At an underwater mining facility near Florida, Steven Beck (Peter Weller) and his crew happen across a sunken Russian vessel from which they bring back some intriguing cargo. While ship’s doctor, Glen ‘Doc’ Thompson (Richard Crenna) muses over a videotape with a cryptic warning from his Soviet counterpart, several of his colleagues help themselves to a bottle of abandoned vodka. Whereupon Buzz ‘Sixpack’ Parrish (Daniel Stern) is stricken with a virulent skin disease that claims his life. To the crew’s horror, his body rapidly mutates into a bloodsucking fish monster intent on devouring everyone on board.
There was most definitely something in the water in the summer of 1989. Audiences confronted visions of the murky depths via no less than six aquatic themed science fiction monster movies, all of which proved costly box office flops. Aside from this big budget production and James Cameron’s equally heavy hitter The Abyss, arguably the only one of these films that stands up to this day, there were the slapdash cash-ins Deep Star Six, The Evil Below and the Roger Corman DTV opus Lords of the Deep. Interestingly, Leviathan was one of two entries produced by the famous De Laurentiis family covering both ends of the budget spectrum. Whereas Francesca De Laurentiis had to content herself with Spanish rent-a-hack Juan Piquer Simon, a schlock cast and a score by Joel Goldsmith, Luigi and Aurelio De Laurentiis assembled a more impressive team including Blade Runner (1982) scribe David Webb Peoples, Alien (1979) production designer Ron Cobb, Stan Winston on creature duties, Peter Weller in his first sci-fi lead after the seminal Robocop (1987) and a typically atmospheric score composed by the rather more famous Jerry Goldsmith making spooky use of whale songs.
Filmed at Italy’s fabled Cinecitta studios Leviathan was an Italian co-production (exploitation fans will note the credits list genre staples Bobby Rhodes (Demons (1985)) and Ottaviano Dell’Acqua (Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)) as stuntmen) plagued with the problems and extensive re-shoots that seemingly dog every shoot involving water. As signposted by the contributions of Cobb and Goldsmith along with a failed attempt to sell British actress Amanda Pays as a soppy Ripley alternative repeatedly stripped to her underwear for contrived reasons, this was essentially Alien underwater although instead of an extraterrestrial threat opted for a mad science Macguffin involving some sort of mutagen. One area where Cameron’s film could not be faulted was the sheer visceral intensity of its drama. By contrast, for all the supposedly tense goings on, Leviathan conveys very little sense of danger or claustrophobia. Cobb’s admittedly well designed sets are so brightly lit everything looks like a Fifties B-movie and though Weller and especially Richard Crenna ground their roles with earnest emoting, everyone else plays for camp or proves woefully inadequate. Pays fares worst although it is hard to imagine any actress making much out of lines like “go suck a shrimp!”
The film takes its cue from Howard Hawks’ classic The Thing from Another World (1951) adopting nicknames and terse wisecracks as short-hand characterisation but the protagonists aren’t especially interesting. Peoples and co-writer Jeb Stuart co-opt the by now well worn theme of blue collar heroes pitted against monsters by callously manipulative business tycoons with Meg Foster filling that Eighties stock role of corporate bitch set up for a faintly misogynistic and quite literal punchline. In his second monster movie with Peter Weller following Of Unknown Origin (1982), George Pan Cosmatos seems constricted by the claustrophobic setting. His direction is uncharacteristically staid. It is a long, slow, clumsy build up to the fish mutant action though at least Stan Winston’s creature effects proves suitably gooey and grotesque. His revolting slithery transformations prove yet again the superiority of practical effects over CGI when it comes to horror movies, although Cosmatos strangely cuts away from any overt splatter and saves all the action for the last fifteen minutes. There are a few unsettling ideas such as having victims’ screaming faces protruding through the creature’s hide but the film plays too often for cheesy laughs including the amusingly corny climax.