Just when you thought it was
safe to go back to
the video store . . . .
Back in the early days of video rentals, every trip to the video store was a motion picture safari. Without the internet or even much in the way of entertainment journalism, the only way to discover movies outside the realm of mainstream Hollywood was to dive in at your local mom 'n' pop shop and comb the shelves in search of those elusive and exotic direct-to-video (DTV) beasts that might reward you with something you just wouldn't see anywhere else.
Compared to the DTV scene of today wherein every low-budget movie comes complete with its own web site, internet mailing list, and a handful of reviews from online film critics like us, the pioneer days of the video rental store seem quaint. In truth, however, the video store was a retail battlefield with its own sophisticated rules. In the war for the video rental dollar, the best (and sometimes only) weapon DTV marketers had was the cover art on the case of the tape. With the proper one-two punch of an eye-catching cover and some snappy prose on the reverse side, a good ad man could seal the deal and scarf up your hard-earned dollar without even being there for the transaction.
One of the video boxes we remember most clearly from those days is the one created for the Johnny-come-lately Jaws rip-off Up From the Depths. We remember seeing it everywhere: painted by William Stout, the cover was an obvious homage to the Jaws poster, but instead of being hunted by a giant great white, the swimming woman is about to be eaten by a very scaly prehistoric shark-like creature. Sadly, being a b-movie fan is often about how well you can deal with broken promises -- there is no such creature in the film itself.
"How many times do I have to scold
him for keeping his jar of Newman's
Own in his wetsuit?"
The setting is a fictional island in "the Hawaiian archipelago," a phrase repeated multiple times. This island is so remote that there is no police presence, despite the fact that it hosts a world-class resort called "The Tropical Palace" with seven restaurants and five miles of private beaches. (One would think the hotel would at least want its own security staff to deal with the occasional unruly guest, but this detail is omitted from the picture.) Professor Whiting (Charles Howerton) conducts vaguely scientific experiments in the waters near the island with his graduate student Sandy when an underwater earthquake strikes (signified by much shaking of the camera). This somehow disrupts the ocean currents and a giant "abyssal fish" comes to the surface and eats Sandy, who was scuba diving alone for no discernable reason. Though Whiting suspects that his sexy young pupil became fish chow when he scoops a glassful of her blood out of the water, he is remarkably laid back about her death. It isn't until later that we find out the reason for his lack of concern. Hint: He's a scientist.
"People keep telling me I look
different in person."
Most of the movie centers on the Tropical Palace resort, presumably because beach scenes are cheaper to film than those that take place on a boat or, heaven forbid, underwater. The manager there is Mr. Forbes (Kedric Wolfe), the kind of high-strung weasel who would never be able to manage a fast food restaurant, let alone a major resort. The only employee he ever appears to manage is Rachel (Susanne Reed), the resort's PR director. Rachel is sort of sweet on Gregg (Sam Bottoms, whose name in the opening credits is one of the film's rare instances of actual humor), a local man who runs treasure-hunt scams on the rich hotel patrons with his uncle Earl. The most prominent guests are the Bennetts, a wealthy couple of the shallowly-written type that does nothing but argue.
In most Jaws rip-offs there are two words for the preceding paragraph: food chain.
Unhappily, not many of these people actually get killed by the fish, in part because Up From the Depths is not an especially ambitious Jaws rip-off. For most of the movie the monster attacks which happen almost exclusively to characters who are introduced and eaten in the same scene are represented by extreme close-ups of people thrashing in the water as red food coloring is released around them. When the monster does show up, its more of an eel than a shark, though that's mostly a theory on our part. It's a bit difficult to nail down the appearance of the animal because it changes so much. Underwater it has large teeth, on the surface it has small teeth. It is definitely large and violent, and we suppose that's all we really need to know.
Instead of filling in the gaps about the nature of the killer beastie, the movie is far more concerned with producing large swaths of sub-sitcom character development and comedy. Up From the Depths was written by Al Sweeny who, according to the imdb, had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood as an art director. This was apparently his only stab at writing, and that may explain why the movie vacillates from scenes of a guy slipping on human organs to lines of "funny" dialogue that wouldn't have made the cut on an episode of Sgt. Bilko. Some examples of Mr. Sweeny's wit:
(Rachel swoons while attempting to report the death of a hotel guest.) Forbes: Rachel, what's wrong with you? Are you pregnant? Rachel: Mr. Lazlo . . . Forbes: Oh my God! You've been raped!
Forbes: Good morning Mr. Suki! Mr. Suki: Ohayo gozaimasu. Forbes: Ohio is a nice state.
(Mrs. Bennett sees the monster fish from shore and panics) Mr. Bennett: Snap out of it! Fish can't walk! Mrs. Bennett: Everybody's running! Mr. Bennett: Fish can't run, either! (They both laugh.)
"Am I the same monster, or a
different one? You decide!"
Sweeny also makes few gaffes in the scientific department, with such exclamations as "there are no sharks in the Hawaiian archipelago!" Of course there are -- though shark attacks in Hawaii are rare, they do happen. (Never mind that the shooting location is actually in the Philippines, which are somewhat more arid than the Hawaiian islands.) There are plenty of details in the film to set off alarms in the head of any marine scientists or scuba divers who happen to be watching, though none of them quite so egregious as the fact that large expanses of Up From the Depth are spent watching divers perform particularly uninteresting acts beneath the sea. We've said it before and we'll likely say it again: nothing stops a movie in its tracks like a scuba diving sequence. They do try an interesting wrinkle on the scuba scene, with a nude model doing a shoot underwater, but we can't imagine that anyone would find a woman in full scuba gear attractive, no matter how little she's wearing. (If that's your bag, please keep it to yourself, like the deep, dark secret it should be.)
Oh, those kids and their extreme sports.
Sweeny's sub-moronic comedy stylings and scientific mistakes are dreadful enough, but the real pain comes along with his tasteless and incoherent handling of the film's climax. When Professor Whiting falls prey to the fish, the remaining members of the hunting party decide to use his body as bait by booby-trapping his body with explosives and trailing his corpse behind the boat. (We are relieved from the burden of caring about Whiting's death when he makes it clear that his interest in the fish is purely scientific; the creature's victims are shrugged off with the simple opinion that "the fish were there first.") Though a simple build-up of tension and the subsequent detonation of the critter would have sufficed, a last-minute "the cable was disconnected" sub-plot is thrown in to drag the picture's running time out just a little bit more. It's entirely unclear how they're supposed to reconnect the detonator cable to a bomb that has already been swallowed by a giant killer fish, they manage somehow (there was some cable trailing from the fish's mouth?) and the fish dies in a large explosion. The End.
Even in 1979, after both Jaws and Jaws 2 had come and gone from theaters, Up From the Depths would have seemed redundant, but the siren song of cheap and enjoyable beach location shoots mandated by sea-critter movies still lured film producers into the business of churning out such films. One of the movie's executive producers, Roger Corman, had long ago learned the fringe benefits of the motion picture industry with films like Creature from the Haunted Sea. Combine Corman with Filipino uber-producer Cirio Santiago, and something as bad as Up From the Depths is practically inevitable.
We would like, however, to law the blame for awful Jaws rip-offs precisely where they belong: at the feet of the director of the original Jaws. Do you hear us, Mr. Spielberg? This is all your fault. You should be ashamed that you made an excellent but easily ripped-off movie. We hope you've learned your lesson.
This review is part of the B-Masters Beach Party Review Roundtable. For more reviews click the banner below.