Matty gushes over Fred Olen Ray’s flawed but richly entertaining sci-fi shocker.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Fred Olen Ray has bloody good form when it comes to ‘man in a suit’-style monster flicks. As director, Biohazard (1985), Hybrid (1997), and his most recent contribution to the subgenre, Dire Wolf (2009), run the gamut from fun to fabulous; and the trifecta of rubber-heavy shockers that Ray produced — Evil Spawn (1987), Dark Universe (1993), and Biohazard: The Alien Force (1994) — are sterling entries in what is, arguably, the purest of horror disciplines. The second film Ray would helm in his two picture deal with Trans World following Commando Squad (1987), DEEP SPACE (1988) is another winner. Because despite suffering from post production tinkering, in terms of creature carnage, and in terms of sheer entertainment, Deep Space is a doozy.
Deep Space began life as an Aliens (1986)-aping sequel to an earlier Trans World hit, Creature (1985) — itself a flagrant but compelling Alien (1979) rip-off, also known as ‘The Titan Find’ and directed by future ‘Master of Horror’, William Malone. Dissatisfied with the Creature II script, Ray asked producer Alan Amiel if he could rejig the project and use a similarly Alien-ish script he’d written with longtime collaborator T.L. Lankford six years previously. Amiel and Trans World agreed, and Deep Space as it is today was born.
Upon completion, Ray was told by Trans World that, instead of the film being about a crash-landed extraterrestrial monster on the loose in L.A., they wanted a new subplot that framed the ravenous star-beast as an orbital, genetically engineered government experiment. Trans World threw another handful of cash at Ray (depending on the source, Deep Space’s budget is quoted as being anywhere between $1.2 and $2million — among, if not the, biggest chunk of change the B-movie maestro has ever had to work with) and assigned him with seven additional days to film some more material. “I could have made a whole new movie in seven days!” Ray later quipped in Issue 2 of Horrorfan.
Though allowing Ray to bolster Deep Space’s awesome FX quotient, the bulk of the film’s Trans World-imposed reshoots did lumber him with a bunch of scenes involving gruff army sorts barking at a gaggle of bewildered scientists. And while it’s nice that it gave chance for oldies like Norman Burton and James Booth to squabble with each other, it’s these moments that hinder Deep Space and prevent it from being the outright Ray classic it should have been. They’re not bad or anything. They’re solidly done and pretty pacey, and they foster a convincing and frantic sense of trouble a-brewing. However, they’re kind of redundant. It’s the bog-standard military brass vs. science claptrap, and none of it actually pays off by Deep Space’s close. In fact, the entire government angle seems to fall completely by the wayside. It’s shoehorned in and it shows.
Still, it’s a relatively minor quibble as the rest of Deep Space is so screamingly enjoyable. The obvious pleasure lies within the film’s central monster. Designed by Steve Patino (who, prior to his death at the tragically young age of thirty-four in 1994, would also toil in the creature FX crews of Predator (1987), Blue Monkey (1987), and Pumpkinhead (1988), but is probably most famous for the dynamic sphere effects in Phantasm II (1988)), it’s a brilliant sight: a spiky, slime-slathered, tentacle-flailing terror with an elongated head and perma-gogged mouth stacked with razor-sharp teeth. The Gigerisms are unmistakable; and a stretch of Deep Space that segues from a security guard watching Ray’s The Tomb (1986) on TV, to a set piece that’s a beat for beat copy of Harry Dean Stanton’s drippy xenomorph confrontation, right down to the inclusion of a cat, does little to disguise the brazen Alien homagery. But who the hell cares? Deep Space crackles whenever the icky-looking quasi-xtro is on screen and Ray shoots it with both zeal and reverence, bathing it in the eerie hues of Gary Graver’s atmospheric lighting to accentuate its nightmarish power. A pair of spider-y, Facehugger-tinged hatchlings add a splash of comic book pomp, especially as the device used to wedge the vicious wee bastards into the plot is so merrily silly. I mean, who in their right mind, even as characters in a fairly tongue-in-cheek sci-schlocker, would bring a pod from a mysterious flaming wreckage that fell from the sky home with them?
But that’s the thing: such an endearingly daft development is what enables Ray to unleash Deep Space’s other robust highlights. There’s a twitchy, jumpy lab attack; a short yet pulse-quickening shuttle through the streets of Downtown ahead of an emotionally impactful — if hardly surprising — killing; and a rousing, utterly unforgettable finale that sees Charles Napier fighting Patino’s slobbering mutant with a chainsaw. Moreover, it’s a contrivance that fits dramatically. Playing one half of a maverick detective duo, Napier and his partner, Ron Glass, dance to their own beat. They’re a couple of unorthodox yet lovable dicks who do whatever it takes to get the job done, so why wouldn’t they smuggle a strange pod or two from a crime scene to help solve a case, particularly when there’s the whiff of cover-up?
Making for a fantastic double act, it’s Napier and Glass who are the real joy of Deep Space. Fred Olen Ray’s finest films are often defined by their irresistible hang-out quality (cf: Star Slammer (1986), The Phantom Empire (1988), Active Stealth (1999), Venomous (2001)), and Deep Space is no different: Napier and Glass, as Detectives McLemore and Merris, respectively, just seem like cool guys who’d be great to have a beer with. Ray knows it, and a lot of the time, he perches the camera at eye-level, framing them in a two shot so we feel part of their gang. Performance-wise, Napier is uproarious. His bagpipe-led seduction of Ann Turkel, replete with kilt and sporran, is a giddy burst of hilarity (“it’s supposed to make you take your clothes off; it’s the only way to stop me playing”) and, broadly speaking, the star offers the same grizzled charm that Ray regular Ross Hagen usually does. Easygoing and very watchable, swathes of Deep Space coast by on Napier’s charisma and Ray presents him as a relatable everyman hero — though neither Napier nor Ray are afraid to let the smirking Glass steal scenes with his low-key mugging.
Trans World released Deep Space on cassette in the U.S. on the 14th of April 1988. It hit U.K. tape via Entertainment in Video later in the year, in the autumn, within the same four month period as the British tape releases of Ray’s Commando Squad, The Phantom Empire, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), and the Ray-produced Moon in Scorpio (1987). The masters used on Trans World and EIV’s Deep Space VHS’ were terrible, reducing Graver’s photography to indecipherable black mulch. Thankfully, this travesty has since been rectified by Scorpion’s 2019 Blu-ray.