Our next debuting contributor (the 5th so far, for those keeping tally) is Robert Freese. Robert has been covering and reviewing films and writing for various magazines for 25 years now, starting back in the pages of Femme Fatales. I’m sure more than a few of you have fond memories of that particular magazine.

In addition to being a staff writer for Videoscope Magazine for almost 23 years, Robert is also a contributor to Drive-In Asylum! Yes, there are quite a few of us taking part in this series. He is also working towards releasing his own zine, Cosmic Drive-In, in the very near future! (More info as soon as I have it!) As if that weren’t enough, Robert has also written quite a bit of fiction in his time, with over 100 published short stories, as well as the novel “Bijou of the Dead” and the novellas “The Drive-in that Dripped Blood” and “The Santa Thing” (think John Carpenter’s The Thing, but set at Santa’s workshop!)

For his HH series debut, Robert has claimed what might be the least known film in this year’s line-up, 1994’s Plankton. (It’s between this and Revenge of Billy the Kid!) Making matters more confusing for this film is that it has also seen release under the title of Creatures From The Abyss. Whichever title you choose, it is undoubtedly one of the most batshit crazy films in my collection, and I have no shame stating that I frequently return to it. Hopefully, you feel the same way as well…. which is why a link to the full movie has been included at the end of the post!

 

P is for “Plankton” – By Robert Freese

Carnivorous fish that live out of water? Do you know what that means?!”

A gaggle of college-aged friends, lovebirds Mike and Margareth, sisters Dorothy and Julie, and “dorkus-extremus” Bobby, play grab-ass on a Florida beach, heading to the water for a day of boating.

Julie calls Bobby a “virgin”, so he drops the gas can he’s carrying and chases her around. They hop in the boat and take off. It’s only when it’s dark and they’re lost in the vast ocean without any gas that they ask Bobby about the gas can. Bobby is oblivious and obviously doesn’t see it as his fault that he dropped the gas can and left it because, you know, Julie called him a virgin. He had to chase her around. Priorities.

A torrential storm moves in and the kids locate a nearby yacht floating in the distance. They also find a chewed up body bobbing in the water, but since they weren’t privy to scenes of some kind of rampaging monster in a lab that we, the audience, saw, the chewed up, ragged body is of no consequence. The side of the ship reads, “Oceanographic Research Institute.” They board anyway.

Even before they enter, it’s obvious that the ship is abandoned. They enter a lab and it’s full of strange, prehistoric mutated fish creatures. There’s a broken container on one counter, suggesting something is on the loose.

Mike acts like he knows what everything is, but I suspect he’s a poser and is just trying to impress his girlfriend. The sisters babble incoherently and Bobby’s not listening because he’s too busy sticking his fingers in jars of whatever and then licking his fingers! (He’s convinced the lab set-up is a front for drug smugglers.)

Bobby and Mike discover the radio is dead and the ship has no fuel. Instead of freaking out, they chillax, find dry clothes and change, make some drinks and put on some music. Now it’s a party!

Margareth and Julie go into the kitchen and all they find to make for a late dinner is fish. Fish! Fish on a boat with a lab full of prehistoric mutated fish!

After they nosh the fish that Julie saw come alive in the frying pan but ate anyway, they hear a strange noise coming from the “boat’s basement”. Bobby goes down to investigate, but doesn’t come back. Reluctantly, Mike goes down after him.

To no one’s surprise, Bobby is waiting to scare him and does so with a skeleton he’s found. (The biggest shock here is that there’s no torn Evil Dead poster tacked on the wall!!) Bobby has a laugh and then grabs a couple bags of the powder he sampled back in the lab. (He’s convinced it’s like “super cocaine” because he got a jolt of energy and felt a little randy from the bit he tried from his fingertip.)

Before they go back up, they find the body of a scientist. He pops awake suddenly, but is out of his mind. They take him upstairs around the girls and learn he is Professor Clark Dewison. He freaks out long enough to bite Margareth on the finger, then passes out.

Everyone heads to bed. Bobby tries to get in Dorothy and Julie’s room, but is basically told a bird in the hand beats one in the bush, if you get my meaning.

Dorothy awakens with horrible stomach cramps and vomits forth a bunch of rubber insectoids. Freaking out, she wants off the boat. Mike tries to help, but finds only a dead crewman near the destroyed lifeboat “This ship won’t let us leave!”

Mike can’t sleep, so he gets on a computer in the lab. Margareth follows him. Bumbling around, she accidentally turns on a monitor showing pictures of dead bodies and a diving team. Mike figures a diving team brought up the prehistoric fish and after they came back to life, everyone but Dewison was killed.

Because she’s not paid any attention to anything that has happened up to this point, Margareth is totally caught by surprise when one of the mutated prehistoric fish specimen comes to life and bites her throat, then starts flying around the lab wildly!

The flying fish swings and jerks around the lab as if on invisible wires, while Mike and Bobby try to kill it. Mike is so upset that his girlfriend is kind of a dummy that he smashes the lab up, even though they just saw that the specimen are not dead and can fly around freely on fishing line. (Margareth passes out, because, Evil Dead.)

Things are too weird for Julie and her sister’s gross, so she goes into Bobby’s room to see if he’s game for some naked slip and slide. Having just hit the powder, he’s more than up for the “no pants dance” and they get down and dirty.

Back on the computer, Mike discovers that the waters around the ship were contaminated by radioactive waste. The plankton in the area around the bottomless part of the sea (?) was contaminated. All the fish that ate the contaminated plankton started to mutate, and the prehistoric fish that ingested the plankton went all “super freak” mutated.

And, oh, my god… all those bags of mysterious powder Bobby’s been sampling aren’t super cocaine. They’re filled with crushed up plankton!!

Suffice to say, the final quarter of this movie revs into high gear, offering a cornucopia of spastic stupidity and all manner of horrific aqua-oids, including a multi-tentacled, stop motion, rampaging Octa-man. No character’s actions or reactions resemble anything near how a halfway reasonable person would react in the real world. (Thankfully, we are not in the real world.)

First things first, this movie is beyond silly, even for an Italian rip-off. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film. No. In fact, I quite enjoy this movie and think it manages to really create and sustain a weird atmosphere of “forever midnight.” From the second the kids get aboard the ship, there is no sense of time or place. It’s rather nightmarish. When Dorothy pukes up the rubber bugs, the music swells and the lights get trippy and it’s tacky and cheap, but also disorienting and disturbing. (And the synth score is pretty effective for this cheap-o geek show, probably better than the flick deserves.)

As I mentioned throughout, this movie very blatantly copies not only The Evil Dead, but also Evil Dead 2. (One character swallows a goo coated eyeball!) But the rip-offs don’t end there. At one point they are chasing a creature and find a pile of its shed skin, just like in Alien. (Some of the creature designs are also reminiscent of not only the first two Alien movies, but also Leviathan.) The flying fish in the laboratory scene calls to mind the similar scene in Re-Animator with the revived cat, all the while reminding us of James Cameron’s superior flying killer fish flick, Piranha II: The Spawning. There are touches of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the basic set up is very reminiscent of Amando de Ossorio’s The Ghost Galleon/Horror of the Zombies. In fact, the idea of finding a floating laboratory filled with horny, shape-shifting fish monstroids was the plot of Harry Adam Knight’s classic pulp horror novel “Slimer”, itself made into the movie Proteus. (I’m having a hard time believing Claudio Fragasso didn’t have a hand in helping conceptualize this larcenous potpourri of “borrowed” ideas from other, better movies.)

In terms of a dark and creepy Halloween night, this movie works like a basic “kids-spend-the-night-in-a-creepy-haunted-house-after-being-stranded-in-a-storm”plot. Instead of entering a haunted house and terror happens, here it is a ghost ship. (Again, it’s so similar to The Evil Dead already, and there is no sense of time or place, it really does play like they found a creepy lab in an old, abandoned house.)

As with any haunting, voices from beyond the grave are expected. Rather than whispering ghosts, the ship has this weird cyclopean fish sculpture mounted on a central wall that talks in a high pitched voice that is really bizarre and eerie. The bathroom is totally automated with another voice that greets you. (When the bathroom goes schizo and malfunctions, everything that happens is right out of the Haunted House Shenanigans Handbook.) A third automated voice, a warning system, is heard near the end, after the ship has caught fire, bellowing, “Get off the ship! Get off the ship! Stop screwing around! Evacuate! Danger! Danger! Danger!”

It could be argued that the story does in fact take place in October, if not on Halloween itself. Early on, the kids find a calendar and although the month is not shown, we do see that whatever month it is has 31 days. (It’s Florida, they’re college kids, and it’s not out of the scope of logic that they ran into some problems during their Halloween boat ride.)

To take the Halloween connection a little farther, the entire movie, for me at least, works like a rickety, flea-bitten but absolutely wonderful Halloween spook house. You know the type. While you’re in line, some guy dressed as a cut-rate Leatherface comes out of the shadows and revs a chainsaw that doesn’t have a chain on it in your face. The lady who sells you your ticket says since it’s the scariest spook house in the tristate area, they had to get an ambulance to be on call, but the ambulance parked by the entrance is one of those old style station wagons they haven’t used in fifty years. (And if someone does need immediate medical attention, you know dang well no one is crawling into the back of that thing.) When you finally get inside everything is of the “jumping out from behind a wall and yelling ‘Boo!’ at you” variety of spook house scares. And once you get through it all and you realize you just paid fifteen bucks to basically walk through the kind of cheesy spook house your dad used to make in the garage for you when you were a little kid, you’re kind of okay with it because despite all the cheapness and cheesiness, it works for what it is. This movie functions in much the same manner.

For the most part, this was the first and last film for 80% of the cast. The only cast member who actually maintained a career in show business was the only one to go uncredited, Deran Sarafian, who plays Professor Dewison. Sarafian acted a little in stuff like this and Zombie 3, then wrote, produced, or directed films like Alien Predators, Interzone, To Die For, Death Warrant, and Gunmen. For the last couple decades, he had been working steadily directing episodic television, most recently on current series like Swamp Thing and The Gifted.

Director Passeri worked for years in set design and various special, miniature, make-up, and optical effects capacities. Titles he’s worked on include Alien 2: On Earth, Caligula, Atlantis Interceptors, and The New Gladiators. This film seems to be a collection of all his talents and he succeeds in many aspects. (Seriously, the miniature used for the ghost ship is pretty effective.)

Personally, I really enjoy this movie. Yeah, it’s dumb and cheap and no one can act and the dubbing is atrocious, but still, all that adds to its charm. I missed this one back in the 90’s. (I’m not sure it ever got a U.S. home video release then, but I don’t even remember hearing or reading anything about it from that time.) In fact, the title card on the film actually reads Creatures from the Abyss, and I know Media Blasters also released it under that title on DVD. I don’t ever remember hearing about it under that title either.

When I put it in now, despite whatever short comings some may want to point out, it always effectively reminds me of when I got my first video store membership card and started renting all the crazy movies I read about in monster magazines. Discovering this years later on DVD easily recalls those lazy VHS days of my youth. It offers instant time travel to a time in my life I am quite fond of returning to and reminiscing about.

My favorite way to watch this one is when I’m tired and fighting sleep. Pretty much, if I get to when Dorothy throws up the bugs, and the weird lights and music kick in; it usually provides a trippy experience and bizarre, mutated fish dreams always follow!

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