Thursday, 14 May 2009

Creature from the Haunted Sea


1961
Dir. Roger Corman

Bogart-like crook Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone) seizes the opportunity to get his hands on some dosh when Cuba has a revolution. He agrees to help General Tostada and a group of exiled Cuban nationals escape on his boat with a sizeable portion of the Cuban treasury. He then plots to kill the men and blame their deaths on a legendary sea monster. So far, so good. Capetto is joined by his faithful, if rather dim-witted motley crew: gangsters’ moll Mary-Belle Monahan (Betsy Jones-Moreland), her woefully inept and highly unhinged brother Happy Jack (Robert Bean), small-time hoodlum and animal impersonator extraordinaire Pete Peterson Jnr. (Beach Dickerson) and ‘mysterious’ deckhand Sparks Moran, who is actually an undercover secret agent (Robert Towne).
What Capetto doesn’t count on is an actual sea monster turning up to throw a major spanner in the works. The stage is set for shenanigans on the high seas, quirky beatnik characters, shoestring budgets, ludicrous acting and one of the shoddiest and downright bargain-basement monsters ever committed to celluloid. Ladies and gentlemens, I give you Roger Corman’s sublimely ridiculous, Creature from the Haunted Sea!

Creature from the Haunted Sea belongs to a group of Corman films collectively referred to as the ‘Puerto Rico Trilogy.’ The other two are The Last Woman on Earth and Battle of Blood Island. Corman went to Puerto Rico to film two movies, but those familiar with the somewhat ‘prolific’ director may not be surprised to hear that he made time to write and direct a third film during his stay on the island. Creature from the Haunted Sea was shot with left over cast members from The Last Woman on Earth and completed in a matter of days. And the fact that it shows, is not necessarily a bad thing. Corman was never one to allow the inconvenience of a low budget or limiting time constraints to cripple his creativity or motivation.

 
Creature from the Haunted Sea begins with a bang and hits the ground running, opening with a bravura chase sequence, infectious jazz score and undeniable beatnik sensibility. Automatic intrigue ahoy, as a man - Sparks Moran aka Agent XK150 – has a note handed to him by a shoe shiner who then gets shot dead by two thugs who chase after him. When he gives them the slip, he reads the note and eats it before putting on a fake beard and sunglasses and heads to a bar to meet another agent. All this before the credits even put in an appearance. Meanwhile a hard-boiled, noirish voice-over courtesy of our downbeat Agent, fills us in on his secret mission; complete with sharp, witty and knowing dialogue.

Humorous animated titles explain the situation with Cuba and how a revolution has established a new government. Underground groups meet to plan smuggling trips off the island. Corman ensures the story saunters along at a rather brisk pace – there is no room for frills or filler in what initially starts off as a strong and snappy, if a little obvious, plot. The acting is typically and wildly uneven and some of the cast simply give the bare minimum of effort, if even that. Not that this has ever hindered Corman before!

As soon as we are introduced to the characters as they gather on the boat to set off on their misadventure, the film takes a slight detour and decides to have fun with the oddball mismatched smugglers and show that despite the fact the script was obviously thrown together, Corman still has the ability to create interesting quirky characters and audacious situations. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and their enthusiasm proves quite infectious. For now.



As soon as they set sail and Capetto has put his dubious plan into action (taking the life of his first victim with a toilet plunger!), it isn’t long before we are treated to our first glimpse of the sea monster in all its incompetent glory. Looking like a large cucumber with tennis balls for eyes, this fabulously inept creation instantly steals the show. Unfortunately in-between it’s appearances we are left with the increasingly irritating characters as they stumble around from one predicament to another.

With such a slight story, it does seem glaringly obvious that at times Corman drops his no filler approach to the early part of the story and shamelessly starts padding out the already threadbare running time. Clocking in at just over an hour long, this shambolic attempt at an epic still feels far too sprawling. Corman even throws in a seemingly endless scene in which Mary-Belle performs an entire song to bore, sorry, lull the crew of a rival ship into a false sense of security…

Eventually the smugglers get rid of enough of the Cuban nationals to throw the treasury over board and plan to go back for it later. They deliberately strand their vessel on the beach of a nearby tropical island and meet the random and even weirder inhabitants. At this stage events have already begun a freefall into jaw-droppingly absurdist comedy and the story really flails. There is much larking about on the island as some of the crew pair up with locals and bizarre love triangles ensue. Luckily the sea monster seems to sense our impatience and as soon as the crew go diving to retrieve their loot, it strikes. Well, not so much strikes, as sort of pokes and hugs people until they fall down. Apparently dead.

While not a patch on some of Corman’s other early low budgeters such as Bucket of Blood or Little Shop of Horrors, Creature from the Haunted Sea benefits from a knowing and tongue in cheek script. Much of the dialogue, which in itself is utterly priceless, is delivered in a supremely dry and sardonic manner. When Sparks declares ‘And so we sailed off into the greatest adventure ever inflicted on man’, his resignation is palpable.

‘It was dusk. I could tell, because the sun was going down’ is another wry highlight.

Shoe string budgets and thrown together stories have never stifled Corman’s creativity, nor indeed his hectic shooting schedule, and this film is no different from his other work in that respect. Hard to believe though that shortly after this was released, Corman seemingly shifted gears and began churning out his opulent and darkly elegant Poe films with Vincent Price.

An outrageous and campy romp that should manage to raise a wry smile. Enjoy with strong alcohol and tongue wedged firmly in cheek.

4 comments:

John W. Morehead said...

Great to learn of your fine blog through the League of Tana Tea Drinkers (LOTTD).

TheoFantastique
www.theofantastique.com

James Gracey said...

Hi John,
Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by. Hope you're enjoying your weekend. Thanks also for the link - damn fine site.

Radiation Cinema! said...

James: Ah, Roger Corman - now your talking my language. I enjoyed this post a lot. Great, thoughtful review of a Corman Puerto-Rican Classic. I always think of the Corman/Carbone team as the Scorsese/Deniro of the 50s B-Movies set. I love how most of the Corman films from this period had that finger-snapping beatnik cool vibe. Great post. -- Mykal

James Gracey said...

Yes, I really enjoy the whole beatnik vibe of his stuff. Almost like he's 'socking it to The Man.'
I have a few more Corman films I still need to check out... Hopefully very soon!