Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
“No matter what I do, that damn movie haunts my ass!”
That perturbed quote in Fangoria #265 is from Barbara Peeters herself, the director of the 1980 Roger Corman B-movie Humanoids from the Deep. While this classic creature feature has achieved cult status over the years, the director has intentionally distanced herself from the movie. Why, though, has become a bit of an all but forgotten scandal in the history of genre cinema.
Before sinking your fins into the behind-the-scenes chaos that plagues Peeters’ career, it’s best to get familiar with this mucky gem. The middling fishing town of Noyo, California doesn’t know it just yet, but the residents are about to become chum for a bioengineered nightmare — escaped, genetically-modified salmon have led to a new species of aggressive fish-humanoids that are killing the local men before having their way with the women. In a bid to procreate on a massive scale, the monsters finally make their presence known to the public at a celebratory festival one terrible night.
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Roger Corman is well-known for his unmatched brand of low-budget yet wildly entertaining genre fare; he adapted the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft as well as produced more contemporary and original horror stories like Piranha. He was recognized for undercutting budgets and making a tidy profit in return. After the success of the aforesaid killer-fish movie, though, the likes of director Joe Dante weren’t interested in Corman’s then-latest project “Beneath the Darkness.” When no man wanted the job, Barbara Peeters jumped at the chance because not “many girl directors got offered a movie in those days.” The only stipulation from Corman himself was that the film’s monsters “kill all the men and rape all the women.” Peeters acknowledged his maxim, but did she follow through? Yes and no.
Upon looking at what Peeters had filmed, Corman was impressed with how violent the men’s deaths were. However, the producer had huge reservations when he saw the women’s scenes. Peeters indeed shot the required scenes Corman had requested, but she executed them in a way that was more suggestive than graphic; she achieved those moments indirectly by using shadows and off-screen action. This did not please Corman and, without Peeters’ knowledge or permission, he hired a second-unit director named James Sbardellati to shoot additional footage including more explicit versions of the scenes he required. The late Jimmy T. Murakami shot material for the movie, too, but he wasn’t credited.
Later on, Peeters and actress Ann Turkel (Dr. Susan Drake) tried to remove their names from the movie to no avail. They and others had signed on for what they felt was a different project — something more psychological. This being the turn of the decade where Corman productions had already become more garish, the chances of Humanoids (also known as Monster) turning into anything high-toned were slim. Even so, to have a director — a female one, no less — not be keyed in on drastic changes made to their movie is egregious.
Peeters has no qualms about sex or nudity in her movies, but she felt the new punched-up footage replaced terror with sleaze. She originally implied the women’s fates after encountering the ‘Noids by showing them being dragged away. Corman, not a man who appreciated subtlety or the power of mere suggestion, instead had Murakami kick things up a notch and blatantly show the actions of these ravaging creatures. The new misogynistic footage was enough to make the production assistant Gale Anne Hurd, the future producer and co-screenwriter for The Terminator, walk out of a screening. Peeters and Turkel intended for Humanoids from the Deep to be a feminist horror movie — corporate men messed with nature and women everywhere paid the price. That message is still intact, but now it was overshadowed.
All is not lost when revisiting Humanoids, though. No one should co-sign Corman’s practice of going behind a director’s back and essentially splicing in a whole other movie without consent, of course. Looking beyond the scandal, anyone with an appreciation for this era of cinema’s aesthetic value, the movie turned out better than it should have. By that, it’s a visually impressive film considering the measly budget and disorderly shooting schedule; James Horner perhaps played the most important role of helping build suspense and panic through music. On top of all that, the monsters look more convincing on screen than in real life, and that’s all thanks to the excellent lighting and strategically placed “seaweed” (really hemp fiber) to cover up costume shortcomings.
The desire for a feminist slant is perceptible regardless of everything that went down behind the curtains. Having Doug McClure’s character’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub) become a domestic warrior and defeat one of the ‘Noids with household cleaning products serves the theme well. There’s also the racial tension as the local white residents try to scapegoat an innocent Indigenous man when trying to understand their ecological concerns; he ultimately ends up saving one of the people who previously cast aspersions upon him. So for such a seedy movie, Peeters still maintained these vital social messages notwithstanding interference from Corman.
Humanoids from the Deep is best seen with a vocal and eager crowd who appreciates undiluted schlock. Detaching yourself from the problems Peeters experienced backstage isn’t necessary; knowing them would actually explain the movie’s flaws when watching. One might even be curious to see what the director’s original vision would have entailed had Corman not overstated the misogyny, but that ship has sailed. As it is, this sordid and infamous creature feature steers through rough waters and comes out floating.