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

SLUGS (1988) BY JUAN PIQUER SIMON

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Slugs, muerte viscosa; Mutations; Salingaria tou tromou; Slugs – Vorice d’orrore
Director: Juan Piquer Simón
Writers: Jose A. Escriva, Juan Piquer Simón [Based on a novel by Shaun Hutson]
Year: 1988
Starring: Michael Garfield, Kim Terry. Philip MacHale, Alicia Moro, Santiago Alvarez

Synopsis:
The townsfolk of a rural community are dying in strange and gruesome circumstances. Following the trail of horrifically mutilated cadavers, resident health inspector Mike Brady is on the case to piece together the mystery. He soon comes to a terrifying giant slugs are breeding in the sewers beneath  the town, and they’re making a meal of the locals!

Review:
Based on the novel by Shaun Hutson, the author would go on to say in an interview with thisishorror.co.uk that the “film isn’t great… but it’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen in my life” and this is not surprising as the film makes several distinct changes to the writers novel. To which its sequel Breeding Ground was also due to be adapted but unfortunately never was. 

Onto the film itself and we are greeted by water bubbling in an isolated still lake as a bickering couple argue in a small row boat. The young man, fishing, falls in while his nubile partner begins to panic when he doesn’t immediately resurface. This aquatic creature feature is, you’ve guessed it….Slugs: The Movie!

With the opening credits and the seemingly pointless lake scene over we are transported to the town of Lyons as a bunch of youths speed past the local down and out Ron Bell who pretty soon also succumbs to slimy critters and sets the scene for the films reasonably high body count.

Although be warned it is not only death that litters this film but also inconsistencies and dodgy dialogue, no better exemplified by the first interaction between our lead protagonist, town health inspector Mike Brady and the local asshole Sheriff Reese.  As the reluctant duo travel in a cop car towards the late Ron Bell’s house not only do we need to put up with some bad humour but also on not one but two occasions our characters throw items out of seemingly rolled up windows!

Now once at the property the hilarity continues with a deputy, surely no older than 30 stating that the corpse was worse than anything he had seen in Vietnam….which had ended thirteen years previously. Hmm something doesn’t add up here but why let that get in the way of a good line. In fact in the extras, production manager Larry Ann Evans would even state that she informed Simón of some the script inadequacies but what the hell, this is entertainment.

Back to the film and the problems come thick and fast for Brady as both he and the town sanitation officer Don Palmer receive a call from a no doubt lonely grumpy old woman who is kicking off about the smell coming from a nearby sewer and on this our investigative team is formed and they embark upon a slimy mystery.

Never one to let a bit of time go by without any action by the end of the first act things get kicked up a notch as an elderly couple are blown up and Brady’s finger nearly chomped off by a giant slug, leading them to think that maybe just maybe there is something going on.

So, when you suspect that slugs might be going around town bumping people off but you aren’t quite sure what to do – the logical thing is to go and speak to the local English chemistry or biology (it’s never quite established who he is or what he does) nerd Foley; the brains behind the brawn provided by the health and sanitation officers. Foley knows his shit and sets about investigating exactly what they are up against and how they can defeat this underground evil.

If all this sounds like there might be too much plot creeping in for your liking don’t worry because in SLUGS you are only ever a few minutes away from action or hilarity as more brutal and slimy slayings occur and no one is safe, from the business man just trying to seal a deal to the horny naked teenagers also just trying to seal the deal. All the while Brady is trying to tell everyone that slugs are behind all of this but his explanations just fall on deaf ears as first the Sheriff retorts “Killer slugs for Christ’s sake. What will it be next? Demented Crickets?” and much later Frank Phillips, the head of the water department responds to Brady’s demands to declare a health emergency with a reply of “You ain’t got the authority to declare Happy Birthday!” Classic stuff.

Perhaps the main highlight of the film however occurs in between these two pieces of dialogue gold as a council representative is at lunch and just about to finally secure a major land development sale only for the dinner and deal to be interrupted by something that would not look out of place in fellow 1980s film STREET TRASH.

By now you probably understand that SLUGS does not really do subtlety or even pay much credence to build up as it hurtles towards a final climax where Brady and Palmer are forced to go rogue and take matters into their own hands by deciding to hunt down the slugs breeding ground and end this once and for all, no matter what the cost. Epic stuff indeed. 

SLUGS is a fast paced entertaining piece of trash with humorous dialogue and lashings of over the top action and gore. If you only watch one gastropod movie this year…make it this one and make it the Arrow release.

Version Reviewed:
I watched a copy of the Arrow Video 2016 blu ray release.  Featuring English only audio and subtitled for the hard of hearing the film itself looks and sounds great, unsurprisingly as the only blu ray release it is not difficult to see that this is the best presentation of the film out there.

Arrow haven’t stopped there however and have commissioned a bunch of new extras for this release. Starting with Here’s Slugs in Your Eye, an interview with Emilio Linder in which the actor tells about his enjoyment of working with director Simón and the relaxed atmosphere he cultivates on his sets. Later he tells an endearing story about his famous restaurant scene, but rather than discussing his definitive moment in the film, rather he indulges us with a tale of his love for actress Silvana Mangano, who he had the pleasure of meeting as she took a surprising cameo role for the restaurant sequence.

The disc also gives us They Slime, They Ooze, They Kill in which special Fx artist Carlo De Marchis talks about his work on the set, what worked the best and the obstacles which he faced. Unsurprisingly he also discusses the difficulty in directing and working with slugs – not the easiest as we can all imagine. Once again the interviewee only has positive words about the director even going as far as stating that “Piquer was as good as Spielberg”, strong words.

Further interviews include Invasion USA where the very thrifty but practical art director Gonzalo Gonzalo gives us some fascinating insights into the films production and is a joy to learn more from. Finally we have The Lyons Den in which production manager Larry Ann Evans takes us around the town of Lyons where the American exteriors (and some interiors) where shot. Despite bizarrely referring to Hutson’s original novel as an American book this feature is a fantastic tour of the locations used and the story behind them. Evan’s enthusiasm for the film is infectious and it doesn’t take long to be sucked into, and dare I say learning from, this informative little segment.

Furthermore we are also treated a trailer and a couple of audio commentary options, the first with writer and filmmaker Chris Alexander and the second with the original novel writer Shaun Hutson. Hutson’s commentary is fantastic as he speaks about his writing process, his influences not to mention the many scenes in the film that are not even in his novel let alone changed. Hutson’s self-deprecating but humorous comments really make this a commentary worth listening to on subsequent watches.

Directing from the Abyss

Articles and Interviews

In 2017 I had the pleasure of speaking with Al Passeri, the director of the wacky, cult underground film CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS aka PLANKTON.

Expecting to be talking to a one-hit wonder, I discovered a man who had worked with many of the greats of Italian genre cinema including Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino.

From behind the scenes (quite literally) to behind the camera, discover how the nautically bonkers CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS came about – read the article here.