Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Alien from the Deep (1989)

Written by: Tito Carpi
Directed by: Antonio Margheriti
Starring: Daniel Bosch, Marina Giulia Cavalli, Charles Napier

The Great Italian Ripoff Machine had just about burned itself out by this point, but as last (or thereabouts) gasps go, this one is a lot more fun and a lot better looking than you'd expect. Ostensibly this flick was meant to cash in on Aliens, released just a few years earlier. That time frame should tell you just how close to the end the Ripoff Machine was, as just a decade earlier, three years would be an unacceptably long time to wait before trying to piggyback (and by piggyback I mean shamelessly steal) ideas from a Hollywood blockbuster. Of course, the original title was Alien from the Abyss, so one would assume the idea was to bring in fans of James Cameron's other, more recently released movie about aliens as well.

Really only the last half hour or so has much of anything to do with an alien, though. Most of the movie, presumably as a cost-saving measure, is a jungle adventure flick of the type Margheriti had been making for a while before this movie was made. There are a few callbacks to the original Alien in the production design (including a really amazing room that I'll mention later), and presumably a whole shitload of ripping off other jungle movies for the first hour until the monster shows up to make things more interesting.

Jane and Lee are a couple of environmentalists heading for a small volcanic island to investigate the activities of a company called E-Chem. They've been called there by a friend of theirs who is a missionary on the island. Seems he's concerned about the chemical company dumping massive amounts of toxic waste into the live volcano at the center of the island. Now, considering that we meet Jane and Lee while their chartered boat is under fire from an E-Chem helicopter hell bent on keeping them from landing on the island because the company's work is top secret, it seems rather odd they would set up shop on an inhabited island, let alone allow missionaries free reign of the place. Then again, everything about this movie is rather odd, and doesn't bear thinking too hard about.

Our intrepid investigators manage to sneak ashore and give us a moment's hope that there will be some cannibal movie mixed in with our sci-fi action, but no avail. Strange and threatening native ceremonies are considerably less strange and threatening when the natives are wearing khakis, and we are assured the honkies are hard at work convincing the islanders that Jesus disapproves of crazy masks and beheaded chickens.

With the help of a local boy, they manage to sneak into the back of an E-Chem truck and find their way into the facility, where they steal a security tape containing footage of E-Chem employees dumping the aforementioned toxic waste into the volcano the plant is built around (who the hell runs this company, Blofeld!?), and are promptly busted. Lee is too slow and is captured, but Jane manages to escape into the jungle and evade the guards until she is saved by Bob, the intrepid snake hunter.

After leading the guards through a cave filled with cobras (which I assume were either defanged or the stuntmen were immune to cobra venom, because they are clearly striking for real), Bob and Jane stage a rescue mission to E-Chem to get Lee out. They almost pull it off too, but their timing couldn't be worse because they're not the only ones interested in E-Chem's waste dumping.

Dr. Geoffrey (played by Italian character actor extraordinaire Luciano Pigozzi) has been expressing his concerns to E-Chem's military liaison Colonel Kovacks that the toxic waste fusing with the lava inside the volcano has been beaming pure energy into outer space (if the waste is so toxic that its reaction to being superheated is to blast a beam of pure radiation into space, you'd think everyone on the island would be nothing but tumors already). It's not really made clear exactly what happens next - I would assume an alien intelligence was either drawn to the beam and dropped in to investigate, or the navigation and propulsion equipment on its spacecraft was damaged by it – but something crashes into the lake and everyone's suddenly more concerned about that than a couple of treehugging interlopers.

By the time E-Chem gets a couple of divers in the water, the severe radioactive pollution has pissed off the creature that came down in that crash something fierce, and it rips them to pieces before burrowing into the lake bed and hauling ass for E-Chem headquarters. One of its arms got torn off in the dredge net, however, and its biomechanical appearance, along with its managing to kill another man even removed from its owner's body, is enough to convince Dr. Geoffrey that they're all pretty well screwed.

How right he is. It isn't long before the radiation-mutated monster burrows up into the E-Chem plant, spreading some kind of contagious alien slime glopola disease along with ripping people limb from limb. That tape is kind of a moot point now, as it's going to be a little hard to cover up a 30-foot-tall alien cyborg stomping around.

People bag on jungle shoots as a blatant money saver. Son of Godzilla gets crapped on for that a lot, and I don't understand why. It's nice to have a change of scenery sometimes. Be that as it may, you just can't get better bang for your buck than shooting in a real jungle. It adds a sense of realism to your movie that could never be reproduced on a soundstage, and I don't know about you, but I'd rather look at a genuine exotic location full of cool plants and animals than whatever crappy sets they could have afforded to build. Speaking of affording things, let's see what they did with all the money the found locations saved them, shall we?

If there's one thing Margheriti learned how to do well in his long, illustrious career as a science fiction director cranking out profitable and cheap flicks to ride the coattails of bigger productions, it was how to stretch a dollar. Or lira, as the case may be. There is a load of model work in the final half hour of this movie, and sure, some of it looks like wind-up toys from the dollar, er, lira store. But for every shot that looks like crap, there are two that look almost as good as anything comparable from Toho.

And remember what I said earlier about the production design? Some of the interiors at the E-Chem plant look more like the inside of the Nostromo than the doomed colony on LV-426. Particularly that room I mentioned. You know how in the retraction bay for the landing gear where Brett buys it in Alien, there were a few chains hanging from the ceiling? Margheriti and company figured they'd do one better and either found or built (and if they just found the place like this, I'd love to know what it was used for originally) a giant concrete tunnel piled feet deep with chains on the floor and with so many of the damn things hanging from the ceiling the actors can barely make their way through them.

But the real star of the show is the alien.  It was wisely kept in the shadows most of the time, but Margheriti knew what his audience wanted, and he brought it big time in the climactic power load...er...uh...I mean pay loader battle. Not one to be cowed by tightening purse strings, Margheriti hired a local Filipino FX crew to build him a full-size alien puppet (on his official website, Antonio's son Edoardo laments that he was off on his first directing job and unable to fill his usual role as his father's FX director). It's no queen xenomorph, but if they couldn't match Stan Winston for quality, by Cthulhu they'd outdo him in quantity! This thing is well over twice the size of the queen alien, and while its awkward, wobbling movements suspended from a crane aren't exactly convincing, it still strikes an imposing figure towering over our heroes and even dwarfing the heavy machinery they use to fight it.  I think its real shining moment is stepping on and squishing Dr. Geoffrey.

Where most people see cheesy crap, I see...well, okay. I can see the cheesy crap, too. But I get every bit as much honest enjoyment out of these things as I do having fun riffing them. This movie is a blast. There may not be much gore or sex considering the genres it mixes and its country of origin, but that first hour is very well paced. It's got Charles Napier, who is one of those character actors who never fails to bring a quality performance no matter what dumb crap he's given to say, and there's plenty of running through the jungle and bafflingly bad dialogue to hold your interest until that whackadoodle alien shows up.

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