The Undersea Horror Movies of the Late 1980s

Inspired by James Cameron's The Abyss, the late 80s brought with it a wave of brilliantly cheesy undersea horrors...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Hollywood film studios occasionally have an uncanny knack of announcing almost identical film projects at the same time. In the 1980s, we had rival police dog movies K-9 and Turner And Hooch. The ’90s saw the release of rival eruption movies (Dante’s Peak and Volcano), opposing killer space rock pictures (Deep Impact and Armageddon) and duelling insect comedies (Antz and A Bug’s Life). We provided a detailed run-down on these rival movies back in 2015.

Around the year 1989, meanwhile, film producers briefly fell in love with a curiously specific genre: undersea sci-fi horror. Between January 1989 and the spring of 1990, no fewer than five films all came out with a similar theme – DeepStar Six was first, followed by Leviathan, Lords Of The Deep, The Abyss, and The Rift bringing up the rear.

So what happened? How do we account for this sudden wave of remarkably similar movies? While we won’t claim to have been a fly on the wall at producers’ meetings in the late ’80s, we can at least put the clues together.

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Director James Cameron was a Big Deal in 1986, following the success The Terminator and Aliens. If we also factor in his screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II, which was heavily rewritten by Sylvester Stallone but nevertheless retained his name on the credits, Cameron was a pivotal part of some of the biggest action movies of the 80s.

It makes sense, then, that rival studios would be keeping their ears open for whatever Cameron decided to do next; his career was on a clear upward trajectory, and there was little reason to assume that his next movie wouldn’t be an even bigger hit. Cameron began writing The Abyss – based on an undersea premise he’d come up with as a teenager – in 1986, finished the screenplay at the end of the following year, while filming got underway in the summer of 1988.

Filming on The Abyss was, famously, a nightmare. With his reputation at new heights, Cameron used his Hollywood clout to attempt something new in a Hollywood movie: rather than fake his underwater sequences, he shot a considerable percentage of them for real, in a colossal water tank located in South Carolina. As a result, The Abyss shoot dragged on for months as Cameron and his cast and crew – among them Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn – spent gruelling hours submerged in water. 

The Abyss‘ huge expense and slow gestation meant that other, rival producers had at least a chance of beating 20th Century Fox’s potential blockbuster to the punch. Of the other undersea films, DeepStar Six may have come out in cinemas first, but Leviathan actually went into production much earlier. We know this thanks to an interview with DeepStar Six director Sean S. Cunningham (of Friday The 13th fame), who in a 1989 interview admitted that he was aware of Leviathan‘s existence before his own sea movie went into production.

“I was always aware of the fact that Leviathan was out there,” Cunningham told Starlog magazine, “and so I had to make a calculated decision last winter [1987-1988] as to whether or not I ought to beat them to the marketplace. I wanted to be first or I didn’t want to do it.”

Cunningham was also aware that both Leviathan and The Abyss were set under the sea, and it’s interesting that both rival movies chose a sci-fi horror route. In DeepStar Six, a group of scientists and submarine pilots manage to awaken a prehistoric monster lurking in the ocean floor. In Leviathan, a similarly luckless undersea expedition stumbles on a sunken Russian ship – the Leviathan of the title – and unwittingly unleash a disease which turns several of them into amphibious monsters.

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This is pure speculation on our part, but it seems possible that, around the end of 1987, word got out that James Cameron was working on some sort of sci-fi movie set at the bottom of the ocean, and the assumption was made that the director was effectively remaking Aliens with submarines and lots of salt water. What they didn’t appear to know, at least at first, was that The Abyss would emerge more as a watery Close Encounters Of The Third Kind than another full-blooded action-horror.

What we got, though, was a small yet fascinating series of soggy sci-fi films, all clustered around The Abyss like barnacles. And as you’re about to see, some of them are brilliantly weird…

Watch The Abyss on Amazon

DeepStar Six (January 1989)

Like Alien, DeepStar Six doesn’t introduce its monster until the midway point, though it’s fair to say that Sean S. Cunningham doesn’t exactly compare to Ridley Scott when it comes to building up suspense. The cast of scruffy sea adventurers have obvious parallels with the crew of the Nostromo in Scott’s 1979 classic, but aside from the late, great Miguel Ferrer as the cowardly technician, Snyder, they’re an anonymous bunch of actors largely culled from American TV; Taurean Blacque was best known for his role in Hill Street Blues, while Nancy Everhard, as the vaguely Ripley-esque Joyce, had made appearances in such ’80s staples as Airwolf and The A-Team.

The real star of the show, we suppose, is the prehistoric monster, designed by Chris Wallas. The only trouble is, it takes what feels like an absolute eternity for the beast to arrive; in the meantime, we have to put up with soap opera character exchanges (“You’re pregnant!“), plus lots of bleeping computer read-outs and assorted accidents in the workplace involving heavy doors, rising water and falling bits of the set.

The fun doesn’t really start until the last half hour, when the big, brown, wobbly sea creature (which looks uncannily like one of the Graboids out of Tremors) leaps from an airlock and bites one of the supporting characters clean in half.

Thereafter, DeepStar Six moves along like an early cousin of Renny Harlin’s similarly watery Deep Blue Sea, as the remaining survivors paddle around a flooded base with an angry monster in their midst (in DeepStar Six, it’s an aquatic dinosaur of some sort; in Deep Blue Sea, the predators are clever sharks).

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With a budget of about $8 million – a snip compared to The Abyss estimated $43 million or so – DeepStar Six looks more like a TV pilot than a feature film, but there’s still lots of fun to be had with Cunningham’s salty Alien rip-off.

Our favorite bit? The sequence where Miguel Ferrer’s character accidentally harpoons one of his friends, runs off in a panic, then explodes from rushing to the surface too quickly in an escape pod. It’s not quite Scanners, but it’s still fairly gruesome.

Best line: “Don’t be an idiot! We’ll all decompress! We’ll explode like a bunch of ripe melons!”

Watch DeepStar Six on Amazon

Leviathan (March 1989)

Of all the sub-Abyss water movies, Leviathan has by far the best pedigree. Its writers are David Peoples (Blade Runner) and Jeb Stewart (co-writer of Die Hard); its effects are by the legendary Stan Winston; its music courtesy of Alien composer Jerry Goldsmith. Then there’s its none-more-geeky cast, which basically includes RoboCop, Winston Zeddemore, and Colonel Trautman out of the Rambo movies (okay, Peter Weller, Ernie Hudson, and Richard Crenna respectively – they’re joined by Amanda Pays, Lisa Eilbacher and Daniel Stern, plus Michael Carmine – another Hill Street Blues alumnus).

In sci-fi story terms, Leviathan is no less schlocky than DeepStar Six, though the expanded budget and work from cinematographer Alex Thomson (Legend, Labyrinth, John Boorman’s Excalibur) means it’s far better shot and lit.

Again, the plot follows the Alien format: the monster doesn’t appear until the midpoint, by which time we’ve met the neurotic cast and observed several blinking and beeping computer displays. Then there’s the quirkily creative way the monster gets inside the deep-sea mining platform: the mutant-making disease we mentioned earlier is stored inside a bottle of vodka discovered on a derelict Soviet vessel. Within hours of drinking the spiked hooch, several crewmembers begin to undergo hideous mutations until, by act three, there are all kinds of gelatinous fish-beasts running around the place.

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Leviathan‘s debt to John Carpenter’s The Thing is obvious, and if the creature effects aren’t as horrifyingly beautiful as the ones Rob Bottin made in that flat-out classic, then director George P Cosmatos at least keeps things going at an entertaining clip. Other highlights include Meg Foster as the obligatory cold, uncaring corporate type (curiously, the expected moment where she’s revealed to be a robot never comes), a scene where Michael Carmine’s attacked by a giant eel, and Amanda Pays delivering one of the cheapest jump-scares in cinema history.

Best line: “You don’t know shit about skiing, man! They don’t have skiing in Spanish Harlem!”

Watch Leviathan on Amazon

Lords Of The Deep (April 1989)

Producer Roger Corman wasn’t slow in jumping on the post-Alien sci-fi horror bandwagon with such films as Galaxy Of Terror (1981) and Forbidden World (1982), so it probably wasn’t surprising that he quickly caught wind of the “Alien under the ocean” zeitgeist at the same time as Leviathan and DeepStar Six.

In fairness, your humble writer hasn’t seen this film since the VHS days of the early ’90s, so memories of this Corman joint (directed by Mary Ann Fisher, who produced such Z-grade wonders as Android and Battle Beyond The Stars) are somewhat fuzzy. What really sticks in the mind, though, is that Lords Of The Deeps plot is far closer to The Abyss than DeepStar Six or Leviathan. Where those undersea nightmares featured a prehistoric sea creature and mutant fish-men respectively, Lords Of The Deep sees a bunch of scientists encounter a race of aquatic aliens that – as in The Abyss turn out to be peaceful sorts in the end.

Curiously, the aliens even look like the ones Cameron came up with in The Abyss (translucent, manta ray type things), there’s a human villain (Bradford Dillman’s Commander Dobler) and there’s even a Big Theme (war in The Abyss, destruction of the environment in Lords Of The Deep).

Lords Of The Deeps trailer loudly trumpeted its Cameron credentials (“From the Academy Award-winning special effects team that brought you Aliens…”); with such a low budget, this swiftly-made offering looks more like an old episode of Stingray, bless it.

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Best line: “Yeah, let’s trust in the business of science, huh?”

Buy Lords Of The Deep on VHS on Amazon

The Rift (AKA Endless Descent, March 1990)

We’re firmly back in horror territory with this relatively late entry in the undersea sci-fi genre, which features a surprisingly decent cast of character actors: R. Lee Ermey, Ray Wise and TV star Jack Scalia (Remington Steele, Dallas). Scalia plays Rick Hayes, the beefy, blow-dried designer of an experimental deep-sea vessel named the Siren I. When the craft vanishes, Hayes joins an ill-fated mission on another submarine (the Siren II) to track it down.

Descending into an uncharted trench, the Siren II finds a nightmare world of strange seaweed and hidden caves. The crew’s the daftest bunch you’ll encounter this side of Prometheus (“I think something’s wrong, sir,” a submarine driver observes as a colleague screams in agony over the intercom), but The Rift really doesn’t skimp on the cheap monster effects and gore. That strange seaweed, it turns out, is a by-product of some dangerous experiments which took place on the original Siren – experiments which, just like Leviathan, result in a menagerie of deadly mutant creatures.

The Rift is, therefore, another movie that borrows from the Big Book Of Alien And Aliens. Characters spend long stretches staring agog at beeping computer read-outs (this movie has more computer displays than all the other films in this feature put together, in fact), there’s a heartless corporation behind everything, and a small outfit of gun-toting military types who wind up as monster fodder.

The Rift also tries to channel a bit of Alien‘s spirit by hooking in Joel Goldsmith (son of Jerry) as its composer, but Slugs director Jean Piquer Simon’s too leaden to get close to Ridley Scott’s air of creeping dread. The writing’s similarly tone-deaf, with the racial stereotyping piled onto the lone African American character (played by John Toles-Bey) standing out like a sore thumb.

All the same, The Rift exemplifies what’s great about the late ’80s brief yet intense rush of Alien-under-the-water B-movies. They lack the budget, craft and steely conviction of The Abyss, but made up for all that with lots of action, risible monsters and sheer goofiness. Where The Abyss ended with peace-and-love uplift, The Rifts final third descends into pure madness: there are humanoid babies hatching from giant salmon eggs, a colossal killer starfish and R. Lee Ermey fidgeting awkwardly. The Rift isn’t big, and it sure isn’t clever, but it’s jaw-droppingly entertaining.

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Best line: “The man has superior judgement, squid face.”

Or: “Captain, Fleming’s dead! I’ll explain later.”