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Monster (Humanoids from the Deep) Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Monster (Humanoids from the Deep) Review

    That's right, folks, we've got yet another Roger Corman Cult Classic to savour! Hot on the heels of Death Race 2000, Galaxy Of Terror, Forbidden World and Piranha arriving on Blu-ray, we now have the morally dubious but extraordinarily entertaining Humanoids From The Deep (aka Monster) from 1980. Directed by Barbara Peeters and presented here in its uncensored debut for North America (the International Version that we saw here in the UK was always uncut to begin with), Humanoids carries a certain amount of understandable infamy. The story from Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen, adapted into a surprisingly weighty screenplay by Frederick James, is immediately risqué. A heftily mutated new humanoid species of amphibian - part reptile, part man, part prehistoric coalacanth - has evolved in the coastal waters off the North Californian fishing community of Noyo and has begun to make attacks on mankind. Savage and lethal attacks on man, that is, but attacks of an altogether different kind upon woman. Yep, you've guessed it, Corman's critters are hell-bent on mating with their shrieking female human victims.

    All of this seems to have come about thanks to some genetic jiggery-pokery - what else? - and if the prospect of a brand new canning factory opening-up down the coast was the only thing rattling a few cages in the neighbourhood, then the good folks of sleepy Noyo are in for a mighty big shock once they start partying at the annual Salmon Festival shindig. It's all down to the most easygoing monster-battler in the history of fantasy films, Doug McClure, to save the day. Throw in a potent mix of racial tension, a soupçon of delinquent scientific mumbo-jumbo, some typically horny teens and the odd fist-fight and dog massacre and you've Cormania written large and lurid.

    Remarkably for such an obvious exercise in the most primal exploitation, Humanoids From The Deep garnered itself some very sympathetic reviews when it first hit cinemas. I can recall the trailers playing for it on TV and, at the tender age of around ten years old, I was immediately captivated by the promise of ghastly sea-monsters and scantily-clad ladies in peril. And, catching up with it on video only a couple of years later, it did not disappoint. And the reason for this, as well as its strangely welcome coverage from the critics, is simple. The film, like so many of Corman's sleaze 'n' tease flicks, is nothing but good old mucky fun. The very fact that it wants to shock you means that it is actually very hard to be offended by it casual atrocities and degradations. You certainly don't go into this sort of movie expecting another Alien or The Thing, that's for sure. It is hokum of a revamped, upgraded Drive-In variety, and that sort of low budget enterprise carries with it a certain preconceived thrill. But what fans, and a fair few critics to boot, love about them is the fact that Corman's movies actually deliver a little bit more than they, at first, pretend to - the terrific satire of Death Race 2000, the cavalier flamboyance of Battle Beyond The Stars, the biting humour of Piranha - means that you come away with the knowledge that as well as being playfully hackneyed, these movies were having a laugh with you, whilst all the while raising a little political hell and stirring in a few inventive concepts along the way.

    And as economical as these productions so clearly are, they always offer great value for money.

    Another feather in the cap was the way that Corman and New World Pictures were usually able to gather together a good cast - well, to be fair, they seemed to lose this particular gift around the mid-eighties - and were usually wise enough to choose well-known people that actually belonged to the genre, rather than just going after big (and costlier) names that they knew would be bound to draw in the crowds. This often meant that they would poach and round-up actors who were, perhaps, at the career point of slumming it. Thus, rather like Barbara Steele looking a little out-of-sorts in Piranha, Doug McClure doesn't really seem to warm to his role of moralistic fisherman-cum-town-saviour, Jim Hill. You can certainly see a bemused expression on his face during many sequences of cod-investigation and local scufflings. But then you can't dispute the fact that he takes the craziness of working opposite rubbery monsters on the chin. Geddit? On the chin? He's playing someone called Jimmy Hill ... Oh, forget it, then. And anyone who had been At The Earth's Core, or in The Land That Time Forgot and had obligingly battled the Warlords Of Atlantis would hardly seem put-out by confronting this gaggle of ghoulish gill-men.

    Anne Turkel, a former Mrs Richard Harris, was no stranger to weird genre movies, with The Cassandra Crossing and The Ravagers to her credit. And she does reasonably well here as Dr. Susan Drake, the super marine boffin that the canning factory has in their back-pocket. Striving to increase the physical size and the sheer number of the salmon in the local waters via some more of that tried but never trusted cinematic cliché of un-researched genetic manipulation, she also knows a little more about the humanoid sex fiends than she initially lets on. Of course, once all hell breaks loose, she is yelling that no-one would listen to her warnings, but I can't be the only one spotting the fact that she seems quite excited to have had a hand in the creation of a mighty new species.

    Like many Corman pictures, the film is rife with political subtext. And, in fact, Humanoids is actually one of the better developed in this regard. With the late great Vic Morrow playing the town's hard-line and devoutly racist rabble-rouser, Hank Slattery, the film makes a few pertinent observations about harboured resentment and bigoted bullying. Blaming the local Native Indian community for the mysterious deeds being committed in their midst - vanishing bathers, fishing net vandalism, canine murders - and vocal activist Johnny Eagle (a great performance from Anthony Pena) especially, he and his blow-hard cronies go on a rampage of their own. This sub-plot is actually so involving and well acted that, for some spells, you genuinely forget about the rampant sea monsters lurking at the threshold. Morrow would go on to portray a similar bigot in the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie - during the filming of which he was tragically killed - but he had been seen in all types of films and TV shows before this. However, he, too, was no stranger to the wild world of low budget exploitation. He had appeared in things such as Dan Curtis' great (though seldom seen) Curse Of The Black Widow, Japan's wacky Message From Space and the daft-but-dull murder/mystery The Evictors. His clandestine reconnaissance and sabotage missions up the river in Humanoids provide some genuine boo-hiss villainy. The bizarre thing is that Morrow is also capable of making the otherwise despicable Slattery actually quite sympathetic, as well. Against out better judgement, we can actually understand his point of view.

    Johnny Eagle, on the other hand, is a full-blown hero. It is slightly odd that the wounds he receives during a beating from Hank and his redneck chums seem to get worse and worse as the movie progresses - that black eye just swells and swells, doesn't it? - but his nobility and derring-do never seems forced or contrived.

    So, skulduggery and covert missions become their own exciting offshoot from the series of deaths and rapes taking place on the rugged beaches. And, location-wise, the film is often praised for its picture-postcard imagery of North California but, to be perfectly blunt, this is one wet and windy looking enclave. We're talking more Potter's Bluff (Dead & Buried) than Antionio Bay (The Fog) or Cavett Cove (Murder, She Wrote). The coast is windswept and full of rain. The ladies might be parading about in barely fitting little bikinis, but it looks bloody freezing to me, mate! And you wouldn't catch me reclining on those shale-heavy bays and inlets even if there weren't any lecherous mollusc-men on the sniff.

    Whilst it is certainly eyebrow-raising that Corman selected a woman to helm this gratuitous horror show, it should come as no surprise to those who know how he operates that he had his second unit/assistant director James Sbardellati go back in to Barbara Peeters' finished film and pitch in a whole slew of naughty bits and extra gore. And with the aid of Mark Goldblatt's editing, the film became a whole new entity. Indeed, the cast and the official director had been under the assumption that what they were making was actually more of a psychological thriller than an out-and-out exploitation flick. You can only imagine the shock that they would have felt when they saw the final cut of the film. Suddenly, there was mutant-rape all over the beaches, faces and heads were being wrenched off, every excuse to have some jiggling boobs on display was utilised to the full and the painstaking atmosphere of slow-burn dread that Peeters had evidently tried to instil was virtually thrown out in favour of action and murders every few minutes. And are we complaining about this dosage of excess production? Nope. Not a bit of it.

    Certain shots of naked women running in terror from these lurching seaweed-clad molesters have gone down in trash cinema history. Miss Salmon (of all things), played by Linda Shayne, actually gets to fight off the advances of one understandably determined mutant, but not before he has torn off her bikini top and given her the opportunity to bounce her way comically (and beautifully) towards us with her lungs venting forth at top decibel. It is gratuitously gigglesome stuff, folks ... but then it is meant to be. Galaxy Of Terror, which was just around the corner, would boast the gasp-worthy “maggot-rape” scene, but there is not denying that seeing some of these girls getting flung to the ground and leapt upon with such gusto can be even less savoury. The finding of one poor victim, still alive beneath a bed of seaweed and the obvious recipient of what has amounted to a gang-rape is a pretty sobering image that suddenly wipes that smirk off your face. The film doesn't always pull the rug of titillation out from under you, but at least it does make the horror of what is happening quite apparent when it really counts. Barbara Peeters may not have had her name taken off the picture, but she never worked in the genre again, and her career veered off to the ignominy of television, which is a shame because she showed a fine grasp of suspense-building with early sequences, here, of fishermen encountering something unusual in their nets, and of the growing sense of suspicion and unease after the town's dogs have been found slain.

    Not too long ago, I made what now turns out to be an erroneous remark regarding actress Cindy Weintraub. When reviewing Joseph Zito's awesome slasher The Prowler, I commented that Weintraub, who appears as nothing more than a victim in that, wasn't very good and that she didn't fare much better in this, as Jim's wife Carol. Well, that just shows you how long ago it was that I must have last seen the film because, to be perfectly honest with you, she is actually very good indeed. Not only do she have to contend with her trawlerman hubby taking off on ill-conceived monster-sorties with Turkel's cute and confident scientist, but, in perhaps the film's best set-piece, she has to defend herself, her home and her infant son from a frenzied last-act attack from several of the beasts. And Weintraub does every damn genre heroine proud with her resilient and courageous last stand. It is safe to say that when Mrs. Peltzer goes on the home-front and fights back against the horde of gremlins in, erm, Gremlins, she is actually paying homage to Cindy's magnificent table-turning ferocity in the Hill's besieged property. (And the Gremlins tribute to Humanoids doesn't stop there ... check out Greg Travis' excitable and ultimately scared witless DJ at the big party when the mossy maulers come ashore, for a definite influence on Rockin' Ricky Rialto's on-air adventures in Joe Dante's film.) It is worth mentioning at this point, as well, that the poor little child playing the Hills' son looks genuinely terrified during this sequence and, rubbery menace aside, guarantees you an unexpected jolt of added jeopardy.

    With The Thing still but a fever-dream in his wild imagination, Rob Bottin designed the monster-suits and, as hokey and as rubbery as they are, they are actually pretty darn good. Bottin had previous experience with icky things from beneath the sea, what with Dante's Piranha in 1978 and with John Carpenter's leprous maritime wraiths in The Fog from the year after, in which he even played the part of the glowing-eyed leader, Captain Blake, so these mucus-sacks were probably par for the course for the makeup artist. You are never going to be fooled into thinking that they are not just a man in a costume, but the great thing is that they can stand up to prolonged exposure and prove quite fascinating when you get a chance to scrutinise them. Crazy teeth in that wide maw, slime and gunk from the seabed running riot all over the spiny armour and that obscenely enlarged head, a humanoid from the deep is most certainly not a pretty sight. H R Giger's design work for the Alien was a revelation in terms of how utterly incredible human-altering suits can be, but Ridley Scott still knew that audiences were going to suss out what was what if the creature was on-screen for too long. Roger Corman and Barbara Peeters (well James Sbardellati, if we are honest) have no such qualms. They know that the punters have paid to see the titular beasts and Corman's proviso to Bottin was essentially don't skimp on the detail and give us the very best that you can for the money because we're gonna have these guys running riot all over the show. Admittedly, the film does keep the humanoids in the shadows for a good half hour (clearly Peeters' modus operandi), but after that the game is up and the covers are off. What is truly remarkable is that Bottin only ever made three costumes. It is all down to the editing and the direction that tricks us into thinking that there is an army of the mutated knobby-heads sliming around the joint. And the thing is, you really do believe that there are loads of them marauding about. What I will say, however, is that the creature with the big long orang-utan arms was a bit of a mistake. Quite frankly, this lanky dude just looks silly, but at least Bottin was aiming for some variety. Plus, even if the sight of mangy monsters lumbering up to people with their arms swinging from side to side smacked of the juvenile horror of Doctor Who, you just have to bear in mind what these things want to do once they get hold of you!

    And, happily, as well as the nudie-bits, the gore is lashed on with vigour, literally spraying out of some of the more grievously nasty wounds like the arterial geysers in Shogun Assassin. Some of it looks a bit daft, but then some of it looks quite tremendously grisly too. A vicious claw-swipe lays open one poor unfortunate's back, the prosthetic injury allowing us to peer deep into the shredded and exposed muscle and sinew. There is even quite a shockingly realistic dog-killing that comes early on. Shots of people being dragged under the water and hauled off into the depths are well achieved, although it does make you wish that you could see how the mutants move in the sea because they are clearly supposed to be more adept in the briny than they are on dry land. Nice moments abound. A screaming reveller hiding on the merry-go-round in one shot, his head gouged open the very next time we see him spin around. A bunch of locals arming themselves with knives, clubs and staves of wood and laying into one of the mutants. Some fun with Molotov-cocktails. And the sheer innuendo-nirvana of a sex scene involving a ventriloquist's dummy.

    Humanoids From The Deep is also famous for giving a shot to someone who has since gone on to become one of cinema's most esteemed, award-winning and prolific composers - the now-ubiquitous James Horner. He had provided a limited score for Corman's earlier aquatic monsterthon, Up From The Depths (1979), New World's most obvious Jaws homage, but his work for this mutant mayhem is much better, in my opinion - wall-to-wall mood and dramatic that features the very beginnings of what would eventually be recognised as being some of his trademark motifs. There are definitely hints of what would come later in Wolfen, the following year, which would of course then bleed over in to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan the year after, and then Krull and Brainstorm before he unleashed a veritable symphonic broadside for the great Aliens for another Corman alumnus, James Cameron. Without a doubt, his contribution to this amphibian nightmare was gold-dust. It not only set him on the road to much bigger and greater projects, but it gave the film a much classier feel and aided the structure of the tension-building tenfold. Horner uses melodic horns and woodwinds to evoke the mystery of the sea and the resulting cadence is like a mournful lament, very suggestive of the cold and lonely depths. Only very young at the time, himself, the composer already exhibited the kind of maturity that would see Oscars eventually winging their way towards him. Straight after Humanoids he would compose the score for Corman's Battle Beyond The Stars.

    So what was Corman saying with this movie? Or rather, what films was he aping?

    Well, the theme of a poisoned ecology turning around to bite Mankind on the ass was certainly very big at the time. Just the year before, John Frankenheimer had leaked out the lamentable Prophecy (excellent score CD from Leonard Rosenman reviewed separately) with its similar concept of mutated nature and troubles with the local Native Americans. And there was Michael Wadleigh's supreme Wolfen prowling in the shadows just around the corner, itself marvellously concerned with Man's conflict with the wild and, once again, some intricate spiritual bother with the Indians. But of course, Corman had already dipped his toes into the murky waters of gene-manipulation and its dangerous fall-out with Piranha, so this further exploration of evolutionary threat was actually part of the same human-hungry family. Humanoids was also a much better and far more entertaining film that Frankenheimer's really rather wretched wilderness shocker, benefiting from having its clammy tongue wedged in its algae-covered cheek. And even if both films featured men cramped inside monster-suits, the Humanoids knocked spots off the giant turd that Prophecy's mutant-bear turned out to be.

    Definitely the darling of any burgeoning schlock or sleaze-fest, Humanoids From The Deep rattles mischievously along for its astonishingly lean 82 minutes. The epitome of a Corman quickie, the film still holds up well today as a streamlined creature-feature that pulls few punches but refuses to take itself in the least bit seriously. Which is just as well with such a controversial plot-line. Combining great gore with ambitious monster creations from the crazy Rob Bottin, and providing a juicy underlying subtext of genetic threat and racial intolerance, Corman's roller-coaster of sex 'n' death is an absolute knock-out that delivers thrills, chills and giggles in equal measure. Oh, and watch out for that jaw-droppingly nasty final shock that owes a real debt to Alien ... but just make sure that nobody watching it is pregnant!

    Low budget creeps don't come much more emphatic than this. You've just gotta love it!