Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (Milner Brothers/American Releasing, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (I suppose the use of a five-digit number and the word “leagues” as a measurement of distance was supposed to evoke comparison to a far more prestigious property, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which had just had a major-budget film adaptation from Disney in 1954, one year before Phantom was made), an early project from American Releasing, the plucky little studio that saved the “B” movie when the rest of Hollywood thought TV, antitrust and the demise of the studio system had killed it. American Releasing quickly became American International Pictures and, though they were so cheap they didn’t even have a studio of their own (at the time they usually shot at Henry Ziv’s TV production lot), they did have a repertoire of familiar sets they recycled again and again: here the mad scientist’s home was reused in It Conquered the World and the knotty-pine office was later far more famous as the mad psychiatrist’s office in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. As just about anybody could guess from the title, the movie was about a sea monster; the conceit in the script, written by Louis Rusoff from an “original” story (quotes definitely intended!) by Dorys Luthaker, is that a glowing radioactive deposit on the sea bottom off the coast has mutated normal marine life into a radioactive monster — actually a human in a very tacky monster suit. The film was produced by the Milner brothers — producer (and editor!) Jack and director Dan — and Dan Milner and Rusoff introduce the monster in the very first (pre-credits) sequence: no making you wait around for reams of boring exposition and several reels of suspense over whether the monster really exists for these guys! Unfortunately, the monster suit is so risible the film gets off on the wrong note immediately, more comedy than horror, and though Dan Milner actually attempts some atmospherics, they just slow the film down. What really drags this one towards the depths (figuratively and literally) is the sheer weight of the script, its attempt to crowd into one 80-minute long film (about 15 minutes too long for its own good) just about all the tropes American International would later rely on. There aren’t any rock musicians or surfers in it (despite the beach location), and the only young lovers we see are a man and woman who go out to skin-dive together and end up monster food.

But just about everything else we’d expect to see in an American International film does turn up: a world-famous oceanographer, Dr. Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor, who’d played Boston Blackie in that interesting TV show that only lasted two seasons, and whose demise had the regrettable effect of leaving him so desperate for employment that he took this part), a.k.a. “Ted Baxter” (an alias whose purpose is never explained in the script, though coincidentally it’s also the name of the anchorman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show); Prof. King (Michael Whalen), a crazy scientist who, it turns out, deliberately put that chunk of radioactive material on the ocean floor to see if he could do a full-scale test of Stevens’ published theory that the right sort of radioactive material could produce a death ray; King’s nubile daughter Lois (Cathy Downs), who’s there to provide a love interest for Stevens even though he’s there to prove her dad is a mass murderer via the monsters (“monster,” singular, might be more appropriate since he only creates one) he’s made with his radioactive deposit on the ocean floor; a mystery man named George Thomas (Philip Pine) who lurks in the shadows and threatens the other characters with a harpoon gun; Prof. King’s homely secretary, Ethel Hall (Vivi Janiss), who judging from what we see is by far the smartest person in the movie until she gets herself offed by George Thomas and his harpoon gun (in the usual airy disregard for physical possibility in movies like this, he shoots her in the back but, when she dies, the spear from the harpoon gun is sticking in her front — but then we’re supposed to believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy with a shot from behind even though Kennedy’s head jerked violently backward when the kill shot hit, indicating it was fired from in front of him); William “Bill” Grant (Rodney Bell), the officious federal agent who’s investigating the mysterious deaths of divers in the area; and Wanda (Helene Stanton), George Thomas’s blonde-bimbo girlfriend who’s helping him steal the secret of the radioactive monsters so they can sell it to a foreign power via a contact in Antwerp. “You mean she’s a Dutch spy?” Charles joked — to which I replied, “No, the Dutch are just go-betweens. It’s the government of Mauritius that’s the real purchaser!”

It also doesn’t help that the same shot of a rowboat is used every time someone goes out to the part of the ocean where the sea monster is and turns him- or herself into monster food (though the monster costume doesn’t have a mouth or claws on its arms and it’s hard to believe this pathetically weak little thing in a trick-or-treat costume could kill anyone), and topped off with the same shot of the rowboat overturned on the beach after its human contents have met their maker at the monster’s hands (or whatever those weird gloves are supposed to represent). It also doesn’t help that one of those stock sequences of a derelict ship being used by the U.S. Navy for target practice and deliberately blown up is used to represent the radioactive deposit Prof. King dropped on the ocean floor going critical and blowing itself up (represented by another stock sequence, this time of a mushroom cloud), or that Dan Milner’s and Lou Rusoff’s attempts to bring Social Significance to the material just end up making the movie longer and duller. But as Charles pointed out afterwards, American International saved the “B” movie by aiming their product at drive-ins and the teen audiences they attracted, who were often more interested in necking than they were in watching the movie — so for a film like this, its quality (or lack of same) was really beside the point!