Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Up From The Depths (1979)

 When Up From The Depths was originally released, I was enthralled by the trailer. This wasn't just a big fish like in Jaws. This was a monster fish, and that's even cooler. One of my siblings proclaimed to have seen the film. I kind of doubted this, as he was not old enough to get into an R-rated movie (and we all know how strict theater owners are about adhering to the age limits). Regardless, I asked my brother how the film ended, because at this time, monster movies tended to climax with a memorable setpiece, usually involving dynamite and a last minute leap to safety for the protagonist, and I would act out these spectacular finales with my friends (or action figures, if no one was around). It didn't matter if I had seen the movie or not. After my brother told me the end, I was incredulous. This was just too morbid and odd to be true. He had to be pulling my leg. Nevertheless, I used this scenario when playing and got a good bit of mileage out of it. After finally seeing the film, I can honestly say, it was more satisfying when I did it.

Set on an unidentified island in the Hawaiian Archipelago (actually the Philippines, producer Cirio Santiago's stomping ground), the film starts with Dr. Whiting (Charles Howerton) and one of his assistants out on the ocean. The assistant dives down, and we are treated to leering shots of her derriere. While swimming along a ridge, the camera shakes, some rocks fall, and the assistant is killed by...absolutely nothing. But we know she's dead, because we see all of her blood rising to the water's surface. Meanwhile, Rachel (Susanne Reed) is busy at the island's resort, keeping the clientele of drunk, ugly white folks happy. Her boss, Mr. Forbes (Kedric Wolfe) is the ultra-tense Larry Vaughn character, who denies that anything bad is happening and abrogates any and all responsibility to the point of criminal negligence. Rachel's boyfriend, Greg (Sam Bottoms) is a degenerate swindler who dresses alternately like a beach bum or an extra from a Victorian-era-set porno and smirks a lot. He and his drunken, boat captain friend, Earl (Virgil Frye), take tourists out diving and plant fake treasure to con the rubes out of their money. All this time, the monster fish (which was released from its briny prison by the earlier earthquake) is swimming around eating people. Eventually, panic sets in, and the monster must be destroyed.

Since I try very hard to find at least something good to say about every movie I review, I'll make the same effort here. Susanne Reed is gorgeous, and she plays the only likeable character in the movie, but she still has nothing to do in it. In fact, the rest of the movie is so shitty, I'm only going to post images of Ms. Reed with this one, even if they're not from Up From The Depths (but they are anyway). There. I've met my obligation. 

Obviously, this is a rip-off of Steven Spielberg's monumental Jaws, and there have been scores of them both before and after. From Enzo Castellari's Great White (aka L'ultimo Squalo) to Joe Dante's Piranha and everything in between, a virtual cottage industry sprang up in the wake (sorry) of the progenitor of the modern summer blockbuster. The films trade on people's fear of the unknown, but instead of the darkness of night, the bogeyman (or in this case, animal) is hidden from the characters and the audience by the darkness of the water (the ones set near water, anyway). It's an elegant conceit that showcases the fact that despite the beauty found below, there is also swift-moving death with rows of jagged teeth. Sadly, director Charles Griffith (perhaps better known as the screenwriter of Roger Corman's The Little Shop Of Horrors and Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000) does not successfully take advantage of this aspect. In Spielberg's movie, the shark is rarely seen, but the attacks are effective, because the effects of the attacks are graphically and stylishly portrayed. In Griffith's film, the monster fish is rarely seen, but the attacks are ineffective, because they are un-dynamically and confusingly portrayed. 

The editing of the film on a whole is terrible. I'm not saying that a picture of this caliber needs to be orchestrated like JFK, but the audience should have some idea of what's going on onscreen. The attacks invariably consist of shots of a person shot from underwater. Cut to an explosion of blood. Cut to a beef shank (best guess) thrusting at the camera. Cut to a hand puppet of the monster thrusting at the camera. Repeat until sequence ends. The duration of the shots is so short, by the time your brain has registered the first cut, there have been at least three other cuts in the mean time.

The special effects are about the level of what you'd expect from the Hungarian version of the Universal Studios Tour. The monster fish looks nothing like the creature depicted on the poster, aside from it having fins and a mouth. The full size prop is tugged through the water (in some relatively decent shots; there, that's two nice things I've said about this turkey) and occasionally breaks the surface of the water, consequently breaking our suspension of disbelief. The creature is so ludicrous-looking it makes Larry Buchanan's The Eye Creatures look like John Carpenter's The Thing.

The acting is uniformly god-awful, with Mr. Wolfe taking home the B.E.M. Award for overacting. None of the performances are assisted by the post-dubbed nature of the film. It gives the whole proceeding the feel of a foreign movie (which, technically, it is) and a crap one at that. The music sounds like it was taken alternately from films of the 1950s and Don Ho "Best of..." albums. It is grossly inappropriate, distracting, and worst of all, completely not timed to the onscreen action. The script also partakes of the malfeasance, with subplots brought up and unceremoniously dropped, a pervading sense of "humor" which is broad and unfunny, and a main plot that lays there like a carp wrapped in last week's newspaper.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not down on the movie because it's not as slick as a big-budget, Hollywood film or as nuanced as a Wim Wenders piece. I also bear no malice to filmmakers whose sole purpose is to cash-in on a trend. What I am unforgiving of, though, is when the filmmakers' cynicism and apathy is so starkly apparent onscreen that an overwhelming sense of antagonism is engendered between film and viewer. Up From The Depths takes your money and then delivers absolutely nothing while giving you the finger. Worse than that, it does it all ineptly.

MVT: Susanne Reed. See? Now I'm getting apathetic, too.

Make or Break: The "Break" is every scene in the film, barring a few (and I mean few) where Ms. Reed gets to do something (anything) or look great in swimwear. 

Score: 3/10

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