40 Years Later: 'Humanoids from the Deep' Reflects the Brutality of the Female Experience as Powerfully as Ever
No one does assault-on-women horror like female filmmakers. The rage, the pain, the fear are all uniquely articulated through a woman’s lens...
...It strikes me every time I find a new film or analysis by a woman. The one place I didn’t expect it was 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep, written by William Martin and directed by Barbara Peeters and Jimmy T. Murakami. On first blush, it may seem like your usual creature feature—dark but maybe also a little ridiculous looking, especially 40 years on. But creature features are almost always deeper than their surface offering, and Humanoids isn’t afraid to lean into itself hard enough to be borderline unforgiving.
The terror of it all starts off almost immediately. What’s one of the tabooest things you can think of? The thing whole websites were created to warn people of before they ever see a movie? The thing most of us have a harder time watching than people-death? That’s right. Dog death. The creatures announce themselves in the town by tearing apart everyone’s dogs, and we aren’t spared the visual of the aftermath. That’s not even the worst thing to happen, just the worst thing in the first act!
The thing I love most about women in horror is their brutality. They’re not afraid to draw something out to make the audience or the victim uncomfortable. Think about every female-centric vengeance film you’ve ever seen. Did anybody die quickly? Of course not. Women’s anger is a slow burn compared to the whip-quick reactions of men. Women have experiences most others wouldn’t even begin to be able to imagine, and we know how to express the inexpressible. Humanoids is no revenge film, but it is a great example of unflinching brutality depicted by a woman put on full display. It’s two clearest influences, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Alien, both put women’s bodies in danger, but neither is quite as explicit about the full process as Humanoids. The mutated salmon creatures—product of humanity’s foolish attempt to control nature for personal gain, like Jurassic Park, but worse—are ruthless and indiscriminate in their choice of victims. The whole town is at risk, yes, but the men are only at risk of death. The women are running from something much worse—forced procreation. Not just women, either. Children too. Little girls. These creatures are so single-minded on their survival they’re willing to go after any female.
Assault of any kind is not new to horror. Kind of a staple, in fact. It’s one of the most horrific real-life experiences, after all, and horror is man’s coping mechanism for the unimaginable. But it’s rarely done quite like Humanoids does it. The attacks themselves don’t actually last very long, but they feel like they go on forever. They’re not shot to be exploitative; they’re shot to be horrific and filthy. The women are left ripped apart, exposed, covered in the grime that coats the monsters’ bodies. It feels like they’ll never be clean again.
These moments of intense trauma and disturbance for the characters are sandwiched between moments of carefree levity. The young women of the town are all enjoying the company of their boyfriends before the monsters strike. They feel happy and safe, right up until the moment they don’t. Perhaps the most outlandish happy couple scene is the one with the woman, her boyfriend, and his ventriloquist dummy. This is the only instance of successful ventriloquism seduction I’ve ever seen committed to film, but if that’s your thing then here is a space for you to feel seen, I suppose. Never mind that the doll is probably possessed.
The balance between these light moments amidst intense scenes of assault is an important one. Most common to the slasher genre, and not really a part of the storytelling formula that feels consciously thought over, it’s necessary and probably the truest-to life aspect of any horror film. Everything is great until it’s not. That visceral disruption of the everyday is what makes horror.
One of the most unique things about Humanoids, for me, outside of but inseparable from its execution, is how lived-in it feels. I’ve only ever seen it once before the watch for this piece and was struck by how much of it I remembered on second watch. Turns out, it’s one of the few movies in any genre whose plot takes up space in the back of my head rent-free in full. It’s a kind of uncomfortable watch, but not in such a way as to be unwatchable. It’s just in your face with its gruesome creatures and brutal acts, entirely unapologetic. And if you’re not uncomfortable and enjoying yourself at least some of the time, is it really an effective horror movie? Sometimes the best ones are the ones that make you feel like you need a shower afterwards. Humanoids from the Deep is far from the first female-directed horror, but it is a fantastic ‘80s example of what horror subjects can look like when given a female lens to see through. These are our experiences. These are our lives. They’re fun, messy, horribly upended disasters, and there is no safe place to turn away from them when the one controlling the view is one of us.
By: Katelyn Nelson
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