Movie Review: “Deepstar Six”

The year was 1989 and as Hollywood waved farewell to Indiana Jones as he embarked on his “Last Crusade,” there was a worry in the air about the next great film franchise. At some point earlier, a whisper floated across the grapevine that James Cameron, hot off the success of “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” had settled on the bottom of the ocean for his next feature, “The Abyss.” There, a group of miners would be called on for a dangerous rescue mission only to encounter aliens and then… who knows?

“Brilliant!” exclaimed Hollywood executives. “Get me sea pictures featuring aliens!” Lo, did the battle horn sound, and two other such films of disparate quality were unleashed on an unsuspecting film going populace. This is part 2 of 3 as we reach into the Wayback Machine and dive deep to the murky depths to see what was found, and what eventually would be.

Directed by original “Friday the 13th” head Sean S. Cunningham, “Deepstar Six” is a film that’s been on my radar for so long I could swear I’d seen it. But once I fired it up, I realized that somehow it had never officially made its way onto my viewing list.

My first impression, and one that carried over throughout the film, was how Cunningham maximized what I presume was a low budget. Everything from the underwater shots to the strategic use of the monster throughout the film is handled with the finesse gleaned from working in the trenches of no-budget shoots. It may not have been quite the ordeal of “Jaws” where the monster wasn’t working for long periods thus necessitating changes to the script and shooting order, but it’s noticeable when a movie featuring a giant monster doesn’t bring the monster in until late in the film. 

As with “Leviathan,” we start at the bottom of the ocean where a crew of Navy personnel and contractors have established a nuclear missile platform, and are in the process of bringing it online. As they prep to activate it, a dive team locates an untouched area thought to contain prehistoric life. Once that area is opened up and they begin to explore it, they learn the hard way that some buried things should remain buried. Something was waiting down there – and it’s very big, and equally hungry.

Greg Evigan and Nancy Everhard lead a cast that also includes Nia Peeples, Matt McCoy, Cindy Pickett, and an unhinged Miguel Ferrer. He may not start that way, but Ferrer gives a case study in how to show a tightly wound character come unglued through their actions. While the film is barely a C-level production, it’s worth seeing for a few reasons, and Ferrer’s performance is foremost among them.

Ferrer’s plays Snyder, the guy who follows the book without question, and as the situation deteriorates, he does his best to help. That everything he does blows up in his face is an interesting thing to watch. On the one hand, I think the film aimed to have Snyder be the incompetent corporate guy who always makes everything worse before getting his comeuppance, but I had a different view. One of the hardest lessons to learn in the real world is that a person can do everything correctly, and still lose. Snyder is that writ large and his undoing is when he finally is crushed under the weight of his failures. Ferrer plays it to the hilt and it’s extremely well done.

I can’t say much more about the rest of the cast because they’re all generic enough that they are little more than monster food. It’s easy to get the feeling that the Snyder character had roughly 90% of the screenwriters’ focus, and the film suffers when he exits (in glorious fashion). Cindy Pickett (of “Picket Fences” fame) and Matt McCoy fare the best as the doctor and diver, respectively. They help bring much needed charm and humor to the proceedings, and give the more rigid actors (like lead Evigan) someone to bounce off of.

How did they do with the monster itself? Pretty well, overall. It’s a combination of multiple sea creatures, as is the one in “Leviathan,” with the focus on more crab-like appendages. If you want to quibble about the effectiveness of that, it’s super easy to spot the hinges and flaps on the creature during the few parts of the finale where you get a long look at it. The film pulls a “Jaws” by holding back on showing what the creature is for over an hour. There’s also a large section of the second act where there may as well not even be a creature.

That’s alright – part of the charm of “Deepstar Six” is the low budget nature of it. While the film may take a while to get going with the action, the momentum kicks in as the sets come apart, the water rises, and the impossibly huge monster somehow manages to hide in water that’s four feet deep. It’s hard not to be charmed by it all, even with the more graphic blood shedding scenes courtesy of Cunningham’s previous work.

A lightweight score runs under the film, nimble and swift in the beginning, ominous and overwhelming as the film winds down. Harry Manfedini (another returning alum from “Friday the 13th”) keeps things moving, quickly switching between furious action and everything’s happy oh look, fish! It’s a fun score to listen to, and is a good match for the on screen action.

The funny thing about “Deepstar Six” and the other films in 1989 is how similar they are in scope, feel, characters, and most everything. It’s watching the same story filmed differently – pick which version you like, and run with that. For my money, “The Abyss” remains the best of the group but the cheaper also-rans like “Leviathan” and “Deepstar Six” have their charms. Be it creature designs, creative performances, or showing how to make the most of a shoestring budget, there’s something for everyone with these films.

This concludes Part 2 of our series. Next up, the modern iteration of this genre – “Underwater.”

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