October Horrorshow: Leviathan

(Note: I wrote this way back in May, then decided that, rather than post this immediately, it would fit in better with the October Horrorshow. Hence the slightly dated references in the opening paragraph.)

From 1989, Leviathan is George P. Cosmatos’s follow-up to the classic Sylvester Stallone shitfest that was Cobra. And Leviathan isn’t any better. Little more than a mashup of Alien and John Carpenter’s Thing, Leviathan is a stroll down recognizable and well-worn plot paths, comfortable in its familiarity, like an old pair of shoes or the quilt that your grandmother made when you were a child. A more crass reviewer could say Leviathan is a blatant rip-off of much better films, and they would be correct. But I choose to view Leviathan in a more forgiving light, especially since, these days, Hollywood is determined to cram sequels, adaptations, reboots, and remakes down the throats of the all-too-willing public. This week, I could have chosen to see The Avengers or even Battleship at the theaters. Instead, I decided to stay local with my garbage, and rent a fine example of shitty monster movie cinema to view in my own home.

So what makes Leviathan more worth a viewer’s time than a cookie-cutter early 21st century blockbuster? After all, isn’t a rip-off guilty of all the same crimes marring the film industry today? Make no mistake, Leviathan is not a better film than any of today’s moneymakers, nor is it any more original. But boy, does it have panache. It revels in its shittiness, and here at Missile Test, we love it when films unapologetically bring the shitty.

Not only does Leviathan steal elements from Alien and The Thing, it follows the forms and conventions of 1950s b-horror monsters flicks. Dashingly handsome leading man, strikingly beautiful but coy love interest, scientist/doctor whose sole purpose is to Leviathanexplain the plot to thick-headed audience members, said doctor/scientist jumping to conclusions far beyond the evidence at hand — Leviathan has it all. Had it been filmed in black and white, with short ties and a scene shot at Bronson Canyon, it would have been indistinguishable from any Bert I. Gordon or Roger Corman movie.

But there’s more. For some reason, Hollywood went nuts for underwater films in 1989. Something like this happens occasionally, when multiple films with similar settings and plot find release around the same time. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp were released within months of each other. In 1997 it was Volcano and Dante’s Peak. 1998 saw Deep Impact and Armageddon. Also that year was Antz and A Bug’s Life. The year 2000 featured Mission to Mars and Red Planet. In 2006, there was The Prestige and The Illusionist. Hell, once upon a time, two Truman Capote biopics came out almost exactly within a year of each other. Thus, there was nothing odd about 1989, when Hollywood saw fit to subject the movie-going public to not two, but three major releases of films set below the seas. Along with Leviathan came The Abyss and DeepStar Six. Only The Abyss is worth a damn, and even that film is not aging well.

I once saw Leviathan with my father not too long after it came out, in a two-screen second run theater in Cuyahoga Falls that has since been torn down. I wanted to see it because I had fallen for horror movies not too long before then, and he was game because he had an affinity for shitty movies that eclipses even my own. We had the entire theater to ourselves, not another soul had bought a ticket. When the no-smoking announcement came up, my old man flipped off the screen, said, “Fuck you!” and lit up a Winston. After the movie had ended, he looked at me and said, “That movie fucking sucked. Why’d you want to see that?” An odd reaction, considering he once dragged me to see The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II, when I was nine. Ah, memories.

Anyways, Leviathan takes place at an underwater mining facility somewhere off the coast of Florida. They’re mining silver, but that doesn’t matter. Peter Weller stars as Beck, a geologist the mining company has hired to run the operation. He is in charge of what is supposed to be a wily group of blue-collar misfits (Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Michael Carmine, and Lisa Eilbacher). But unlike the successful grouping that made up Alien, this set of characters misfires when it comes to their authenticity. Also present is the doctor character mentioned above, played the ever-reliable, and ever-affordable, Richard Crenna. This was Crenna’s second to last major theatrical release (Hot Shots! Part Deux was the last), and although he never lit up the screen, I find it strange the last fourteen years of his life was relegated to TV movies and guest spots in prime time. No matter, it’s not like he was in the running for an Oscar for this piece of shit.

A day before this motley crew is supposed to head for home, they discover a sunken Russian freighter nearby. After Daniel Stern (as a very creepy pseudo-rapist, my least favorite archetype in shitty cinema) purloins some vodka that contains a manmade virus, the fun begins. The virus mutates anyone it has been exposed to and changes them into some kind of air-breathing fish monster. From here on out Leviathan is a SCREWED film (Small Cast, Reclusive Environment, Where Everyone (almost) Dies). The monster picks off the crewmembers one by one, and there are not many places they can hide. Climax is followed by denouement, followed by a false ending, followed by a ridiculous one-liner as the monster is finally, inevitably dispatched. There’s not much reason to get into any more detail than that. Leviathan’s plot couldn’t be any more predictable. The only question is who will survive to the end, since that is the only part of the plot that the writers left to chance.

The sets are small but tightly made. It has to have been done on the cheap, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s a definite win for the production designer. The same can’t be said for the creature effects, however. Leviathan is one of those flicks where the creature creators just couldn’t seem to figure out what they were doing. The monster, in all its many forms, is little more than a collection of gross limbs and flesh, with little unifying theme. The final reveal, which shows the monster sporting the head of a fish, is laughable. Stan Winston was the guy responsible for this mess. Can’t win them all. My next target for ridicule is Jerry Goldsmith, film composer extraordinaire. It’s not that the score to Leviathan is bad, it’s just that is belongs in another movie — one that has nothing to do with horror. The final fail goes to Mr. Cosmatos. There are sections of the film that are tight and competent, but they are overshadowed by scenes that feel rushed, and an ending that, even worse, feels like it was a failed attempt to salvage a poorly shot scene in the editing room. It’s rare to come across a sequence in a film that feels so casually thrown together, and I come away from it with no other conclusion than that something went horribly wrong.

Leviathan is one of those shitty movies that come close to actually being a good film. Other directors have been handed screenplays, actors, and a production of equal or lesser value than Cosmatos, and came away with cinematic gold. Leviathan, on the other hand, despite being worthy shitty cinema, is a worse film than Alien: Resurrection.

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