Deep Rising, Stephen Sommers’ second-best film, opened a year before The Mummy, his best film, and met dismissive pooh-poohing from critics: “Alien meets Titanic”, read the negative notices. A couple of positive notices made the same comparison, but in the understanding that it’s a feature and not a bug; it’s worth pointing out, too, that Alien, a paragon of horror and science-fiction film-making, is itself the product of mashed-up influences, a film that Dan O’Bannon stole, in his words, not from “anybody” but “everybody”: Mario Bava, Christopher Nyby, Fred M Wilcox, EC Comics. Frankly, it’s faster to list the sources Alien didn’t borrow from.
Nothing is original. Everything borrows from somewhere. Deep Rising is no exception, but the old pans that today comprise the bulk of the film’s 28% Rotten Tomatoes score missed what a boisterous, bloody good time it is, monsters at sea mixed with Sommers’ love for adventure and snappy humor. “Hilarious” is hardly the first word one might reach for to describe a movie where people get sucked up like spaghetti by colossal oceanic worms that “drink” their prey rather than eat them. It’s yucky. It’s gooey. It’s gory. It’s the reason we go to see monster movies in the first place, which is the same reason we appreciate B-movies at all: the pleasure of pedigree colliding with the grimy thrill of watching hideous creatures consume the secondary cast.
Deep Rising takes place on stormy waters in the South China Sea, cutting between two parties: The mercenaries aboard Captain John Finnegan’s (Treat Williams) boat, led by Hanover (Wes Studi), and the ultra-wealthy beau mondes indulging themselves aboard the Argonautica, a luxury cruise ship architected by Simon Canton (a wonderfully unctuous Anthony Heald) and set on a course for terror. Lurking beneath the furious waves are hungry tentacles that make a meal of the Argonautica’s passengers in short order before turning to the mercenaries for dessert. Canton suggests that the things hunting them throughout the bowels and decks and halls of the ship are Ottoia grown to prodigious size in the Sea’s yawning regions. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter. When poor Billy (Clint Curtis), one member of Hanover’s team, gets ejected partially digested from a worm’s belly, one look is all it takes to cut the entomology lesson short.
Sommers deftly weaves the film around stalk-and-kill horror, gut-busting comedy and rollicking, swashbuckling romp as the competing crews make a dubious pact to work together and avoid being slurped up by aberrations akin to Star Wars’ Sarlacc. Naturally the plan goes to pot, and Sommers takes morbid delight staging the deaths of his extras, notably Jason Flemyng, an unfortunate hired gun who chases off one worm only to get immediately snatched by another, and especially Studi, who enjoys the film’s grandest death scene and one of its best gags: halfway down the gullet of a very persistent worm, he takes a pistol offered him by Joey (Kevin J O’Connor, the movie’s resident comic relief machine), and immediately takes a spiteful potshot at Joey. It’s a waste of a bullet, not because Hanover misses, but because it’s the only one left in the chamber. Joey’s act of mercy goes bupkis. O’Connor plays the moment with exasperated outrage, and Studi with defiant stoicism that dissolves into panic when he realizes his fate is sealed.
This may be the best example of how well Deep Rising balances each genre component Sommers feeds into it in his screenplay. (Worth noting that the Karate Kid and Taken creator Robert Mark Kamen has an uncredited part in the script, too.) Segueing cleanly from horror to empathy to action to comedy and back to horror in a single two-minute sequence takes skill; this is not what lazy hack film-making looks like. Studi and O’Connor do a lot of heavy lifting here, but it’s Bob Ducsay and John Wright’s editing that really ties it up. O’Connor’s disbelief at Hanover’s malice and Hanover’s dawning panic reflect one another with neat economy. It’s a great moment in a movie filled with them, built on them, really, right up to the final shot, when Deep Rising pivots from one style of monster movie to another that’s closer to Merian C Cooper than Peter Benchley.
Too many name-drops? Maybe. But Deep Rising’s bottomless influences add to a movie possessed of its own character. Sommers’ cachet rose with The Mummy thanks to its strong box office, but Deep Rising deserves credit as the movie that helped him shape his voice as a genre-blending genius.
Deep Rising is available to rent digitally in the US and on Disney+ in the UK