Leviathan (1989)

When we started T8MC back in, eek!, 2013 the primary reason was to discover films that we would have loved if we’d seen them back when they came out.  Back then your VHS tape rental shop of choice had a finite selection which is why you ended up renting out Deadly Friend fifteen times.  Well, Leviathan wasn’t in the Streatham off-licence we got our rentals from and so it evaded us until we made it right last weekend.

Now we always thought this would be a dry sci-fi movie.  Well, a wet one actually given that it’s set underwater.  But anyway, we were never drawn to it but mainly because we never really looked beyond the film’s cover.

Made in 1989, this film is very much a mix of Alien, The Thing and The Abyss and it hits those beats with varying degrees of success.  Leviathan tells the story of a crew of deep-sea miners who are close to finishing up their latest job before stumbling upon a wreckage that turns out to be a Russian freighter (the titular Leviathan).  But one that is carrying a deadly secret.

What strikes you initially about the film is that the cast is just full of people you know and love.  You’ve got Robocop’s very own Peter Weller mumbling through his lines, Rambo’s Richard Crenna as the crew’s doctor, Home Alone’s Daniel Stern as ‘Sixpack’ who is the annoying arsehole of the group, Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters, Meg Foster as the cold, corporate overseer and Amanda Pays who we were basically in love with ever since we saw the Max Headroom movie 30+ years ago.

This mix of character actors is what gives this film its strong ‘Alien but in the water’ feel.  What you’ve got here is a crew of blue collar workers trapped in a ship.  Weller does great as Beck, the ship’s easy-going captain who just wants to get the job done and get out of there while the other crew members all do a good job of filling the other character archetypes.  Hudson gives you the no-nonsense, slightly angry Parker vibe, Amanda Pays does a decent Ripley impression and so on.  Daniel Stern is more of a Hudson type (or a bit like the slightly psychotic character Steve Buscemi played in Armageddon) but you get the idea.

After a few getting-to-know-you scenes, Sixpack is the one who finds the Leviathan and brings back some cargo.  There’s not much there of interest to the crew though beyond some alcohol which he keeps for himself.  This hip flask of vodka ends up being the facehugger of the story (well, aside from a weird crab thing that Sixpack uses to prank one of the crew).  He takes a few swigs, as does Bridget who catches him in the act, before going to sleep.

The next day he’s feeling pretty rough and before long his skin starts erupting in horrible outbreaks that puzzle the ship’s doctor.  After communicating with some experts, his best guess is that some sort of genetic mutation is happening and his fears are confirmed when Sixpack mutates into a gruesome creature while also appearing to absorb Bridget who has also started to feel rough.

Following the Alien playbook, the crew then decide to lure the creature out of the airlock using flamethrowers.  This goes alright until one of its many arms gets cut off by the door and then crawls back into the ship looking for its next victim.

At this point, the film goes into full The Thing mode.  Crewmembers are picked off one at a time in gory fashion while the practical effects team, overseen by Stan Winston, go to town creating one over-the-top set piece after another.

The effects work isn’t quite up there with The Thing’s but it’s still really good with plenty of outrageous body horror moments.  Some shocking, some kind of silly.  Rather than tendrils and wibbly bits, this virus can grow an entire adult arm in you and then have it punch its way out.

From this point in the movie, everything moves at a crazy pace with characters getting offed often way before you’d expect.  If you’ve seen The Thing, and of course you have, you might expect certain characters to have comparable story arcs but Leviathan is happy to subvert your expectations.

There’s a certain familiarity here though that makes Leviathan kind of comfortable to watch.  The circular doorways from Alien, the iron flooring from Aliens, a doctor who realises before the crew exactly how screwed they are, the way characters are picked off.  It’s a homage to those great films but respectful too.

The creature itself has the ambiguity of the ‘Thing’ in that it seems to take many forms, levelling itself up to look more and more intimidating.  That said, the effects team maybe didn’t have the same confidence in their work here as quick camera cuts, dry ice and metal grilles are all used to make its appearances somewhat fleeting on the screen.  Indeed it was only when we captured the screenshot below, and applied a bit of Photoshop to it, that we realised what a cool design it is.  Indeed The Thing (2011) steals some inspiration from it.

This, of course, sets up a big end battle and, to be fair to Leviathan, the film just about sticks the landing here.  There’s a little bit of silliness involving sharks and an attempt to generate some sort of catchy ‘get away from her, you bitch’ type quotes but ultimately when the film ended we were very satisfied with what we had seen.

Sometimes you just want a horror film to give you what you want.  A bit of story, a lot of scares and suspense and a silly amount of gore.  We’re simple creatures.  We don’t need it to be an allegory for some sort of political situation, we don’t need deeper meanings.  Sometimes saying ‘hey, let’s do Alien but in the water’ is fine.

And, compared to the genre’s most notable film, The Abyss, Leviathan is a lot more fun as it eschews the proto-CGI flashiness for rubber and red corn syrup and gets to its point a lot quicker.  Sure, we’d have liked to have seen Michael Biehn in a silly moustache but aside from that Leviathan is the better film.  Yeah, we said it.

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