Hollywood lost yet another star recently when composer James Horner was killed in a plane crash earlier this week. Horner is best known by movie buffs as the creator of the scores to Oscar-bait movies such as Titanic, Avatar, and Bravehart, but horror fans remember him for his earlier work on classics like Deadly Blessing, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and, of course, Aliens. In the early days of his career, Horner went through the “Roger Corman Film School,” and one of his first feature length soundtracks was that of the 1980 creature feature Humanoids from the Deep.
Humanoids from the Deep takes place in a small coastal town called Noyo in Northern California. The local salmon fishermen are threatened by the opening of a big cannery in town by a corporation called CanCo. Led by a greedy businessman named Hank Slattery (Vic Morrow from “Combat!”), CanCo insists that their presence will be good for the community, they also claim to have developed a genetically altered species of fish that is bigger, faster, and more plentiful than the average salmon that populates the river. As if on cue, reports of huge creatures emerging from the sea and attacking the villagers start to come in. Local man Jim Hill (Doug McClure from Shenandoah) and CanCo scientist Dr. Susan Drake (The Fear’s Ann Turkel) investigate the allegations, and find that the problem is much more serious than anyone could have predicted.
The initial idea that producer Roger Corman had for Humanoids from the Deep was reportedly to make a modernization of a classic fifties and sixties monster sci-fi movie. He originally offered the director’s chair to Joe Dante, who had just made Piranha for him, but Dante turned it down. Wanting to give the film an “exploitation” quality, Corman hired grindhouse director Barbara Peeters (Summer School Teachers, The Dark Side of Tomorrow) to helm the project. The surprisingly intelligent screenplay was fleshed out by Frederick James (which was a pseudonym used by William Martin, who wrote for “American Experience”) from a story by Frank Arnold (The Macomber Affair) and Martin B. Cohen (The Rebel Rousers), and it combines the ecological message of John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, the monster aspects of Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the party atmosphere of William Asher’s Beach Blanket Bingo into a cohesive little sci-fi parable. Of course, all of this is filtered through the Roger Corman Creature Feature Production lens, so Humanoids from the Deep looks every bit like the cheap-and-quickie that it is.
Speaking of cheap and quick, James Horner’s score for Humanoids from the Deep was composed in just two weeks. The influence of the scores to Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes and John Williams’ Jaws can both be heard readily in Horner’s music, but the soundtrack to Humanoids from the Deep still manages to hold onto its own identity. It’s full of tense orchestral cinematic vamps and grandiose melodic themes, but also has hints of sinister playfulness, as if Horner is creepily daring the audience to let down its guard. It’s not as musically advanced as, say, Horner’s score for Titanic, but Humanoids from the Deep is a completely different type of movie, and Horner’s score is perfect for the type of movie that it is.
A creature feature is only as good as its creatures, and the creatures in Humanoids from the Deep are pretty cool. The humanoids were designed and built by makeup effects artist Rob Bottin (The Howling, The Thing), and they look like your standard bipedal sea monsters, something like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Pumpkinhead with just a touch of Swamp Thing snuck in there for good measure. Bottin also reportedly wore the suit for much of the movie, acting out the creature scenes in place of the stunt people. There were three humanoid costumes made, but only one functioned properly, so the other two were only usable from certain angles. Because of this, the mass attack scenes had to be constructed through selective camera angling and careful editing. Nevertheless, whether there’s one or a hundred humanoids, the beasts look great, combing a fifties sci-fi look with an eighties monster-movie flavor.
Typical of a Roger Corman production, Humanoids from the Deep was shot with a low-budget, B-Movie aesthetic in mind. Cinematographer Daniel Lacambre (Saturday the 14th) uses every horror trick in the book to turn the movie into almost a parody of its own genre. The picture is packed with Jaws-like underwater stalking shots. The humanoids’ attack scenes are frequently shown from the point-of-view of the creature, giving the film a faux-slasher feel. During expositional sections of the film, the camera is slow to reveal both the creatures and the carnage, a technique which gives the movie a false sense of suspense that is often found in classic science fiction films. Lacambre and Peeters even throw in a good old-fashioned cat scare, and the epilogue scene is purposely stolen right out of Alien (which hit theaters less than a year before). Daniel Lacambre pulls out all of the stops to make Humanoids from the Deep look as much like a tribute to early sci-fi and horror films as possible.
Even a simple sci-fi horror picture like Humanoids from the Deep could not avoid controversy; when director Barbara Peeters delivered her cut of the film to Roger Corman, he determined that it needed more sex and exploitation. He asked Peeters to go back and shoot some additional attack scenes with the humanoids ripping the clothing off of buxom young women. Peeters refused, so Corman had second unit director James Sbardellati (Deathstalker) shoot the footage. In the final cut of the movie, the humanoids appear to be “rapey,” killing the male victims yet sexually assaulting the females. After seeing the finished picture, both Barbara Peeters and actress Ann Turkel were offended by the gratuitous misogyny, even going so far as asking to have their names removed from the credits and attempting to block the release of the movie. Neither happened, and like it or not, Humanoids from the Deep is still a part of the cinematic history of both women.
Of course, James Horner went on to both critical and commercial acclaim in his film scoring career. But, like so many before him, he was a product of the unofficial Roger Corman Film School, and the foundation for his later success was laid out early on by his work in movies like Humanoids from the Deep.