The Intruder Within (1981) Retrospective

Set entirely on an offshore oil platform, whose drilling crew inadvertently penetrates a pocket of dormant prehistoric eggs — as well as the nest’s very active, toothy guardian. The slithering little beastie takes up hiding aboard the rig and puts the bite on several crew members, who become infected with a malevolent virus. One such carrier rapes a female driller, who soon gives birth to a bipedal reptile-man whose species at one time rivaled man for domination of the Earth.

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Creating the Monster
There are monsters loose aboard an offshore oil rig and slowly, one by one, the workers are being savagely murdered. Alone and isolated from the rest of the world, can the humans survive against their prehistoric predators? The question will be answered when ABC airs the two-hour telefilm, Panic Offshore (originally titled The Lucifer Rig). As production commenced in Hollywood and on location in Canada, ABC management liked the project enough to seriously discuss making a sequel-unique in the television world where ratings are usually the sole determinant of a show making it to the screen a second time.

The monsters were designed by makeup artist James Cummins, who worked on the telefilm for 13 weeks but never had enough time to do everything quite as he had planned it, There were other problems with the production which Cummins discussed from his home in California.

Cummins explains that he got involved with the telefilm through a college friend. “There was a friend, Henry Golas, who called me out of the blue,” Cummins says. “I had been out of work for three months and he called and told me a producer needed some help. Now, Henry has a strange mind, but he needed help.

Design for the creature
Design for the creature

“I was sent the script and I read it and made some quick sketches of what I thought the monsters would look like, I got the script on a Thursday and on Friday we met and decided we would go for broke,” he admits with a characteristic laugh. After they decided to work together on the concepts, Golas and Cummins bought materials and made busts of the creatures over that weekend. Cummins says that when the busts were presented to the producers, Furia/Oringer Productions, “We impressed the hell out of them. We had the job locked down. Unfortunately, the actors’ strike was in full Swing and the project was delayed for a while.”

Original Concept for the Creature
When work resumed, Cummins went full speed ahead designing and building the adult monster and its carrier incarnations, trying to have everything ready in time for the first day of shooting. Three days before the cameras were set to roll, he was informed by the producers that the monster was to be redesigned to resemble the adult creature from ALIEN…but different.

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“They showed Alien on Home Box Office one weekend, and Monday the producers told us to make it look more like Alien, but different.’ Then they showed Jaws–’make its jaws bigger, and the teeth’…it’s a strange mentality. I had to improvise the entire sculpture. Henry didn’t have any experience at this sort of thing but he pitched in and I had help from Pat Burns,” says Cummins.

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In all, he created and built five stages for the monster that starts as an egg and matures rapidly during the movie. The first is called the “Nest Watcher” and was designed to come out of the egg, look around and bare some teeth. Next is a stage affectionately named “Suzie.” Suzie is snake-like, with claws and an elongated head. Suzie was the most complicated creature to manipulate because she is supposed to spit out a cocoon-like web to trap prey. This version is manipulated from a false floor.

In three weeks time, Cummins had to prepare all five forms of the creature for filming. There was little time to cast an actor for the monster suit (adult stage), so a suit was built up from a mannequin left over from Prophecy, and stuntman Joe Finnegan was finally cast as the creature. They placed the mannequin on a base and got to work on the plaster joints. The monster, Cummins says, was made out of white plasticine that looked like cheese or marble (“It looked very bizarre,'”) after they carved out the design. Oil clays were then used to give the creature some texture. The creature was finally together, but Cummins noticed that the finished arms were wrong and twisted out of use. “It was too late to change,” he explains, so we sawed off the arms and made do.” The adult creature was produced in one week.

One big disappointment for the 21-year-old Cummins was his inability to operate the creatures during the location filming. He is not yet a member of the union and therefore was not allowed to work on the set. When the filming went to Canada, he went along for ten days to keep an eye on things but finally left because it became too frustrating watching his designs being manipulated by another man. But “It was left in competent hands.” Cummins admits with a sigh. Cummins calls the story old but finds it unique for television. The producers, he says, were treating the telefilm as if they had the notion they were doing it for the first time.”

Cummins’ contributions to the project are impressive for someone who has been in the business for just over a year. After leaving his native Missouri, he went to study at the California Institute of the Arts as the only person on a full scholarship. It was provided by the Walt Disney Studios to train him in animation so that he could join their crew. He quickly discovered that this was “not exactly what I wanted to do. It was a 500-frame drag.” says Cummins.

Instead of doing “in-betweens” (tracing one picture after another) for Disney, Cummins spent the rest of his time designing a series of masks and effects. Portfolio under arm, he began the arduous journey from effects house to make-up shop to studio. His very last stop was at the workshop of Tom Burman, the effects specialist who worked on The Manitou and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “Lo and behold,” Cummins says with another laugh, “he hired me on the spot.”

The first film Cummins worked on, at the tender age of 19, was The Exterminator. His work appeared in the much-talked about decapitation sequence that nearly gave the film an “X” rating. (Some judicious editing allowed for the scene’s inclusion.) “Too bad,” says Cummins about the shortened scene. “It was a nice effect.”

Following that, he did some uncredited work on the upcoming Dead and Buried and some design work for Universal’s Heartbeeps. The work he did was on Andy Kaufman’s robot suit but he speaks highly of Bernadette Peters’ metal hair (she and Kaufman play robots in love in the future).

ABC promo The Intruder Within 1981

The Full Movie

Chad Everett
Joseph Bottoms
 Lynda Mason Green
Mickey Gilbert
Jennifer Warren
Rockne Tarkington

Originally aired February 20, 1981 on the ABC Network

Starlog April 1981
Fangoria 33 1984

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