Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (Malibu Productions/American International, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I both wanted a cinematic palate cleanser after Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, so I searched through the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads and found it in Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent — or, to use its inexplicably endless full title, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. It’s a 1957 indie from Roger Corman’s Malibu Productions, released through American-International and probably timed to make it to theatres ahead of the prestigious 1958 film The Vikings, produced by and starring Kirk Douglas and also featuring Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine under Richard Fleischer’s direction.

Corman’s movie is also an excuse to show a lot of hot young starlets in various stages of undress, and its plot (story by Irving Block, screenplay by Lawrence L. Goldman — and yes, the MST3K crew couldn’t help but joke about the absurdity of giving two guys with such obviously Jewish names the assignment to write about ancient Scandinavians!) is pretty simple: the wives and/or girlfriends of several top Vikings are getting upset that their menfolk’s ship is well behind schedule on its return, so they decide to build a boat themselves (an absurdly flimsy-looking one) and sail off to find them. The expedition is led by blonde Desir (Abby Dalton) but only gets authorized when, after one of the weirdest-looking elections ever shown on screen (according to this movie, the Vikings voted by throwing spears at a tree; if your spear lodged in the tree that was a yes vote, if you missed — deliberately or otherwise — that was a no), raven-haired sorceress Enger (Susan Cabot, by far the best actor of either gender in this movie even though she looked so nearsighted I wondered if the character was supposed to be blind) casts, literally, the deciding vote.

The Viking women set off and find themselves trapped in a “vortex” created by the giant sea serpent (a surprisingly credible effect for a Roger Corman movie in 1957, though he wisely keeps us from seeing too much of it or seeing it too often), swimming in the sea off the shore of a country (decidedly fictitious) called Grimault and serving the Grimaultians the same purpose those deliberately misplaced lights served the Russian hunter-of-humans Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game. Their ship (such as it is) is shipwrecked by the vortex and deposits them on the coast of Grimault, where they’re taken prisoner by the Grimaultian king Stark (Richard Devon) and his son, Prince — though the actor comes off as so nellie “Queen” would have been a better title for him — Ottar (Jonathan Haze, the marvelously fey actor who played the lead in the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors). It’s unclear just what Stark and his minions intend to do with all their captives, but it turns out all the Viking men the Viking women were supposed to be looking for are on Grimault, and most of them are still alive.

The boat carrying the Viking women actually also included one male stowaway, cute blond Vedric (Brad Jackson), and though the obvious expectation (at least for a modern audience) is that Queen Vedric and Queen Ottar are going to get the hots for each other, live happily ever after and be the true pioneers of same-sex marriage in Scandinavia, in fact Ottar finds himself attracted to Desir — especially once she kills a boar that’s menacing them (obviously “played” by a pig with two crude little plastic horns glued on either side of its snout to pass it off as a boar) — only at some point he dies (thanks to Enger’s successful invocation to the god Thor, who sends a rainstorm to put out the fires that are about to burn Vedric and another character at the stake, then aims a lightning bolt straight at Ottar’s outstretched sword, conducting current straight into his body and electrocuting him) and his dad Stark blames Desir and goes out to kill all his Viking guests, and they barely flee with their lives.

The MST3K crew joked about the film’s inevitable anachronisms — including the perfectly coiffed hair of the “Viking women,” the perfectly shaved faces of the Viking men and the apparent invention of the push-up bra by the Vikings’ fashion industry (though if you’ve seen the 1940 Hal Roach version of One Million B.C. you’ll know that, at least according to the movies, the invention of the push-up bra vastly predates the Vikings!) — and also at the fact that Corman recycled the locations he’d used in Teenage Caveman (a much better movie, actually, though there were enough off-the-wall and unintentionally risible elements in it that the MST3K people gave it “the treatment” too) — but Viking Women is actually a pretty good movie within the conventions of a low-budget swashbuckler, thanks mainly to the energy of Corman’s direction and his unwillingness, at least in a project like this, to take himself or his movie too seriously.

MST3K showed this relatively short film padded out with one of their weirdest educational shorts, The Home Economics Story, produced by Iowa State College and in washed-out-color, which featured a bunch of women college students (all played by actresses — if, to steal Dwight MacDonald’s famous line about Haya Harareet, I may use that term for courtesy — who seem to be about in their early 30’s) showing off all the cool careers a home ec major can prepare you for, from fashion designer to hospital dietitian to chef to electric appliance repairperson (I’m not making this up, you know!) to just being plain old Mrs. Somebody. None of the people involved in making this film on either side of the camera are identified — probably by their own choice!