When Captain Ramsey (James Brolin) spies a mysterious ship adrift at sea with no visible crew, sexy 2nd Mate Johnson (Krista Allen) volunteers to join the search-and-rescue team headed by chain-smoking though no less attractive 1st Mate Bergren (Joanna Pacula). Since Johnson is part of the wealthy family that own the shipping company she wants to prove herself to her more seasoned shipmates. Aboard the abandoned ship the salvagers are excited to find an ancient Aztec treasure. But when Johnson touches a reptilian stone idol she has visions of herself as a bare-breasted Aztec maiden tied to a sacrificial altar. Later, two greedy crewmen try to help themselves to the treasure and get zapped by an energy beam. Imprisoned in the brig, Delgado (Duane Whitaker) promptly transforms into a hideous slimy beast that sets about hunting the crew.
Never one to miss an opportunity, legendary exploitation producer Roger Corman probably saw the release of Alien: Resurrection (1997) as reason enough to revive the kind of Alien (1979) cash-in he cranked out almost two decades before. With a set-up contrived largely to indulge in padded scenes where characters wander around dark corridors and haunted chambers The Haunted Sea might sport a supernatural premise instead of science fiction but on a conceptual level is no different from past Corman quickies like Forbidden World (1982) or Galaxy of Terror (1981). If nothing else it proves even in the Nineties, Corman outclassed pretenders to the throne with his mastery of the fast-paced exploitation formula. Straight into the opening credits the film cuts to the chase: alarm bells ring, blood splatters walls and screaming crewmen are dragged away by the unseen creature. Thereafter we segue straight into a steamy shower scene with gorgeous Krista Allen.
In fact, along with recycling footage from an old pirate movie, gratuitous wildlife shots of komodo dragons and repeated cutaways to Captain Ramsey grimacing sternly at sea charts just so Corman can get his money's worth out of big(ish) name star James Brolin, the film keeps going back to that Aztec altar allowing viewers ample opportunity to ogle the topless Allen. Never let it be said Roger Corman does not know his audience. At this point Allen was still best known for her elevator scene with Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997) and as the titular (in every sense) erotic heroine in ridiculous soft-core DTV franchise Emmanuelle in Space (1994). She later blossomed into an accomplished actress as a staple supporting player in film and television and one can discern the roots of that here. Allen essays a genuinely strong and appealing heroine. She shares an interesting dynamic with the more hard-bitten character played by Joanna Pacula. For a change the women get to bond and develop mutual respect while battling the monster in a character arc normally reserved for male characters.
Written by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, who penned two of Allen's Emmanuelle in Space movies, the script is solid, involving, even witty in parts. Though far from groundbreaking and with the low budget showing through on occasion, The Haunted Sea is still a tight, compelling little exploitation picture. The creature suit looks a little rubbery but the transformation effects and gore are more accomplished than one might expect. Dan Golden, who also directed the equally cheesy and enjoyable Burial of the Rats (1995) for Roger Corman, stages a suspenseful sequence where Pacula and Don Stroud try to escape down an elevator shaft while the monster bangs at the door that compensates for too many scenes where characters wander in the dark. The climax which has the survivors trying to elude the monster and escape a ticking time bomb is pretty good too.