Thursday, August 7, 2014

LEVIATHAN (1989) Blu-ray Review

Leviathan (1989) d. George P. Cosmatos (USA/Italy)

Days away from completing its tour of duty, the highly photogenic crew of Tri-Oceanic Mining Corporation’s Shack #7 encounters a submerged Soviet submarine and salvages one of the craft’s storage containers. A couple sips of pilfered noxious vodka later, several members are dead, with their bodies mutating into a strange and messy amphibian organism possessing tendrils, teeth, tails, and a terrible ’tude. With icy deep waters all around, the surviving rock jockeys pit their wits against the carnivorous monsters below and wait for help from the corporate monsters above (personified by oily Meg Foster), though they probably shouldn’t hold their breath.

Sorry, I had to.

It’s a little hard to believe that 25 years ago, Hollywood set its hopes on underwater sci-fi/horror not once, not twice, but three times over the course of eight months. James Cameron’s much-buzzed-about The Abyss was likely the spark, though with its highly publicized production problems and revolutionary computer-generated effects, it was the last to cross the finish line in August 1989. First was Sean Cunningham’s Deep Star Six, released in the post-prestige wastelands of January, followed by the higher pedigreed but equally clunky Leviathan two short months later. Both met with indifference from the moviegoing public, and both slipped quickly below the surface of audience consciousness. (Abyss, buoyed by Cameron’s rep and a formidable marketing campaign, fared slightly better, though it broke no records and likely remains the least-loved mass market pic on the King of the World’s resume.

In a perplexing move, Shout! Factory has elected to resurrect Cosmatos’ soggy creature feature and give it the digital upgrade no one was asking for, making this their most puzzling release of 2014 (even more so than Final Exam). I mean, seriously, on whose wish list was this? Personal tastes aside, I’ve never heard anyone speak anything but ill or indifferent; it doesn’t even qualify as a cult film, because it has no following. It’s not terrible, it’s not terrific, it just represents a moment in time when some reasonably genial second-tier actors showed up, got paid, and walked away from Ron Cobb’s laudable production design (with special salutes to art directors Pier Luigi Basile and William Ladd Skinner) and Stan Winston’s half-baked monster magic. (Seriously, the bone-stiff spider creature we’re introduced to in the first 15 minutes reminds us that we’re a long, long way from LV-426’s ambulatory facehuggers.)

Speaking of which, comparisons to Alien almost go without saying, but let’s call ‘em out anyway, shall we? A small mixed-bag crew of miners that fall right in line with the Nostromo’s ill-fated bunch, down to Richard Crenna’s mysterious scientist and Ernie Hudson’s badass black hero? Check. A slimy shapeshifting bloodthirsty latex beast terrorizing the ship? Check. Two females, one brunette and resourceful, one blonde and a little less so? Check. Ice-cool captain? Check, with golden-cheekboned Peter Weller standing in for Tom Skerrit. Enormous, meticulously designed, and claustrophobic set of many passageways? Final-reel countdown before self-destruction? Chest-burster sequence (with bonus monster hand)? Completely superfluous Jaws reference? Check, check, check, and why the hell not?

Cosmatos’ forte has never been suspense, but action (Rambo, Cobra, Tombstone), so one can only wonder what made anyone think he was the right man for the job. I can hardly imagine it was the re-teaming with his Of Unknown Origin star Weller that got people optimistic. “Sure, that guy who made the movie about a rat terrorizing a high rise? He’s the one.” Then again, not much thought seems to have gone into anything here – everything is as by-the-numbers as Jerry Goldsmith’s in-his-sleep musical score.

This is also a case where the presence of a more-than-seasoned cast and crew elevate expectations. For a straight-to-cable no-budgeter, viewers might have had more patience, but for major studio release with recognizable stars, the sloppiness and sheer mediocrity leaves a nasty aftertaste, especially since no one is doing their best work. Not sure whether screenwriters Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) and David Peoples (Blade Runner) are entirely to blame, but whoever thought that chainsaws and flamethrowers seemed like standard underwater mining equipment should have been called on the carpet at the first table read. Drills, bombs, even picks, but flamethrowers?

Then there’s the half-assed monster element, which definitely falls at Stuart and Peoples’ door, though it’s also clear that Winston’s crew didn’t have a Cameron or Spielberg riding their asses on this one. (Honestly, I’ve seen more convincing Chinese parade dragons.) Crenna’s blank-slate medical officer muses vaguely about bizarre genetic experimentations to create an underwater humanoid species, which doesn’t make a whole hellava lotta sense. I mean, if we’re going to be talking about the upsides to growing aquaslaves, then we deserve a full-out scene with some white-coated guy with spectacles and a 8mm film explaining why this would be a good idea.

In fact, so little happens onscreen that one inevitably starts pondering matters of trivia. Like, how the hell did a certain actor get his “And Hector Elizondo” billing pre-Pretty Woman? Was Daniel Stern in every movie released in the 1980s? Seriously, 25 film credits in 10 years? Who thought it was a good idea to cast Amanda Pays with her posh English accent as an underwater miner? Did anyone really think the Max Headroom crowd was going to turn out? (Cue the sound of dozens of under-30 readers opening another tab to Google “Max Headroom.”) Why didn’t Lisa Eilbacher have a bigger career? We loved her in 10 to Midnight and Beverly Hills Cop! Oh, is the movie still on? Huh.

In short, I hope all (Deep Star) six of you Leviathan fans out there enjoy this new Blu-ray release, which includes new interviews with Elizondo and Hudson, and creature effects artists Alec Gillis, Shannon Shea, and Tom Woodruff Jr, all of which are – truth be told – quite wonderful, if only to hear the behind-the-scenes stories of Winston on the warpath. For the rest of you, indulge in an array of inspired reviews of other Abyss-mal rip-offs over at Video Junkie. It’ll take less time and will prove a lot more satisfying.

Leviathan arrives on Blu-ray August 19 courtesy of Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


  1. Replies
    1. You're thanking me? We should all be down on our knees thanking you guys for watching all that crap so we didn't have to, and writing reviews more entertaining than the films themselves. Salute!!!

  2. I've always had a soft spot for 1989's big budget "Alien fused with John Carpenter's The Thing" underwater gorefest Leviathan.It seems the screenwriting duo also took inspiration from David Cronenberg' s The Fly with all the icky gross out body metamorphosis stuff throw in.

    1. Does that really qualify as "inspiration" though? I remembered seeing it in the cinema with my kid brother and I'll never forget his hesitant but honesty-born-of-youth answer: "That wasn't very good." Again, had it been a scrappy little independent production, I probably would have cut it more slack, but as a major studio release...not so much.

  3. Is it a bad thing that I kind of love Of Unknown Origin?

    1. You're in good company, my friend. That movie rocks.