Sunday, 20 October 2019
October Horrors 2019 # 10:
Humanoids From The Deep
(Barbara Peeters, 1980)
He’s a tricky devil isn’t he, that Roger Corman? Though he has sometimes been praised over the years for promoting female talent within the none-more-male-dominated arena of ‘70s/’80s exploitation film-making, it is also notable that, whenever he offered the director’s chair on one of his New World Pictures productions to a woman, it was for a project that might otherwise have drawn fire for its misogynistic content - thus neatly defusing the critical backlash whilst still delivering the, uh, shall we say, ‘provocative’ content his less enlightened audience demanded.
Think Stephanie Rothman on ‘The Student Nurses’ (1970), Amy Holden Jones on ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ (1982), or, in this case, Barbara Peeters on ‘Humanoids From The Deep’, aka ‘Monster’, a film whose poster artwork alone would likely have incited its fair share of feminist outrage, had there been a male name sitting in that all-important slot at the end of the credits.
In all of these cases, the directors in question were presumably sufficiently thrilled at the chance to get their name on a feature film that they were happy to take Corman up on his offer, accepting pre-packaged projects with script and marketing materials already more-or-less locked down… and of course, strict orders from the boss regarding the required level of nudity, violence and so forth.
And, in all of the above examples, I believe these women did very creditable work with the material they were handed -- but the terrible irony of the situation of course is that, whereas a roll-call of New World’s male alumni includes Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante and Jack Hill, none of the female directors listed above managed to make the transition to mainstream industry success (or even cult recognition) off the back of their Corman pictures. (It is at this point that we pause to shake our fists and spit bitter invective at the ‘Hollywood’ sign.)
Anyway, back to the matter in hand, and in late 1979, Peeters basically found herself staring down the barrel of a script that amounts to a cross between ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Creature from The Black Lagoon’ with added rape, and a few weeks shooting time in an off-season fishing town near Fort Bragg to get it all in the can. (I’ve not read any background on the film’s production, but surely there must be some great material here for a behind-the-scenes docu-drama or Christopher Guest style mockumentary or something?)
What most struck me most about the first half hour of ‘Humanoids..’ is just how authentically grim life in the film’s fictional fishing community of Noyo seemed to be. I suppose I’d been expecting something pretty breezy and tongue-in-cheek, in the vein of Dante’s ‘Piranha’ (1978), but this is a whole other kettle of genetically-modified fish.
Not only does this place seem cold, grey and permanently overcast, but the people, when they’re not being actively horrible to each other, seem glum and withdrawn, whilst the town’s economic decline and cultural isolation are clear for all to see. Amity Island this ain’t. In fact, that isolated mining town from ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (1981) seems positively idyllic by comparison.
As the film opens, controversy surrounds the arrival of representatives from a Big Corporation, who are looking to open a “canning plant” up-stream from the town, securing the area’s economic survival, and, they claim, increasing fishing yields through the application of exciting (read: untested) new scientific techniques. (UH-OH.)
Naturally, the gang of beer-swilling racist goons headed up by Vic Morrow are pro-canning plant, but they face opposition from a rival fisherman, a young man named Johnny (Anthony Pena), whom they address as “The Indian” on the basis of his Native American heritage. Unhappily for all concerned, this beef is brought to the boil when something crawls out of the sea and slaughters the men’s dogs (some cheery shots of staged doggie carnage here for animal lovers in the audience). For reasons which do not seem entirely clear (but then, I’m not a stereotypical racist goon, so who knows), Vic and his boys blame “The Indian” for this massacre, and promptly kill his dog in retaliation.
This leads to a showdown, as Johnny interrupts the all-important town hall barn dance at which the townsfolk were due to be introduced to the representatives from the Big Corporation. Throwing down his dead hound in the middle of dancefloor and demanding an explanation, he earns himself a public beating from the goon squad, which soon spills over into a full scale parking lot brawl when some slightly less goon-ish citizens come to his defence, leaving the town’s entire male populace nursing bruises and black eyes, and the canning plant guys no doubt considering their options.
Frankly, unless you like dead dogs, salmon fishing, geriatric bands playing slow, old-timey dance music and simmering small town resentment, there is precious little to enjoy in Noyo, even before it becomes clear that any woman of child-bearing age who strays close to the waterline now also risks being assaulted by a raging, seaweed-covered gillman trying to forcibly copulate with her. Oh boy, just what we need.
In a development reminiscent of Ray Russell’s sleaze-horror opus ‘Incubus’ (published a few years earlier in ’76), it seems that the primary aim of these monsters – which we are later informed have evolved into humanoid form from at hyper-speed after some test-tube mould made a getaway from hard-headed lady scientist Ann Turkel’s lab, or somesuch – is reproduction. They attack (and sometimes abduct) women solely for the purpose of trying to impregnate them, but this tactic has a low success rate, as the majority of human females are simply torn apart by the creatures’ amorous assault. Delightful!
(As I write this, I’m conscious of the fact that rape and violence against animals seem to have inadvertently become recurring motifs in this October’s reviews. It’s entirely accidental, I swear! For the record, I didn’t even intend to watch this one, but ended up throwing it on in an emergency when my DVD of ‘Mr Vampire III’ failed to play.)
The monster effects in ‘Humanoids From The Deep’, are, I would say, rather uneven. The early scenes in which the beasties attack and molest women on the beach take a no-nonsense “man in a suit” type approach, but elsewhere we get some rather more interesting animatronic type creations. In some shots, they seem outright comical, but, especially towards the end of the film, there are also moments when they look totally awesome. In particular, I loved the way that they sometimes shamble around the place with big, toothy grins and their unnaturally long arms raised above their heads, looking like some kind of Satanic, fungoid Tickle-Me Elmo.
Going back to those early attack sequences, I’m pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that Peeters actually refused to shoot the more exploitative footage demanded by Corman, and that as a result he simply brought another director onto the set to film additional footage without her participation. (IMDB credits these sequences to Jimmy T. Murakami.)
As such, I’m not sure who should really take the blame for these “bikini beach attack” scenes, but either way, they’re pretty damned peculiar and unedifying, temporarily threatening to turn the movie into a humourless, sleazoid update of Del Tenney’s ‘60s drive-in classic ‘The Horror of Party Beach’ (only without the great rock n’ roll music or hipster wise-cracks). (1)
The biggest problem here I think is that the beach itself looks horrible. Clearly the filmmakers had to take what they could get in terms of the weather and location, but even so - with grey, gritty sand, perilous rocks, crashing waves and freezing, overcast skies, it’s safe to say that young people would need to be out of their minds to choose this particular spot for frolicking in bikinis or making out in the surf, immediately adding both a fabricated, surreal quality and an air of bleak, bloody-minded nastiness to proceedings. (Perhaps it could have been this, as much as her objection to the stronger sexual content, which led to Peeters refusing to film these scenes?)
Things get even weirder meanwhile when at one point we cut to a random couple of youngsters who are getting to know each other better in a tent they’ve erected on the sand, and, not only does the poor girl have a sea-monster to deal with, the boy she’s screwing turns out to be a goddamn ventriloquist. We’re really looking at a perfect storm of bad decision-making on her part here, as her partner whips out his dummy and starts running through his ‘gottle-a-geer’ act, but… as you’d imagine, she is given little time to reflect on the sequence of events which led her to this unenviable situation before a rampaging monster intervenes.
(Actually, I think the addition of the ventriloquist’s dummy must have been someone’s attempt to introduce some low-brow, frat-house humour – there is much strained, double entendre type dialogue (“you’ve got to let me see more than just the head”, etc) – but this feels quite out of keeping with the dour tone taken by much of the rest of the film. Frankly the whole thing is just really bizarre.)
Meanwhile, our first line of defence against the fungoid menace is headed up by the mighty Doug McClure, taking a well-earned break from punching cavemen in the face and harpooning dinosaurs in Kevin Connor’s wonderfully entertaining series of Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired ‘70s adventure movies. After all that, you’d think a mere bunch of spongy ‘humanoids’ would be a walk in the park for this dude, but McClure is actually on pretty reserved, naturalistic form here, keeping his fists to himself and playing slightly ‘older’ than was usually the case.
Alongside Doug is the aforementioned Ann Turkel, who looks as if she’s been grown in a vat to be a leading lady in a ‘70s monster movie. I don’t mean that in a negative sense - in fact her performance here is a stand-out - but… can’t quite put my finger on why, but something about her face, her bearing, that hair – I was sure I’d previously seen her as the female lead in ‘Piranha’, or as somebody’s wife in ‘Grizzly’, or, y’know - something like that.
In fact, it turns out ‘Humanoids..’ is one of the only genre movies Turkel has ever appeared in, and I don’t think it was a very happy experience for her (rumours suggest that she actually petitioned the Screen Actors’ Guild to try to stop the film being released, after she learned of the additional footage Corman had added to it).
The sections of the film dealing with these folks and their response to the monster threat quickly fall into the familiar ‘Jaws’ mould, but the difference is that, whereas it’s become a truism that the success of ‘Jaws’ was down to its characters rather than the shark, ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ simply can’t cut it on the same level. Sure, McClure, Turkel and Prena are ‘good guys’ by vestige of the fact that they speak to each other civilly and don’t behave like dicks, but when they set out together in a motor-boat to seek out the monsters’ breeding-grounds, we couldn’t really say that we like them, or particularly care what happens to them.
In fairness however, the film quickly picks up steam in its second half, beginning with our heroes aforementioned monster-blasting excursion, during which they rescue an abducted girl who has been ickily encased in seaweed, which actually turns out to be a pretty fun and exciting action sequence.
Turkel’s character meanwhile does become increasingly forthright and likeable as we get to know her better, and anyone still looking for a gossamer thin thread of potential feminism running through this movie can take heart in the scene back at the lab, which finds her directing an absolutely fantastic tirade of invective at her weaselly male colleague, who wants to try to keep the monsters’ existence secret.
Speaking of ‘Jaws’ meanwhile, you will of course understand that the mayor of Noyo can’t POSSIBLY let the spree of sea-monster rape-murders get in the way of the town’s annual Salmon Festival! And, boy oh boy, it’s during the wonderful, wonderful outburst of absolute mayhem which follows as the monsters attack the town’s nocturnal water-front carnival en masse that this movie really redeems itself - and how! The film’s Japanese title, incidentally, translates simply as ‘MONSTER PANIC!’, and that’s a pretty good two-word summation of everything which follows after this point.
Thrill, as the local pop DJ broadcasts live from the scene, sticking to the mic even as the monsters besiege his booth trying to get at his station’s roller-skating hype girls! Cheer, as loads and loads of ply-wood carnival booths are smashed to pieces by rampaging monsters! Shed a tear (possibly), as Vic Morrow gains last minute redemption by sacrificing himself to save a little girl from the jaws of doom! Laugh uneasily, as the people fight back, and a bunch of guys arms with spiked planks are seen encircling a stricken gillman, seeming slightly unsure of what to do next. Feel slightly confused, as McClure and Turkel enact a plan to spray gasoline across the bay and set the water on fire (because, apparently that will help?).
Even better, all of this fantastic, life-affirming craziness is intercut with the film’s strongest and most convincingly realised horror set-piece, which finds McClure’s wife and young son isolated in their remote beach house, trying to defend themselves from the stalking gillmen. There is some brilliantly tense stuff here, faintly reminiscent of the Timmy-and-Grandma-alone-in-the-house sequence from Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, and I’d like to think (though I have no particular evidence to back up this claim) that this perhaps represents an example of the slightly more classical suspense filmmaking that Peeters was ideally aiming for, before Corman stepped in to enforce the “monsters tearing off bikinis on a rainy beach” approach.
The frantic cutting between this scene and the wacky carnival mayhem meanwhile struck me as pretty exhilarating, rather than jarring, and, perhaps feeling the benefit of a couple of glasses of wine by this point, I was overjoyed to realise that I was suddenly having a really great time with ‘Humanoids from the Deep’.
In conclusion then, let it be known that ‘Humanoids..’ opens with a dour, mean-spirited vibe that, combined with a surplus of clumsy, joyless sleaze, makes its opening hour pretty difficult to hang with. Adventurous viewers are advised to hang on in there however, because the last few reels make it all worthwhile, delivering exactly what I wanted from a movie like this – which is apparently ABSOLUTE CHAOS - and oh so much more besides.
(1) A complete digression I realise, but why does ‘Horror of Party Beach’ only score 3.0 on IMDB?! It’s brilliant! I dunno… fuckin’ *people*, eh?