Friday, June 3, 2011

Alien From The Deep (1989)

Eco-warriors Jane (Marina Giulia Cavalli) and Lee (Robert Marius) infiltrate a jungle island with the aim of blowing the lid off evil corporation E-Chem's dumping-nuclear-waste-into-a-volcano scam. Bob (Daniel Bosch), the quasi-mercenary snake farmer, joins in the fun after his slick moves fail to charm Jane ("Don't touch me, you snake squeezer!") into his bed. They inevitably butt heads with Colonel Kovacks (Charles Napier), the head of the waste-dumping plant, as well as a giant alien who is attracted by the raw power of the radioactive material and can infect humans with its touch. Got all that? Good.

As you're probably aware, Antonio Margheriti (credited here under his "Anthony Dawson" pseudonym) has long been a mainstay of Italian exploitation cinema. And, if you're a fan of exploitation cinema, you know that no one does rip-offs like the Italians. Here, the cash-in is focused on James Cameron's Aliens, but I'm not so sure the film knows that. The whole extra-terrestrial aspect of the story feels tacked on (pretty much beginning and ending in the film's third act), almost as if Margheriti spotted the movie's poster one morning about three quarters of the way through production and realized, "Oh yeah, there's supposed to be an alien in Alien From The Deep. Up until this point, the film has been a decent little jungle adventure, complete with smoldering, papier mache volcano (but more on that in a moment).

The characters are stock for this type of affair. The hero is stoic but not uncaring. The heroine is independent and idealistic but still needs a man to lean on. Her companion is a placeholder for the hero. The villain is cruel and single-minded. And the nutsy-cuckoo nuclear physicist (Luciano Pigozzi) is always right, even when postulating the most outrageous theories. Plus, the henchmen are uniformly incompetent. All the actors ACT with all their might, even in the quietest scenes. And, while it's always fun to watch him growl his way through a performance, even Napier takes it one step beyond.

Naturally, one doesn't watch a movie like this for its thespian excellence. No, movies like this exist for pure entertainment purposes, and, on that score, Alien From The Deep delivers. Margheriti is a skilled craftsman at pacing, and the film never lags enough to bore the viewer. In fact, I would argue that the only time you'll look at your watch while seeing this film is when you start wondering where the hell the alien is. As an aside, the editing in this film tends to favor the non-disclosure of events. By that I mean, something will happen directly offscreen, but we're shown a character's closeup or somesuch. We then cut to the effect of the unseen action, say a tree falling after being hit by something. Whether this technique is due to budgetary constraints or lazy coverage is debatable, but my suspicion lies with the former.

There's a lot of miniature effects work in the movie, and it rarely, if ever, comes off as convincing. Thank God, because it just adds another layer of fun to be had. The island's volcano looks like it's ready for some sixth grader to pour vinegar down the top and take third place at the science fair. The most entertaining miniature use, however, involves intrepid guard Rodney, a boat, and a dock loaded with high explosives. You'll think you're watching something from Sid & Marty Krofft. Additionally, there's at least one nice mannequin death, and there are some okay gore effects, too.

Finally, let's look at the Aliens aspect of the film (I figure, if Margheriti doesn't have to bring it up until the end, neither do I). The creature's first (and second, and third) appearance will leave you thinking it's a giant mollusk with a stiff neck. However, we find out in the sidesplitting finale that there's much more (and much less) to it. The design will not have H.R. Giger fearing for his livelihood. It consists of "stuff" glued onto a stiff understructure with tubing wrapped around it, and it performs like a Punchinello marionette. I mean, it's not as hilarious on first view as Luigi Cozzi's Cyclops from Contamination, but it makes Carlo Rambaldi's Kong robot look like an Olympic gymnast.

Just about every beat from the end of Cameron's film is copied, or at least the ones Margheriti felt were most exploitable. The giant alien is attacked with heavy machinery. It has a version of the pharyngeal jaws of Giger's creation (sort of). There's even flamethrower action and a gut-busting climax involving a long fall. But I can see why James Cameron and Fox never bothered to sue, and you will, too.

There's more, of course, but I wouldn't want to ruin any more of this film for you than I already have. Sure, it's a rip-off flick, but it's so joyfully threadbare, you never really care. Plus, it does what it says it will do: Entertain you for 85 minutes with an adventure which is (eventually) about a giant alien from the deep. Maybe Bob the snake farmer sums it up best at the film's conclusion: "But if it was just a warning, who would want to believe it?" Who, indeed?

MVT: Charles Napier. The man's a consummate professional who plays it totally straight, and your interest automatically picks up when he's onscreen, ready to scowl and growl.

Make or Break: The alien, while not as well-done as Stan Winston's Queen Alien, really is the big draw, and it's a ton of fun watching it act like the star of Warhol's Empire.

Score: 7/10

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