Lords of the Deep (1989) Lords of the Deep (1989) -*½

     Roger Corman being Roger Corman, there was simply no way that Concorde-New Horizons would sit idly on the sidelines while everybody else in Hollywood turned sci-fi movies about encounters with strange creatures on the ocean floor into the most unlikely bandwagon of 1989. The mere existence of Lords of the Deep should therefore surprise nobody. What is surprising— shocking, even— is the specific form in which Corman staked his company’s claim to a piece of the bathypelagic action. Alone among the producers vying with James Cameron in 1989’s Battle of the Benthos, Corman copied The Abyss directly. While MGM and Carolco made straight-up monster movies, the Concorde-New Horizons take is a tale of first contact between humans and sea-dwelling extraterrestrials who mean us no harm, but whose presence on our planet is perceived as a threat by characters whose professions incline them toward suspicion and defensive hostility. Lords of the Deep would rather awe us than scare us, and the mood to which it aspires is contemplative, cerebral, and critical of humanity’s bad habits. Of course, this is still a Concorde-New Horizons movie, so it has to find a way to do all that while being shoddy, rushed, and crudely imitative. Predictably, it does not succeed.

     In the year 2020, the combination of industrial pollution and resource exhaustion has brought human civilization to the brink of collapse. The ozone layer is essentially gone, making it impossible to go outside anymore without protective clothing, and there’s no prospect of conditions getting anything other than worse for the foreseeable future. Fortunately (for very small values of that word), a few of the corporations that have effectively replaced traditional governments are led by people of more enlightened self-interest than their 20th century counterparts. The latest frontier in the technology business is the development of underwater habitats, whose residents will be safe on the seafloor from the ultraviolet rays cooking the planet’s land surface. At the Martel Corporation, the relevant undertaking is Project Neptune, which has progressed as far as the establishment of a permanent laboratory complex on the ocean floor. There, a team of six men and two women conduct research aimed at making it possible to build entire subaquatic cities (which Martel will no doubt operate very profitably according to the model of a Gilded Age company town). It would appear, however, that something has not gone according to plan down there, because the executive in charge of the project (Corman himself, in a cameo closer in magnitude to the FBI director in The Silence of the Lambs than to the phone-booth cheapskate in The Howling) has recently decided to replace the entire Neptune crew apart from station manager Stuart Dobler (Bradford Dillman, from Piranha and A Black Ribbon for Deborah). It’s all very mysterious, but it has something to do with the discovery by biologist Claire McDowell (Priscilla Barnes, of The Devil’s Rejects and the 70’s TV version of The Time Machine) of a strange organic substance clinging to the reef beside which the Neptune lab was built. The stuff resembles no known lifeform or metabolic byproduct thereof, and touching it with bare skin brings on powerful psychedelic experiences.

     The replacement crew never makes it to the station, however. First, their submarine shuttle is badly damaged during its final approach through the reef by one of the earthquakes that have become increasingly common of late in the vicinity of Neptune base. And then something else happens— something that we don’t get to see, but which the shuttle commander (John Lafayette, from Neon Maniacs and The Terror Within) acts like he wasn’t expecting even as a theoretical possibility— and that’s the last anyone sees or hears of anybody aboard. Dobler dispatches Chadwick (Richard Young, of Night Call Nurses and Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning) to look for the stricken vessel in one of the Neptune utility subs, and to rescue any survivors if possible. What he finds out on the reef merely raises more questions. The shuttle is there, alright, but all of its external hatches are open to the sea, and there’s no trace of passengers or crew, either alive or dead. Then communications with Chadwick are disrupted as well, and the situation becomes even more unsettlingly weird. Chadwick’s sub returns to Neptune under its own power, but what’s inside his dive suit when it does isn’t Chadwick anymore. McDowell and staff physician Barbara Stohlenmeyer (Melody Ryane) will need to run some tests to be sure, of course, but it looks like about 170 pounds of that unidentifiable goo from the reef.

     Strangely, Dobler tries to prevent those tests from being performed, whether as an autopsy on Chadwick or as a general biochemical analysis. The doctors do it anyway, though, and confirm thereby what they already suspected. McDowell comes up against a second troubling bit of official obstructionism when she and her lover, engineer Jack O’Neill (Daryl Haney, from The Unborn and The Curse of the Komodo, who also co-wrote Lords of the Deep’s screenplay), search the memory banks of TRILBY, the station’s HAL 9000-like central computer, for any history of environmental anomalies in the area before they took up residence at Neptune base. All the relevant files are restricted so as to be accessible only to the station manager, even though there are supposed to be no secrets among the Neptune crew. So who exactly is hiding what? Is Dobler trying to keep some personal malfeasance under wraps, or is the Martel Corporation itself orchestrating a coverup?

     Meanwhile, in the lab, the Chadwick blob is undergoing some extraordinary changes. Not only has it grown substantially, but it seems to be organizing itself into something analogous to biological tissues, while shaping its previously amorphous overall mass into a vague but undeniable body-plan. When the transformation completes itself, the result adorably resembles a Muppet angel shark! That’s the final straw for Dobler. He wants the Chadwick specimen destroyed, the whole crew off the station, and a round of non-disclosure agreements signed by everybody. That last bit, as he ought to have expected when dealing with scientists, provokes a veritable mutiny. Only Stanley Engel (Death House’s Gregory Sobek), Dobler’s brownnosing right-hand man, consents to sign the documents, and indeed it’s an open question how many of the researchers Dobler can even get to leave the seafloor unless and until their rapidly multiplying questions about the creature in the lab are answered to their satisfaction. That’s a moot point for the moment, however, because the shuttle sub carrying the vanished replacement crew was the only Neptune vehicle with both the range and the payload to haul six or seven people to the surface. No one’s going anywhere unless somebody takes another mini-sub out to the shuttle and gets it working again, despite the risk of being turned into (or replaced by, or whatever) a fish-Muppet. That unenviable task falls to Robert Fernandez (Stephen Davies, of The Nest and Alien Intruder), but he is set upon and spirited away by a whole swarm of ray creatures like the Chadwick specimen before he can so much as park beside the larger sub.

     That’s when things start to go really haywire. For one thing, the creature in the lab breaks loose, and starts prowling around the station using the air ducts and even the plumbing to move about without being seen. And for another, Seaver (Ed Lottimer, from Future Kick and Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls) is suffocated to death when TRILBY catches him alone in one of the workshops, and draws off its air supply. Neither state of affairs seems to be quite what it appears on its face, however. If we may judge from the ray creature’s actions, it’s way more interested in making contact with McDowell than in doing to the rest of the crew whatever its fellows have done to the humans they’ve waylaid so far. Meanwhile, Dobler’s twitchy insistence that Stohlenmeyer forego an autopsy on Seaver in favor of joining in the hunt for the escaped specimen is such that one can’t help but ask whether TRILBY could have been acting on his orders when she turned homicidal. At the very least, it’s no longer plausibly deniable that some sort of human evil is afoot on the station, whatever the intentions of Neptune’s non-human visitors.

     I have to give Lords of the Deep points for trying— no two ways about that! In a phase of Corman’s career when he was finally starting to deserve the reputation as a producer of hacky garbage that he’d unjustly had since the 60’s, this movie takes aim at by far the hardest of the three obvious targets among the deep-divers of 1989. Furthermore, it does so even despite the unmistakable ease with which the old Forbidden World script could have been rebuilt into a Leviathan knockoff. Concorde-New Horizons would later become infamous for exactly that form of recycling, and there was very little reason to expect better of them even at this stage of the company’s lifecycle. Still, Lords of the Deep is a lousy copy of a mediocre original, so the question is, which would you rather have: a film that fulfills to the bare minimum a pedestrian set of expectations, or one that swings for the fences and not only misses, but somehow manages to whack itself in the nuts with the bat?

     Lords of the Deep’s most readily diagnosed problems can be traced to lack of funding, naturally. When Bradford Dillman is the biggest name a production can afford, while Roger Corman himself is the most capable actor, it’s obvious that there just wasn’t enough money to make ends meet. The same goes for the Muppet-like aquatic aliens, the garage-like laboratory sets, and the Neptune base control room, which looks like someone tried to recreate the bridge of the original starship Enterprise in the conference room of a downtown Days Inn. Worst of all are the interiors for the alien habitat that figures in the third act. Those plaster sea caves would be just barely adequate for some 1950’s regional theme park’s tacky knockoff of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride! Normally all that would be forgivable, but because Lords of the Deep wants so badly to be The Abyss, it also asks us to pretend that we’re bowled over by the wonder of it all. Not even the miniature work (Neptune base itself, the various submarines, the small-scale puppets for the free-swimming aliens), all of which is startlingly good in comparison to everything else on the material side of the production, is up to that standard, and the movie does itself no favors by behaving as if it were. The one time when director Mary Ann Fisher really seems to grasp the limitations under which she’s operating is the scene where the lab specimen comes out of hiding. If nothing else, Fisher was realistic enough to recognize that a foam rubber angel shark emerging from a utility sink was no match for an unprecedented CGI water tentacle, and gave the effect deservedly short shrift.

     Ultimately, though, none of those faults are as serious as the combination of lethargic pace and clunky, incoherent writing. Lords of the Deep quite simply lies limp on the screen for the great bulk of its running time, doing little and going nowhere. That might have been alright if the mystery of the aliens’ intentions were sufficiently interesting— indeed, under those circumstances, I might have welcomed being given time to ponder what they were up to in relative peace and quiet. The trouble is, the creatures’ motives aren’t so much a mystery as a mess. We can tell from the tone of Dr. McDowell’s goop-touching hallucinations (imagine stock footage of the space warp effect from Battle Beyond the Stars repurposed as an ASMR video, and you’ll have the general idea) that the aliens will ultimately stand revealed as cuddly and harmless, no matter how aggressive they might seem from their habit of abducting submarine crews. There’s thus nothing to be gained by keeping us in suspense, nor can the film credibly fall back on the ever-enjoyable problem of interspecies communication when the aliens have no difficulty whispering in soothingly perfect English inside McDowell’s mind. They’re just being willfully enigmatic for no fucking reason. And in the meantime, there’s the wee, little problem that abducting people is, on its face, an aggressive act, so that Dobler has to be both written and performed as an over-the-top Snidely Whiplash caricature in order to seem anything other than perfectly reasonable and demonstrably in the right. Lords of the Deep would have been a much better movie if it had acknowledged and leveraged the two characters’ positions— if it had pitted a McDowell with insider information that she has no way of substantiating against a Dobler who rightly wants to protect his crew from what looks for all the world like a hostile force. Hell, doing that would even have given Lords of the Deep a personality sufficiently different from The Abyss to justify its existence in non-mercenary terms! I can’t help observing, either, that a hypothetical New World Pictures Abyss cash-in could have been expected to do exactly that. Lords of the Deep is therefore illustrative of Roger Corman’s sharp decline as a producer over the course of the 1980’s.



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