewis Abernathy and Geof Miller, was first mentioned in Variety in October 1987.  The interesting thing is that this wasn’t just some pre-THE ABYSS (1989) cash in as Abernathy and Cameron were diving buddies.  Apparently Cameron got pissed at Abernathy for making something similar and it caused a – wait for it – rift in their friendship.  (Things got patched up when Abernathy, a Titanic historian, gave Cameron a script about that boat’s sinking; funny how that works.)  According to what Miller told Fangoria, they had written the script to be a low budget feature ($100,000 - $200,000) to make but it grew substantially when Cunningham got involved and made it an $8,000,000 movie. Unfortunately, the script wasn’t fleshed out enough.  Time after time, you will see these character who are smart people do the dumbest things.  Yes, nothing can top Snyder thinking it was okay to detonate nuclear missiles (“I was just following protocol,” he screams in his defense), but some of the stuff is just downright embarrassing.  If you are a fan of actors screaming random techno-babble though (“The cooling primary to the reactor was destroyed. It will go super critical in a few hours!”) this is for you.  Also, if you have a fetish for shots of screens displaying technical stuff, this is a veritable orgy of pixel pornography.

Cunningham claimed he wanted to move away from the slasher mold, but this is nothing more than that with slower pacing.  It also doesn’t help that he ends the film with a FRIDAY THE 13th-esque scare moment. To be fair, there is some good work on display here on the technical side.  The photography by the always reliable Mac Ahlberg is gorgeous and Mark Shostrom’s team has constructed a great creature. Sadly, we never get to see it that much.  Audiences responded in kind when DEEPSTAR SIX came out. It opened in eighth place the weekend of January 17, 1989 and promptly sank like a stone in the following weeks with a final box office haul of $8,143,225.  The next underwater feature to surface was LEVIATHAN (1989) a few months later in March.  I’ll let Tom handle that as I have to get this water out of my ears.