Leviathan is one of several horror fantasy films from 1989 to exploit the notion of substituting the ocean for outer space as a vast, primordially unknown stage on which to spring scares that pivot on an otherworldly stalker scenario consciously reminiscent of Alien. The story imagines a bottle of vodka, taken from an abandoned Russian ocean craft, that’s laced with an experimental drug that turns unsuspecting miners into hideous shape-shifting aquatic creatures. These monstrosities fuse together in fashions that recall the organism from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and grow to resemble something that suggests H.R. Giger’s Alien if it were to don a cheap and ludicrous Creature from the Black Lagoon mask.
The first act is promising, as the almost poetically unreal ocean imagery occasionally evokes the atmosphere of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and director George P. Cosmotos proves competent at aping those chilling scenes from David Cronenberg’s The Fly where a computer impersonally and pragmatically notifies someone of an irreversible genetic mutation. (Intensifying this association is Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which abounds in Howard Shore quotations.) But Cosmotos isn’t able to orchestrate the tension that should follow from the monster’s emergence.
Jarringly lit and slackly edited scenes unintentionally emphasize the disappointingly thrown-together creature as a series of disconnected rubber body parts—a tail here, an eel appendage there—that are being dragged by crew members just outside of the frame’s periphery. The actors are unusually engaging for this sort of film, but they’re still ultimately reduced to the stature of bait that’s charged with interminably wandering halls that have been clearly fashioned to resemble Alien’s memorable stacked erector-set corridors. And that’s really all there is to Leviathan, a mediocre, quasi-diverting B movie that’s best appreciated as a springboard for an approaching Halloween game of “Spot the Homage.” Or, less kindly, “Spot the Derivation.”
This transfer handles the darks fairly well, but the lights are a problem. The blues, purples, and blacks of the ocean and the deep-water submersibles are generally attractive, but the daylight scenes above the water are grainy and washed out. (Luckily, most of the film is set deep under the sea.) The sound mixes are clean, though the score occasionally lacks the fullness of dimension that reliably characterizes the big supporting effects.
The actor interviews are brief and fun, if disappointingly skin-deep, but the interviews with Stan Winston’s former crew members provide a fascinating and succinct portrait of the politics behind one of cinema’s most influential monster-making teams. Winston’s decision to pass on friend James Cameron’s The Abyss (easily the highest profile of 1989’s underwater fantasies) is explained as a gesture that was intended to allow him to work on his own directorial debut, the underrated Pumpkinhead, while farming himself out to films that would require less of him than Cameron’s notoriously demanding productions. The infamously temperamental and erratic Cosmotos is also discussed as a largely passionate megalomaniac who knew just what he wanted until all of a sudden he didn’t—a tendency that greatly rankled Winston. Tying these various stories together is the unspoken implication that no one particularly thought too much of Leviathan, rationalizing it mostly as just another gig, though one that was mercifully graced by a talented, unpretentious cast.
Leviathan, more a cover album of previous monster-movie highs than a full-blooded horror film in its own right, is accorded an uneven transfer by Shout! Factory that’s reliant on its cult’s relief that it’s available on Blu-ray at all. And that’s really about all the attention it merits.