At the bottom of the ocean, the DeepStar Six has just discovered a new and deadly alien menace.
After Friday the 13th, director Sean S. Cunningham went in a different direction with his horror films. A Stranger Is Watching was a similar torture/slasher film a couple of years after, then came the 80’s comedy Spring Break. But in 1989, Cunningham set his sights on a movie that completely disposed of the mysterious killer scenario; instead, Deepstar Six dove into the sea for an underwater adventure involving a group of Navy divers trapped in a submarine with an ancient arthropod trying to eat them.
It’s quite a different jaunt for the director, but Deepstar Six is a surprisingly competent film. Like Friday the 13th, the film is about picking off the characters one by one, but here, Cunningham succeeds in a creature feature that focuses on the psychoses of the men and women trapped under the sea. And it helps that Cunningham’s script writers Lewis Abernathy and Geof Miller are not only skilled with developing characters but also adept at making sure the nautical stuff is accurate, or at least it seems so to ignorant audiences.
The team is composed of workers who are attempting to place a nuclear missile pad beneath the sea; it seems that the government is interested in getting a protection plan in place, just in case any powers decide to attack. McBride (Greg Evigan) is the Kurt Russell of the group – he’s the type of guy every man wants to be, the one who doesn’t shy away from the scary stuff, the one who doesn’t flake under pressure. Though his character is drawn in broad strokes (it’s often hard to tell what he’s thinking or feeling), he’s at least a personable fellow – and his relationship with fellow submariner Collins (Nancy Everhard) works well to establish two characters we want to root for.
But Deepstar Six doesn’t drop the other characters, either. It spends a lot of the first half hour with each of them as they do their jobs on the sub. Scarpelli (Nia Peeples) and Richardson (Matt McCoy) have a fling going on; Snyder (Miguel Ferrer) is suffering from a little bit of cabin fever, and a whole lot of guilt later on in the film. Cunningham’s slow progression might have been a little boring if not for the fascinating actions of the crew in the sub. But these moments are also divided by small bursts of action.
That’s because Deepstar Six isn’t just dealing with an ancient monster on the ocean floor but the reactions of the crew. Cunningham hits themes of PTSD and claustrophobia, the rigors of long work hours, the tension of the unknown depths of the sea; in other words, it doesn’t feel like the opening is padding on moments just to lengthen the film, but instead necessary introductions.
The sea is a creepy place to begin with, but Cunningham certainly manages to make it even more claustrophobic thanks to the multiple shots outside the submarine. A couple of guys in a detached vessel get pulverized by the monster in the depths of a cavern; a man gets the bends on a quick rise to the surface and nearly literally explodes. There are a couple of intense underwater sequences that will have the viewer holding their breath.
Perhaps I’m a sucker for underwater creatures dating back to the prehistoric. Deepstar Six’s monster isn’t the best, and the effects might not hold up so well today, but I did find myself totally immersed in the predicaments, even when the film explicitly shows the monster. The entire idea of the film simply works; it’s simple on paper but executed craftily. It’s a film that touches on all the common areas that movies like The Thing and Alien do better, but the underwater aspect of Deepstar Six gives it a fun new atmosphere to explore.
It’s a film that’s somewhat flawed but for the most part a great way to spend an hour and a half. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th was a good slasher because it spent time developing its characters; here again Cunningham manages to create a cast that the viewer actually wants to survive. And if you’re interested in deep sea monsters, Cunningham manages to grasp the suspense of being trapped underwater, leaving the viewer gasping for air.
DeepStar Six (1989)