The incredible momentum of the slasher film in the early-to-mid 1980s causes a lot of folks to overlook “creature feature” category of that era; other than Carpenter’s The Thing in ’82, Gremlins in ’84, and Pumpkinhead in ’88, there’s not a lot of “monster movies” that I hear discussed much amongst lighter-weight horror fans — you know, those weird people unlike you and I that don’t relish gems like The Boogens, Blood Beach, Q: The Winged Serpent, Critters, The Outing, Rawhead Rex, Cellar Dweller…I could go on, but you get the idea. If I didn’t mention your personal favorite, trust me, it’s purely an issue of page space…and my laziness here at the keyboard.
Right at the tail end of the decade, we got a creature feature that hearkened back to one of the granddaddies of the modern “monster movie”, and had one of the pioneers of the slasher film at the helm; Sean Cunningham’s deep-sea tale of creature terror, DeepStar Six.
The U.S. Navy crewed undersea station DeepStar Six, consisting of the main facility (DS6) and a housing/living unit (SEATRAK), is an experimental government installation that, whilst under the umbrella of research and development, is also a staging area for the placement of nuclear missile emplacements on the ocean floor. The current crew is reaching the end of a stint where they are to have a particular “sled” of nukes positioned by a certain time before they are rotated out, and the project manager is antsy to get the job done.
The discovery of a large cavern prompts the onboard marine biologist to want to do a full exploration and sample gathering mission, but her request is overridden; time is too short, she’s told, and the cavern is ordered collapsed so that their work can commence. While attempting to carry out this order, two crew members run afoul of something that dwells here at the ocean floor; something perhaps disturbed by their activities…something never meant to be seen by man. This creature promptly attacks the lighted station by slamming into SEATRAK at incredible speed. This sends the housing module over a ledge into a deep canyon, claiming the lives of two crew members, and quite nearly a few more. The remaining naval personnel rally their efforts at DS6 and prepare to evacuate, but events transpire that stymie this effort, and it’s soon apparent that the survival of these deep-sea explorers will depend on how much they can avoid a string of very bad decisions, bad luck…and a very large, hungry, and determined indigenous life-form.
Fresh outta the gate, you’re going to be reminded of Alien; from the characterizations to the settings in DS6 themselves, the similarities are quite evident. You can also find almost exactly the same story in almost exactly the same setting with the film Leviathan, also from 1989 (you kinda get the impression that Cameron’s The Abyss got everyone humming “Under The Sea”), but here Cunningham goes more for a slasher formula than Leviathan’s more sci-fi horror, The Thing approach.
That’s not to say that it’s a poorly-done slasher rehash; on the contrary, it’s not a “stalk-n-stab” — only around half of the bodies in the tally are actually direct results of monster attack; this makes bad circumstances and the dissolving mental states of the characters as much or more the threat than the giant hermit crab from the deep — and to me makes the film that much more interesting. To this end, the first half of the film does something that lower-end horror usually ignores: there’s actually some character development. It’s not enough to slow the film down, but rather just enough to make the characters believeable, and to a large extent sympathetic. Are some of the tropes used familiar? Well sure they are…but so what? I still feel the script is tight enough to hold water (see what I did there?).
The performances are pretty spot-on in my opinion, with the aforementioned empathy and disdain coming easily with the characterizations presented. I have to give special note to Miguel Ferrer as the unfortunate Snyder; his portrayal of a decent (if somewhat annoying) guy coming apart under pressure (heh-heh) whilst also becoming a victim of unfortunate circumstance is quite memorable. A special nod also to Nancy Everhard, giving us a strong female lead whilst maintaining a femininity that is quite fetching. Of course, T.V.s Greg Evigan as the heroic male lead is the standard “troubled boy with a heart of gold”, and Matt McCoy’s likeable, comedic foil is a nice touch as well.
The rest of the cast rounds out with more than serviceable performances, and I honestly feel the ensemble meshed well. The practical special effects are more than decent, with the predominance of the monster’s appearances shadowy, and that’s just fine with me; some of its limitations become obvious later in the film, but I still feel that the overall effect is done well. True to form, Cunningham gives us some pretty interesting, bloody, and well-done kills as well.
I love this one, folks; sure, it’s an Alien knock-off, just like Leviathan; this film’s just a more bargain basement version — but to me, DeepStar Six has a charm about it that its larger-budgeted contemporary does not. Cunningham’s direction has a lot to do with this, and the scripting and performances evokes a more believable, relatable group to me.
Bottom line: I find this flick to be a lot of fun; it doesn’t make you think too much, but it gives you what you need to have a good time with an old-fashioned monster movie.
Two cents lighter.