Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954) -**½
If there were a Bible of independent postwar exploitation B-movies, the first verse of Genesis would read, “In the beginning, Roger Corman produced Monster from the Ocean Floor, and saw that it was profitable.” Although Corman had been knocking around Hollywood for some seven years by 1954, no one except perhaps the man himself would have expected very much from an engineering student turned low-ranking 20th Century Fox aparatchik. Indeed, even Corman’s expectations might have been slipping, since he eventually quit Fox and went to Oxford for an extremely abortive bid at pursuing a more advanced engineering degree— and when that didn’t work out, either, the film-industry jobs Corman was able to finagle throughout the opening years of the 1950’s were scarcely any more promising than the one he’d already found too disillusioning to retain. However, in 1953, Corman rather unexpectedly managed to sell a script he had co-written to Allied Artists, the studio formerly known as Monogram Pictures, and such was his excitement that he immediately signed on to work as an unpaid assistant to whomever needed one on the film that was to become Highway Dragnet. Corman found Highway Dragnet an inspiring experience, but in a very curious way. What most impressed him was the sheer wastage of time and resources that he saw on even a severely cash-strapped Allied Artists production, and he immediately perceived that a careful producer could bring in a much better movie on a similarly impoverished budget, simply by spending that scant money more wisely than the industry old-timers were accustomed to doing it. Almost immediately after Highway Dragnet wrapped, he set about putting his ideas into practice with his first film as an independent producer, Monster from the Ocean Floor.
There’s a point here that demands attention, especially because I can’t ever remember seeing it raised directly, even in Corman’s own memoir. What gave Corman the impetus to strike out on his own as a motion picture producer was the experience of observing a faulty system in action, inspiring him to design a new one that would work more efficiently. That is to say, Roger Corman the Stanford-trained ex-wannabe engineer was pushed to make his mark on film history when presented with a situation that encouraged him to think of movie-making as an engineering problem. And furthermore, some aspect of that conceptual framework would visibly stick with him throughout the hands-on phases of his career, regardless of what title would be attached to his name in each movie’s opening credits. He engineered his choice of shooting locations to suggest the impossible-to-film disintegration of the island in Attack of the Crab Monsters. He engineered secondhand special effects footage into production value his own resources could never buy in Battle Beyond the Sun and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. He engineered existing sets and superfluous studio time into entire movies in The Little Shop of Horrors and The Terror. He even engineered whole new business models when he set up New World Pictures after leaving American International in 1970, and again with Concorde-New Horizons after selling off New World in 1983. The tension between Corman the artist and Corman the businessman is a common theme in discussions of his work over the years, and the precipitous decline in the quality of his movies beginning in the late 1980’s is often explained in terms of the businessman finally winning out, but I think there may be something missing from that analysis. Maybe it wasn’t just Corman the artist who got pushed aside when the Concorde-New Horizons production schedule grew too busy to permit individual films to receive much of his personal attention. Maybe the disengagement reported by so many of the people who worked for Corman during the last twenty years stems as much from a paucity of new challenges for Corman the engineer.
Take a close look at how Monster from the Ocean Floor was made, and you’ll really see what I’m talking about. If you can believe Corman about what the film cost to produce, then Monster from the Ocean Floor was funded to the tune of a paltry $12,000. Even accounting for the notorious eagerness of Hollywood people to lie about how much money goes into their movies (Corman himself was certainly not above inflating or deflating his reported budgets to make a point later in his career), that’s probably fair enough as a first-order approximation. In any event, he can’t have raised much more than that by the method he used to secure funding; Corman simply canvassed his friends, family, and acquaintances, selling profit-participation shares at $500 apiece. Everything was shot on location at Malibu Beach, with blocking and camera angles carefully selected to keep hints of modern-day Los Angeles out of the frame. The monster sequences were shot using two of Georges Méliès’s old tricks: double exposure for the scene in which it looms up out of the water to frighten the heroine on a moonlit night, and a murky fish tank between the camera and the miniature set for the one depicting the clash between hero and monster in the creature’s lair. Corman shaved crew costs by acting as his own truck driver and grip, dodging the relevant unions by making sure that everything was set up before the cast and crew arrived in the morning, and by waiting to disassemble it all until after everyone had gone home at the end of the shooting day— with no witnesses onsite, it was his word against the Teamsters’. And in what might be the biggest production value-adding coup of all, Corman finagled the use of an experimental, pedal-powered, single-seat submarine with what we would today describe as a product-placement deal. The fledgling Aerojet General company let Corman use the sub for free in return for one plug in the opening credits and another in the dialogue itself. He even got his director to pay him $500 by offering character actor and aspiring director Wyott Ordung (whom we’ve met before as the writer of Robot Monster) a chance at the folding canvass chair in exchange for a financing buy-in. Yes, most of the above counts as shrewd deal-making, but underneath that deal-making are clear signs of a holistic problem-solving approach; to return to the… hmm… “dichotomy” doesn’t have enough pieces, so howsabout we call it a trichotomy?… from the preceding paragraph, it’s Corman the businessman following Corman the engineer’s blueprints.
The isolated stretch of nowheresville for which Malibu Beach is standing in here is located somewhere along the coast of Baja California, which was presumably not yet overrun all summer long by drunken gringo tourists in 1954. In fact, we’re asked to believe that our three main characters are the only white folks who’ve set foot here since pretty much ever— which is particularly ludicrous given that one of those characters, Julie Blair (Port Sinister’s Anne Kimbell), is in fact an American on vacation. Julie works as an advertising illustrator, and when we meet her, she’s sketching a seascape from the rocks along the shoreline and chatting with a little boy from the nearby village about how the cove where she likes to swim is supposedly haunted by some sort of sea monster. She inevitably writes off the sea monster stories as rustic superstition, but the child is adamant that his own father was eaten by the cove’s mysterious denizen.
And now it’s time for a meet-cute. After the little boy with the monster-eaten dad understandably storms off in a huff, Julie strips down to her bathing suit, and splashes out into the cove she was just warned away from. The filmmakers would like us to imagine that Julie is about to receive her just deserts for scoffing at the kid’s monster stories, but we know from the moment she unbuttons her shirt that whatever she’s destined to encounter in the water, it isn’t going to be any Monster from the Ocean Floor. Julie’s one-piece is black, you see, and everybody knows that sea monsters are attracted by white one-piece swimsuits. No, the big, strange thing that bumps into Julie from below is an experimental, pedal-powered, single-seat submarine manufactured by the Aerojet General Corporation of Los Angeles, California, and piloted by marine biologist Steve Dunning (Stuart Wade, from Teenage Monster and The Thing that Couldn’t Die). Evidently Julie appreciates an unconventional pickup line, because the next thing we know, Steve is taking her out to the boat where he and his mentor, Dr. Baldwin (Dick Pinner), are studying marine microorganisms with an eye toward developing them into a source of food for humans. You know the drill— mankind is multiplying faster than the Earth’s agricultural resources can support, and will be needing exotic new foodstuffs to avert worldwide famine within a generation or two. While the trio discuss this work, another boat speeds over toward Dr. Baldwin’s, its pilot (Jonathan Haze, of Swamp Women and Not of This Earth) hollering all the while about how his partner has suddenly disappeared while diving for abalone in the cove. Yes, that cove. Steve hops back into his sub to mount a search, but all he turns up is the missing man’s empty diving suit, its glass faceplate smashed out.
Now Julie (setting a pattern that would recur sporadically throughout the whole of Corman’s career) is a great deal sharper than the typical 50’s monster-flick heroine, and she quickly makes the connection between the diver’s curious fate and the little boy’s stories of a man-eating monster. She begins asking around in the village, and discovers that there’s a lot more circumstantial evidence in favor of something unusual at work in those waters than she had been willing to credit. The vanished man’s partner reports that almost everyone in these parts has a strange story to tell about the cove, and more interestingly, that the tales don’t go back to time immemorial, but merely to 1946 or thereabouts. One of the housekeepers at the inn where Julie is staying (One Million B.C.’s Inez Palange) tells her that her dog was taken from her own backyard on the last night of the full moon, and that the beach leading up to the doghouse was marked by bizarre tracks the following morning, as if some huge, amorphous object had been dragged onto and off of her property. The most detailed report comes from an old fisherman named Pablo (Ordung himself), however. Not only has he seen tracks similar to those described by the cleaning lady on the morning after nearly every full moon since 1946, but he claims to have seen the thing that made them once. Obviously the mere fact that this happened in the middle of the night means that viewing conditions were far from ideal, but the combination of a full moon and a cloudless sky undeniably must be taken to mitigate any objections raised thereby. And what Pablo says he saw— a single, luminous, red eye in the center of a spheroid mass atop a forest of waving tentacles— is just as undeniably hard to reconcile with the appearance of any known marine animal, including even the Pacific giant octopus that scares the bejabbers out of Julie the next time she goes diving in the cove with Steve. Much to the distaste of the scientist whom we can legitimately describe as Julie’s boyfriend by this point, she begins making a veritable crusade out of discovering and exposing the secret of the cove.
You know what? Roger Corman was absolutely right. A sufficiently careful producer could make a modestly entertaining and effective movie on Monster from the Ocean Floor’s pocket-change budget, and Corman in fact did so here. It’s true that the 64-minute running time helps a lot, and that another half-hour this heavily freighted with placid scuba-diving footage would have been straight-up lethal. It’s true again that Jonathan Haze and Wyott Ordung make Speedy Gonzalez look like a paragon of ethnic sensitivity with their impersonations of Mexican watermen, and that it is impossible to square the appearance of the utterly adorable monster puppet with the origin story that eventually emerges for the creature. (It’s worth pointing out, however, that the original cut of the film reputedly featured an altogether different monster design, one which dovetailed more sensibly with the explanation put forward in the dialogue. That monster didn’t go over well at a preview screening, however, and its two scenes were hastily reshot.) Nor can I deny that the two male leads are respectively an arrogant jackass and a complete vacancy, impossible roles palmed off on players whose abbreviated resumés speak eloquently to their inadequacy in the face of them, or that the romance that develops between Julie and Steve is harder to swallow than any sea monster yarn. But neither can I deny the effortless charm of Monster from the Ocean Floor for any fan of unassuming 1950’s monster movies, and the plain fact is that it doesn’t look any cheaper or shittier than the similar films that guys like Edward Cahn and Nathan Juran were making contemporaneously for four and five times the reported cost. Indeed, Monster from the Ocean Floor looks better than a few of Corman’s own early movies for American International Pictures and Allied Artists. In particular, those cribs from Méliès I mentioned demonstrate exactly the right way to handle a monster puppet of such woeful insufficiency— when realism is blatantly impossible, shoot for cooler-than-real instead, and hope for the best. Anne Kimbell does a lot with her inconsistently written role (we’re talking, after all, about a girl who in the space of 72 hours flees in terror from a harmless octopus and then goes diving alone and unaided in a cove that she has proven to her satisfaction to contain a man-eating, radioactive super-amoeba from Bikini Atoll), and the sequence in which Julie ingratiates herself to one native after another while seeking the inside scoop on the cove could serve as a model to future filmmakers looking to portray non-condescending relations between “primitive” indigenes and “advanced” outsiders. And there are a few small touches scattered about that are effective enough that they probably deserved to be scattered about a rather better film. My favorite example is Julie’s brush with the octopus. On a technical level, it’s much better executed than I’m accustomed to seeing in scenes edited together from purpose-produced diving footage and stock film of exotic marine life. But of at least equal importance, the scene is positioned in such a way as to make us think about the monster when the octopus shows up. Obviously this particular cephalopod isn’t the Killer of the Cove, but maybe she has a big sister somewhere? In light of the reworked monster design, it’s actually a little disappointing that Corman didn’t also post-loop a bit of the dialogue so as to make the thing explicitly a mutated octopus. Then Julie’s early encounter would have been foreshadowing instead of just an atypically well-handled red herring.
This review is part of a long-overdue B-Masters Cabal salute to the incomparable Roger Corman. Click the banner below to read my colleagues’ words of praise both heartfelt and damningly faint.