Monday, April 8, 2019

“If Treasure Were Everywhere, They’d Call It Rubbish” - The Evil Below (1989)

We have discussed The Rift (1989), and we have discussed Barracuda (1978), so it is time to discuss a film that combines underwater intrigue with Mr. Wayne Crawford -- 1989's The Evil Below, a classic from the Golden Age of underwater monster movies (i.e., 1989).

Typically, many of your universe's critics are unappreciative of the charms of The Evil Below and/or Wayne Crawford (blasphemy!). For example, reviewer Aaron1375 writes, "This movie was a total yawnfest that took forever to get going, but never really did." Reviewer Tikkin writes, "I manged to sit through it all (just about) but I wouldn't recommend this film to ANYONE." And reviewer poolandrews calls the film "a bit different but unfortunately that's not enough to save it from sinking to the bottom of the sea like a stone."

Let us see if The Evil Below sinks or swims [Spoiler: It swims!]...

The film begins in 1863 as a ship sinks in a storm, accompanied by men screaming. The filmmakers cut to two divers exploring the same straits where the ship went down. They see the shipwreck, which the woman wants to explore while the man points in another direction. They dive into the wreckage of the ship while the man takes photos, but they are stalked by what appears to be a giant barracuda.

Suddenly, the barracuda strikes, revealing it to be a regular-sized barracuda. The man is ripped to pieces while the woman swims away, but just as she reaches her boat, she is killed as well.

Later, men on a fishing boat find an unusual catch on the end of their line—a human leg!

The filmmakers cut to a shot of the severed leg wearing a diving fin. “I’ve never seen that leg before in my life. I swear,” says Max Cash, the fishing boat owner, played by a post-Barracuda and post-Jake Speed Wayne Crawford.

In a resort hotel bar, the filmmakers show Mr. Crawford’s interest in a woman by recreating the famous beach scene from Jaws where cuts to wide shots and closeups are hidden by people walking across the frame. Mr. Crawford and the woman go back to his room, but the woman, Sarah, starts crying uncontrollably.

The next day, Sarah wants to hire Mr. Crawford’s boat, though she doesn’t realize he is the man from the hotel. She runs off, but then she is told his boat is the only one that is rentable, for some reason, so she returns. “We’re looking for a seventeenth century treasure ship, Mr. Cash. El Diablo.”

A storm forces Mr. Crawford, the woman, and Mr. Crawford’s bikini-clad assistant Tracy to land on an island where Mr. Crawford knows someone with a house. They wait out the storm and argue. Their host tells them, “They say devil walks on this island.”

Elsewhere, at a church, a mysterious figure throws open the doors and attacks the priest.

Later, at breakfast back at the hotel, Sarah tries to convince Mr. Crawford to keep looking for the sunken treasure, unaware she is being overheard (intensely) by a Kevin Bacon lookalike at the next table.

He continues trying to discourage her: “Can’t you tell I’m trying to do you a favor?”

She replies, somewhat awkwardly, “Can’t you tell I’m trying to do myself one by staying?”

Unfortunately, Kevin Bacon has ransacked Sarah’s hotel room—but Mr. Crawford knows who is responsible. Kevin Bacon was working for a treasure hunter named Raymond, whom Mr. Crawford confronts.

“You’ll regret this!” yells Raymond. “Remember, I run this island! I’m in charge here! You’re alone!”

Meanwhile, Sarah has found a doubloon that might be from the shipwreck at Mr. Crawford’s father’s house—and later they find that Mr. Crawford’s father has been murdered, though Raymond was not responsible. The stakes are therefore raised, and the mystery deepens (though one might say the earlier, possibly supernatural, death of the priest, which has been unexplored for at least twenty minutes, was quite a deep mystery already).

The plot does return to the priest’s death, as a senior priest from Europe investigates. The priest finds a journal that mentions El Diablo, Sarah’s shipwreck, in the murdered priest’s office.

On a dive, Mr. Crawford and Sarah find a cannon on the ocean floor, whose shaft they stroke before returning to the surface. They hug each other in the boat, unaware they are being watched through binoculars by Raymond’s men (who are also his sons).

In the film’s creepiest scene, Sarah wakes up from a dream and looks for a glass of water in her hotel, but she is menaced by someone or something that looks like Mr. Johnny Cash.

She wakes up, having experienced a dream within a dream.

Sarah and Mr. Crawford visit a man named Adrian Barlow who tells them El Diablo was the subject of a curse, and who once hired Mr. Crawford’s late father and his partner to look for the treasure ship. Mr. Barlow proffers the theory, unprompted by anything in particular, that evil people are protected by some kind of worldwide conspiracy before Mr. Crawford calls him a creep and leaves.

Later, at the hotel bar, Mr. Crawford forgets the elation he felt earlier when they thought they were close to finding the shipwreck, but Sarah gives him a pep talk. “If treasure were everywhere,” she says wisely, “they’d call it rubbish.”

For no apparent reason, Mr. Crawford and Sarah then visit the church where the European priest is continuing his investigation. He fills in more information about the backstory of El Diablo, which involves pirate priests stealing the treasures of the Catholic church: “These heretic priests were inspired by Lucifer himself to do his work on earth. The legend goes that unless the El Diablo were destroyed, their evil power would continue to grow until Armageddon.”

“Father,” Mr. Crawford says, “you seem like a reasonable guy. You really believe this crap?”

“I don’t know,” the priest says. But for some reason he believes that Adrian Barlow is a supernatural figure, the sentinel on the El Diablo.

Once the priest has given our heroes this information and they leave, he is visited by Adrian Barlow, who turns toward him with an evil smile.

There follows an extremely long montage of Mr. Crawford and Sarah searching the reef for the shipwreck, using tools as varied as a metal detector, a vacuum cleaner, and a ping pong paddle. Eventually, they find a fork, which causes more elation, as they are certain they have found the El Diablo.

At night, Sarah finds the bloody body of Mr. Crawford’s assistant Stacy in her bed—everyone associated with the search for the shipwreck, except for Mr. Crawford and Sarah, has turned up dead.

Mr. Crawford says, “Everybody who’s had anything to do with the El Diablo is dead. Why?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah replies.

Together, they hypothesize that Adrian Barlow wasn’t employing Mr. Crawford’s father to find the El Diablo, but that he was, for some reason, trying to stop other people from finding the wreck (by, apparently, hiring people to find it).

In a suspenseful sequence, Mr. Crawford breaks into Adrian Barlow’s house while Barlow is having a small dinner party. In Barlow’s study, he finds a map with the exact location of the El Diablo wreck (in the middle of a small lagoon).

He also finds photographs taken underwater that prove the ship was well as a letter addressed to Mr. Crawford’s character, Max Cash. The letter simply says, cryptically, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

With close to perfect timing, Mr. Crawford is discovered by Barlow’s bodyguard, who lifts Mr. Crawford against the wall with one hand—complete with the traditional shot of Mr. Crawford’s feet dangling off the floor.

Mr. Crawford dispatches the bodyguard by hitting him with a tchotchke, then races away in a Jeep. He runs to his boat, where Sarah asks him what’s wrong.

“We gotta get out of here! Adrian Barlow, he knows things you can’t know. He’s everything the police said he is.”

“He’s a three hundred-year-old man and he...he evil ship?”

“I don’t know.”

Curiously, in order to prove that Barlow has supernatural powers, Mr. Crawford and Sarah walk back to Barlow’s mansion to dig up the family grave, finding a coffin empty. This appears to prove something, as it motivates the two of them to run to the church to find the priest. Unfortunately for all concerned, they find him dead—and he scrawled the word “SHIP” on the wall with his own blood.

The other villain, Calhoun, finds Mr. Crawford and Sarah, who tell him where the shipwreck is, though they also tell him if he finds the ship he’ll die. Mr. Crawford and Sarah return to his boat, and suddenly Barlow appears out of nowhere.

They knock Barlow off the back of the boat by accelerating, then head for the El Diablo. They dive down to the wreck with a box full of explosives, where they find Calhoun’s girlfriend’s body. They rig the ship with explosives, and Sarah holds a big gold crucifix.

They are menaced by the giant fish from the opening sequence, but it just swims away.

When they surface, Calhoun is floating in an inflatable raft. With a harpoon gun, he forces them to dive back down to the wreck. In the eerie climax, Calhoun attempts to steal treasure from the ship, but he is stalked by Barlow, who wears no diving gear and walks along the bottom of the lagoon.

The shipwreck explodes.

In the end, Mr. Crawford continues his fishing boat business, and Sarah is his new co-captain. Surprisingly, there is no shock ending.

There is little in the cinema that is more satisfying than a well executed bait-and-switch, of which The Evil Below is a fine example. The name of the film and the early scene with the supernatural attack on the priest imply that the film will be something like The Exorcist meets Jaws. Throughout the middle of the film, however, the audience grows to suspect that in fact the evil is not below, and that they are watching an action film with fistfights and the occasional attack by ruthless fish. In the end, however, the audience realizes there is a supernatural aspect, and that the wonderfully named villain Adrian Barlow is apparently an immortal who oversees, to use Sarah's word, a supernatural shipwreck (though one that can be blown up with dynamite). The film is never what the audience expects, which is always the mark of a good film. Always, I say.

I must also highlight here the work of the late Wayne Crawford, who was an uncredited co-director on the film with the credited director, Jean-Claude Dubois. Mr. Crawford is his usual charming self as the hero Max Cash, but he should be deeply appreciated for his writing (from his debut God's Bloody Acre in 1975 through the classic Valley Girl in 1983 to Jake Speed in 1986) as well. Mr. Crawford died in 2016, but we must never forget his cinematic legacy, of which The Evil Below is an important part.