(4/10) This 1954 shoestring-shocker is the first ever film produced by the king of B movies, Roger Corman. Despite a non-existing budget, Corman and director Wyatt Ordung are able to cobble together a film that looks like it was produced by decent Poverty Row studio. Lead actress Anne Kimbell’s warm and sympathetic portrayal of a tourist hunting a mutated sea monster in a Mexican cove does much to raise the film above its meagre production values. A surprisingly entertaining film that is perfect for a few laughs and a bowl of popcorn.
Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954, USA). Directed by Wyatt Ordung. Written by Bill Danch. Starring: Anne Kimbell, Stuart Wade, Dick Pinner, Wyatt Ordung, Inez Palange, Jonathan Haze, David Garcia, Roger Corman.. Produced by Roger Corman for Palo Alto Productions. IMDb rating: 3.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This blog has chronicled the history of science fiction cinema from its humble beginnings with Georges Méliès’ groundbreaking extravaganza A Trip to the Moon (review) in 1902 through the pioneering work of masters like Fritz Lang (Metropolis 1927 review, Woman in the Moon, 1929, review) and the creators of the Universal monsters to the fifties. Beginning with George Pal’s ambitious Destination Moon (1950, review), the early fifties marked the beginning of nearly every subgenre now found in science fiction movies of today, whether it was the alien invasion (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, review), the alien monster (The Thing from Another World, 1951, review), the post-apocalyptic world (Five, 1951, review), the colonisation of space (When Worlds Collide, 1952, review) alien duplicates (Invaders from Mars, 1953, review), the futuristic war (The War of the Worlds, 1953, review) or the atomic monster (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953, review).
In 1954 science fiction had thoroughly broken through into pop culture mainstream, aided by both an optimism about science and technology, as well as a fear of science gone wrong. And in a time of cold-war tension, sci-fi was the perfect vehicle for social and political allegories. The early fifties saw the birth of nuclear energy and the hydrogen bomb, the credit card and the transistor radio. Of course, very little of this has much bearing on Monster from the Ocean Floor, except that budding producer Roger Corman knew that science fiction was popular, and that he could make a buck out of it on a shoestring budget. The ramifications of this movie were, however, gargantuan. Not as huge, perhaps, as the heart-lung-machine, the first commercial computer or TV dinner, but for American filmmaking the emergence of Roger Corman would resound throughout history just as loudly as that of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. In fact, both of these gentlemen stand in deep debt to Mr. Corman. Not that you would believe it watching his first movie.
Of the nearly 60 films he directed and close to 400 he produced or co-produced, several are likely to be found on lists over the worst movies ever made. But dubbed ”the king of B movies”, few producers have been able to so definitely pin down exactly what components constitute an enjoyable film experience, and how to put them all together in the most cost-effective way. Corman made cheap B movies for a fraction of the costs of his contemporaries, often faster than anyone else in the business, but still managed to make his films look slicker and better than the competition’s. He gathered around him an ever-changing ragtag team of film students, up-and-coming filmmakers, friends and family, employed them for peanuts, and dropped them as soon as they started asking for serious pay. But his films almost always had a heart and some sort of moral at their core, and whether they’re watched today for the thrills or for the laughs, any self-respecting film student should study Corman closely. And many did. In fact, as Corman himself has stated, in the seventies his admirers like the afore mentioned Lucas and Spielberg, started making ”Corman movies” on big budgets for big film studios.
Corman’s first film involvement was as writer on Highway Dragnet (1954), which is just one cult film of many he has left in his wake. Others include The Fast and the Furious (1955), Day the World Ended (1955, review), Not of This Earth (1957), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Intruder (1962), The Raven (1963), X (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Wild Angels (1966), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1972, Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), Death Race 2000 (1975), Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1977), Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) and Allan Arkush’s Rock n’ Roll High School (1979). Just to name a few. Other big names that have passed through the Roger Corman school of filmmaking are people like James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola and Timur Bekmambetov.
So, where did it all start? Well, it started with an engineering student at Stanford who, after graduating, got a lousy job as a mail boy at 20th Century Fox, didn’t want to work in engineering, went off to study English literature at Oxford, and returned to try and make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and sold his first script in 1954 for what would become Highway Dragnet, directed by Nathan Juran. Roger Corman didn’t like the way the film turned out, and through what he had seen from his time on movie sets, he thought he could make films much more efficiently than they were being made. In his mind, studios were wasting money not only on overhead costs, but also on unnecessary personnel, shots, sets, props, the works, really. A really cheap B movie at that time usually cost somewhere between 80 000 and 150 000 dollars to make. Corman figured he could make a movie that was just as good as these films for 20 000 dollars. Which is just what he did with Monster from the Ocean Floor.
The origin of the script was an ad Corman saw for a company selling one-man paddle-driven submarines. This was a year after the release of the box-office hit The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, just around the time of the release of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). And at the time audiences were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Disney’s underwater epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review). One of the reasons for this fad for underwater movies was that scuba gear had recently been invented, opening up whole new possibilities, not only for underwater research and leisure diving, but also for underwater filmmaking. Corman called up the company in question and asked them if there was any way they would let him use one of their submarines for free, and they were more than happy to oblige, in return for a plug for the product at the end and the beginning of the film. This crucial piece of prop secured, Corman sat down to write a script along with his friend Bill Danch, a writer for radio and TV, later best known for writing for animated children’s TV shows like Mr. Magoo, Popeye the Sailor, My Favourite Martian, Spider-Man and Fat Albert.
Corman had no money, wanted to produce the film independently, so he did the only thing he could: he founded his own Palo Alto Pictures and went around begging friends and family to put in 500 dollars each for a percentage of the profits. With most of the money raised, he was still without a director, so he called upon a friend of a friend, Wyatt Ordung, who had recently written the script for the wonderfully bad Robot Monster (1953, review), and harboured directing ambitions. In a 1984 interview by the magazine Fangoria, quoted in Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies! Ordung says that he helped raise the remaining money in exchange for the privilege of directing the film: ”I also acted in the picture, cast the picture – I got all the crew, ’cause Corman didn’t have anybody”. Ordung was able to secure Oscar winner Floyd Crosby as cinematographer – Crosby had just a year previously picked up a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon (1952). So with a skeleton crew, a director who acted and directed for free, a product-placed mini-sub and a six-day shooting schedule, team Corman told the unions they were going to film in Mexico, but actually sneaked out to Malibu Beach in Los Angeles, where they shot most of the film.
The movie opens with a beautiful young woman on a Mexican beach. Meet Julie Blair (Anne Kimbell), commercial illustrator on vacation. A Mexican boy tells her that his father has been taken by a sea monster, but that doesn’t put her off her vacation, and she goes swimming all the same. But lo and behold, something big and strange and white nearly impales her from beneath the waves. But this is no sea serpent. Why, it is good old Steve Dunning (Stuart Wade), a sort of handsome if you look at him from the right angle marine biologist in his mini-submarine, who invites Julie over to his boat where he is doing research along with Dr. Baldwin, played by a actor with the wonderful name of Dick Pinner. He also introduces his ”one man crew”, Tommy (it’s Mr. Corman himself, cutting acting costs).
We know that Steve is a serious scientist, because he has a microscope standing in the middle of the deck, loaded with stock footage of amoebas, and he knows that water covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and that a sturgeon lays 8 million eggs. Well done, Dr. Steve! Steve and Dr. Baldwin casually tell Julie that the human race is doomed because of overpopulation and that the only way for us to survive is to begin farming on the ocean floor. Not that this has anything to do with the film, but it was probably something that Datch had picked up and wanted to get in there.
Suddenly another boat comes roaring in, with a guy named Joe (Jonathan Haze), who calls for help, because his buddy is stuck on the ocean floor. Steve paddles to the rescue in his submarine, but finds no diver, only an empty diving suit, unbroken, save for a missing face plate. This is indeed very strange, but Steve’s jovial nature doesn’t let such trivialities interfere with his mating, and instead of worrying about how poor Joe’s friends has vanished into thin air, he takes Julie out to dinner. When she starts putting together the little boy’s story about the sea monster and the strange case of the empty diving suit, Steve simply laughs at her, and tells her not worry her pretty little head with the superstitions of a backwards Mexican village. This angers Julie, who thinks that someone should do something about it, and if Mr. Perfect here won’t, then she will.
And thus begins the padding of the 65 minutes long film. See, Datch has a beginning and an end, but precious little plot in between. This is how we get a subplot with Julie interviewing the villagers, which include the old woman Tula (Inez Palange), a Tequila-swigging fisherman named Pablo (Wyatt Ordung) and Joe. Tula reports a missing dog, and Pablo, a colourful character, recalls seeing something strange one night, a strange creature with one big, glowing eye, dragging itself up from the water and along the beach. Deepening the subplot is old Mrs. Tula seeking up Pablo, reminding him that the monster of myth has returned, and demands a sacrifice of a young woman, and that the young tourist eager to go looking for the monster should do quite fine. Unwillingly Pablo obeys.
Steve and Dr. Baldwin conveniently have to go ”further up the coast” for their research, leaving Julie with no boat, so she asks Pablo to take her out to the cove where two men have already died, so she can investigate further. Pablo first tries to kill her by sabotaging her aqualung, and when that doesn’t work, he pulls a knife on her, but stops himself when Julie motherly asks what on Earth he thinks he is doing. He explains the situation, and Julie patronisingly scorns him for believing such nonsense as sacrificing brides to please a sea god – grown man! However, Julie manages to catch some tissue caught in her anchor, and believing it to be a piece of sea monster, mails it to Steve and Baldwin up the river for analysis. I’ll give the floor (once again) to the wonderful Elizabeth Kingsley at And You Call Yourself a Scientist to describe the moment:
“Steve scoffs, of course, upon being informed that the jar contains a piece of the monster, but is stopped in his sneering, jeering tracks upon realising that whatever is [in] the jar, it doesn’t look like ‘the flesh of any fish I’ve ever seen!’ And then it’s time for – SCIENCE!! – as Steve puts a blob of the goop – where else? – under the microscope. He doesn’t section it. He doesn’t mount it. Hell, I don’t think he even puts it on a slide! He just shoves it holus-bolus under the good ol’ 40x objective.
After some simply delicious gobbledygook between Steve and Dr Baldwin, the scientists decide that the monster is a mutated (I’ll say!) amoeba. Steve then has one of those flashes of inspiration that, well, that make a scientist a scientist: he drops a small piece of ‘canned meat’ into the jar, the contents of which begin to fizz and bubble. ‘Why – it’s disintegrating!’ gasps Steve, while Dr Baldwin pronounces solemnly, ‘Intercellular absorption!’ Gasp!
And this, embarrassingly enough, is the moment from Monster From The Ocean Floor that always stays with me. I know, I know…. It’s absurd, it’s juvenile, it’s….oh, for crissake, it’s two grown men staring down in abject horror at what is undoubtedly the dissolution of an Alka Seltzer tablet! And yet there’s something about that bubbling jar….something that makes you think of the missing dog, and the disappearing cow, and poor Sanchez, and pay this moment, involuntarily perhaps, the tribute of saying….ewww.
A few more moments’ reflection (‘It could absorb a man! Or – a woman….’), and the scientists are speeding back to the deadly cove.”
Thank you Lyz, for once again lending your magical words to this blog!
As it has previously been established that the disappearings began in 1946 just after the Bikini atom bomb tests, the scientists thus conclude that the thing in the depths is a mutated giant amoeba that absorbs it’s victims, growing bigger in the process, and that it is now out to get Miss Julie. And this is when we – finally – get our first true meet and greet with the monster – whom we have only glimpsed briefly one moonlit night through the eyes of Julie before. It’s a giant one-eyed octopus, it would seem. And Steve is right on time, as Julie has already gone down to greet it herself (after fighting off some sharks). Steve the hero hops in his heroic paddle-sub and speeds past the monster, once, twice, and then takes aim – and – boom, splash, splatter! He embeds half of his submarine right in the eye of the monster, rescuing the girl and saving the villagers! Up above he actually apologises to Julie for having been a dick and not believing her.
That’s most of it really. I think I just left out the cow and the serenade.
What’s unusual about the film is that the protagonist is a woman. This feminist leaning of Corman’s would be obvious in several later films, but weighing in on the decision as well was probably the fact that he figured that the audience, consisting mostly of juvenile boys, would rather spend their time gawking at a girl in a swimsuit than a guy. But it’s quite refreshing to see a strong female lead in a movie such as this: Julie is headstrong, fearless and takes charge from the get-go. It’s hard, however, to understand what he sees in the condescending, chauvinist Steve. But I guess that’s just another movie mystery.
Anne Kimbell plays Julie with great integrity, curiosity and warmth, and it is quite possibly the most sympathetic portrait of a woman in a leading role from the science fiction movies of the fifties. Kimbell really pushes this film past the droves of bland B monster movies of the fifties – be it that she sometimes feels a little bit too perky and enthusiastic. It’s really Ellen Ripley 25 years before Ellen Ripley. There is one moment where the script lapses, and has her tripping over her feet and fainting when glimpsing the monster for the first time. It’s just for a few seconds, but it’s so jarringly out of character, that it stays with you through the film, like an itch you can’t scratch. Furthermore, the script really doesn’t give Kimbell much to work with. Kimbell got raised into Hollywood by a mother who was an agent in Tinseltown, and started acting on stage and made her film debut in 1947, 19 years old. In an article in The Gazette she says that she got the role in Monster from the Ocean Floor primarily because she could swim. Surprisingly, Kimbell only had one other leading role, and that was opposite Johnny Sheffield in The Golden Idol (1954), one of 12 films based on the juvenile stories about Bomba the Jungle Boy, a blatant Tarzan ripoff. She spent most of the fifties working in TV and on stage, and spent a few years in England in the late fifties and sixties, mainly working in theatre. She later travelled the world as the wife of a foreign officer, and used her experience from this to write a number of spy novels. Divorced and retired, she moved to a little town called Westcliffe in Colorado in the early nineties, where she bought an old movie theatre set for demolition, fixed it up and installed a stage for live performances with the help of the local community. She revived the community theatre and at 84 she is now something of a patron of the performance art in the town.
Stuart Wade is slapped with what must be one of the most poorly written leads in movie history, and comes off as a patronising buffoon throughout the whole film. All he really gets to do is paddle his submarine, speak science gibberish and deliver awful lines like “Julie, you’re a lovely girl, but lovely girls just don’t run around worrying about non-existing sea monsters”. Wade’s background was primarily in music, he was a band leader and singer, you can hear his lovely baritone here, for example. This would explain that regrettable moment when Steve serenades Julie on the beach with a rendition of My Wild Irish Rose. He might have worked as a voice actor in radio at the time, and thus been picked up for the role – this was his first film, and unfortunately it shows. Wade has another lead in Teenage Monster (1958), but most of his 20 credits are for TV work.
Dick Pinner as Dr. Baldwin is even worse an actor than Stuart Wade, but there is something likeable about the stiff way he plays his character, and it sort of reminds me of Dr. Spengler in Ghostbusters. Pinner had a bit-part in It Came from Outer Space (1953, review), and appeared in The Fast and the Furious, but probably realised that acting wasn’t what he was best at, and dropped out of the business after appearing in only seven films.
Remarkable for a film set in Mexico is that there are no Latinos in it. Wyatt Ordung actually does a decent Spanish accent, and is at least a lively and colourful character in the movie, even if he can’t be accused of being much of an actor. Best of the lot is probably Jonathan Haze, a friend of Ordung’s, who was literally picked up from his job at a gas station to appear in the movie. He grew an impressive handlebar moustache and does a very convincing Spanish accent, and even has some acting chops. He became a darling of Corman’s, appearing in several of his movies, and even branched out as producer, writer and miscellaneous crew on other productions. Would you believe he appeared in a bit-part in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955), starring James Dean? Haze also appeared in Day the World Ended, The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955, review), It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth, Teenage Cave Man (1958), Invasion of the Star Creatures (1962) and X.
Last but not least we have Inez Palange, playing the old woman Tula who convinces Pablo that the old gods need a sacrifice. Palange was an Italian-born actress, best known for playing Tony’s mother in the 1932 movie Scarface – someone might know her as Tohana from One Million B.C. (1940). In Monster from the Ocean Floor she is brilliantly hammy, although what immediately strikes me is that she is doing an Eastern European accent although she is supposed to play a Mexican. The reason for this becomes clear in the scene where she orders Pablo to kill Julie: she is doing a brilliant Bela Lugosi impression! Even down to the lines “You will obey my command!” If you haven’t thought about it when watching it, watch it again – it is so obvious once you realise it.
Haze was not the only one working on this film that would end up as a trusted member of Team Corman. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby often added his considerable skill to Corman’s productions, including to films like The Beast with a Million Eyes, Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), Teenage Cave Man and X. He also filmed Hand of Death (1962) and Pajama Party (1964), which, despite the name, actually is a sci-fi film.
The music by André Brummer is effective, piano for the underwater scenes, drum rolls for the monster and classic eerie music for the rest of the film. It does its job, but doesn’t stand out in any way. Brummer worked on a few dozen B movies in his career, but nothing in particular stands out.
Let’s now talk about the monster for a bit. Anyone who’s watched the movie will probably have reacted to the fact that the monster is constantly referred to as an amoeba, but when it shows up, it looks like an octopus. This wasn’t because Corman didn’t know what an amoeba looks like – he had actually had an amoeba-looking creature designed and filmed. However, test audiences keeled over with laughter when they saw it on screen, and Corman, not yet savvy to the fact that this was a positive reaction, panicked and decided to redesign and re-shoot the monster. Not having time for anything fancy he looked up the noted marionette artist and puppet maker Bob Baker and asked him to whip up a one-eyed glowing octopus and help him shoot it. Baker obliged, and the two scenes with the monster were remade. For the final underwater sequence, Baker and Corman shot the octopus and mini-sub puppets behind a fish tank, in usual low-budget fashion.
The monster isn’t particularly convincing, in fact it does look quite laughable. But it isn’t by far the worst monster Corman has paraded in his movies. Baker was one of those guys that probably worked on dozens of films that we will never know of, because he was almost always uncredited, since many filmmakers didn’t want to acknowledge that their state of the art special effects were actually nothing more than puppets on strings. What we do know is that he created the memorable rat-bat-spider in The Angry Red Planet (1959) and the tall alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – which was a marionette. He was also on screen in a number of films and TV shows as a puppeteer, and even had a non-puppeteer role in the Star Trek episode The Man Trap (1966).
Anne Kimbell’s stylish swim suits were created by famous swim suit designer Rose Marie Reed, who specialised in glamorous swim suits that were hugely popular in the fifties and sixties. Her designs can be seen in a number of films, including the iconic white one worn by Annette Funicello in Muscle Beach Party (1964).
What the Monster from the Ocean Floor actually cost to make is a matter of some debate. Corman himself has stated that he filmed it for 12 000 dollars. Here he is probably talking about the costs for principal photography, but even so, Ordung puts that number at 19 000 dollars, which is probably closer to the truth. Of course, this should be put in perspective to the fact that the Gill-man suit alone in Creature from the Black Lagoon is reported to have cost up to 18 000 dollars to make. And that film is considered a low-budget movie. The final price tag for the finished Monster from the Ocean Floor, all costs counted, is corroborated by Ordung and Corman’s brother Gene Corman, who secured distribution rights with Lippert Pictures, as 39 000 dollars (Gene’s interviewed here by Tom Weaver). Converting these kind of costs into today’s value isn’t quite straightforward, especially since Corman probably broke most union regulations and so forth, but we are probably looking at something that would be around a 300 000 dollar movie today. Which, of course, isn’t enough to even make a blockbuster trailer today. That said, with today’s technology you can make a pretty decent movie outside of Hollywood with that money. But in those days movie making was a lot costlier, since technical equipment, film and lab costs ate up a lot of dough.
It’s difficult to rate this kind of a movie if you take into consideration the circumstances in which it was made. By no standards can you call it a “good” film, as far as script, acting or execution is concerned. But on the other hand, it was made on roughly the same budget as the afore-mentioned Robot Monster. That film had, in my humble opinion, many qualities that raised it above its meagre budget. But the lack of any kind of resources was there for anyone to see. Monster from the Ocean Floor looks cheap, but it still looks like the kind of B movie that studios that actually had some sort of budget would produce. Sure, it’s not something Universal or Paramount would have released, but it could be something Columbia or United Artists would have made on a substantially bigger budget. Partly this has to do with the way Roger Corman knows how to make the most out of a relatively small location. By careful blocking, he manages to make Malibu Beach seem like a remote Mexican coast, and is able to shoot it from such angles that it seems we are transported to different places over the course of the film – while, for example, if you shoot as Bronson Canyon, like many low-budget movie makers did, it always looks like Bronson Canyon.
Furthermore, while the film has a rather static feel, there are just enough cuts between medium and close-up shots, interlaced with the rare wide shot, that it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers just set up a camera and shot all the scenes in two takes – even though that was probably just what they did. This also has to do with the way Corman, or Ordung, has the actors move through the frame. While many low-budget quickies have people entering and exiting the frame from side to side, always moving left to right, the actors in Monster from the Ocean Floor often make use of depth-wise movement, approaching the camera or moving away from it, sometimes diagonally through it, like in the underwater scenes. This gives the movie a much more dynamic feel than many of its peers. And the actors don’t just stand around talking, shot from face height. There’s a scene of Julie and Steve lying on the beach, shot from above, one of Pablo sitting on his porch, shot from below. And so forth. You get the feeling that there’s someone holding the reins who actually knows what he is doing, and cares enough about the film not to just make the obvious talking heads shots. The underwater scenes are especially impressive, considering the time-frame in which the film was made. It’s not quite Creature from the Black Lagoon standard, but for a film made by a bunch of first-timers, it’s pretty impressive. Despite paper-thin plot, the non-existing characterisations and the hokey science, the script does make sense and doesn’t really have all that many holes in its logic, once you buy into the premise of the movie.
On the other hand, apart from Anne Kimbell, the acting is rather appalling and the monster is – sorry to say – quite laughable. Some of the same underwater shots are re-used not just once but sometimes twice of even thrice. And there’s problems with sound. In some shots the lines sort of trail off, and in one particular shot the tone of Steve’s voice is so different from the previous shot, that you wonder if he isn’t dubbed by another actor. Considering that the film takes place on a beach, there’s a peculiar lack of any sort of background noise from the sea or birds other other nature sounds through most of the film. According to Wyatt Ordung, sound editor Jack Milner completely saved the film: “The sound was somehow recorded at different speeds than the picture. When we first saw it … I thought [Corman] was gonna die in the projection room. Jack Milner re-cut the sound word for word, he is the hero of that picture.”
Gene Corman tells Tom Weaver that he secured a distribution contract with the small Lippert Pictures, responsible for films like Rocketship X-M (1950, review) and Unknown World (1951, review). Initially the deal was for 110 000 dollars, but when Robert Lippert found out that the filmmakers had spent far less on the making of the movie, he changed the contract – although Gene doesn’t say how much. Anyway, Roger Corman got a 60 000 dollar advance on the distribution deal, which was enough for him to produce his next movie, The Fast and the Furious, and even have some money to spare. Monster from the Ocean Floor eventually grossed over 850 000 dollars worldwide, making its money back 20 times over.
Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954, USA). Directed by Wyatt Ordung. Written by Bill Danch. Starring: Anne Kimbell, Stuart Wade, Dick Pinner, Wyatt Ordung, Inez Palange, Jonathan Haze, David Garcia, Roger Corman. Music: André Brummer. Cinematography: Floyd Crosby. Editing: Edward Sampson. Production design: Ben Hayne. Sound editor: Jack Milner. Special effects: Bob Baker (monster maker). Bathing suits: Rose Marie Reid. Produced by Roger Corman for Palo Alto Productions.