Jaws is the best film ever made. Because of this, everyone and their cousins were inspired to make a shark movie. Some were either courageous enough or stupid enough to actually get their shark movies made. There are A LOT of shark movies. In spite of all my poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, I am going to watch them all. I don’t know what will be left of me afterwards.
The Flick: Up from the Depths (1979)
The Chum: Sam Bottoms, Susanne Reed, Virgil Frye, Kedric Wolfe, Charles Howerton (actors), Charles B. Griffith (director)
Species of Shark: Unspecified prehistoric man-eater (Dafuqadon whogivesashitius)
The Meat of the Movie: “Every now and again, something happens that reminds you why you live.”
That’s a quote from Chewer Supreme, Nick Nunziata, referring to his DVD War entry on this Fin Flick. After watching Up from the Depths, I can attest to this reappraisal of existence. There’s no going back now that I’ve seen this film. I have fallen down the rabbit hole of shitty shark movies and found myself in some kind of madcap wonderland that will linger in my brain for years to come. I don’t mean this as outright adulation for Up from the Depths, because it is certainly the antithesis of a good film, but it is also far too ludicrous to completely dismiss. I’m sorry, I’m getting way too heady for this intro, especially for this movie.
We appropriately open in the depths, before panning up to a boat with a young girl and a bronzed crustacean calling itself a scientist. This dude is the result of Charlton Heston and Tom Noonan failing at the fusion dance. He is an extraterrestrial third grader’s art class clay sculpture of what a human being is supposed to look like.
Hestoonan and his student/girlfriend are doing some underwater science-ing. Well, more specifically, she is doing all the legwork by diving down and putting tiny box things in the crevices of coral formations, while Hestoonan chills topside and considers auditioning his head for the role of Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. I should point out that almost all of the diving segments in this film have an incredible amount of focus on the gooch/grundle/nifkin. If you’re a fan of men and woman’s asses being filmed in the most unflattering ways possible, Up from the Depths belongs on your shelf.
Anyway, the filmmakers realistically simulate an earthquake by shaking the camera back and forth, and this is when we find out student/girlfriend’s name is Chrissie Watkins, as she faces the camera to illicit some sort of scared reaction before deciding to metamorphose into an upside down waterfall of blood. As her scarlet remains rise to the surface, Hestoonan grabs a stemless wine glass and scoops out a cupful of the Chrissie-infused water because…? If you had no context for this image, you would think he was looking at a fly that got caught in his Ocean Spray Cran-Apple juice.
The camera zooms back and we’re treated to the Philippines masquerading as Hawaii. In what I can only describe as one of the most excellent bits of self-awareness ever inserted into an opening credits sequence, the words “Starring Sam Bottoms” show up as the screen is filled with the vigorously shaking backsides of two hula girls. We’re only four minutes in, but Up from the Depths is already winning me over. I should mention that Sam Bottoms is most recognizable for his role as Lance (on the forward .50’s) the surfer in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Both that and Up from the Depths were shot in the Philippines and both were released in 1979. I will now forever refer to that year as The Year of the Bottoms.
I suppose I should also take a quick aside to mention that this film was a New World Pictures joint, which was the company Roger Corman formed after leaving AIP. He made a lot of pictures in the Philippines with help from producer Cirio H. Santiago. There’s a really great documentary about that subject and other Filipino films/films shot in the Philippines called Machete Maidens Unleashed that you should check out. Once you’ve finished reading this article, of course. Back to the movie!
Our setting is a tropical resort of some kind, and we’re shown a montage of beach bumming activity. My favorite is an old man who is reenacting the Pixar short Geri’s Game. Some schlubby tourist guy goes wading into the water and trips over something, only to emerge covered in a bucketful of Chrissie guts. What’s great is that he doesn’t have the appropriate reaction of pants-shitting terror that comes from accidentally wearing a suit of human meat chunks. Instead, he’s just pissy and perturbed, like it was a big wad of seaweed instead of partially digested internal organs. It’s doubly funny because some kids warn him about “something weird” in the water, and when he’s flinging the gore off of himself, one of the kids says, “I told you so.” Then, while Schlub is complaining about the predicament to his wife, one of the kids attempts to drink some of the Chrissie Juice and comically spits it out. Keep racking up those points, Up from the Depths.
We’re introduced to the guy who runs the resort, and he’s wearing this atrocious bubblegum colored jacket that he keeps on for the majority of the movie. Bubblegum Crisis seeks out Rachel, whose position with the resort seems to be customer relations or something along those lines. She’s always saying hello to everyone and making sure they’re having a good time. Bubble Yum whines at Rachel before almost sitting on the chewed up carcass of a shark. This scene highlights one of my favorite problems that will be fairly consistent throughout the running time of Up from the Depths: horrendous dubbing. I think the entire movie’s dialogue track might have been dubbed over, and not only do you get all the inherit fun that comes with bad dubbing, but characters also talk over each other a whole bunch. Add to the fact that the recordings themselves are a pretty terrible quality, and you have yourself the recipe for some gut-busting badness.
Mr. and Mrs. Schlub head to the bar, which is where we meet Sam Bottoms’ character Greg, who seems to be a con artist of some sort as he conspires with a local merchant to get the Schlubs to buy a worthless Tiki statue. After swindling the couple out of fifty bucks, he offers them a ride on his slummy boat with his cartoonishly drunk companion, Earl Sullivan. Earl is drunk every time he’s on screen, and it is the kind of community theater drunk acting that I adore. He already slurs everything he says, but combined with the appalling dubbing, it’s like slurring on top of slurring. This film is threatening to slip into avant garde territory at any second. Earl tells the Schlubs about a rich Japanese family who tried to leave the island shortly after Pearl Harbor, but their boat was sunk. He makes sure to interject every possible Japanese term westerners recognize into his tale, all while stereotypical shamisen music plays on the soundtrack. This was the first time in my life in which I began to understand and empathize with the kamikaze pilots of December 7th, 1941.
There’s a brief and painful scene of zero chemistry romance between Rachel and Greg, and then we check back in on Doc Hestoonan, who is out on a boat with the harbor master. They drink and rationalize that maybe Chrissie swam back to shore, even though Hestoonan saw her blood bubble up to the surface and was about to sip on some of Chrissie’s life fluid! Some hillbilly fisherman drive up alongside the boat and show the doc a bunch of weird fish they caught. Hestoonan is so ridiculously jazzed to look at these deep sea creatures (who shouldn’t even be anywhere near the surface) that I guess he forgets that his lover is missing and presumably dead. Does this look like the face of a man who is worried about the well-being of another human being?
Cut to a boating tour where some off-screen kid is calling out how all the stuff they’re seeing in this coral reef is all fake. One of the resort workers on the boat notices something off about the usual items spread around underwater. He dives in and swims down to find a severed hand. I don’t know exactly what happens to the hand, since the film immediately jumps to the next scene. It’s nighttime at what looks like the resort’s outside restaurant. The worker who discovered the hand tells Hubba Bubba about it, and he tells the guy to “throw it back,” since it wasn’t found on the resort’s property. This dude makes Mayor Vaughn look like Father Christmas.
The next day, Rachel is flitting around the beach with one of the resort guests, a Frenchman. You know he’s French because he says French things like fromage. They traipse around the beach, and then he starts taking pictures of her all of a sudden. She’s posing and looking all easy, breezy, beautiful Cover Girl while the film assaults your eyeballs by cutting between her and the French guy every time the shutter clicks. What exactly is her official title at this place? I’m starting to think she’s an escort, minus the old in-out in-out. Well, French fry steps back into the water near a couple of rocks to get a better angle for a shot, and he is yanked down and turned into cherry Kool-Aid. He was in maybe three feet deep water, and maybe ten feet from the beach. Martin Brody’s statistic is proven true by Up from the Depths. Then, to send the scene off on a giggle, Rachel steps over to where the guy was, and her reaction is an exasperated sigh. What is it with people in this film not going into shock when faced with the certain death of a nearby person? The whole event is made even more hilarious when Rachel approaches Bubblicious to tell him about the “drowning” (both her and Hestoonan call them drownings. I assume they are both colorblind and can’t see the bright red blood in the water), and she looks like she was dumped by her boyfriend of two months. To cap the whole thing off, Dubble Bubble sees Rachel being all mopey and callously asks, “What’s the matter with you? Are you pregnant?” I’m now convinced this film was shot in the Bizarro universe.
Meanwhile, Earl and Greg are trying to milk more and more cash out of the Schlubs for using their boat, so they plant some fake treasure on the sea bottom and then go diving to bring some of it up. Greg takes Geri’s Game with him, and they end up finding some little bits of real treasure instead. Too bad that the shark in this flick hasn’t had much to do, so he takes this opportunity to munch on Greg’s diving buddy. Greg comes up and tells Earl what happened, so Earl tells the Schlubs that there’s a storm coming and they better haul anchor and get out of there. Never mind that it’s a clear and sunny day, because the Schlubs completely believe him. Everybody meets up at the harbor master’s place to tell him about the people who have died, and finally there seems to be some acknowledgment of these deaths.
Nope! Things are pretty normal here at the Hotel Oblivious. Some big bimbo of a starlet comes to the place and exists solely to be an airhead who likes being topless a lot. I’m not complaining, but you know she is dinosaur shark candy the minute she steps into the picture. She goes off to do a photo shoot on a boat, while we kill some time on the beach. The Schlubs meet another married couple who seem to be students of the Earl Sullivan Acting Academy, as they are also steadily drunk and slurry. There’s a reporter trying to investigate the rumors about multiple disappearances, but he is so throwaway that I think you only see him one more time for a brief second later on. Nothing much happens on the beach, except for this amazing shot of Earl ogling some hula girls.
Then, this mostly sharkless shark movie rips loose. Tourists throw money off a cliff and local kids dive in to snatch up the coins (subtle class commentary there, Up from the Depths). In the midst of this, the kids see the monster kicking back on the ocean floor and they decide they can go a day without playing Galaga. Then, Greg and Rachel are out on the tour boat and spot Chrissie’s decapitated head lying among some coral. I call that conclusive evidence that drowning was not what caused her death. Immediately after this discovery, the shark destroys their boat. There’s two very quick glimpses of the creature, but nothing worthy of posting here (yet). Greg and Rachel escape thanks to Hestoonan picking them up on his speedboat. They see the dorsal fin of the shark heading for the starlet’s boat, but they are unable to save her when she goes underwater to have some pictures of her taken. The shark kills her and her photographer, and we say goodbye to a pretty nice pair of dirty pillows.
Earl gets Big League Chew all drunk and tries to convince him to hold a contest for people to kill the fish. At the same time, Greg, Rachel and Hestoonan drive up to where everyone is frollicking in the water and tells them to get out while waving rifles around. Yeah, that’d get me out of the water. But, to make sure we know it’s the shark and not the random people with guns that just showed up scaring everyone, the filmmakers give us our best look at the creature. This is the clearest and longest screen time it gets, so soak it in folks.
The beach panic scene that ensues is when the movie has decided to become an all-out joke. Bubbaloo attempts to shoot the monster from the shoreline but is deflected by Hestoonan and ends up shooting his own foot, that drunk couple from earlier don’t even get up and continue drinking, and there’s even a little unintended laugh where a woman is running out of the water and her bikini bottom starts to come off. She fixes it, but then one of her boobs pop out and she doesn’t seem to notice. The best exchange comes courtesy of the Schlubs.
Mrs. Schlub: “Don’t let it get me!”
Mr. Schlub: “Snap out of it! Fish can’t walk!”
Mrs. Schlub: “Everybody’s running!”
Mr. Schlub: “Fish can’t run either!”
Then they both cackle like loons and I transcend space and time and enter a mental state not unlike the climactic scene from The Manitou.
The next day, Bubble Tape gets all the guests together in the hotel’s lounge by offering free drinks and announces that he’ll… holy dogshit, is that R. Lee Ermey?
You can actually see him forgetting he was ever in this movie while he’s in the movie.
Anyways, Bubble Tape announces that he’s offering a thousand bucks and a week in the presidential suite to anyone who can kill the shark, which causes everyone in the room to get up and start grabbing the severely fake looking spears off of the lounge walls. The film shows a bunch of different groups of people (some we’ve seen before, and some new faces like R. Lee and his buddies) being silly with their attempts to get weapons and rush to kill the shark.
Then, it happens. During this scene, three of the best seconds in all of cinema occur. This succinct and perfect moment must be seen and shared. Bear witness and give thanks that such a wonderous thing was allowed to slip into our world.
That is the whole scene. There is no preface or lead-in or anything. You don’t need it. All you need is, “I will kill!” and you know everything you need to know about that character and his motivation. These three seconds are better than 75% of most modern feature length films and 99.9% better than every student film ever made in the history of the world. The film has peaked. If it wasn’t for the sake of completion, I would stop now and tell you all to do the same.
Luckily for us, things turn into a David Lynch-ian assortment of oddball scenes as the film does a naked cartwheel towards the climax. Two guys in full dive gear walk backwards while “I will kill!” chants in Japanese and brandishes a katana. I can’t make this up. This is a real movie. This has been captured for the rest of human history.
A noticeably dubbed R. Lee Ermey and his buddies hop onto a rickety boat and take a flamethrower with them. A flamethrower. To kill a shark. Just to make the moment even more surreal, R. Lee is pumping the flamethrower (I don’t know how flamethrowers work. Do they need to be pumped before use?) and his dubbed line is (this is 100% true), “I’m gonna jack off this baby here.” I’m gone, man. Solid gone. Somehow, he and his buddies end up blowing up the boat. That’s what they get for jacking off babies.
As everyone tries to kill the shark, Hestoonan and Greg go diving to get to it first and Hestoonan ends up getting fatally wounded. Susanne Reed gives the most matter-of-fact reading of, “He’s dead,” I’ve ever heard. It’s as if she were part Vulcan and part quaalude. Not wanting to waste a fresh piece of bait, Greg attaches some explosives to the deceased Hestoonan that the doc introduced just minutes ago and throws him overboard. …No comment. The shark takes the meal, but also removes the bomb from its wiring. Greg dives into the water and after a brief while, we see the explosion happen, signifying the creatures uneventful demise. Greg surfaces to a tune that sounds like a pretty shifty ripoff of the John Williams Superman theme, Rachel dives in to embrace him, and the shot freezes as the credits roll. It’s then that I discover that Chris Walas (special effects artist on films like The Fly, Gremlins, Airplane!, and Return of the Jedi) had a hand in crafting the shark in this film. From a tiny seed grows a mighty oak indeed.
The screenwriter of this oddity only has this one film in his credited career. I have to commend him, because after this, there was nowhere to go but down.
I stand by my belief that Up from the Depths proves the existence of alternate universes, because that is the only explanation for this film.
Best Meal: I guess I’ll give it to Chrissie for being transformed into a blood geyser, but this category really isn’t applicable, since every kill is shot in the exact same way: highly obscured monster barrels towards the edge of the frame, extreme close-up on bloody water, maybe see some flailing about and another close-up involving what might be some shredded meat. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is reused footage, because Roger Corman.
How the Shark Gets Sushi-ed: Greg ties some plastic explosive to the recently corpsified Doc Hestoonan and goes fishing with him. Not like, they spend a day lounging about and bonding over beer and beautiful scenery, but actually fishes with him. When the line gets disconnected, Greg dives in and connects the wires (off screen), exploding the whatever-the-hell-it-was.
The Mindless Eating Machine: One or two incredibly doofy looking puppets that the filmmakers were obviously ashamed of, since you barely get a chance to look at them. There’s a smidgen of footage where the monster breaches the surface of the water that works in a cheesy way, but that’s it. I guarantee you that this is not on Chris Walas’ résumé.
Shark Stupidity: Just the idea that an animal that has survived in the highly pressurized and frigid waters of the sea’s depths would survive coming up to the surface at all. Read Meg if you want to figure out how to get around that, Up from the Depths!
Hilarity Factor: Almost constant. Between the excessive dubbing, bad line readings, bizarre characters and don’t-give-a-shit attitude, the film provides a string of intentional and unintentional laughs. If director Charles B. Griffith’s (who hates it when you confuse him with writer/director/set decorator Charles B. Pierce) objective really was to make a comedy, I have to admit that he succeeded.
Sink or Swim?: This is a tough one, because as a shark movie, it absolutely fails. The pacing is uneventful, there isn’t anything to recommend in the action or kill scenes, and the creature itself has too little screen time. However, it’s everything else that makes the film a hoot. The picture gets kookier and kookier as it progresses, and I found myself chortling through practically the entire running time. I give this one a Swim, but know that’s on an awfulsome grading scale. Your mileage might vary, because I can definitely see this boring a lot of people out of their wits, especially if what they want is sharky good times and not farcical madness from Dimension X.
Next Time: Who you gonna call? Ghost Shark.
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