Summer is not over. Yes, there are only two weeks left before autumn officially begins, but by the time the Labor Day long weekend is over, most people have switched to fall sensibilities—though I implore you to keep all things pumpkin spice away from me! In many parts of the world—including the Great White North—temperatures and tempers are still running high, so while the kids are back in school, spreading covid to their parents and everybody else for the inevitable umpteenth wave, let’s sit back and revel in summertime chill for a bit longer. We might still be in a pandemic, but at least we don’t have mutant fishmen rampaging along our coastlines. Summertime movies for me usually involve aquatic horror, stemming from my childhood fear/obsession involving Steven Spielberg’s expert, studio-funded B-picture, Jaws. I found time to revisit a perennial aquatic favorite, Humanoids from the Deep, one of the last Jaws rip-offs Roger Corman’s New World Pictures made before focusing on Alien knockoffs for half a decade. It’s actually an ode to both Jaws and the early ‘50s Universal classic, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and like a Roger Corman-produced picture from the late ‘70s, offers the requisite amount of blood and boobs one expects. Humanoids from the Deep offers fantastic Rob Bottin creature effects on a budget, wooden performances from Hollywood vets like Doug McClure and Vic Morrow, and though it lacks the sly wit of New World’s previous Jaws cash-in, Piranha, the sheer number of arterial sprays painting the town of Noyo’s annual Salmon Festival more than makes up for the lack of (intentional) humor. Humanoids from the Deep is an entertaining exploitation flick that is fun to revisit every couple of years in the dog days of summer.
The town of Noyo, California is embroiled in a controversial plan for a massive seafood cannery plant to be built, drawing objections from the local Indigenous band. After one fishing boat blows up mysteriously, fisherman Hank Slattery (Vic Morrow) blames the Indigenous people, led by Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), despite not having any concrete evidence. Tensions continue to rise in town, as a couple of teenagers go missing on the beach and many of the local dogs are slaughtered. Fisherman Jim Hill (Doug McClure) is convinced someone—or something—is to blame.
Humanoids from the Deep depicts a sleepy, real-life coastal fishing village caught in the middle of a conflict between environmental protection and economic gain, a conflict that was familiar in 1980 and is still particularly prevalent today—similar conflicts have occurred along the Canadian coastlines recently, often resulting in violence and resentment between fishing communities and Indigenous groups that still has not been resolved to date. However, this is a Roger Corman movie and not a social-issues drama, so it uses the Indigenous territory claim angle as a hook (sorry) to set up the film’s antagonists, the racist fishermen and Canco. Once again, like Jaws, summer dollars, by way of an industrial cannery plant, are the impetus for the film’s central conflict. Corporate greed, preying on a desperate fishing town and exploiting the Indigenous peoples, is the root cause of the bloody mayhem that occurs, one in which science is perverted for the almighty buck.
Having a group of racist fishermen, led by Hank Slattery, adds to the conflict, as these men see their future livelihood threatened by Indigenous land claims. “You people won the battle, but we won the war,” Slattery sneers at Johnny when dismissing Johnny’s tribe’s land claim. Humanoids from the Deep sets up Slattery and Canco as the antagonists quickly and it’s up to McClure’s level-headed Jim who defends Johnny against Slattery while still being in favor of the cannery; it’s obvious that he’s not very enthused to see Canco’s executives at a local dance (featuring the first of two performances from Jo Williams and Her Whitewater Boys band!) to promote the cannery. It’s forgivable to see frustration at the prospect of fishing as a way of life being threatened, but when Slattery and his fishing posse resort to racism and violence to save their way of life, they lose whatever sympathy or credibility they had. Canco’s claims of bigger and more plentiful salmon are seen by the town as a godsend, not stopping to think how achieving those claims will end up nearly destroying Noyo. Ecology vs. corporate greed is a common theme seen in many of the “nature attacks” horror films of the 1970s and early ‘80s and it’s not out of place in Humanoids from the Deep. It is, however, refreshing to watch a 1980 exploitation movie depict racists as bad guys, so Humanoids from the Deep gives its grisly tale of mutated guts and gore and a wee bit of social messaging, but not too much, lest the audience loses interest.
The creature effects by Rob Bottin are far better than a low-budget horror film of this caliber deserves, but as with Corman productions, film technicians honed their craft with limited funds and boundless imagination. The humanoids are an homage to the Gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon, their green, scaly bodies covered in slime and seaweed, as they pop out of the ocean, slicing through human tissue with ease. Their oversized heads—with visible brain matter—and rows of sharp teeth demonstrate the gruesome result when science is used to manipulate nature. Though only three creature suits were made, clever editing and lighting help convey a massive attack when the humanoids crash the Noyo Salmon Festival during the film’s climax. The local men are slaughtered easily—much of the aforementioned arterial spray occurs here—and the makeup effects are grisly, gooey, and gorgeous. The bloodbath and screaming occur for ten minutes, ending when Jim and Dr. Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) dump gasoline into the harbor and set the creatures on fire. Environmental concerns are dispatched expeditiously when it comes to saving the local populace. And it’s a nice touch to have Johhny Eagle save racist Hank from being ripped apart by the humanoids, even if Hank doesn’t thank him, the lout!
What’s particularly fascinating about an exploitation production like Humanoids from the Deep is that it’s directed by a woman, Barbara Peeters. She was one of the few woman directors of ‘70s exploitation cinema, so it’s refreshing to see a Corman picture being inclusive in a time when that was seldom the case. It’s likely that without Peeters, the film wouldn’t have a strong scientist character in Dr. Drake, who butts heads with Canco executives (the company CEO calls her a “great little scientist” condescendingly) and even Jim, who can’t completely escape his chauvinist inclinations: “You’re awfully sure of yourself,” he tells Drake when they’re investigating nearby coastal caves for evidence of the creatures. “I have to be, with men like you around,” she replies coldly. It’s understandable that she’s defensive: There were few women in the sciences in the ‘70s, so they had to work harder than their male counterparts and fight for respect. Drake also reveals that she addressed her concerns to Canco regarding their genetic manipulations of the local fish stocks and they ignored her, partly as a woman, and partly because her information threatens the corporate bottom line. It’s delicious to see her order one of the sniveling Canco men around when they visit her lab. Even a minor character like Jim’s wife, Carol (Cindy Weintraub), has a moment to shine, fighting off one of the creatures at home when she and their baby are threatened, killing it with a butcher knife and household cleaning spray.
Unfortunately for Peeters, Corman was dissatisfied with her completed cut, insisting on additional inserts of gore and nudity expected from audiences at the time. In an interview found on Shout! Factory’s 2010 Blu-ray release, second-unit director James Sbardellati admits sheepishly that he shot additional footage of nudity that Corman had requested. There is also uncredited filming by Battle Beyond the Stars director Jimmy T. Murakami for several gore inserts, as again Corman felt the picture was not bloody enough. Sadly, though Peeters continued to direct episodic TV in the 1980s, she never directed a feature film again. Cast members like Turkel and Weintraub were disgusted by the added nudity, which is exclusively women having their clothes torn off by the humanoids in their mating frenzy, and Weintraub claims in the same interview on the Blu-ray that Turkel was vociferous in her dismay when promoting the film on TV talk shows. Clearly, Humanoids from the Deep is a product of its time, and thoughts of exploiting rape for the sake of the box office were not considered in the same way they are today.
Despite its occasional forays into hokey terrain and dated attitudes, Humanoids from the Deep is a fun aquatic horror flick that marked the end of the relentless Jaws cash-ins of the late ‘70s. Its heart is found in the ‘50s B-movies marketed to teens in the 1950s, including the films a young Roger Corman directed. One doesn’t seek out exploitation for highbrow social commentary, but there is a bit to be found here mixed in with all the seaside carnage and pseudoscientific claptrap. It’s an ideal summertime movie and pairs nicely with fellow aquatic horror, Piranha. One can debate the reasons Corman had for going behind Peeters and having extra scenes shot, but over forty years later, Humanoids from the Deep remains a welcome slice of cinematic cheese to be revisited when the thermometer mercury rises and a cold beverage is in hand. ★