Great as they are, only a small handful of the films that came out of the Corman School can honestly be called “original.” (For that matter, only a small handful of films, period, can be called original.) But even among the countless knock-offs produced, distributed or directed by Roger Corman, few have a pedigree quite as long as the Barbara Peeters-directed Humanoids from the Deep, which borrows ideas, themes, sometimes whole scenes from dozens of earlier films (including several of Corman’s own): Creature from the Black Lagoon and all its sequels, Creature from the Haunted Sea, It’s Alive, Jaws, Attack of the Crab Monsters. Screamers, John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, Tarantula, a hint of H.P. Lovecraft…
Despite the stew of influences, at a time when cheap slasher films were poised to take over the business the original 1980 version of the film did maintain a character all its own; a contemporary monster movie in the old fashioned mode, with a few whiffs of ‘70s environmental horror and a couple modern twists thrown in. And lord knows at the time, given the competition at the theaters, a title like Humanoids from the Deep was irresistible. It’s to Peters’ credit that she was able to back up the best title to come along in years with a solid monster picture and a whiz-bang payoff that would go on to become a horror standby.
Speaking of standbys, low-budget standby, the always-heroic Doug McClure, stars as Jim Hill, a small-town sheriff with a couple problems on his hands. He’s the sheriff of a sleepy fishing village where all the salmon seem to be disappearing and right before the annual Salmon Festival, too. The economic strain has led to increased tensions between the fishermen and the local American Indian community. At the same time, the arrival of a large corporate canning operation has also led to tensions with the Indians, who will lose their fishing rights should the cannery open. As if that wasn’t enough, people’s dogs are being killed,which also, yes, leads to still more tensions with the Indians, who are blamed.
Not helping matters much is local fisherman and crank Hank Slattery (Vic Morrow, who began his career playing angry, psychotic young men and ended it playing angry, racist old men). Hank blames all of his problems on the Indians and lets everyone know it.
Well, one small ray of possible hope arrives in the form of Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel), a sexy but chilly blonde biologist working for the new cannery who promises, through the magic of genetic engineering, to replenish the local waters with bigger, faster, stronger salmon.
Things seem just dandy there for a few minutes, at least until the head of the local Indian community, Johnny Eagle (Anthony Penya), files a lawsuit to stop the cannery and save his people’s fishing rights. Just as bothersome, several locals are attacked, killed or raped by slimy fishmen and right before the annual Salmon Festival, too!
(When promising bigger and better salmon, Dr. Drake conveniently neglected to mention they might also be bipedal and homicidal.)
After a nest of fishmen is discovered in a maze of waterfront caves, Dr. Drake finally drops her cold exterior and turns against her employers to explain just what the hell is going on and where these darn fishmen came from. The moment she finishes, everything goes kablooey at the big Salmon Festival in a remarkably drawn-out, darkly comic and hugely entertaining mayhem sequence. But the real ending is yet to come.
More cynical viewers have taken potshots at the monster makeup here (apparently disappointed the humanoids don’t look more like real fishmen), but I’ve never had a problem with the rubber suits. As is standard, they’re kept in the shadows for much of the film and when they do finally make an appearance they’re edited quickly and cleverly enough that we’re never given a chance to examine them too closely. Humanoids from the Deep is one of those rare films that is everything it promises to be. Given that, however, it’s not a film you want to examine too closely or think about too hard. (It seems a little odd, for instance, that the sheriff never seems to investigate any of the murders, disappearances, dog killings, rapes or fire bombings that take place all over his village even before the humanoids show up. And the scientific explanation behind the humanoids is, needless to say, a little fishy.) No, it’s best to leave the questions in the lobby and let the movie be what it is; a pretention-free Corman monster picture that does almost everything a Corman picture is supposed to, when it’s supposed to do it. Still, it’s interesting to note that, even if it wasn’t the first movie to do so, Humanoids from the Deep was a film that raised concerns about the safety of genetically-engineered food long before the media picked up on it. I mean, cancer is one thing to worry about, sure, but murder and rape? In the end it made the same point that had been made in countless films before it: if you’re a scientist who wants to solve a food shortage problem by making seemingly harmless animals bigger and stronger (be it through a serum, X-rays or genetic engineering), well, you might want to reconsider.
At the time of its release the movie received some publicity both for its final shock and the fact that a film like this had been directed by a woman. Peters was one of the few female directors to come out of the Corman school and before moving on to television shortly after Humanoids from the Deep, she had a number of other exploitation films under her belt. But her experience on Humanoids may help explain why Corman didn’t have more women working for him. As the film was about wrapping up, Corman looked at a rough cut and informed Peters it needed more sex. Simple enough to remedy, he told her to go shoot a few extra shots in which the humanoids tear the clothes off young women. Peters balked at this, saying the scenes would be cheap and gratuitous (well, um, yes?). When she refused to shoot the scenes, Corman fired her and brought in Jimmy T. Murakami, who shot the scenes as ordered.
Ironically, after all the hubbub the new scenes were cut from the final release and Peters received full credit for a film that went on to become one of the most memorable and popular films in the New World library.