“Those tiny active particles are various forms of protozoa, for their size the most deadly in the world. It’s lucky for us they never grow any bigger than this!”
Director: Wyott Ordung
Starring: Anne Kimbell, Stuart Wade, Dick Pinner, Wyott Ordung, Inez Palance, Jack Hayes (Jonathan Haze), David Garcia, Roger Corman
Screenplay: William Danch
Synopsis: Vacationing in a small Mexican town on the Pacific coast, illustrator Julie Blair (Anne Kimbell) chats to a young local boy while she sketches. Learning of the death of the boy’s father, Julie is taken aback when told that he did not drown, but was killed by a strange creature living in a nearby cove. Julie points out gently that such a thing is impossible; further, that she has been swimming in the cove every day since her arrival, and has seen nothing strange. Hurt and offended, the boy runs away. Despite the boy’s tale, Julie again swims in the cove, only to recoil in fear as a strange object looms up out of the water. It is not, however, a sea monster, but a one-man mini-submarine piloted by marine biologist Steve Dunning (Stuart Wade). Steve follows Julie to shore, apologising for frightening her and praising her sketches, which he says show a real love for the sea. Softened, Julie agrees to visit the research vessel on which Steve works. Steve tows Julie out to the boat with his mini-sub, and introduces her to his colleague, Dr Baldwin (Dick Pinner). The two men explain to Julie their ideas for cultivating the sea as a food source for the world’s growing population. As the three talk, another boat speeds across the water towards them. Its operator, Joe (Jonathan Haze), shouts hysterically that his partner, Sanchez, an abalone diver, has gone missing in the cove. Steve immediately re-enters his mini-sub to search for the man. He finds, not Sanchez, but Sanchez’s diving-suit, intact except for the faceplate and completely empty… Julie and Steve dine together. Julie confesses that she cannot get Sanchez’s mysterious fate out of her mind. She repeats to Steve what the boy on the beach told her about his father, adding that she has since spoken to other villagers who tell similar tales. Steve scoffs at the notion of a “sea serpent”. Julie, while conceding the improbability of such a thing, insists that there is a mystery in the waters that must be investigated. Steve makes her promise that she will take no unnecessary risks. The two continue to spend time together, and Julie persuades Steve to accompany her on a search of the cove. Her dive is cut short, however, by an encounter with an oversized octopus. Later, Julie talks to Joe, who tells her that there have been stories about something strange living in the cove since just after the war. He sends her to speak to Pablo (Wyott Ordung), a fisherman who lives alone in a run-down shack at the back of the cove. From Pablo, Julie hears of strange tracks left on the beach at the height of the full moon; of a huge, formless sea creature with a single glowing red eye…
Comments: It is, I confess, a bit of a cheat to choose Monster From The Ocean Floor for a Beach Party-themed Roundtable, being as it is conspicuous for its absence of pretty much everything that defines the beach party movie, such as sex-obsessed teenagers, disapproving adults who just don’t understand, and incessant booty shaking to the strains of light pop music masquerading as hot rock ‘n’ roll. On the other hand, the film is set during a summer holiday; it fills in much of its running-time by letting its camera ogle a pretty girl in a fairly (for 1954) hot series of swimsuits; it features – God help us! – a truly appalling musical interlude; and at one point it manages to assemble on a beach a cow, a hideous gelatinous blob, and Wyott Ordung. If that doesn’t just scream PAR-TEY, well, I don’t know what does.
The importance of Monster From The Ocean Floor lies not, of course, in its somewhat meagre cinematic virtues – of which, no doubt, I shall subsequently make far, far too much – but in the story behind its production; for it was with this film that a certain former engineer, naval recruit, literature graduate, screenwriter, script analyst and studio gofer managed to parlay the proceeds from his (much re-written) screenplay and associate producer’s credit for a film called Highway Dragnet into the setting up of a small independent production company, and subsequently to make history by unleashing upon the world the very first—Roger Corman Production.
A moment’s awed hush, if you please.
While it may be true that, by this point in the game, the Corman legend has almost overwhelmed the Corman reality, it is nevertheless also true that one can hardly overestimate the man’s importance in the realm of the latter-day B-film. Those of us who can sit bored and irritated while a hundred million dollars’ worth of explosions and CGI effects play themselves out across the screen, yet be reduced to a state of idiotic glee by the sight of a movie “monster” that consists of a thoroughly unconvincing hand-puppet wobbling about in a household aquarium, will always keep a special place in our hearts for the man. This is not to say, of course, that Corman invented this kind of all-hands-on-deck, make-do, micro-budgeted film-making; he merely raised it to an art form.
One should take care, however, before using the words “art” and “Monster From The Ocean Floor” in the same sentence. With a lacklustre script, a monster it wisely declines to show for more than two brief scenes, and about a quarter of its “action” consisting of footage of its heroine scuba-diving, it is really only the film’s brief running-time that keeps it from wearing out its welcome.
And yet, a tolerant viewer might find that Monster From The Ocean Floor is not entirely without a certain minimalist charm, even if it does lie primarily in seeing what would later become Roger Corman trademarks in their most embryonic form. Some things we recognise instantly, not least the fact that the film as a whole looks like it was produced on a budget of what Uncle Roger found down the back of the couch when he was vacuuming his house one Saturday morning.
(Well…perhaps that’s a bit harsh. The film was, however, produced for an extraordinarily low sum, something between $10,000 and $18,000, depending on who you ask. Corman himself puts it at $12,000, so we’re probably safe in assuming it was a bit more than that.)
Then there’s that wonderful “come-on” title – which, hilariously, was changed by the film’s distributor from its shooting title on the grounds that It Stalked The Ocean Floor was “too cerebral” – the outrageously inaccurate advertising art, and the shaping of the entire script around the availability of a prop, in this case the mini-submarine that the Aerojet General Company was convinced to lend the production for free, in return for – ahem – all the publicity its use in this blockbuster would generate.
(Optimistic – not to say naive – on Aerojet’s part, yes; but how much you wanna bet that many an enthused eight-year-old left a screening of Monster From The Ocean Floor wailing, “I want one! I want one!”?)
In terms of the completed film, the most thoroughly Corman-esque aspect of Monster From The Ocean Floor is the fact that its story centres upon a strong and independently-minded young woman, the first but by no means the last of such characters to grace various Corman productions over the years. Julie Blair is, perhaps, not as memorable as some of later cinematic sisters, but this is not the fault of actress Anne Kimbell, who gives a warm and natural performance that is very likeable. The script is the letdown here (hardly surprising, legend having it that it was cranked out in a single night), leaving us with a heroine who is ultimately more interesting in her backstory than in her actuality.
LOOK UPON THEIR WORKS, YE BAD MOVIE FAN, AND DESPAIR!
Julie is a working girl, a commercial illustrator with aspirations of being an artist. She is untroubled about holidaying alone, comfortable in the society of the local villagers, unafraid to walk and swim and dive by herself, and while happy to have male companionship, certainly not desperate for it. The most successful aspect of Monster From The Ocean Floor – no, it’s not the monster: aren’t you astonished? – is probably the sequence of scenes in which Julie persuades some of the villagers to confide their stories of “the thing in the cove” to her, winning their confidence with her grave and respectful manner.
Unfortunately, rather too much of Julie’s dialogue throughout the film is confined to variations upon the theme of, “I’m going to prove to you there’s something down there!”, while her solo diving expeditions, which are certainly intended to demonstrate to the viewer her courage and self-sufficiency, strike us even at the outset as foolhardy, and finally – after she has found physical evidence of the monster’s existence, that is! – as suicidally dangerous.
Moreover, there is too much inconsistency in her overall characterisation, as if Roger Corman’s taste for a stronger breed of heroine clashed with William Danch’s more conventional vision. It is nothing short of painful when Julie reacts to the unexpected presence on a moonlit beach of a young cow by screaming, running away and tripping over. (Absurdity upon absurdity, she subsequently faints, too! Whether this is meant to be from “shock”, after she glimpses the monster emerging from the surf, or whether it is simply a contrived way of stopping her from glimpsing it, is most unclear.) And it is almost as bad when Julie – depicted as an experienced diver – is thrown into a state of panic by the sight of a large octopus. Still, these “feminine weaknesses” do seem to make her more appealing to this movie’s hero…
Julie in her black one-piece. Your argument is invalid.
Ah, yes, that “hero”. If Julie is a rather unconventional heroine for this point in cinema history, Steve Dunning is a textbook example of one of the era’s most familiar genre figures: the Smug, Superior, Know-It-All, Patronising Male, whose character is entirely summed up in the moment when, after Julie has declared her intention of investigating the mystery of the cove, he asks why she has to “stick your pretty little chin out”.
How the viewer reacts to this is an individual thing, I suppose. Then again, it’s hard to imagine Steve endearing himself to anyone with his response to Julie’s fretting over the danger posed to the locals by “the thing in the cove”, which is essentially to demand why anyone should care?
Alas, the apogee of the relationship between Julie and Steve occurs in its opening moments, when a swimming Julie is almost impaled by Steve’s mini-sub. A more thoroughly phallic cute-meet you never will see. Steve has no sooner simultaneously transfixed Julie’s abdomen and her heart than he sweeps her out to the boat on which he works, to see what he and his colleague, Dr Baldwin, are studying. Her arrival on board sets up a wonderful, and a wonderfully prescient, moment, at least for the cognoscenti, when she is introduced to Tommy the boat-hand. Tommy, you see, is played by a startlingly young Roger Corman – who is described by Dr Baldwin as “our one-man crew”. Ain’t it the truth?
But after all this amusing stuff, we must all of us suffer through yet another example of surely the most unbearable of all romantic conventions, the bickering couple who nevertheless fall in love. She does nothing but insist upon the existence of the monster, he does nothing but declare her to be mistaken / misguided / delusional / certifiable; the audience is left shaking its collective head and wondering what the hell the two of them see in each other.
I think he’s pleased to see her.
(Oh, all right, we know what he sees in her: in her series of convention-bucking black one-piece swimsuits, Julie is simply adorable; but that still leaves the other half of the mystery unsolved.)
To be fair, if Anne Kimbell was ill-served by the screenplay for Monster From The Ocean Floor, poor Stuart Wade was almost crucified by it. About nine-tenths of his dialogue consists of Steve either sneering and jeering at Julie about “monster-hunting”, or – as he phrases it himself – “making noises like a biologist”.
That’s right: Steve’s a scientist. If we ever doubted it, the very first thing that strikes our gaze when Steve and Julie climb up onto the boat is a microscope. Right there on deck. Steve has already brought out the big guns, attacking Julie with every marine biologist’s favourite pick-up line – “Did you know that over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water?” – and he proceeds to complete his conquest of her by blinding her with science: “One female cod alone lays almost eight million eggs!”
Yes, indeed. Steve’s a scientist, all right. He is also this film’s hero, a good guy, which means that unlike any of the mad scientists who populate films of this era, each and every one of whom is perfectly capable of believing eight impossible things before breakfast, he will prove so stodgily unimaginative that we’ll spend most of the film wanting to slap him—especially at moments like that in which he reacts to the discovery of Sanchez’s mysteriously empty diving-suit by, in essence, shutting his eyes, clamping his hands over his ears, and chanting, “LA! LA! LA! LA! I AM NOT LISTENING!”
Ah, summertime—the sun, the sea, the science…
But patronising his girlfriend, not giving a crap about his fellow man, and refusing to look facts in the face are not Steve’s only talents. Oh, my, no. He also takes advantage of a moonlit night on the beach with Julie to whip out his guitar and offer up a show-stopping – and I mean show-stopping – rendition of “My Luve Is Like A Red, Red Rose”. Julie herself may be like a melodie, that’s sweetly play’d in tune, but…
Look – I don’t know what Stuart Wade and Anne Kimbell were paid for appearing in Monster From The Ocean Floor; peanuts, certainly; or possibly in peanuts; but as far as I’m concerned, the pair of them deserve medals for their heroic efforts in getting through this scene without cracking up. Actually, I may be giving Anne Kimbell too much credit here: she’s shot from behind for most of it. But in any event, I can only say again—poor Stuart Wade.
By now you might be saying—hmm, moonlight serenades? pointless trips out to a boat? endless scuba-diving sequences? scientific blather? Sounds like Monster From The Ocean Floor features…rather a lot of padding. And you’d be quite right. The film is hardly in the realm of, say, The Astounding She-Monster when it comes to nothing actually happening, but it does have considerable trouble making it even so far as its sixty-four minute mark, and is forced to go off on several tangents in order to do so. In later years, these non sequitur diversions would often prove to be some of the most enjoyable sections of various Roger Corman productions; here, you can feel the effort.
(In other words—it’s kind of like this review…)
Jack of all trades, master of penny-pinching.
The biggest and most bizarre side-road in Monster From The Ocean Floor involves two of the locals deciding that the thing in the cove is actually the incarnation of a long-standing legend, and that it must be appeased by a sacrifice. And just who do you suppose fits that bill? Why, none other than “the fairest”, the “young Americana…”
Like many films of this era, Monster From The Ocean Floor produces an odd double-play, on one hand blaming everything on “radiation” – fallout from the Bikini tests, specifically – while on the other insisting upon the creature being a not-so-legendary ancient monster that was always in the area.
It is Tula, one of the locals whom Julie questions about the creature, who decides that it is the visitor’s destiny to become monster bait. Tula has lost her dog to the beast, and is understandably pissed; although you might argue that responding to a lost dog with a human sacrifice is going just a teensy bit over the top. She attempts to bring this about by poisoning the mind of Pablo, the fisherman that Julie befriends in her quest for information.
(Pablo is played by director Wyott Ordung. Strange things the mind does sometimes. The first time I ever saw Monster From The Ocean Floor, I remember being very startled by the discovery that Wyott Ordung was a short, stocky, dark-haired individual. For some reason, heaven alone knows why, I’d always mentally pictured him as looking rather like Dudley Manlove.)
“Oh, the female cod alone / lays almost eight million eggs / in the 70% of the earth’s surface / that is covered by water…”
Reluctant but convinced, Pablo makes three attempts on Julie’s life, first deliberately cutting his hand and bleeding into the water while Julie is diving, in order to draw a pack of sharks to her. At least, this is what we deduce that the rather awkwardly cut-together stock footage is meant to convey. In any case, Julie suddenly produces a hitherto unseen knife and manages to ward off her “savage” attackers…all of whom seem profoundly disinterested in her presence. That being the case, one rather has to question the wisdom of Julie’s tactic of waiting until a shark has swum by her, ignoring her in the process, and then poking it in the butt with her knife.
(It should be pointed out that Anne Kimball clearly is in the same shot as a series of two-to-four foot sharks here, blue sharks mainly. I assume that this sequence was shot under supervision in an aquarium, like the underwater scenes in Attack Of The Crab Monsters.)
Subsequently, Pablo tampers with Julie’s scuba-tank. This, too, failing, he then – cutting to the chase, as it were – draws his own knife. But of course, he cannot go through with it. He confesses his sins to Julie, she forgives him, and that’s the end of that little detour. And while, despite our admiration of Julie’s generosity and compassion, we might consider her casual waving away of three attempts at murder as taking things a tad too far, this scene does provide us with one of the film’s comic highlights, as Pablo explains all about how sacrificing “the fair one” will induce the monster “to leave in peace”.
“…and one day—one day I will write a film about a gorilla wearing a diving-helmet!…or perhaps that’s just the tequila talking…”
“Why, that’s ridiculous!” exclaims the young woman who has spent this entire film in a determined effort to prove the existence of a man-eating sea monster. “Certainly you don’t believe a thing like that!?”
Poor Pablo— What can he do but shrug?
Later, while still messing about in a boat, Julie manages to snag something unidentified with a grappling hook. She pops it into a jar and ships it off to Steve, who with Dr Baldwin has conveniently withdrawn “down the coast” for a few days.
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 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 – preserved for the ages in Immortal Dialogue – 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 in a blinding flash of scientific inspiration, the Berocca tablet was born.
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.
(Well, when I say “speeding”… Remember that padding we were talking about?)
And this is the cue for everyone, the viewers of the film and the readers of this review alike, to cry, ABOUT FREAKING TIME!! Because if the rushing to the rescue of an entirely ineffectual hero who to date has contributed absolutely bugger all to the proceedings means anything at all, then it is surely that the time for the final big showdown between man and monster has finally arrived.
(Well – when I say “big”…)
I suppose a little focus would be out of the question…?
And yes, my dear readers, we are indeed about to get our second look at our titular monster. Our first demonstrated that it was vaguely octopoid, certainly tentacled. This time, as it looms up out of the darkness, we can see that it does in fact have a single glowing red eye; or perhaps one gigantic iridescent nipple; it’s kind of hard to tell.
These days, the most appealing thing about this beastie is its unmistakable resemblance to Kang and Kodos of The Simpsons fame. (It bears a rather suspicious resemblance to the creature that would menace the crew of The Atomic Submarine five years later, too.) And rather sweet as this creature is, nevertheless we mourn for what might have been.
This monster, you see, is not the one originally created for the movie; no; which explains all those puzzling references to “protozoa” and “amoeba” and “something formless”. That monster survived only a single preview screening of the film to a few privileged souls, who unkindly laughed it off the screen. An unwontedly thin-skinned Roger Corman – yes, he was very young – immediately ordered its scenes cut, and a new monster constructed and photographed. And so the monster from the ocean floor became a mono-ocular cephalopod, rather than—
B-movie fans are familiar with the man-eating genitalia that enliven the final section of Battle Beyond The Sun. Almost ten years after Monster From The Ocean Floor, a battle-hardened Roger Corman didn’t hesitate to unleash those monsters upon the paying public. What a shame, then, that his younger self could not bring himself to put into general release a monster that, if the tales told be true, resembled nothing so much as—a giant diaphragm…
But I digress.
The climax of this film features a mono-ocular cephalopod monster being impaled by a mini-submarine…but you may just have to take my word for it.
The perpetually scuba-diving Julie finally pushes her luck too far, becoming trapped by the monster and running out of air before she can make it to the surface. As she sinks to the bottom of the cove, Steve comes to the rescue—in his submarine, naturally. He feints once, narrowly avoiding a tentacle, retreats to get a good run up, and speeds down again to plunge the sub deep into the creature’s ni— I mean, eye.
I say again—ewww.
Steve then carries the unconscious Julie up to surface. Now, I’ve been mighty hard on Steve Dunning in this review, but it’s time to give the devil his due, and I’m pleased to report that Steve is last seen apologising to Julie for being such a dickwad. (Oh, okay. He doesn’t phrase it quite like that.) This, in my book, ranks him several degrees higher than many of his contemporaries, who behave just as much like a dickwad, but without ever seeming to recognise the fact; John Agar’s Dr Steve March in The Brain From Planet Arous, for instance, who reacts to his girlfriend’s stories of evil giant space brains with a smug cry of, “Ha, ha, ha, ha! You and your imagination!” – even though at the time he must be literally up to his ankles in macerated grey matter. So, in parting, a big thumbs-up to you, Dr Steve Dunning.
This, then, is Monster From The Ocean Floor, a film with, I would contend, a few virtues – just a few – even aside from the purely historical: a nice lead performance; good use of its locations, and attractively moody photography (so it ought to be: this film was shot by Floyd Crosby – only two years after High Noon!); some interesting character touches; the first appearance of a future Corman stock player, Jonathan Haze (who hides behind an aggressively “Mexican” moustache); an eerily empty diving-suit; a fizzing jar of God-knows-what…
“Now, you understand that there’ll be none of this ‘admitting I was wrong’ nonsense after we’re married?”
Sold to Lippert Releasing, Monster From The Ocean Floor took in over ten times its production costs, and Roger Corman had his formula. He took his cut of the proceeds – leaving everyone else, doubtless, to scramble for the crumbs – and the lessons learned, and moved on to—well, if not necessarily bigger, at least generally better things…
Want a second opinion of Monster From The Ocean Floor? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.
Click here for some Immortal Dialogue.
This review was part of the B-Masters’ Beach Party!