Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) -***
I saw a trailer for Creature from the Haunted Sea once. Very strange. On the basis of the trailer, you’d think this mostly forgotten Roger Corman-Charles Griffith production was a straight-up monster movie on the 50’s model, when in fact it is a rather loopy comedy more closely akin to the same team’s earlier The Little Shop of Horrors. Now misleading trailers are hardly surprising coming from Corman— this is the guy who had Jim Wynorski spike the trailer with completely new footage that didn’t even appear in the film when New World Pictures released Island of the Fish-Men as Screamers, after all— but in this particular case, the tone of the trailer is quite baffling. Why? Because it shows us the monster, and the monster suit in Creature from the Haunted Sea, while rather charming in the context of a comedy, would automatically turn any serious film into the Stupidest Movie Ever. And while I could be mistaken about this, something tells me the segment of the population that would deliberately seek out the Stupidest Movie Ever (you and I, for example) was much too small in 1961 to put even as cheap a flick as this one into the black.
As befits a Corman horror-comedy from the turn of the 60’s, the script for Creature from the Haunted Sea is absolute bedlam. It begins with a scene straight out of an ultra-low-budget spy movie, with US Agent XK-150— also known as Bart Moran (The Last Woman on Earth’s Robert Towne)— narrowly dodging enemy agents while picking up the message identifying his next objective. This is followed by a hilariously strange, “Rocky and Bullwinkle”-ish cartoon recap of the then-recent communist revolution in Cuba, narrated (as is the rest of the film) by Moran. Then we see our hero donning a highly unconvincing disguise and meeting up with Agent XK-120 (Esther Sandoval) in a Havana café. Evidently Moran’s mission is to provide US presence in an operation that is especially ripe for double dealing, even by the standards of international espionage. Two high-ranking officers from Batista’s army— General Tostada (Edmundo Rivera Alvarez, from Fiend of Dope Island and The Possession of Joel Delaney) and Colonel Cabeza-Grande— have fled the capital with just about all the gold in the Cuban treasury, and they have arranged to be transported to safety by a gang of vicious American mobsters led by Sicilian expatriate Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone, of The Pit and the Pendulum and A Bucket of Blood). If XK-120’s sources are to be believed, the Capetto mob means to kill the Cubans en route and help themselves to the stolen gold. The US government naturally can’t have that— with no well-funded indigenous counter-revolutionary movement at work, our only chance of getting rid of Castro would be doing something really hopelessly stupid, like trying to land commandos at the Bay of Pigs— so Moran must now infiltrate Capetto’s circle and work to keep the Cuban gold under the control of American allies.
It’s quite a crew Capetto’s got here. First, there’s his gun-moll, Mary-Belle Monahan (Betsy Jones-Moreland, from The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent and The Last Woman on Earth), arguably the deadliest and most ruthless of the whole bunch. Then there’s Mary-Belle’s brother, Happy Jack Monahan (Robert Bean), who— and this isn’t even arguable— is the most useless, apparently tolerated only because the boss is fucking his big sister. Finally, there’s Pete Peterson Jr. (Beach Dickerson, from Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Dunwich Horror), the heavy muscle. Peterson’s dad was an animal-call mimic on the Vaudeville circuit back in the day, and Pete Jr. is even better than his old man. Trouble is, the kid sustained serious brain damage from (I’m not making this up) watching too many Clark Gable movies, and now animal calls are just about his only means of communication. Moran manages to get himself a position piloting Capetto’s yacht for the trip out of Cuba. He also manages to get himself smitten with Mary-Belle Monahan.
Yes, yes— I know. The monster. I was getting to that. As it happens, Capetto has heard that the local fishermen believe the sea through which they will be smuggling the Cubans and their gold to be inhabited by some sort of fabulous beast. Banking on the chance that Tostada and his men are just as superstitious as the fishermen, Capetto plans to murder one of the soldiers in his sleep (using a combination of sharpened hand rakes and a toilet plunger to simulate the effects of claws and suction disks), and then pass off the death as the work of the legendary sea monster. Once they discover the body, the Cubans will surely want to change course, at which point Capetto will take them to an uninhabited islet off the Puerto Rican coast, “accidentally” wreck the yacht on the rocks blocking most of the approaches to said islet (the yacht’s insured, so it’ll be no skin off Capetto’s ass), and “lose” the strongbox containing the gold on the ocean bottom. He and his henchmen can then return for the gold at their leisure once the Cubans have given up and headed off into exile. But what Capetto doesn’t realize is that there really is a sea monster, and it sneaks aboard the yacht to kill a second man on the night Pete Jr. and Happy Jack put their leader’s plan in motion. Nor is this the creature’s last intervention into the gangsters’ affairs. The monster then trails the boat all the way to the islet, where it proceeds to kill off the soldiers, the mobsters, and the natives of the “uninhabited” island one by one.
To be honest, Creature from the Haunted Sea doesn’t work anywhere near as well as The Little Shop of Horrors, and it is often funnier by accident than it is on purpose. A lot of the gags fall rather flat, and derive most of their amusement value from the fact that somebody somehow thought they were funny. The most baffling of these is the running joke involving Pete Peterson Jr. and his animal mimicry, which seems much too corny to last beyond the first few minutes, and yet continues on until the character’s demise at the hands of the sea monster at the movie’s end. Every once in a while, though, Creature from the Haunted Sea will attain that level of transcendent absurdity on which “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” would operate some ten years later— witness, for example, the scene in which Moran, having just arrived on what we have been repeatedly assured is an uninhabited island, sneaks away from the group to call Agent XK-120 on a nearby pay phone and is forced to cut his call short when a line of impatient would-be callers forms behind him. Also, a fair amount of the humor hinging on the language barrier between the mobsters and the Cubans (or between the mobsters and the islanders) is quite effective. My favorite example comes when Happy Jack and Mango the island chick (Sonia Noemi Gonzalez) are hanging out together in a grove of palm trees. While Happy Jack romances her, Mango explains in her sultriest voice how her mother employs her to seduce the tourists so that she’ll have an easier time selling overpriced souvenirs; since Jack doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, he thinks she’s romancing him right back.
Then, of course, there’s the monster. That’s what I was watching the movie for, and I expect it would be the big draw for most of you, too. It’s quite an achievement, let me tell you. Given the context, it’s obviously not supposed to be taken seriously, and there’s precious little chance of it being so taken by mistake. Even the tackiest of Paul Blaisdel’s creature costumes have nothing on this baby, and my first reaction upon seeing it in the trailer (before I understood that Creature from the Haunted Sea was supposed to be a joke) was astonishment than any movie crew would even attempt to get away with a monster suit like it. Ping-pong ball eyes, strangely fuzzy skin, strips of what appear to be garbage bags dangling from its arms like the fringe on a buckskin jacket… Simply put, the thing’s a muppet with flippers (as in, the kind you buy at the sporting goods store to wear when you go scuba diving) and needle-like metallic claws about eight inches long. It’s amazing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get nearly enough screentime, and that’s where Creature from the Haunted Sea goes most wrong. The non-monster parts tend to drag after about ten minutes at a time, and as a general matter, this movie could really use some livening up. A bigger role for that stunningly lame beastie would have done the trick quite nicely.