SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues” (1955)

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON 10/24/09, which really was a saturday.

My initial hilarious arrogance at having seen damn near every bad movie ever made (Excepting Moon Zero-Two) is appearing more and more misplaced. It seems that there’s a wide assortment of these grade-zed crapfests out there that were actually considered *too bad* even for my local monster chiller horror theater to run when I was a kid. In fact, it would seem that nearly half the movies I’ve reviewed here are ones I haven’t seen at all, or have only the vaguest memories of. Another such movie is “The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues,” which, for some inexplicable reason, I expected to be dubbed. Not only that, I expected it to be dubbed - badly - from Norwegian. I have no idea why. I mean, I knew full well that this wasn’t “Reptilicus” or anything like that, but for some reason…ah well. In any event, it’s American, and not dubbed.

PLAY BY PLAY

A guy in a white rowboat is fishing, and another guy - in a rubber monster suit - is apparently peopling directly beneath him. The human looses in one of the most horror-free death-by-monster scenes ever filmed.

Immeditely thereafter, we see a VERY FAMILIAR stretch of beach somewhere in California - I say “Very Familiar” because it’s the same one (with a pier in the background) that seemingly every show from the 60s used when they needed to show a commando landing on a bananna republic, or what have you. I’d like to know where it is - I feel like I’ve been there, I’ve seen it so many times, it’s like Captain Kirk’s Rock in its way, but no one will ever tell me the location. Anyway, the fisherman and his boat are dead on the otherwise abandoned VERY FAMILIAR beach. Someone is looking at the body, then runs off before we get a good look at them. A man disconcertingly dressed in a black suit and tie comes up to look at him, when another man, disconcertingly dressed in a lighter colored suit and tie comes up and tells him to knock it off.

Black Suit identifies himself as “Ted Baxter,” but he doesn’t look at all like Ted Knight - he’s about six feet tall, dark haired, trim and handsome in a slightly-long-in-the-tooth kind of way, and with a widow’s peak. Light Suit identifies himself as a fed, and the two verbally spar for a bit before “Ted Baxter” leaves. It’s very apparent to both of them that the dead fisherman and his boat are radioactive as hell. Meanwhile, a gone-to-seed looking guy with a bad mustache (They call them “Pencil Mustaches” because they’re thin like a pencil. When they’re as big as an eyebrow, they don’t work, buddy) comes in to a beach house with wet feet, and talks to a blandly pretty girl, babbles in paranoid fashion, and then goes to bed. “Ted Baxter” shows up to talk to him, but, of course, the old guy has bolted out the window. “Ted Baxter” and the blandly pretty girl - Lois - flirt a bit, and then he heads off.

The gone-to-seed guy, it turns out, is Lois’ dad. He’s the professor and owner of a new Oceanographic college that started up in town a couple years ago, and appears to consist of only two rooms - a lab and a secretary’s office with the interesting design motif of having spear guns hanging on the walls. The Professor comes in, takes off his coat, puts on a lab coat, opens his lab, goes in, futzes with something for like a second, then comes out, locks his lab, takes his lab coat off, puts his other coat back on, and leaves. This happens about half-a-hundred times in this movie, and it never really amounts to anything. Seriously, people talk about Roger Corman’s famous use of “Walking Scenes” to pad out his movies, well, Corman ain’t got nothing on the exciting and dramatic use of “leisurely coat changes” in this movie. (Note the irony!) To save us time and tedium, I’m just going to conflate all these stupid, useless scenes in one batch:

The Professor is working on something, and won’t tell anyone what it is. He’s got a secretary with the kind of attitude that makes it seem she was weaned on a pickle, and who looks a bit like a gene-spliced offspring of an elderly Betty Davis and Vivian Vance. To make this comparison more apt, her character is called “Ethel.” To make things even more spooky, the actress’ real name is “Viv!” There’s also a guy named “George” hanging around, lurking. It’s never quite clear what he is - is he an instructor at the school? A student? The PE coach? Ethel’s special friend? Not clear. Anyway, he wants to know what the Prof. Is up to, and claims to be “One step ahead of him,” but wants to get in to the lab. Viv/Ethel, meanwhile, says she could tell the Prof what George is up to, but he points a spear gun at her and says “You could but you won’t” (You see, dammit, I told you this was a bad design concept!) Meanwhile, “Ted Baxter” comes to visit the prof, and the prof gives “Ted Baxter” some maps and stuff. The Professor has a weird half-alligator/half-turtle animal in an aquarium, which he mostly ignores and never plays with or talks to. Presumably, it’s lonely and depressed. Too big for that tank, too.

Mr. Light Suit comes up to “Ted Baxter” at the beach, and reveals that he was using a pseudonym, he is in fact not “Ted Baxter” at all, his real name is…Ted Knight! I kid! I kid. His real name is in fact “Ted Stevens,” a well-known and brilliant Ocean-science-guy (one of the annoying bits in this movie is that oceanic sciences are treated as a kind of squishy group, where Marine Biology and Oceanography and whatnot are assumed to be the same thing, and both of them evidently involve a lot of spear fishing).

Ted Baxter/Knight/Stevens/Whomever goes scuba diving and is attacked by the rubber suit monster, but gets away. He comes to talk to the professor, who refuses to believe that he saw a monster, or an underwater floodlight, but Ted is certain that someone has managed to create a radioactive deathray of sorts on the ocean floor, guarded by the mutant creature he saw. (Charmingly pronounced “Mute-taunt” - it’s obvious the actor had never heard the word before reading it in the script). The Prof refuses to believe this, or does he?

Since the plot has kind of stalled out here, we add another element: George has a girlfriend who’s a kind of bitchy Terri Nunn-looking blonde, pretty in an on-the-verge-of-loosing-her-looks kind of way. Her name is “Wanda,” which no one laughs at. (Evidently this was considered a perfectly acceptable name in the 1950s - sultry, even! Who knew?) Wanda apparently works for some nebulously-defined foreign bad guys who want the even-more-nebulously-defined atomic death ray for their yet-even-still-more-nebulously-defined quest for world domination. She’s poison, but evidently George can’t quit her, so he agrees to try and get it. He’s kind of a dumbass, though, so his attempts to get the secret consist mostly in him catching a turtle on the beach, and lurking in the bushes. When Ted whoosis comes by in the night, he shoots at him with a spear gun, but misses.

Light Suit, meanwhile, has been working with Viv to get in to the professor’s lab, but Terri Nunn/Wanda hears this, and decides that George is probably a better patsy than a lover. Meanwhile, Light Suit and Ted go scuba diving. There was a well-filmed scene where someone - obviously George - drops poisoned alka seltzer tablets in their regulators. There’s a lot of suspense in this, but then Light Suit discovers it before they go diving, and they fix the problem, so ten minutes of screen time come to nothing. They dive, see the monster, and come back up, effectively coming to nothing as well.

Meanwhile, a young couple go diving, kinda’ awkwardly attempt to make out underwater, are stalked by the monster , return to their boat without incident, and then are killed by the monster.

Someone breaks in to the professor’s lab, uhm, Viv goes to talk to the feds, but George harpoons her in the back, they somehow know about his spy/girlfriend/dominatrix (Admit it: you’ve had those exact same suspicions about Terri Nunn, haven’t you?) and arrest her offscreen, then catch George when he comes around to let her demean him some more. So, uhm…pretty much that’s the plot resolved there. Still plenty of movie left to go, however.

They confront the professor about shutting down his death ray and killing the monster, and he refuses, then there’s some exposition between Light Suit, a cop, and The Man Who Would Be Ted. Then a freighter sails through the bay, right over the death ray, and blows up. The professor wigs out, smashes his lab - including killing his poor little turtlegator - says goodbye to the janitor, and then goes for a dive in which he blows himself up with some dynamite just as the monster is giving him a hug.

Lois and Ted cuddle a bit, and that’s the end.

No one shut off the death ray, though.
OBSERVATIONS

There’s a whole lot of things that don’t make any kind of sense in this movie, but let’s start with the title, shall we? Ok, the monster is referred to by the (never-seen) yokels in town as “The Phantom.” Fine. “Phantom” seems to be an oddly specific and not-at-all appropriate name for it, but, what the hell. “Sea Monster” or “Beastie” or “Swimming Bigfoot“ or (Given that it’s California), “Evil Forces of the Patriarchy bent on Oppressing Us” seem like more probable choices, but, you know, whatever.

The “League” thing is harder to let slide. A league is about 3 miles - roughly one hour’s walk - so the title translates out as “The Phantom from 30,000 Miles.” What the hell does that even mean? Clearly, since it’s a sea monster, it’s meant to evoke “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” but that title isn’t a measure of depth - which the Earth wouldn’t be big enough to hold anyway - but rather a measure of distance traveled while submerged. Clearly, whomever made this movie didn’t know that, and was too lazy to look it up. And even if you think it’s depth, it makes no sense, as all of the underwater scenes in this movie look to be filmed about 11 feet down.

I already talked about the “Coat Changing” scenes, which make this movie seem like an open audition for “The Fred Rogers Story: A Man And His Cardigan,” but the beach house scenes are nearly as bad, endless, repetitive scenes of people walking along the beach, climbing stairs, talking on a deck, leaving, going down stairs, walking along the beach. It feels like all of these were filmed in a block, and then stuck in to the movie, even after the script had changed a bit. Some of the Professors’ reactions on the deck of his house don’t make a lick of sense.

Another thing that’s changed: The monster is a Creature from the Black Lagoon kind of thing, but it’s describes as a “Sea Serpent” by characters on land who’ve seen it and should know better.

I don’t quite follow George’s plan here: Girlfriend has absolutely no dirt on him, and blackmails him in to stealing the Professors’ notes or whatever. He attempts to get this by harpooning people, and stealing turtles. I’m assuming he’s the guy who made the sea monster, too - though this is never entirely clear - the Professor seems surprised it’s there most (But not all) of the time. It’s not thought out well, and comes to nothing.

The stunt-divers in this movie are very clearly *not* the actors on land.

Every single person in this town uses the same damn increasingly-radioactive rowboat. We’re told it’s different ones, but it’s clearly not.

Man, is that the least-populated beach in all of California, or what?

Some scenes in this movie just go on and on forever. Most noteable is a long scene where Lois is shown laboriously gathering up towels, clothing, and stuff to take a shower. This goes nowhere, and takes a long time. Later we’re given a shower scene of sorts, and the payoff for all this setup is her walking in to her living room and unexpectedly seeing Ted there while she’s only wearing a towel. Say, that’s midly humorous! Ok, not at all. Mildly inconvenient, really. Later on, we’re given a long scene of Lois getting dressed after her shower, clad in some clunky, overly-functional, not-at-all-sexy 50s underwear. This is supposed to be titillating, I guess - in fact, all of this is supposed to be so - but mostly I couldn’t help being distracted by the amount of difficulty she seemed to be having with getting the neck/strap of her dress lined up and buttoned. Geez! What, is she a nudist who’s unaccustomed to the world of clothing?

The Lois/Ted romance screams “Daddy Issues.” It’s not entirely unbelievable, but it does lack all chemistry. Lois is played by Cathy Downs, who’s 31 when this movie was being made, but I think she’s supposed to be in her early 20s. It’s not quite believable. Ted is played by Kent Taylor, a former leading man who’s ship never quite came in, and is slumming his way through the second half of his career here. He’s actually pretty good in the part. He’s about 48 here, and probably playing a character about the same age, so I think we’re supposed to assume an age difference of about 25 years or so. Nice work if you can get it, even if the chick is only blandly pretty.

Here’s a curious thing: You’ll recall that last week I reviewed “The Giant Gila Monster,” and mentioned that the French broad in it was only in one other movie, “Missile to the Moon” in 1958. Well, it turns out that Lois/Cathy from this movie was *also* in Missile to the Moon! Michael Whalen, who plays her dad in this movie (And who I’m pretty sure was gay) is *also* in Missile to the Moon! I’m taking this as an omen: I’ve got to see that movie. Whalen was a handsome second-lead type in the 30s, but went to seed. He’s actually only 53 in this movie - five years older than Kent Taylor - but he looks about fifteen years older. Yow! He used to be a Woolworth’s manager - and looks it - and is probably best known as the Reverend from Elmer Gantry.

“Wanda” is played by Helene Stanton, an actress who’s career lasted about three years and is best known as being the mother of “Dr. Drew” Pinsky. Really!

“George the time-consuming idiot” is played by Philip Pine, who had a long, surprisingly successful career in bit parts. He’s best known as “Colonel Green” from “The Savage Curtain” episode of Trek, and the utter jackass, Lt. Ryan, from the “Five of us are left” episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

The death ray doesn’t really make any sense. Evidently, it’s a natural phenomenon that the professor figured out how to turn on. So how are the ruskies gonna’ use it? Don’t mind us while we dredge this bay and move a geological feature back to mother Russia…

Really the surprising thing about this movie isn’t so much its sloppy writing, unresolved plot, disjointed mystery, nor even its flat and padded direction. Rather, it’s the fact that they try not to play this like a monster movie at all, but rather a cold war intrigue film. The monster is a Magoffin, and if you removed it completely, it really wouldn’t affect the story at all, since ultimately the whole film is about the death ray. That’s sort of surprising, and it probably would have played out better in a universe that didn’t consist of only 8 people in three rooms - there’s a narrative claustrophobia that is similar to early Warner Brothers noir films that really could have been more effectively exploited, but alas…

You can watch the movie online here http://www.archive.org/details.php?identifier=ThePhantomFrom10.000Leagues

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