“We know more about outer space than we do about our own oceans.” Just under 30 years ago, this often quoted faux-factoid became the basis for a new type of horror film. With audiences growing bored of terrors from beyond the stars, Hollywood sought to find an equally inhospitable spot to spook moviegoers. Their answer was surprisingly close to home. The deep sea overtook space as the place to be killed in 1989, thanks to a tidal wave of deep sea creature-features that swamped the silver screen in only a year.
In 1989, no fewer than six like-minded horror and sci-fi movies hit the screens. Leviathan, The Abyss, Deepstar Six, The Rift, Lords of the Deep and The Evil Below all take place underwater, following crews of grizzled divers and explorers who encounter horrible beasts. But what’s most surprising about the trend is its origins.
The horror genre is heavily based around imitation. The Blair Witch Project inspired the entire genre of found-footage movies. Before that, Alien did the same thing for nightmarish space-travel films. But the spasm of Bush Sr.-era aquatic horror wasn’t clearly inspired by any one successful movie. So what spawned it?
Three separate events can explain why studios sought out the sea. The first involved a Reese’s Pieces eating alien. E.T. hit theaters in 1982, and with his glowing finger he zapped away the public’s appetite for evil space creatures. Thanks to Spielberg’s adorable puppet, the horror trend that Alien spawned was over—for a while, anyway.
But the most significant inspirations for the nautical horror genre came from outside the entertainment industry. In the fall of 1985, a crew of American and French researchers discovered the wreckage of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic. Four months later, the Challenger Space Shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after its launch. The two events were opposites. One, a discovery deep beneath the waves; the other, a tragedy in the sky. Both events arguably led to a change in the public’s interests. Suddenly, the dangers of space travel seemed too real for fanciful fictions. The sea, however, was exciting again. A renewed interest in the deep ocean was born, and studios began work on a string of underwater features in 1987.
TriStar Pictures won the race to release, with their film Deepstar Six debuting in January of 1989. Deepstar was on the lower end of the big-budget releases, staffed with a cast of character actors and helmed by Friday The 13th director Sean Cunningham. That film’s composer, Harry Manfrendini, also created the score.
Deepstar, for the most part, was an uninspiring movie, confined to sets loaded with analog technology and winking lights. The movie does shine in the creature department, as most of these movies do. The monster is best described as an angry crustacean that looks like it’d taste great dipped in melted butter. Deepstar is also notable for its use of the “dry for wet” look, where sets are designed to mimic marine locations without actually being underwater. This technique would be more heavily used in the next film to reach theaters.
Leviathan, a step up in terms of budget, was also about a group of deep-sea explorers who encounter an unfriendly fish. Then hot actor Peter Weller played the team’s lead, with the rest of the cast filled out by character players, including John Rambo’s ex-commanding officer Richard Crenna. Leviathan took inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing, heavily borrowing from that film’s monster design. Leviathan also had one of that film’s special effects wizards, Stan Winston. Winston created the look of the creature, which was more alien in design, contrasting with the lobsterlike appearance of the Deepstar monster.
The last big studio attempt was James Cameron’s The Abyss, the most successful of the bunch. The Abyss splashes around in the excitement of discovery; the other films tend to wallow in dread. Although Abyss is the standout, it still features all the genre’s trappings: mysterious creatures, deep-sea dives and marine techno-babble. Out of the six, Abyss was the only one to receive a positive reaction from critics, but it still underperformed at the box office. More important, the film would end up serving as a dress rehearsal for Cameron’s true ocean opus, Titanic.
The last three specimens fall into copycat territory. Most were made by foreign studios who’d noticed the trend. Proceed with caution.
The Rift, or Endless Descent as it’s alternately titled, follows a submarine crew of B-movie actors as they deal with underwater mutants and lame models. It’s notable for having the worst tagline of the bunch, warning viewers that “You Can’t Hold your Breath and Scream at the Same Time,“ a downgrade of Deepstar’s "Save Your Last Breath to Scream.”
LORDS OF THE DEEP / EVIL BELOW
The other two are ultra low budget, and no one has bothered to upload their trailers. Lords of the Deep was a Roger Corman-produced knock-off, notable only for Corman’s involvement. Last, and least, was Evil Below, a film so inconsequential that the entire thing can be watched on YouTube.
After the sea-dust had settled, most of the films were written off as losses or draws. Hollywood had overestimated the desire to see films set deep in the ocean. The genre sank as quickly as it had surfaced. The horror genre, like the tides, is always changing.