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What To Watch: Those Gruesome Practical Effects in ‘Leviathan’ (1989)

An undersea mining operation makes a horrifying discovery.

Leviathan is a 1988 adventure horror film about a deep-sea mining company that discovers a sunken Soviet ship with some truly horrific secrets within. 

As is common in Hollywood, two films with similar themes are often released in the same year as competing studios try to beat each other to the box office with a new property. In 1989, it was all about the ocean depths, and was actually three movies, with James Cameron’s epic undersea adventure The Abyss earning the most acclaim and Sean S. Cunningham‘s DeepStar Six getting the opposite. Stuck in the middle was this mixed-reviewed horror film from director George P. Cosmatos called Leviathan, and while it deserves that position amid the three, is still well worth a look (again). Let’s take a deep breath and dive in.

Leviathan
Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As monsters in the dark creature features go, Leviathan wasn’t all that original, but it had some innovation nonetheless, and the years have been kind to it, building a cult classic fan base, grown from those who appreciate creative practical effects of the era and who seek out pioneers of the art. The story itself suffers a bit of been-there-done-that fatigue, especially in the second half as it falls to genre tropes of running down halls in fear, borrowing heavily from early, better films, including Ridley Scott’s original Alien and a number of John Carpenter movies, not to mention a bit of a steal from a certain water-themed monster movie from Steven Spielberg. Still, it’s a fun little watch with plenty of memorable moments for fans and newcomers.

THE STORY: A crew of undersea miners, led by Steven Beck (Peter Weller) is tasked with a six-month operation, living in a deep sea station. They discover a shipwrecked Soviet craft called the Leviathan and inside, salvage the captain’s safe and video logs, which describes a number of the crew member’s curious deaths before a decision was made to scuttle the vessel. They also find a vodka flask, which later houses some horrifying secrets. 

Leviathan
Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

When the current crew begin to show physical signs of health issues, things quickly deteriorate and the body count rises … or actually blends as the corpses reanimate into grotesque mutations that combine bodies. It’s not pretty. Gooey. But not pretty. Now the survivors must find a way to stay alive before they are added to the count as a beast scurries about the corridors, and naturally, a storm on the surface forces them to keep to the deep and make a stand.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Hands down, no matter the story, it’s the visual effects by Academy Award-winner Stan Winston, who interestingly enough, turned down working with Cameron on The Abyss, with whom he collaborated before. The opportunity to build something never seen on screen before was too much of a temptation and while the script might have let down the film overall, the monsters do not.

Leviathan
Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The practical effects are queasy and gruesome and stomach-churning and icky and because so, are–especially for those of us who let themselves fall into a story where such things exists and wonder at the staggering craftsmanship that went into building them–great fun to watch.  These creations are the best reason to sit through the movie.

A GREAT MOMENT: Okay, so that said, the ending is kind of ridiculous, the beast in the water not the most convincing or threatening, and in fact, might even garner a few well-earned giggles (or at least how the hero beats it will). But, before that, there are a number of very impressive and even chilling monster moments that earn some praise.

Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

If you’ve seen the original The Thing (1982), you get an idea where some of this is going as the creature is able to absorb the bodies of its victims into a messy amalgam of body parts and tentacles and teeth. In this moment, Cobb (Hector Elizondo) and Doc (Richard Crenna) and Willie (Amanda Pays) are in the mess hall with Cobb having already been scratched by the monster earlier and showing some sings of stress, the infection raging within. He’s sweating, he breathing irregularly, he has a creature trying to burst out of his chest cavity …

Leviathan
Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

So, yeah, there’s a bit of Alien (1979) in that, but the twist is how the creature basically transforms its host, starting with that menacing mouth emerging from Cobb’s open palm. That’s new. It sort of has Doc both mesmerized and ensnared, like, “yup, here’s lunch, but first, tell me all your secrets.”

Leviathan
Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Keep in mind were’ talking about Richard Crenna and Hector Elizondo, some pretty big names, and seeing them like this, in what is essentially a B-grade creature feature, is just too much fun. Still, it’s all about those practical effects that are honestly pretty great, bringing to life–if you’ll pardon the expression–these cool new monsters.

THE TALLY: Leviathan isn’t in the same class, story-wise at least, with any of the other films mentioned here, but that is no reason to not check out this late 80s sci-fi thriller. Ernie Hudson, who plays Justin Jones here, was in-between his Ghostbusters run, and there’s something kind of cool about seeing him run around with a flamethrower, gripping it like a proton pack. And of course Peter Weller, who had just earned raves for his first appearance as RoboCop, is in full-on leading man mode, looking his best, and swaggering all over the set. Pays, who has spent a long career in television, and is now featured on the hit show The Flash, is cast as the era’s token hot girl in the movie, but does her best with the limitations of the part. A pretty face she has, and if she absolutely must run around in a tank top, then, she does it well.

Leviathan
Leviathan, 1989 © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Cosmatos, who would make only two more movies over the next ten years (one of them being the celebrated Tombstone), had directed both Weller and Crenna previously, and his work here is underrated, given the lower budget and theft-heavy script, which is all the more surprising given it was from the screenwriters of Blade Runner (David Webb Peoples) and Die Hard (Jeb Stuart). The movie itself looks great and is full of great tension and solid performances. If you’re hankering for some old-school effects from a master and bit of cheesy sci-fi fun, this is a good place to start. It’s what to watch.

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