(1980) Directed by Barbara Peeters; Written by Frederick James (aka: William Martin); Story by Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen; Starring: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel, Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub, Anthony Peña and Breck Costin; Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Shudder and Amazon Prime
“First, as far as I can tell, the species has only just appeared. But there has to be a reason that a humanoid creature evolved so quickly.” – Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel)
“He (Roger Corman) offered to all the boys, but the boys turned it town. It was a terrible script. So he offered it to me.” – Barbara Peeters (excerpt from article, “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids from the Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg)
The golden age of monster movies, in the 1950s and early 1960s, featured countless damsels in distress being carried away by fiendish creatures. More often than not, the virile male protagonist (or more likely the censors) would save the day, preventing the heroine from befalling a fate worse than death. In the ensuing decades, this tired formula was freshened up for modern audiences. The heroines were no longer defenseless, and whatever was formerly left to our demented little imaginations was front and center for all to see. Executive producer Roger Corman and New World Pictures pushed the boundaries further with its oversexed, bloodthirsty titular creatures in Humanoids from the Deep.
The film’s original title, Beneath the Darkness, implied a more psychological story, with thrills that were mostly implied rather than explicit. Barbara Peeters’ film, as originally shot, was not the picture Corman wanted to make, lacking the requisite blood and guts and T&A to satisfy audiences looking for more exploitive fare. As a direct result, Corman enlisted second unit director James Sbardellati (later promoted to first assistant director) to film additional footage. The film was re-titled Humanoids from the Deep (or in some overseas markets, under the more generic title Monster), and the rest was history.
Like many Corman productions that preceded it, the crew was a virtual who’s who of Hollywood talent, before they became household names. James Horner’s*/** energetic score is better than it had to be. The makeup effects team included future effects gurus Rob Bottin (two years before his groundbreaking work for The Thing), Chris Walas (four years before Gremlins), and Steve Johnson (who also appears as a humanoid). Future James Cameron producer/partner Gale Anne Hurd (the Terminator films and The Abyss) was a production assistant.
* Fun Fact #1: Per Horner, “…Ultimately, the music was the final sort of piece of clothing on the film. So the film might be schlocky to begin with, but all the craftspeople that would put their layer on, I think were trying really hard to make the story as good as it could be…”
** Fun Fact #2: According to Horner, the filmmakers hired union musicians to play at night for non-union wages, in a studio in Venice, California.
In the Northern Californian coastal community of Noyo, there’s a feud brewing between a planned salmon cannery and a Native American reservation, led by Johnny Eagle (Anthony Peña). When Eagle stands in the way of pro-cannery fishermen led by Slattery (Vic Morrow), he’s roughed up and his house is destroyed. Meanwhile, something malevolent is lurking in the ocean depths ready to lay siege to the residents on land. After a series of attacks (particularly against lustful young people)* by the mystery creatures, Eagle teams up with charter boat captain Jim Hill (Doug McClure) and biologist Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) to find the origin of the beasts and save the town.
* Side Note: This movie features what has to be one of the weirdest cinematic depictions of foreplay, involving a ventriloquist and his dummy (Actual line of dialogue: “Hey honey, wanna see my woodpecker?”).
What keeps the film from being good harmless fun is its unfortunate raison d'être, featuring rapist sea creatures preying on women. It’s a given that the graphic depiction of sexual assault by one person against another would never be considered entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If the perpetrator is an inhuman beast, however, the filmmakers would have you believe it’s suddenly perversely titillating (a dubious trend that continued the following year with New World’s Galaxy of Terror and its infamous giant maggot rape scene.). Barbara Peeters reportedly wasn’t pleased with the changes that Corman ordered for the film, but considering Corman’s requirement for monsters that killed the men and raped the women (see “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 Shout Factory DVD featurette), the odds were stacked against releasing anything resembling what she envisioned. At any rate, considering the time that’s transpired and Peeters’ subsequent disavowal of the film, we may never know what her original cut looked like.
In its defense, Humanoids from the Deep features a couple of female characters whose deeds outshine most of the males by a substantial margin (likely a holdover from Peeters’ vision), Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) and Jim’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub). When Dr. Drake’s research inadvertently leads to the creation of the humanoids, she takes it upon herself to find a way to hunt and destroy them. Once Dr. Drake is introduced, Carol goes missing for a significant chunk of the movie. Carol finally has her moment in the spotlight for a climactic confrontation with the humanoids near the end, but it’s too little, too late. It’s too bad that her triumph over the beasts is undermined because we’re not sufficiently invested in her character.
The high point of Humanoids from the Deep is the effects work. The humanoid creatures* are the unlikely byproduct of coelacanths that ingested DNA-altered salmon that were accidentally released in the wild. Dr. Drake theorizes they must now mate with humans to reach their “final” stage of evolution (which puts into doubt her veracity as a scientist, since evolution is an ongoing process). The aforementioned creature effects team took a ridiculous premise and gave it their all, bringing the creatures to life as slimy fish people with enlarged heads and freakishly long arms.
* Fun Fact #3: Although we’re led to believe (through clever editing) that there’s an army of humanoids, the low budget production only allowed for the creation of three suits.
Humanoids from the Deep juggles multiple plot elements and characters, but fails to weave them together into a cohesive whole. Like several other characters, star Doug McClure’s character is severely underwritten – outside of driving his boat around, getting in a fistfight and getting the characters from point A to point B, he doesn’t really add much. The subplot about the battle between the cannery and Native American fishing ground is merely a half-hearted attempt at social consciousness.* Other than Johnny Eagle, we never see the rest of his tribe or his reservation. This could have been another instance where more was filmed but not included in the final cut, but since there’s no resolution to this conflict, this element remains little more than window dressing. The scenes added for shock value update the ‘50s monster formula, but at a price. We can accept the dubious science and gory monster hijinks, but the misogyny is less defensible. The end result is a film that wants things both ways: its strong female characters are contrasted with passive characters that exist solely for the purpose of being monster victims.
* Note: The social/ecological themes beg comparison to the 1979 film The Prophecy, which (although admittedly less than perfect) handles these elements with more thoughtfulness.
Sources: “The Making Of Humanoids From The Deep” 2010 featurette; Article: “Barbara Peeters – Don’t Ask her about Humanoids fromthe Deep,” by Alan “Rosey” Rosenberg