Devil Monster / The Sea Fiend / The Great Manta (1935/1946) -**
The blurb in the Sinister Cinema catalog describes Devil Monster as “quite possibly the single worst, stupidest movie in our entire catalog.” As anyone familiar with Sinister’s stock in trade can tell you, that’s an extraordinarily grand boast they’re making on Devil Monster’s behalf. It’s probably also justified. The stupefying excess of stock footage, the near-total lack of story momentum, the uniform failure of the characters’ behavior to relate in any discernable way to their supposed motivations, a climactic special effects set-piece that would have been reckoned sub-par even in the 1890’s— this is one of those rare films in which literally nothing works. It is also remarkable for the extent to which its creators seem to have presumed— and indeed counted upon— an extremely naïve audience. In a time before television, when most people had little experience of the world beyond their localities, Devil Monster’s lame attempts at exoticism might have stood a chance of looking at least faintly impressive. The film is too leaden and directionless to provide all that much in the way of entertainment today, however, but it still offers the serious masochist a glimpse down one of 30’s pop-culture’s more obscure sinkholes.
San Pietro is a little port town on the southern coast of Mexico. Six years ago, one of its residents, an accomplished fisherman named Jose Francisco, disappeared at sea while serving on the schooner Miami. Practically everyone in San Pietro has given Jose up for dead, but two women stubbornly hold onto the hope that he is still alive on an island somewhere in the South Pacific. One of these women is Jose’s mother (Mary Carr); the other is his girlfriend, Louise (Blanche Mehaffey). Louise’s continued belief in Jose’s survival is a major source of frustration for Roger Jackson (Barry Norton, from Marihuana and the Spanish-language version of Dracula), for Roger is in love with Louise, and is getting sick of being cock-blocked by a man who is in all probability dead. Then one day, old Mrs. Francisco comes to Roger with a newspaper clipping reporting on a shipwreck not far from the place where her son disappeared all those years ago. According to the article, salvage and rescue workers found what they believed to be signs that a white man unattached to the stricken ship had been at large in the vicinity not too long before. Naturally, Mrs. Francisco takes this vague report as evidence of what she has believed all along. She begs Roger to convince his father (Jack Barty, who can be seen in a very small role in the original Gaslight), the captain of a tuna boat, to go looking for Francisco on his next voyage at sea. Roger agrees, but his aims are rather at variance from the old woman’s; he hopes to prove that Jose is dead, so that he can finally have Louise to himself.
Captain Jackson doesn’t just agree to the search. Despite the younger man never having put in a day at sea in his life, Jackson takes on Roger as part of his crew, apparently in place of an absent hand. This leads, with astonishing rapidity, to what Roger’s narration calls (aptly, albeit not quite in the way that he means it) “a sight beyond description”— an incredible thirteen minutes of nearly uninterrupted South Seas travelogue footage! We get seabirds roosting on the rocks; sea lions and elephant seals frolicking and wrestling in the surf; a seemingly unending succession of tropical sunsets. And of course there are natives. Natives climbing palm trees, natives grinding flour, natives paddling canoes— even natives putting on an extended aquabatics display above a coral reef, which some clumsy editing seeks to convince us is disrupted by the approach of a “man-eating” shark. What’s more, among those natives we find what must surely have been the main reason for Devil Monster’s apparently substantial profitability (more on that later), for virtually all of the island women are topless. Then there’s an attempt to spin drama out of stock footage even more ridiculous than the “shark attack” on the native swimmers. While Roger is off the boat, following a small fish through a labyrinthine reef (note that Roger himself is conspicuously absent from the screen— we must simply take his narrated word for it that he was on hand to witness these events), the little creature runs afoul of an octopus. The fish escapes from the grasping tentacles, but the predator comes in pursuit. Only the intervention of the cephalopod’s ancient enemy, the moray eel, saves Roger’s scaly friend, and soon the whole reef is transformed into a battleground. Amazingly, the other fish come out of hiding as the contest turns against the moray, and their combined strength overwhelms the octopus, which flees for safety behind a cloud of ink. I suppose that’s one possible interpretation of the recycled fish-tank footage that comprises this scene, but it’s hardly the one I’d have arrived at without Jackson’s voiceover to steer me in its direction.
Finally, with fully a quarter of the running time down the toilet, the hunt for Francisco resumes, leading eventually to the discovery of a wreck that might be the Miami on the shore of an island near the Galapagos chain. Roger and his dad go ashore, where they are greeted by the local chief (Bill Lemuels, in a performance that approximates what might have happened had Bela Lugosi ever been cast as an American Indian), and kept entertained with stories about the exploits of Halo, the tribe’s greatest fisherman, who slew the mighty devilfish and restored safety to the waters around the island. Halo is betrothed to the chief’s daughter, Maya (Maya Owalee), and will someday inherit all the chief’s riches and authority. Inevitably, when the Jacksons meet Halo, he turns out to be none other than Jose Francisco (Jack Del Rio).
This places Roger and his dad in a conundrum. They’ve found the long-missing man they came looking for, but to all outward appearances, he’s happy right where he is. Can the knowledge that Louise is back home pining for him possibly exert enough pull on Jose to make him abandon his future with Maya and the islanders? And can Roger actually bring himself to talk Jose into coming home, in the face of his own obvious interest in keeping an ocean safely between Louise and her beloved castaway? In the end, Captain Jackson cuts the Gordian Knot with a scheme to abduct Jose and bring him home whether he likes it or not. The captain has Tiny the cook (Terry Grey) turbo-charge the natives’ traditional mixture of fermented fruit juice with an entire bottle of Scotch when the chief orders a feast in honor of the visitors from across the sea. Every man in the tribe inadvertently drinks himself into a stupor during the celebration, leaving no one to oppose Jackson’s plan. Apparently being kidnapped isn’t actually so bad in Jose’s eyes, for he does still care a great deal about Louise. But then Tiny carelessly mentions the way Louise and Roger have been growing closer together, and Jose goes a little haywire. With the boat so far outside of the waters it normally plies, Jackson understandably looks to Francisco for advice on where he might find some tuna. Jose leads the captain to his tuna, alright, but he also leads him to “the Devil’s Hole,” wherein dwells the big brother of that devilfish he killed off the coast of his adopted home. When the sailors and the sea monster meet… Well, let’s just say it’s a rare movie that can render me speechless with its ineptitude twice in just barely more than an hour.
Yes, when the natives say “devilfish,” they really do mean the same thing we Westerners do. While it’s hardly unusual for a large and poorly understood sea creature to get a bum rap in the movies, I think this might be the most egregious case of defamation of species that I’ve ever seen. Manta rays, despite their great strength and enormous size, are about the most inoffensive animals you could hope to meet in the open ocean. Some of their distant cousins, like the stingrays and torpedo rays, can be dangerous to the unwary (just ask Steve Irwin), but no manta ever did much of anything to anybody. They have no stingers, no bioelectric generators, not even a strong set of jaws. As filter feeders, they have no use for nasty, big, pointy teeth, and even if you somehow managed to get bitten by one, the experience would cause you little if any injury. All in all, a manta ray is a killer only from the perspective of a krill. And yet here Devil Monster is, positing a manta that can stand up to half a dozen harpoons and still have enough fight left in it to bite a man’s arm off at the shoulder. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so infuriating.
Devil Monster is a film with a curious history. Released originally in 1935 as The Sea Fiend and The Great Manta, it was a Mexican-American co-production, apparently aimed at audiences in both countries. It presumably made a lot more money than its present obscurity might imply, for it was re-edited and reissued under the current title eleven years later, most likely for use on the adults-only roadshow circuit, where the copious nudity in the first half would have given it considerable drawing power. I can’t say how the 1946 edit differs from the original, as all the 1935 prints are most likely gone now— at the very least, I’ve seen no evidence that The Sea Fiend is available anywhere today. We might, however, take a moment to ponder the awesome prospect of a movie so wretched that its owners would reckon this version an improvement over the old. There’s one more chapter to the story, though, and this one might be the weirdest of all. Even though Devil Monster’s soundtrack was obviously post-looped (meaning that the movie was shot silent, with the sound overdubbed later), the Spanish-language version shown in Mexico was not merely a different dub. Instead, it was a complete parallel production much like those the major studios often mounted during the earliest days of the sound era. Even more remarkably, El Diablo del Mar featured Carlos Villarias— familiar from the title role in George Melford’s Spanish-speaking Dracula— in the part of Jose Francisco! An internet search turns up tantalizing evidence that El Diablo del Mar still exists, and may even have been authored for DVD. If so, it doesn’t seem to have been released yet, but I can assure you that there’ll be at least one customer standing in line in the event that it is.