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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Devil Monster (1946)

Director: S Edwin Graham
Stars: Barry Norton and Blanche Mehaffy
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Nowadays we have it lucky: there are so many avenues we can follow to see classic movies that we're spoiled for choice. Back in 1946, most people only had the option of going to their local theatre to see whatever happened to be showing and the only choice they had was between the different movie houses in their town. Many would have seen Devil Monster, often on a double bill with The White Gorilla, and wondered why it seemed familiar, only to shrug it off. After all, every popular success launched a hundred cheap imitators and many classic era films were remakes to begin with, even famous ones like The Maltese Falcon. Those who paid attention though may have realised that Devil Monster didn't just seem familiar, it was really something they had seen before. You see, not one single moment within this entire film is original. Everything was patched together from stock footage and older movies that the 'filmmakers' had bought the rights to.

The details are so convoluted that nobody seems able to confirm exactly which piece fits where, but the source movies expose a host of business practices commonplace in the classic era that may seem bizarre today. In the early days of sound films were often shot simultaneously in more than one language, usually with different cast and crew. The 1931 Dracula was really two films, for example: Béla Lugosi in Tod Browning's iconic English version and George Melford's Spanish version with Carlos Villarías as the Count. The latter was shot at night on the same sets with the same costumes, but it runs 29 minutes longer and benefits from the crew watching and learning from the Browning dailies. Alfredo Carlos Birabén, the bilingual Argentinian actor better known as Barry Norton, who played Juan Harker in Melford's Drácula, is the star here, his footage taken from The Sea Fiend and El diablo del Mar, the English and Spanish versions of the same film.

The third associated source film is The Great Manta, but it's not clear precisely what this was. It starred 'Barry Norton and a Big Native Cast' and was advertised as early as June 1935, so it may be the real film shot alongside El diablo del Mar, which saw its Mexican release in December of that year. Perhaps The Sea Fiend, a closer translation of the Spanish title, was merely the name given the film when released in the UK in 1938. It was routine for B movies to be released under different titles in other countries or even other states, and the retitled films often had different running times too in order to cater to the varied rules of local censor boards. Another suggestion is that Russ Vincent and George Moscow bought the rights to The Sea Fiend and renamed it The Great Manta, though the years don't quite add up. However these are related though, the rights to all three apparently ended up with E M Landres and Louis Weiss in 1945 for $500.

Devil Monster is the result, a patchwork quilt composed of scenes from all three versions of the source story, along with a slew of stock footage from nature documentaries and perhaps even a few scenes from other pictures too, like 1930's Hell Harbor. Without seeing the source material to make a comparison, it's hard to tell, but it would hardly seem unlikely given the unholy hodge podge it ended up as. There are no less than five credited writers, only one of whom was new to this release. He's Tom Hubbard and he wrote the narration that overlays the stock footage, in a vague attempt to keep a consistency between entirely unrelated material. The original director, S Edwin Graham, keeps his credit, but after it comes another that reads, 'Supervised by Adrian Weiss'. Adrian was the son of Louis Weiss, so he was presumably tasked with turning the footage his father had co-purchased into some sort of financial return.

It's a seafaring story, as you might imagine, but this time the sea isn't the standard tough and unforgiving mistress, it's just a doddle. We know this because Robert Jackson, our narrator and hero, has never been to sea, even though he's the son of a captain who has spent his entire life in the fishing village of San Pietro. Quite what he does there we don't know but it doesn't require sea legs, yet when needs must he proves himself able to leap onboard ship and feel at home in minutes. Obviously there's no learning curve needed to sail the South Seas, good for Jackson as he's fed up of being cockblocked by his girlfriend, especially while she's eating bananas. Louise is still in love with a man who's missing, presumed dead: Jose Francisco, first mate of the Miami, which was lost in the South Seas six years earlier. Jackson describes him as 'a lifelong friend of the family', but only his mother and his sweetheart still care about him. Not Jackson, you'll note.

Obviously he has an ego, one that is stroked immediately because the first nine words, outside his opening narration, are his name. 'Robert!' cries Jose's mother as she runs down to the docks, where our non-sailor is naturally hanging out in a sailor's cap talking about tuna runs, to show him a newspaper clipping about a pair of bodies discovered on a beach in the Galapagos Islands. When Louise turns down his proposal of marriage yet again, he decides to sneak onto his dad's fishing boat when he leaves for his next tuna run, so that he can persuade him to change course and search every inch of the South Seas for Jose's body, thus allowing him to finally get laid. No grizzled sea captain could resist such eloquence as, 'You've got to help me! C'mon dad, don't be a grouch!' Right? Well, given that actor Jack Barty had died four years before this film's release, he wasn't in too much of a position to say no. So off we go, to the strange land of stock footage.

It really is a strange land because Adrian Weiss trawled through many documentaries to collate his footage and there's not a lot of consistency to what he found. First there's three and a half minutes of sealions and elephant seals, which might not seem much but that's a third of the film thus far. 'I hung on the rail for what seemed like hours,' narrates Jackson and we know what he means. At least the next section, supposedly featuring the natives of a friendly island, is mostly made up of topless women, surely explaining why this film gained even the slightest success. It's a wildly multicultural island, comprised not only of the expected Hawaiians but white women and even Australian aborigines too. The common factor is that they're all topless, even when one of them joins a native boy to put on an underwater floor show in shark infested water. Naturally the shark never shares the screen with the natives he threatens because he's from different footage.

Some of the footage is mildly interesting, like natives running up palm trees as if gravity can be ignored, but none of it has anything to do with the story, and we were hardly given much story to begin with. When Capt Jackson and Tiny the cook show back up to spy the wreck of the Miami through their telescope, it's the first time we've seen a single member of the cast for 13 minutes and 48 seconds and we're only 21 minutes into the film, a full third of its running time. The time spent with cast on the screen thus far only just edges out the time we've spent watching a battle between an octopus and a moray eel in a fish tank. It's supposed to be a lagoon but the octopus spends most of its time attached to the glass so we don't buy it for a moment. When a school of fish show up so Jackson can suggest they deliberately overcome the octopus by sheer numbers just to rescue their buddy, the moray, we wonder if we've found ourselves in a Disney movie.

You might think that we let out a collective sigh of relief when Jackson announces, 'Continuing the search for Jose...' but no, because a moray eel fighting an octopus is a lot cooler than what we're about to get stuck with. You see, the native chief on the island the Miami grounded itself on is one of those embarrassing artefacts of classic Hollywood. It isn't just that this South Sea Islander is played by a man born in Norfolk, Virginia and who probably only left it to seek fame in Hollywood, it's that actor Bill Lemuels somehow felt that the part called for a bad Béla Lugosi accent, only to prove so bad at it that he comes across more like Mal Arnold trying to channel Béla Lugosi in Blood Feast, only wearing curlers and a Hawaiian skirt. It's one of those surreal moments that's so unarguably wrong that we wonder who the starlet slept with to get the part, only to get confused when we remember that this starlet is a 45 year old man.

If anything, Lemuels and his Transylvanian interpretations of dialogue like, 'What brrrrings you to the island, captain?' simply make the rest of the cast look like Oscar nominees in comparison. The crew is apparently made up of three men: Jackson, his father and Tiny the cook, all of whom would seem lacking in any company other than Lemuels'. Barry Norton plays Jackson roughly like William Haines would have played Marlon Brando in a biopic centred around filming The Wild One. Jack Barty is so wooden as his father that one of those natives may have tried climbing him to find coconuts. Terry Grey, whose five credits at IMDb are all for variants of this film, is the best of the three but that really isn't saying much. He was one of the writers too, though he neglected to explain why his character is named Tiny. He isn't a midget so it's not literal. He's not that tall either so it's not ironic. Maybe it's a self deferential reference to the size of his penis.

There is one word here that's sheer genius, though hardly in the way the writers intended. When the Jacksons ask about the manta ray that's painted onto the wall of the chief's hut he explains that it's one of a pair of deadly killers that have plagued the island for centuries, the only objects of fear the natives have, but it was caught by the sole survivor of the wreck on the beach. 'Is it him?' Capt Jackson asks his son in a huddle, after he looks out the window at this magnificent fisherman. For the duration of one word, Norton provides a masterclass performance. 'Yeah,' he replies with so much resignation that we can fully believe that in that moment this character has just had his world turned upside down; lost all chance of getting any from his girlfriend, who now won't be his girlfriend for much longer; and been rooked between the eyes with guilt for not coming to look for his friend before now. Unfortunately one word is all he gets. That's all, folks.

Now Jose is having a ball on the island. Here he's the master fisherman of all time who is to be the next chief of the island and who spends his days making wild passionate love to Maya, the current chief's daughter. 'I'm one of them now,' he tells Jackson and you can't blame him. You'd think it would be easy for them to figure out a win/win situation here, where Jose could stay on his exotic island but Robert could take back something to prove to Louise that he was dead and so move on, but no, they go for the lose/lose situation instead. They get the entire island drunk and kidnap Jose. He'll thank them in the morning, they think, and amazingly he does! It's only when Tiny lets slip about Robert and Louise that he gets pissed and decides to haul them off to the waters of the devil monster on the pretext of showing them great tuna grounds. Maybe five writers is the point at which any film loses all valid character motivation.

The only saving grace is that Jack Del Rio, who plays Jose Francisco, is a notably better actor than those he's tasked with acting opposite, especially Lemuels, who only gets more ridiculous as he gets drunk and decides that being a Transylvanian South Sea Islander isn't enough and he really needs a pork pie hat. Don't get me wrong, Del Rio is no great star, especially as he goes insane in the silent style for a couple of scenes, but during the finalé he demonstrates a dynamic edge, showing up Norton who doesn't show any hint that he was a talented ballroom dancer. Del Rio's career was short, with credits in only four of his seventeen films; and this was his only role of substance, even though he doesn't show up until halfway through. He's probably best known for his brief marriage to Peggy Lee in the sixties, as her fourth and final husband, but explorers of Cinematic Hell will always remember him dominating the second half of Devil Monster.

This title is appropriate but rather unfortunate, given that manta rays are about as ineffectual as any villain Nature has given to the world of film. They may be huge creatures, reaching up to 25 feet across, but unlike their stingray cousins, they're dangerous only to plankton. Apparently the people who wrote seafaring horror stories in the thirties didn't know that evolution had stripped them of teeth and stingers as they became filter feeders, so conjured up outlandish plots out of their size and their nickname alone. Now we can only howl in laughter as this gentle vegetarian of the deep is painted as a centuries old sea monster capable of ripping off human arms at the slightest provocation. The Sea Bat, a 1930 film featuring Charles Bickford and Boris Karloff, had the same problem, but at least offers something to posterity beyond a textbook example of how not to construct a new film out of old material.

It's hard to imagine how Adrian Weiss could have done a worse job. Obviously he was limited by the production quality of his source material and he was unable to replace bizarre shots like the frequent alternation between too long with too close, but he had total control over what material to pick and choose and how to patch it all together into something new. Giving us five minutes of melodrama then diverting us into fifteen minutes worth of sealions, naked breasts and octopus war is indefensible. Then again it's hard to find any continuity. Jackson constantly talks as if he's a fisherman of experience but this is his first time afloat. The crew only appear on the way back, suggesting that they've been in cryogenic storage until Jose was found. Certainly they're OK with swanning around the South Seas looking for someone they've all forgotten about but once he takes the helm to steer them to tuna it takes about an hour for them to suggest mutiny.

Most of all, there's the fact that this appears to be a horror movie. It's called Devil Monster, for pity's sakes. The poster depicts a vast manta ray about to devour an unwary sailor, above words that read, 'mammoth killer of the sea'. What would you expect going in? There's nothing there to suggest that this is really just a melodrama about a man who searches for the corpse of a family friend just so he can get laid. False advertising just doesn't come close. It even claims 'an all-star cast' though only one member of that cast could remotely lay claim to ever having been a star, albeit in foreign language versions of Hollywood films. The leading lady had retired eight years before this portmanteau picture was released. The leading man hadn't just fallen to the level of being uncredited in films like Casablanca, he'd fallen to the level of being uncredited in films as bad as Zombies on Broadway. By those guidelines, I'm a superstar.

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