Wednesday, June 09, 2010

In Deep

I reviewed Joe Dante's Piranha a couple of weeks ago and this post is kind of a companion piece. My friends and I were supposed to watch Humanoids from the Deep first as part of a double feature, but the videotape met with misfortune upon insertion into the machine. We were disappointed--particularly because the DVD of Piranha had a trailer for Humanoids that got us riled up--but them's the breaks when you're dealing with obsolete technology, I guess. In any event, it wasn't hard to repair the tape, and the only footage I lost from the incident was a short piece of the FBI warning. Some Scotch tape and a pair of scissors later and the tape is just fine. Otherwise, I would have had to wait for the film to come back into print (at this writing, in another two months).

The old New Horizons VHS had an interview with Roger Corman at the beginning, in which he explained his theory of monster movies, which is the classic "tease the audience with glimpses for the first two acts before the big reveal" technique. "The audience can fill in the monster better than we could," he said, "especially on our budgets." In the case of Humanoids from the Deep, he needn't have worried. Rob Bottin provided some swell-looking fish men. I like to think that if anyone ever wanted to put Lovecraft's Deep Ones on screen, they might look a bit like Bottin's monsters here. I seriously doubt that Lovecraft would have approved of this film, even if the subtext of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (among others) implies the kinds of inter-species rape that Humanoids from the Deep makes explicit. In any case, if Humanoids from the Deep has a fatal flaw--and it certainly does--it's that it never strays outside the comfort zone of New World's eco horror formula. Worse, since this movie came out two years after Piranha, that formula had already started to get deconstructed by smarter filmmakers.

The plot here involves a fishing village being terrorized by biologically engineered fish men who are driven to land to spawn...with HUMAN women! Yeah. I'm sure that's EXACTLY how it was pitched to Corman. You get the stock characters of the New World eco horror movies: the brash young native American standing up to the ravages of corporate America, the evil racist who views the new cannery as progress no matter how much polution is spews, the comely scientist who explains everything. It's easy to point out the stereotypes. This film also borrows a serious mean streak from Piranha when it comes to throwing dogs and kids into the maw of the beast. Oh, and it has Doug McClure, who made a lot of these kinds of movies. Also like Piranah, this has a few future Oscar nominees in the crew: James Horner (still a slave to the style of Jerry Goldsmith), Bottin, editor Mark Goldblatt. Corman's fabled eye for talent is all over this film, and it has its rewards. It's an extremely attractive movie. It looks a LOT more expensive than it probably was.

Corman's interview at the beginning of the tape notes that he only looked at ability when he hired Barbara Peeters to direct this movie and I'll give Corman props: He has a long history of giving female filmmakers a chance. You can occasionally see what having a female director brings to the movie, too. Ann Turkel's scientist fulfills a familiar role here as the bringer of exposition, but she's significant for what she doesn't do, namely: she nobody's love interest. You can even see a wry commentary on what a capable woman has to deal with in the dance scene when she is stuck dancing with her weaselly co-worker, who is literally and figuratively less than she is. Peeters also gets some mileage out of stranding Doug McClure's wife, played by Cindy Weintraub, alone at the end of the movie. While McClure makes it back, he arrives after she's already dispatched the besieging humanoids on her own, no men required. This is all well and good, but what gets left out of Corman's interview, though, is the fact that he also fired Peeters for refusing to do reshoots to include more nudity and raping fish men. Viewers who don't know this background might be surprised that a woman directed a film as completely drenched in misogynist imagery as this one, and it goes well beyond the slimy-rapey way it literalizes the unspoken horrors of all those movie posters and pulp covers with bug-eyed monsters carrying off scantily clad women. Horror movies have been riffing on the supposed horror of childbirth for decades, but the final scene of Humanoids from the Deep trumps everything before or since. True, it's a rip-off of Alien, but it's so preposterous and so spectacular that it sears itself into your memory. Once you've seen it, you don't forget it. On the whole, this movie is supremely unpleasant, but this scene really takes the cake.

So, essentially, you have a movie in which there's a disconnect between production values and story values. On the one hand, you have polish and artistry and, yes, the pulp vitality of a really good exploitation movie. On the other, you have complete and utter schlock. It's shameless about the schlock, which is essential in this sector of filmmaking. You also have a disconnect between what the director intends and what the producers demand. This tension is irreconcilable, and more than one critic marks this film as the point where Corman's productions shed their inventiveness and their wit and started to devour themselves. That all said, I have to admit that I have more than a fair amount of affection for this movie, even though it appalls me to admit it. I remember watching it every time it came on HBO when I was a kid, and I realize that my obsession with this movie then was totally about the boobs and blood and the outrageous climax. Corman knew his audience. I think most horror fans have a little of the adolescent sadist in them--I know I sure did--and this movie caters to adolescent sadism like few others. It's kind of perfect that way.


Anna said...

I really do apologize for my rogue VCR eating your tape. It must have been feeding time. Looks like I'll have to see this on DVD when it comes back into print, but this seems like the kind of movie that's meant to be seen on VHS. :\

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Ain't no problem. No harm, no foul. I'm just sorry I couldn't show it to you and Coye. Regardless of what I've written here--that's my "serious movie critic voice"--it really is a fun movie. And, yeah, it should be seen on VHS. Or better still, in a drive-in.