Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blogathon :: Roger and Me and the Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).

Our film opens in the midst of the Cuban revolution (as interpreted by artist Paul Julian in another nifty opening animated credit sequence). And with the fall of Batista imminent, several of his Generals abscond with a good chunk of the national treasury and arrange to sneak both it and them out of the country with the help of that American expatriate, gambler, and all around no-goodnik, Renzo Capetto (Carbone, looking like he just wandered off the set of a third-rate botchilized dinner theater production of To Have and To Have Not). Also along for this ride is Capetto's deviously deadly mol, Mary-Belle Monahan (Jones-Moreland), and the motley crew of his cabin-cruiser / Tardis (-- judging by how much room there is inside that thing); a trio of boobs that probably wouldn't pass muster on the S.S. Minnow, starting with Monahan's idiot younger brother, Happy Jack (Bean -- in a role originally intended for Corman); followed by the idiot first mate, Pete Peterson (Dickerson), who, after a bout of severe head traumas, mostly communicates with wild animal calls; and rounding things out is another idiot by the name of Sparks Moran (Towne -- another Corman protege who would go on to write Chinatown and The Last Detail), who just happens to be an undercover government spook sent to keep tabs on Capetto, and who has a knack for making communication devices out of kitchen condiments -- that Peterson keeps eating.

Anyways, after they set sail, having lost his gambling interest to Fidel and the Fuller-Brush Beard Brigade, Capetto aims to even out those losses by stealing the treasure out from under his charter. To do this, he must first thin out the dozen or so Cubans on board. And to do this without raising suspicions, Capetto comes up with a hair-brained scheme to concoct a monster, based on the Hemingway legend (-- Wait. The Old Man and the Sea Monster? Yeah, well, just roll with him...), to take the blame for the impending fatalities. Thus, with the help of a sharpened hand rake and a handy plunger, Capetto's plan commences without a hitch -- that is, until a real monster shows up and starts clandestinely munching on his passengers, too...

As with most of Roger Corman's early productions the story of making the film is usually a lot more entertaining than the finished product. Creature from the Haunted Sea, though a whole six-pack of irrerevant stoopidity all on its own, is no different. This time, seems that back in 1960 old Roger got wind that there were certain tax incentives to be fleeced if he filmed his latest opus in Puerto Rico. Already headed there on someone else's dime to produce and shoot Battle on Blood Island, as was his modus operandi, Corman planned to film a second feature for his and brother Gene's fledgling Filmgroup enterprise by, one, using the same crew, and two, cutting every corner he could, logistically speaking -- especially in the room and board department for the cross-pollinated cast and crew, packing them all into one bungalow with a malfunctioning toilet and no food since all the refrigerators were stuffed with film-stock to protect it from the heat and humidity, and three, by bilking some extra money from another one of his productions back in the States (The Wild Ride). The end result of these efforts was The Last Woman on Earth, another gonzoidal epic that merits its own write-up that I'll get to someday, honest. Anyhoo, when the two week shoot for that film was wrapping up, Corman realized that he would have a few extra rolls of frozen film leftover and enough money for about five more days of shooting. Plenty of both to get a third feature in the can.

A quick call to Chuck Griffith got the ball rolling, who was told to basically cannibalize his script for Naked Paradise, already re-used once before in South Dakota with Beast from the Haunted Cave. Always one to recycle anything and everything, Corman trotted out the same heist-gone-wrong plot again, only this time, fresh off the critical success of the minimalist absurdity of Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors, he wanted this third feature to be another outright comedy.

Remember, before films like Creature from the Haunted Sea, Corman had always balked at doing a comedy because, by his own admission, his skills weren't good enough and he didn't have the time or money to experiment so he had always stuck with a known commodity: action and Sci-Fi. According to others, however, the analytical and technical director was balking because he was kinda dense as to what was funny and what wasn't. Still, some comedic elements were starting to sneak in, via long time collaborator Griffith, with the likes of Not of this Earth; and, finally, with Bucket of Blood, another five-day, $35,000 wonder, Griffith convinced Corman that he didn't have anything to lose. And so, Corman took the plunge, once Griffith explained to his clueless director on how to pull it off by, basically, taking his absurd scripts and playing them straight.

And that trick worked pretty well for our featured feature. Here, Corman put his faith in the hands of a game cast and just let the camera roll. The result was a weird and wonky goof of a film. Granted, not all of the ensuing bedlam works, but there are enough bits of business, I think, to sustain this thing to the bitter end. I especially liked the running gag with the toilet plunger, and how Moran's attempts to woo Mary-Belle away from Capetto usually winds up in some form of grievous bodily harm as she beats the crap out of him. And, if nothing else, there's always that goofy-assed monster to gawk at.

Stuck in Puerto Rico, and unwilling to import anyone else, Corman turned to his jack-of-all-trades, Beach Dickerson, to create his monster for the princely sum of $150. Using a stack of helmets from that war movie, some chicken-wire, and a ton of Brillo pads for the misshapen head, the body consisted of a lacquered wet-suit covered in strips of oil-cloth and more shredded sponges, for that briney-deep sensation, while the feet appear to be nothing more than an off the rack set of scuba-flippers. The beast's deadly teeth and claws were nothing more than carved balsa-wood and stripped pipe-cleaners. And those great-googly-moogly eyes were combination of tennis and ping-pong balls. To bring the gangly critter to life, I believe Dickerson split time with co-star Robert Bean for that dubious honor. And for once, and somewhat fittingly, their creation was destined to have the last laugh on everybody.

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"We have always killed off our monsters with fire, electricity, floods, whatever ... The final shot in this picture is the monster sitting on the chest of gold at the bottom of the ocean floor. The skeletons of all the people in the picture are scattered around him and he's picking his teeth. That's it. The monster wins."
--Roger Corman
How I Made a Hundred Movies in
Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime
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Again, the movie itself is only half the story, for even after filming was completed Corman's tropical misadventures were far from over. Seems veteran cinematographer Jack Marquette (Attack of the 50ft Woman and The Brain from the Planet Arous) refused to stay in Corman's impromptu barracks and opted, instead, for the local Hilton, where he would invite other cast and crew members to eat and charged it all to his producer. Well, according to Marquette, and corroborated by Jones-Moreland, when the shooting wrapped it appeared Corman was ready to sneak out of the country and skip out on the bills; basically stranding the rest of the cast and crew, who weren't paid yet, leaving them with no means to get home. Not one to be tinkered with, Marquette seized and hid several rolls of film for all three pictures and did not return them until all the bills were paid and all the cast and crew's checks cleared.

The above tale is hardly an isolated incident. And even though I like his movies, a lot, and his frugal reputation and uncanny knack for finding worthwhile talent and giving them a chance is well earned, from everything I've ever seen and read about the guy, I've always felt that Roger Corman, personally, was kind of a turd. A somewhat endearing turd, sure, but a turd nonetheless. And I'm always baffled how this cinematic grifter was able to con the same people, who should have known better, into not only working for him, but bending over backwards to help him get the film in the can again and again and again. "Cheap and generous, an artist and a chisler..." perhaps our featured heroine sums up the dichotomy that is Roger Corman best:
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Roger Corman could charm snakes off bird eggs. He could charm anybody into doing anything on the planet ... He has a gift for making you feel like you're part of something important. Albeit it's not important and you're not a part of it [but] he makes you feel like it is and you are ... You can't not like Roger ... He's a monster, but he's a man with great drive and tremendous energy ... He discovered people, he employed people, he used people. Yeah -- he used people ... You have to be lured by the wonderful, wonderful smile and that ability to make you feel important. Anybody, anywhere has got to respond to that ... you have to respond to that feeling that he's taking you in and you're part of the family and your input is important. He just generates that, and I don't even think he works at it. I think it just happens.

-- Betsy Jones-Moreland
Double Feature Creature Attack

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Looks like our loveable monster always wins in the end.

This post is part of the Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear's Roger Corman Blogathon. Huge thanks to Nathaniel Hood for ram-rodding this shindig and for throwing out such a wide net for contributors. Now click on that there link and check out all the other entries, please, and thank you.

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) The Filmgroup / P: Roger Corman / AP: Charles Hannawalt / D: Roger Corman / W: Charles B. Griffith / C: Jack Marquette / E: Angela Scellars / S: Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Robert Towne, Beach Dickerson, Robert Bean


John Greco said...

Corman threw in everything but the kitchen sink in this film, Castro, gangsters, beatniks, spies and Robert Towne! Of course written by Charles Griffith, the film is definitely going to be offbeat and funny whether intentionally or not. Entertaining review, really enjoyed it!

W.B. Kelso said...

Thanks! The film is such a goof, and the actors totally run away with it. Who knew that Beach Dickerson was such a comedic genius?

Nathanael Hood said...

I have to say...there is nothing micro about this stupendous review!

Gonzoidal...I'll have to remember that word...

I like how you focused so much on the production of the film, yet balanced it with criticism of the film itself.

I saw this movie...and truth be told...I wasn't very impressed. But your review has inspired me to take another look and try to appreciate it for the insane production that it was.

I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon. Your review was a pure joy to read! I wouldn't be surprised if you swept up quite a few votes for Readers' Choice!

Also, don't forget to vote for the Readers' Choice Award on Monday and to vote for the topic of our next blogathon by voting at the poll on my site's home page.

W.B. Kelso said...

I wasn't a fan the first time through, either. But the film just kinda grows on you with repeated viewings. The broad comedy usually fell flat, but there are several improvised bits scattered about that are truly hilarious. A quick favorite is that cad Renzo casually waving goodbye to Mary-Belle after the Creature nabs her.

Glad you liked the review. These Blogathons are a total blast.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Your review was more much entertaining than the movie! As you pointed out, the story behind the scenes makes for interesting reading. I saw CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA on the late, late show and I laughed a couple of times. That's how I recommend it be viewed.

W.B. Kelso said...

I'd say the Late, Late Show and a little liquid courage would be ideal. Thanks for commenting!

ClassicBecky said...

Kelso, I agree with Rick -- I saw the movie years ago, and your hilarious review has saved me from having to watch it again! LOL! I absolutely loved your remark about Corman "plunging" into a comedy, just above the picture of a guy with the bathroom plunger in his face...

That monster has to be one of the cheapest, dumbest monsters ever, and he DOES look like the cookie monster!

This was really fun to read, not only for the interesting how-we-did-it facts, but your wonderful sense of humor!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Tardis (-- judging by how much room there is inside that thing)

Best laugh I've had all morning.

I'm pretty much in agreement with the rest of the commenters in that Creature from the Haunted Sea is Grade-A Velveeta but when someone like yourself can approach an analysis of the film with wit and insight, it will make someone who hasn't experienced the loopy joys of the film want to seek it out ASAP. (Of course, there will always be those who, after having seen it, will howl and shriek "I've been hoodwinked!" to which you can smile smugly and say "Suckers!") Splendid write-up, Wild Bill ("Howdy pardner!").

Thomas Duke said...

I'm pretty sure that monster also appeared on an episode of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters where he hangs out on the beach and sells meth. I just made that up.

Great review! The movie is crazy fun.

W.B. Kelso said...

It's like the "Top Gun" of B-Movies, where people sucked in think they're gonna be top fighter pilot only to wind up scraping bird-poop off a runway in Guam.

Again, thanks for all the comments, folks. I know there are two versions of this film out there, a theatrical and an extended TV cut, with the extra footage shot nearly a year later by Monte Hellman. And if you are going to take the plunge, too, I recommend that longer cut that makes this goof even goofier. Honest.

DorianTB said...

The story behind CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA is even more fun than the film itself! It almost sounds like a con-man comedy, when you factor in the flim-flamming involved in the movie's making. I got a big kick out of reading about this -- but I'm sure glad I've never actually worked for Corman! :-) Great blog post!

Anonymous said...

These films are best enjoyed with a side order of production history. I actually feel like dragging this thing out of the depths of my collection, thanks to your excellent post.

Stacia said...

Terrific review WB!

It's funny that Corman was going to actually play a role in this but then decided not to. He seems to have wanted to get into his own films off and on, but of course ended up doing more in cameos for other people's films than he ever could have in his own.

That monster is the funniest thing I've seen all day. And why does the plot remind me a little of Night Train to Mundo Fine?

W.B. Kelso said...

Roger taking a part was strictly a cost saving measure. However, Bean was another asset that the director filched from The Wild Ride.

Night Train to Mundo Fine or the most screwed up version of To Have and Have Not ever committed to film. You be the judge.

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