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[It Came From the ’80s] The Aquatic Terror of ‘Leviathan’

With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades laterGrotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.

The year 1989 saw the release of not one, but five horror and sci-fi films set underwater. Of those five, The Abyss was the clear winner as the only one to become a box office hit. Of the four that failed to perform at the box office, Leviathan is the biggest surprise among them. Directed by George P. Cosmatos (Of Unknown Origin, Tombstone), featuring a cast of actors at a peak in success like Peter Weller and Ernie Hudson, and creature effects designed by Stan Winston’s studio. Ironically, it was due to Winston’s strong desire to direct that made him turn down James Cameron on The Abyss and choose Leviathan instead because of production schedules. Which meant that Leviathan was elevated beyond its strange Alien and The Thing creature feature mashup thanks to his team’s memorable work.

The plot sees a group of deep-sea miners approaching the end of their six-month shift at the ocean’s depths, when one of the miners discovers a sunken Soviet shipwreck. When miner Sixpack (Daniel Stern) sneaks off with a recovered flask of vodka from the shipwreck, he and another crewmember begin mutating. The mutations grow and spread, and the crew is forced to fight for their lives with nowhere else to go.


The nature of the creature meant a lot of variations for Winston’s team to create; from severed limbs that became sentient, to merging bodies, to one giant creature that the special effects team referred to as a monster stew, a kitchen sink of various sea creatures and human victims all combined. Designing the creature was a team effort, with every member contributing in some way to its design and creation. Alec Gillis, Richard Landon, Shane Mahan, Shannon Shea, John Rosengrant, and Tom Woodruff Jr. taking a roundtable approach, and Winston overseeing. It was a big job to do on its own, but when the producers got nervous about the team hired to handle the dive suits, the job shifted to Winston’s team, adding both insane pressure and work to their already heavy load.

There was a lot of puppeteering involved with the creature effects, and the massive suit built for the final form of the creature was likened to a parade float by Tom Woodruff Jr., the artist that wore the suit as lead creature (as he often did). Navigating in the bulky suit would make for an unpleasant job on its own, but Woodruff Jr. also had to contend with electric shocks every time he’d flail the suits tentacles and it would make contact with the electric grid of the station set.

When not pulling double duty on handling both creature effects and the dive suits, the special effects team had to spend their evenings getting scuba certified to puppet the creature for the climax, where the remaining mining crew members flee to the surface with the creature in pursuit. The fiber glass dive suits were easy enough to maneuver, but the creature suit was mostly foam latex, absorbing water like a sponge. Though the monster only appears at the surface, the water still made the suit extremely heavy as filming went on.

That Leviathan borrows heavily from classics before it means that it’s far from perfect, but it’s a lot of fun and creature effects team delivered a great ‘80s creature. It’s also a bittersweet film that marks the last time Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. would work under Stan Winston; they departed to form their own studio shortly after, making Leviathan an all-star showcase of Academy-Award winning special effects masters.



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