The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955) -*½
For the record: The figure in the title of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea refers to the linear distance covered by the Nautilus from the time Captain Nemo takes Land, Aronnax, and Conseil aboard to the time of the submarine’s apparent destruction, and not to the depth at which the Nautilus cruises. In fact, no submarine could cruise at such a depth, at least not on this planet. A league is a rather imprecise unit, defined variously as anything from roughly 2.4 to 4.6 miles, but even the most conservative definition yields a value for 20,000 leagues that is an order of magnitude greater than the total diameter of the Earth. I bring this up because of people like the makers of The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues; not only do they proudly trumpet their ignorance of just what a league is with a title like that, but they go on to attach it to a movie in which the titular monster inhabits a kelp bed which can’t possibly be located more than about fifteen feet below the ocean’s surface.
It’s one hell of a monster, too. Though it is portrayed by the standard man in a suit, it really can’t be characterized as a gill-man— “vaguely humanoid sea serpent” might be the best description. It’s a lumpy thing, with a barrel-chested body, short, squat, flipper-like limbs, and a somehow bovine head adorned with a row of backward-curving horns running down the midline from snout to cranium. All in all, it looks like the kind of thing that might turn up in a really ambitious high school play on the theme of St. George and the Dragon. This creature is among the very first things we see, too, as a fisherman in a little rowboat accidentally snags it in his net, and is pulled to his death beneath the waves. Strangely, his body will later be described as having suffered massive radiation burns rather than the sort of damage you’d expect a sea monster to inflict.
The first to find the dead man’s body is Professor King (Michael Whalen, of Missile to the Moon and She Shoulda Said No) of the College of Oceanography. This is supposed to be a big secret just now, but since the filmmakers themselves blow King’s cover in the very next scene, I’m sure as hell not going to take any special care to conceal his identity. King doesn’t have long to look at the corpse, though, because another man arrives on the scene almost immediately, and the professor is in no mood to answer questions. This second nocturnal beachcomber (and incidentally, we’d never guess that it was supposed to be the middle of the night were we not clued in to that fact by subsequent dialogue) is an out-of-towner who calls himself Ted Baxter (Kent Taylor, from Brain of Blood and The Crawling Hand). Then Baxter, too, is interrupted in his examination of the corpse by the sudden arrival on the beach of William S. Grant (Rodney Bell), a special investigator from the Defense Department. And while Grant grills Baxter on the subject of what brings him to this particular stretch of beach and what, if anything, he knows about the radiation-burned corpse of the fisherman, the two men are being watched from the bushes on the hill above by a shifty-eyed guy carrying a spear gun. Oh, for shit’s sake… It’s the middle of the night on a supposedly isolated stretch of shoreline! Shouldn’t you people be in bed, or at the local bar, or down on the main drag on the wrong side of the tracks picking up hookers instead?! Fuck it, whatever. Grant notices the guy in the bushes and calls him down to the beach, brandishing his pistol to make himself more persuasive. At that, Mr. Spear Gun identifies himself as George Thomas (Phillip Pine), assistant to the recently departed Professor King. Thomas says that he was hiding in the bushes because that seemed to be the logical thing to do when confronted by the sight of two strangers having heated words over a dead body, and I suppose he’s got a point there. Still, I don’t trust him, and neither does Agent Grant.
Meanwhile, King has returned to his cottage on the beach, where he is greeted by his daughter, Lois (Cathy Downs, from The She-Creature and The Amazing Colossal Man). Just as the old man works up a good head of steam for a rant about people prying into his business, there’s a knock at the front door, and King rushes off to his room, ordering his daughter to tell whoever it is that he’s been in bed for an hour. Interestingly enough, it’s Baxter. Seems his whole reason for coming to town was to meet with King, but Lois dutifully gives him the agreed-upon runaround. Baxter sees right through the smokescreen, though, for King has left soggy footprints all over the carpet, and if he really had come home early enough to have turned in an hour before, then those tracks would have long since dried up. After much pestering, Baxter gets Lois to relent and disturb her father, but when she opens the door to his bedroom, she and the visitor alike are stunned to discover that Professor King has escaped through the window beside his bed. Man, everybody around here is acting suspiciously, aren’t they?
Yeah, well we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Not only is King sneaking out through windows, surreptitiously examining dead bodies on the beach, and keeping the nature of his work at the College of Oceanography secret from his daughter and any visitors who might take an interest in it, he’s also hiding stuff from his secretary, Ethel (Vivi Janiss), and even from George Thomas. For that matter, Baxter has a secret of his own, for he’s not really Ted Baxter, but Dr. Ted Stevens, the world’s foremost expert on the effects of radiation on the physiology of marine animals. He’s also the author of Nature’s Own Death-Ray and the discoverer of a curious process whereby specially treated heavy water can focus the radiation given off by minerals such as radium or uranium into a beam of lethal energy. Now, considering that our sorry-ass sea monster likes to hang out at a spot where the special effects crew appears to have buried a powerful flashlight in the sea floor, and that the fisherman whom it dragged to his doom before the main titles evidently died of radiation burns instead of the creature’s rather half-hearted attack, do you suppose there could be some connection between Stevens’s arrival and what’s going on offshore? Do you suppose further that King’s deep, dark secret is that he has duplicated the experiments described in the other scientist’s book, causing the birth of the monster in the first place? And finally, do you suppose that George’s motivation in trying to bribe Ethel to let him into King’s locked laboratory could be the potential for personal gain that a working death-ray (or monster-making device) could put into the hands of the unscrupulous? Absolutely, on all three counts. That still leaves open the question of what Agent Grant is up to, however. Unsurprisingly, given the movie’s date of release, he’s here because Thomas is dating a woman named Wanda (Helene Stanton), who happens to be doing some freelance espionage for the Kremlin; Wanda knows that her boyfriend is close to something that her pals behind the Iron Curtain would pay big money for, and she’s leaning on George to deliver the goods.
Not content to create one of the least impressive monster movies of the 1950’s, screenwriter Lou Rusoff and director Dan Milner (who also co-produced The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues with his brother, Jack) went the extra mile to deliver simultaneously one of the decade’s least impressive spy flicks. On the one hand, we have a truly pathetic sea monster who, in the end, proves to have virtually nothing to do with the story— its main contribution to the body count is to head-butt passing rowboats (actually the same rowboat over and over and over again) so that their occupants can be pitched out into the water column above the death-ray-emitting uranium deposit in its lair. We’ve also got a mad scientist whose actual role remains maddeningly unclear. While King repeatedly indicates that he somehow triggered the death-ray, which somehow turned some heretofore inoffensive marine critter into the monster, George Thomas as much as takes credit for the ill-fated experiment at several points during the film too, even though we’re given to understand that he doesn’t quite know how the death-ray works, and is not aware of the monster’s existence. And while that’s going on, we’ve got Wanda lounging around on the beach and haunting the local greasy spoon, aiming for Mata Hari but falling far short even of Natasha Fatale, while George proves again and again that it takes more than a spear gun to make a man a player in the field of international espionage. Frankly, the sheer incompetence of these two makes it almost understandable that the Defense Department would go after them in such a determinedly hare-brained fashion as we see here. Grant and Wanda are every inch the equals in their respective spheres, and while Stevens (who is eventually revealed to be working for the government, too, unbeknownst to Grant) comes across as slightly less useless, he still bids fair for the title of Worst Undercover Operative Ever— for Christ’s sake, there’s a photo of his smirking face prominently displayed on the cover of his book, and the man he’s been sent to keep clandestine tabs on is the one person in the world who can be just about guaranteed to have read it!
There’s still one more angle to The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues which I haven’t addressed. Since we have both a square-jawed and heavily pomaded scientist and the low-wattage daughter of a second supposed genius, there can be no question but that a romance will develop between the two of them. When it does, it turns out to be even more awful than most of its fellows from similar movies of the day. Rusoff’s dialogue is wretched from beginning to end, but he saves some of his most painfully inane work for the courtship between Ted Stevens and Lois King. Their cozy little subplot also enjoys the distinction of featuring practically every cliché in the book— the “help me with my zipper” scene, the “Whoops! Here I am right outside the bathroom door when you come out wearing nothing but an indifferently draped towel!” scene, the “piercing the emotionless façade of the scientist” scene. It would be plenty bad enough even with a pair of actors much more capable than Kent Taylor and Cathy Downs portraying it; with those two as the romantic leads, the subplot is simply horrendous. Of course, that just means it’s of a piece with everything else about The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues. Can you imagine trying to sit through this (as the first-run audiences did) on a double bill with The Day the World Ended?