Directing from the abyss!

Articles and Interviews

In 2017 a chat online led to me to the strange Italian film CREATRUES FROM THE ABYSS aka PLANKTON, which I subsequently picked up on DVD for only a couple of pounds. Receiving the disc just a few days later I was excited to see what all the fuss was about and immediately stuck it into my home entertainment system, cracked open a drink and sat back as what could only be described as nautical lunacy unfolded.

Once the credits had finished rolling and my senses came returned I was left with so many questions not just about the film itself but also the director; who the hell was Al Passeri and why hadn’t I heard of him or this film before?

A quick cursory search online seemed to confirm my initial suspicions, Al Passeri must have been either one of many non-descript one-hit Italian directors who got involved in the VOD boom of the early nineties or perhaps a low budget director using a pseudonym, not wanting to stifle a potentially promising career while still needing to make some money and learn his craft.

Neither of these hypotheses turned out to be true and instead I wound up discovering a man who had spent the previous two decades toiling away in the background of Italian genre cinema before getting his directorial break.

Born in Nocera, Umbria back in 1950 Alvaro Passeri would move to Rome soon after, where he has lived ever since. A keen artist from his teenage years, he enjoyed painting and musical studies but perhaps it was his interest in electronics that would ironically set him up for a career in the creative world of film making. After graduating in Sculpture at the Art Institute of Rome he spent a few years working backstage in the opera before landing a position as a sculptor on the TV series JESUS OF NAZARETH starring Robert Powell and Laurence Olivier, a production that I am sadly familiar with due to attending a Catholic school in England and being forced to watch it during lessons in which the teacher felt particularly lazy.

Anyway back to Alvaro Passeri; he followed up this initial foray in the world of film with sculpture and special effects on the 1977 rampaging octopus flick TENTACLES by Ovidio Assonitis. This additional work came around as the previous crew member charged with creating the effects had unfortunately missed a lot of them out, resulting in the director calling up Alvaro and giving him his first opportunity to not only showcase his emerging talent but discover a new world of (professional) enjoyment.

After working on the set of  CALIGULA by Tinto Brass the following year, a flurry of work rolled in and a young Alvaro Passeri would go on to gain more experience with a number of productions including work by Enzo Castellari (THE SHARK HUNTER), Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH; ALIEN 2; HERCULES), Paolo Cavara (LA LOCANDIERA), Sergio Martino (2019 – AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK) and even with the great directors Sergio Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) and Dario Argento (INFERNO), for whom he contributed scenic artwork and special effects including the building of the gothic castle.

Looking back to this period we are presented with an impressionable rookie on the set (not to mention literally building them) of several masters of the Italian scene, with these experiences both direct and indirect helping to skill him in the art of working with small budgets. No doubt a necessary skill as over time the horror and fantasy markets started to wane, especially in Italy.

Alvaro Passeri took these experiences and formed his own production and special effects company in 1982. This is the reason why his company carries that number. From this moment on his career would continue in the fashion and frequency he had no doubt become accustomed to despite the market downturn.

He would later go on to return to working with Enzo Castellari as well as with the likes of Ruggero Deodato (THE ATLANTIS INTERCEPTORS; THE BARBARIANS; OCEANO) and several other known directors such as Aldo Lado, Dino Risi, Duccio Tessari and Sergio Martino. Not to mention the legendary Lucio Fulci on productions of THE NEW GLADIATORS and AENIGMA.

When asked about his time working with Lucio Fulci, a man who several have said is demanding and cruel on set, Alvaro Passeri remembers fondly their working relationship as the iconic director would allow him to get on and work without supervision, trusting in his output.

However these cult films were only one aspect of Alvaro Passeri’s work and he would also have the opportunity to contribute and work on several other genres and films, most notably the critically acclaimed CINEMA PARADISO by Giuseppe Tornatore.

Speaking with Alvaro Passeri about what it was like watching these directors both from afar and up-close it becomes apparent that he took the most out of these opportunities and was always learning and very appreciative of everyone’s unique skills; not only technique from the likes of Giuseppe Tornatore but also some practical ideas from the future Hollywood directorial star James Cameron, for who Alvaro Passeri spent a month with in the early 1980s. This period also included the making of a piranha effect for the film PIRANHA II. No doubt this professional collaboration was the result of Ovidio Assonitis who had acted as an uncredited director on the film.

With all these experiences, in 1992, now 42 years old, Alvaro Passieri finally took the step into directing with his first feature film – CREATURE DAGLI ABISSI otherwise known as CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS or PLANKTON depending on which English language market you are in, and it is this film that was the catalyst for this article.

A film that combines elements of the aforementioned PIRANHA II, just look at all the flying prehistoric fish and POV shots, with John Carpenter’s THE THING, in regards of hideous ‘alien’ mutations; and then throws in more than just a touch of off-the-wall bizarre humour; It really has to be seen to be believed and honestly I would recommend that you did see it!

To quote one guy on Twitter (@Seamaster73) who replied to me after a post regarding the film, he described it as: “The film Jaws *could* have been…if it had featured a scene in which a woman gives birth to caviar”. If you are a fan of crazy low budget horror then that description should be sending you straight to Amazon (other suppliers are available).

Now the plot itself is quite straight forward, a bunch of obnoxious teens head out in a boat for a party only to get stranded at sea. Luckily they come across a deserted yacht which just so happens to be kitted out for two things – sex parties and mad fish-based science, what else!

Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth our party animals get down to the business of getting down, well most of them….only to soon realise something fishy is going on and they are not alone on board….with hilarious consequences.

According to the ever increasingly inaccurate IMDB, it was shot on a reported budget of $250,000 across Miami, USA and Rome, Italy and was written by the no doubt fictitious Richard Baumann (whose only other credit was starring in 2 episodes of a 1950s TV series CAVALCADE OF AMERICA). Hmmmm. Although I do suspect the credited story co-coordinator John Blush may have had an early career role in this although all the internet details are very fuzzy. Now what was it I saying earlier about pseudonyms?

Having spoken to the director he admitted that he undertook the old b-movie director trick of inventing many of the crew in order to give the appearance of a bigger production than it actually was and this is perhaps closer to the truth.

In fact the director would go on to say “I could not write that I had done everything, in addition to the actors my troupe was 5 people, you realise that this movie was produced with the money that in a normal movie pay only the lunch for the crew.” Making the film even more of low budget triumph and success and to my mind, I even doubt the budget given on IMDB as when you have the special effects knowledge on hand and quite frankly set the movie in one location your costs are in all likelihood notably reduced.

Having been privileged to get the opportunity to speak with the director, I go on to explain to him the purpose of my interest and how I discovered his largely forgotten film from 1992 [although it was trapped in distribution hell for a couple of years before finally being released].

He seems humbled and somewhat surprised admitting that he “did not know that ‘CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS’ had fans” and that although he “had directed the film with great passion” he still could believe that it was gaining new fans.

To me this really highlights the benefits of the digital age to film makers and older work, no longer are these esoteric films the hidden away in the confines of murky store basements or underground mail order catalogues available only to the chosen few but now with the click of a button people from all across the world can discuss and share their latest find or oddity and within minutes trailers found and viewed thus perpetuating the cycle.

Although kept busy with special effects work (including on the terrifically titled and themed but hugely disappointing JURASSIC PARK rip off CHICKEN PARK) it would be a further sixteen years before Alvaro Passeri would return to direct.

Between 1998 and 2004 he made a further four films (THE GOLDEN GRAIN [check out the trailer under its original title FANTASTIC GAMES at the very end of the article]; THE MUMMY THEME PARK; FLIGHT TO HELL; PSYCHOVISION – many of which are now on YouTube) but these were not met favourably by many critics and in 2004 he hung up the directors cap as the commercial market and backing for these sort of films had completely disappeared.

Despite this end, Alvaro Passeri had worked on and contributed to several significant and notable Italian films and gave us the highly entertaining and memorable CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS and for that I salute him!

Nowadays he spends his time on his passion of mechanical electronics, robotics and music. You can find out more and visit his official website here.

Finally I would like to thank Alvaro Passeri for his time and generosity in replying to me and humouring what must be a strange request from a random viewer about a film that is now 25 years old!

If you have even just a few pound (or dollars) find this gem on Amazon where it is cheap, grab some drinks and snacks and settle in for a night of fun. I always believe that films should at least entertain or have something to say, the rare few have both, and this film certainly does one of those two.

Addition: After posting this article I spoke a little more with Alvaro Passeri about his time in the industry and his favourite pieces of work to which he intrigued me by describing his follow up directorial effort FANTASTIC GAMES, which was retitled THE GOLDEN GRAIN after a distributor shall we say acted not in the best interest of anyone other than themselves forcing a drastic overhaul.

Intrigued by this I probed a little further and to my delight the director posted online a showreel trailer for the film – I was certainly captivated. A million miles away from the crazy fucked up fish violence of CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS, instead FANTASTIC GAMES comes across as if Luigi Cozzi made a 1980s sci-fi combined with THE NEVERENDING STORY and INDIANA JONES by way of the Jim Henson Company and Ray Harryhausen.

After this movie was completed the bottom really did fall out of the industry and he saw his budgets reduced down to a tenth of what they once were. Reminiscing on this point he displays some regret over whether he made the right decision to continue in the face of increasing obstacles but when you own the studio and have the responsibility of several people’s livelihoods to contend with it suddenly is a whole different situation.

I hope Alvaro enjoyed his time talking to me as much as I did him, and looks back fondly on a career not only well spent but still enjoyed by b-movie and cult film fans across the globe.

Check out the trailer for PLANKTON aka CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS below