Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Retro Review: ENDLESS DESCENT (1990)

(Spain - 1990; US release 1991)

Directed by J.P. Simon (Juan Piquer Simon). Written by David Coleman. Cast: Jack Scalia, R. Lee Ermey, Ray Wise, Deborah Adair, John Toles-Bey, Ely Pouget, Edmund Purdom, Emilio Linder, Tony Isbert, Alvara Labra, Frank Brana, J. Martinez Bordiu, Garrick Hagon, Luis Lorenzo. (R, 83 mins)

Around the time of James Cameron's 1989 sci-fi/adventure epic THE ABYSS, underwater monster movies became a trend over the next year. In the first three months of 1989, moviegoers were offered Sean S. Cunningham's DEEPSTAR SIX and George P. Cosmatos' LEVIATHAN, with lowly, cost-cutting stragglers like the abysmal Roger Corman-produced LORDS OF THE DEEP,  the Wayne Crawford-starring THE EVIL BELOW, and Antonio Margheriti's Italian ripoff ALIEN FROM THE DEEP also stepping up to meet a demand that didn't exist. Shot in 1989 as THE RIFT but unreleased in the US until it turned up on video stores in early 1991 as ENDLESS DESCENT, this Spanish contribution to the unlikely craze was ghost-produced by Dino DeLaurentiis, whose brother Luigi and nephew Aurelio produced LEVIATHAN. A legendary mega-budget showman, Dino apparently found some loose change in between his couch cushions and gave it to his aspiring producer daughter Francesca to help finance a pair of films with her then-husband Juan Piquer Simon (the other was 1988's molluscsploitation classic SLUGS). No stranger to fans of bad movies, Simon (1935-2011) was also the man behind the MST3K favorite POD PEOPLE (1983), but will forever be best known for the indescribable chainsaw killer/waterbed/bad chop suey masterpiece PIECES (1983). ENDLESS DESCENT follows the same template as its influences, with a Navy-led research team heading to unfathomable depths to investigate the disappearance of a state-of-the-art submarine. The missing sub, Siren 1, was designed by feathered-hair nautical wunderkind Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia), who was thrown under the bus by the US government when they took his initial design and co-opted it as their own. Drunk and disgruntled, Hayes is ordered by a D.C. bureaucrat (Edmund Purdom) to accompany the crew of the Siren II as an advisor in their search for Siren I.

Jack Scalia IS Wick Hayes
The crew is the usual ragtag group of miscreants, including the weaselly Robbins (Ray Wise, right before TWIN PEAKS); black stereotype comic relief (cue copious exclamations of "Aw, dayyyyum!" and "Aw, sheeeeeeiiit!") Kane (John Toles-Bey); just-one-of-the-guys Ana Rivera (Ely Pouget), and some cartoonish European types speaking with overdone dubbed voices, including Spanish Simon regular Frank Brana sporting a bizarre beard and revoiced with a ridiculous German accent as Muller. Complicating matters for the bountifully-coiffed Hayes is the presence of two Navy officers--his ex-wife Nina (Deborah Adair), and the commander of the mission, Captain Phillips, played by R. Lee Ermey, cast radically against type as "R. Lee Ermey." Plunging 35,000 feet into the ocean off the coast of Norway, the Siren II follows the black box signal of the Siren I, and loses a crew member along the way when Swedish diver Sven (played by Spanish J. Martinez Bordiu) is killed by a tentacled creature while collecting a strange seaweed sample and taking photographs. Soon, the Siren II is attacked by another creature that they fight off with an electroshock defense mechanism built into the exterior. Heading deeper into the ocean to trace the signal, the Siren II discovers an unlikely "naturally pressurized" subterranean cavern--35,000 feet below the ocean, mind you--where they find a secret laboratory and some dead members of the Siren I. They're also attacked ALIENS-style by creatures who start coming out of the rocks in a nicely-done splatter sequence. The seaweed sample sent back by Sven before he was devoured also starts to mutate into some kind of toxic life form, causing anyone who touches it to go full "Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" and mutate into pus-oozing, plant-like vegetation.

Since the film is heavily inspired by ALIENS, they also find a nest filled with eggs and amniotic sacs, overseen by a pissed off mother mutant who isn't happy about her space being invaded. It becomes clear to Hayes that someone aboard the Siren II is sabotaging the mission Paul Reiser-style, deeming the mutant life form more vital than the expendable crew. ENDLESS DESCENT is laughably cheap at times, with shots of a miniature sub that look pretty embarrassing coming out anywhere near the vicinity of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. But the gore is plentiful and gushes with enthusiasm, and the cast actually seems to be taking it somewhat seriously. It's strange seeing Ermey in such a junky Eurotrash ripoff just a couple of years after FULL METAL JACKET and MISSISSIPPI BURNING, but as he explains in an interview on Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray (released under the title THE RIFT), "you gotta pay your dues." As in the Vietnam cult classic THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA, it's quite probable that Ermey wrote--or at least spruced up--his own dialogue to suit his persona, especially in scenes where he's butting heads with Scalia's Wick Hayes, a man whose name is as amazing as his hair. Scalia and Wise also have interviews on the Blu-ray and are a bit more kind to the film than Ermey, who flat-out calls it a piece of shit and doesn't pull punches about his co-stars (he liked Scalia very much, while derisively referring to Wise as a "whiner," a "belly-acher," and a "pussy"), but concedes that had an alright time making it. Looking at it today, ENDLESS DESCENT/THE RIFT is a well-assembled, fast-paced, low-budget, lowbrow B-movie that doesn't quite achieve the ludicrous delights of Simon's PIECES or SLUGS, but still has plenty of head-scratching plot elements and ample splatter and slime to please nostalgic fans of the video store heyday.

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