Reviews

Sean S. Cunningham

USA, 1989

Credits

Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 21 October 2013

Source International Video Entertainment VHS

Categories 31 Days of Horror X

Since the dawn of history, humans have been fascinated, and terrified, by the oceans. Early cartographers, fueled by tall tales, and a paucity of facts, populated many of the blank spaces on their maps with humongous and hideous sea creatures. For centuries, such seemingly benign decorations proved exceedingly powerful on our collective imagination, engendering a persistent belief that something horrible lay in wait in the bottomless depths. Even today, despite extraordinary advances in mapping and exploring the ocean floor, we still cannot claim to have uncovered all of the oceans secrets, or experienced all its horrific possibilities. Each Monday this month, we’ll dive into a tale of terror that plunges us far below the horrors of the surface world into the unfathomable fears of the deep.


Mired in the impenetrable darkness of the ocean floor, the crew of DeepStar Six is putting the finishing touches on an underwater missile site for the U.S. Navy. All that’s left is to take some soundings to ensure the chosen location is stable enough to support the base. Unfortunately, the reports indicate that the position isn’t stable, being directly above a deep cavern. Under pressure to complete the project within a week, the team simply doesn’t have time to shift the operation to another spot. And so, the decision is made: detonate some explosives, collapse the cavern, and build the site on the resultant rubble. It’s not a bad plan, except the cavern is home to an ancient, enormous, and angry arthropod that doesn’t take kindly to having its home destroyed.

Though often classed as a knock off of The Abyss, in many ways this effort by the director of Friday the 13th feels more like an underwater rehash of the first two Alien films: we have a cocky crew tasked with what they believe is a routine assignment; a vicious and unknown species hell bent on the destruction of foolish humans; and a confined environment from which no one can escape. Toss in some stock characters like a low-key captain, whiny crewmembers who grumble about everything they are asked to do, and a strong-and-silent-type hero, and it seems clear where Cunningham and company drew much of their inspiration. There’s even a breakfast table scene straight out of Alien to introduce us to the main players. And while this modestly budgeted affair can’t match the nuanced characterizations of Ridley Scott’s floating haunted house story or the richly immersive world of James Cameron’s elaborate action opus, it does a decent job establishing a believable, near-future world in which extensive undersea operations are the norm.

Where DeepStar Six comes up short, though, is in melding all those elements into a memorable story. Part of the problem is uninspired storytelling. Take the ostensible centerpiece of the film’s narrative: the mysterious cave and its unspecified denizens. When the first details of the elaborate underwater structure come in, science officer Scarpelli immediately states her desire to head up an exploration before any detonations occur. She digs up old reports referencing strange, monstrous sea creatures sighted in those very waters, and conjectures that the cavern could be home to ancient and unknown life forms. Despite the pressing demands of the missile site, I was sure Scarpelli was going to find a way to explore the cavern, and unwittingly drag her crew into a maelstrom of bloodthirsty-sea-beast horror action, à la Endless Descent. Sadly, when she brings her idea to the captain, he says no. To which she replies, “I still think it’s a big mistake.” And then, instead of defying orders, she goes the gym for some exercise. Pathetic.

Scarpelli’s acquiescence is just the tip of the uninspired characterization iceberg. No one here manages to stand out in any substantial way, as hero, villain, or even source of comic relief. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that low- or even medium-budget horror films often feature dreadful writing, with characters routinely drawn along very predictable and unimaginative lines. Yet, somehow, when such banality is paired with incompetent actors, the results are often hilarious, and endearing. Here, however, we have an experienced cast, including Miguel Ferrer, Tauren Blacque, and Nia Peeples, not to mention Marius Weyers from The Gods Must Be Crazy. Sure, they may not all be huge stars or household names, but everyone here knows what they are doing, and efficiently carry out their respective roles. Unfortunately, dull characters efficiently rendered are still dull characters. When coupled with a plot-heavy script laden with tedious, humorless dialogue, we’re stuck watching dull people talking about dull things.

And it’s truly a shame, because the initial story setup was very intriguing and loaded with potential: The isolated, claustrophobic, tension-filled underwater base, the timeless cavern hosting unknown terrors, the hunted crew desperately trying to find a way back to the surface… for the first half hour or so, I was engaged, anxiously awaiting the moment when the film would finally get moving. Sadly, it never happens. Despite a few minor flare-ups, the crew of the DeepStar Six crew gets along pretty well, the one loose cannon dispatched with little consequence to the rest of crew. The few insignificant glimpses we’re afforded of the cavern do little to deliver the heart-pounding exploration I was hoping for. No dark corridors are peered into; no ominous alien eggs are opened. Admittedly, the climatic battles with the giant aqua-monster are sort of fun, and the wide-mouthed worm monster is somewhat amusing. But there’s just not enough here to hold our interest. Despite a promising setup, DeepStar Six goes down as a missed opportunity.

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