The two “Vintage Sci-Fi” films shown last night in Golden Hill were Destination Inner Space and the original 1966 Fantastic Voyage. Destination Inner Space was a bizarre 1966 production credited to a bizarre assortment of companies — Harold Goldman Associates, Television Enterprises Corporation, United Pictures (not United Artists Pictures, just United Pictures!) — and was so cheesy the DVD being shown was a 2011 reissue coming from a company called Cheezy Flicks Entertainment (http://cheezyflicks.com), though their total list includes some older films that may not be deathless masterpieces but aren’t really “cheesy” either, including Rowland V. Lee’s 1945 Captain Kidd with Charles Laughton and Randolph Scott, and the estimable 1962 British horror-sci-fi film The Day of the Triffids. Destination Inner Space is one of those bad films with the makings of — well, maybe not a great film but at least an entertaining one; the premise is that a spaceship from another planet lands under water near the Sea Lab, an experimental underwater laboratory where the usual assorted motley crew of humans live and work together researching underseas life. Among the people playing human beings are at least two actors with connections to considerably more illustrious people: Gary Merrill, fourth (and last) husband of Bette Davis and co-star with her in three films, including All About Eve; and Sheree North, who in 1955 got to make a film with Betty Grable called How to Be Very, Very Popular after the originally set co-star, Marilyn Monroe, walked out at the last minute. (Marjorie Rosen in her book Popcorn Venus couldn’t resist the pun that the film was “very, very unpopular” and took Sheree North’s career with it; 20th Century-Fox pretty much abandoned her and made Jayne Mansfield their “next Marilyn” instead.)
The star — or at least the top-billed actor — of Destination Inner Space is Scott Brady, who plays Commander Wayne (if he has a first name, we never learn it), a hot-shot diver who on a previous mission alienated Dr. LaSatier (Gary Merrill) and some of the other personnel as well. Wayne and his diving partner, Dr. Renee Peron (Sheree North), whom he works with despite the usual sexist “digs” about the bad luck involved in having a woman living in a confined space with so many men and doing the sort of work men were meant to do. In fact, they sail together under the sea in a preposterous open-cockpit runabout instead of the enclosed bathysphere we were expecting, and one wonders how they deal with the water pressure at the depths they’re exploring. (When I looked this film on imdb.com the review that came up was from the current owner of this prop, though he didn’t say whether it was a model or built full-sized.) The humans invade the cockpit of the whatsit and find what at first looks like some sort of metal shell or bomb, which turns out actually to be the egg of a giant sea creature (listed in the credits only as “The Thing” and played by Ron Burke), which almost instantly hatches, assumes what we presume is its full adult size and is one of the most ridiculous screen monsters of all time. The film’s director, Francis D. Lyon, working from a screenplay by Arthur C. Pierce (a name I couldn’t help ridiculing as the credits roll — “Written by Arthur C. — oh, Pierce”), shows that he’d never seen a Val Lewton movie in his life, nor even The Creature from the Black Lagoon (not that great a movie, but its director, Jack Arnold, at least knew enough to “tease” us by showing the monster in bits and pieces before giving us a full-frontal on it.
Also, while the monster in the film’s poster art is a pretty uniform green (making his design even more evocative, shall we say, of the Creature from the Black Lagoon than it is in the film), the one we see in the movie is a glorious riot of neon-bright colors that makes it look like the work of a piñata maker with a particularly demented imagination (and makes one wonder why, instead of harpooning the creature, the staff of the Sea Lab don’t put blindfolds on, whack it with sticks and wait for it to break and the candy to come out). The film’s imdb.com page credits Richard Cassarino as “amphibian creator,” but it looks like he just copied Paul Blaisdell’s design for the generic American International monster and added a few fins and other protuberances to suggest “oceanicity.” I couldn’t help but laugh every time this gloriously colored animated piñata came out even though its appearance was clearly supposed to scare me silly — well, at least the “silly” part is accurate. About all that happens in Destination Inner Space is a series of chase scenes between the monster and the humans around the Sea Lab — occasionally the monster gets to go back in the water and swim around for a bit, only to re-emerge inside the Sea Lab — and the people keep harpooning the monster, which keeps surviving the assaults until sheer exhaustion and the end of the film’s 85-minute running time intervene and the great piñata finally dies, much to the displeasure of Dr. LaSatier, who in the best flaring tones Gary Merrill no doubt learned from his ex says they should have kept the creature alive for study instead of knocking it off, an embarrassing tic of movie scientists in monster films ever since Robert Cornthwaite’s looney-tunes scientist in the 1951 film The Thing. Done with some sort of flair for genuine fright, Destination Inner Space might have been at least a passably good monster film — and though the original posters ballyhooed that it was in color, it might have actually been scarier in black-and-white — but as it stands it’s not quite stupid enough to be camp but not well done enough to be entertaining on its own merits, either — and one wonders why the color of that deep-sea exploration craft keeps changing from mustard yellow to orange to red (the guy who owns the prop says it’s red in real life).