Wednesday 27 February 2013

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

Director: Roger Corman
Stars: Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Edward Wain

Sometimes it seems like legendary exploitation film director Roger Corman wrote the book on how to save money while making a film. He didn't invent every idea he used, but he put them to better use than anyone else. His autobiography is titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime and, while that isn't strictly true, his unparalleled win/loss record is due partly to his ability to make big films with little money, meaning that he could compete with much more expensive pictures with a fraction of their overhead. Trained as an engineer, he thought logically and occasionally went a step too far, like when he optimised lighting setups on Oklahoma Woman by splitting up shots based on which direction the characters were facing and shooting everything facing one way before setting up afresh and shooting everything facing the other. It made logical sense and sped up production but the actors got confused and he discarded the idea in the future.

Other ideas were as logically sound but much more successful. After Allison Hayes broke her arm while shooting Gunslinger, he shot close ups of her looking in every direction while waiting for the car to take her to hospital. He shot other scenes with a body double later to edit in. Even on Five Guns West, the first film he directed himself, he avoided costly and complex scenes in an elegant way, by having a soldier look through binoculars at a band of stock footage Indians on horseback, then explaining that, 'The Indians are over here. Let's head over there.' He shot Atlas against the plentiful Greek ruins for background colour and had a character explain that two centuries of civil war had destroyed everything. For the same film, he donated to the Greek Army Charity Fund to gain five hundred soldiers to overwhelm Thenis in panoramic style. Only fifty arrived so he filmed close ups instead and changed dialogue to reflect a small trained force defeating a large rabble.

Most successfully, he found ways to use or reuse what was already around him to do something cheaply or for free. The burning cane fields in Thunder Over Hawaii were a regular stalk burnoff that he scheduled around, costing him nothing. When he had to burn down the mansion in House of Usher, he found developers about to demolish a nearby barn and paid them fifty bucks to burn it instead while his cameras rolled. When The Raven wrapped a full two days ahead of schedule, he made the best use of his cast, his crew and his magnificent gothic sets that he could: he had them shoot another movie, The Terror. He didn't even have a complete script so he couldn't film the whole thing, but he shot what he could and had assistant directors complete it later. Perhaps his most famous film, The Little Shop of Horrors, was shot on a standing set that another film had left empty, in two days and one night, with three more for rehearsals.

In low budget pictures at the time, the most expensive thing around often wasn't the star or the set, it was the location. A film could elevate itself above its competition simply by sporting exotic locations, but of course it cost money to get to them. So when he was hired in 1956 to direct She Gods of Shark Reef, a South Pacific picture, by a lawyer who wanted to produce, it made a lot of sense for American International to hire him to direct another movie, Thunder Over Hawaii, back to back with it, halving many costs for both companies and gaining AIP an exotic location in the process. Corman took that to heart. When he went to the Black Hills of South Dakota to shoot Ski Troop Attack, his brother Gene came along for the ride to produce Beast from Haunted Cave at the same time and share the costs. His most productive back to back shoot, though, was in 1959 when he travelled to Puerto Rico and shot not two but three pictures back to back.
Originally Corman was slated to produce a war picture called Battle of Blood Island, driven by tax incentives to 'manufacture' in Puerto Rico, but he scheduled in a second, Last Woman on Earth, to maximise the use of San Juan, the Caribe Hilton hotel and the beach house he'd rented. The writer on the latter was Robert Towne, just starting out in 1959 but soon to become Hollywood's most reliable script doctor and later one of its most respected writers, landing a much deserved Oscar for 1974's Chinatown in a very tough year. Then and now, Towne's biggest problem has always been the slow speed at which he writes, not a huge deal when you're an Oscar winner working for a major studio but a showstopper when you're working on a Corman picture. He hadn't finished before the cast and crew shipped out; Corman's solution was to bring him along too, paying his way by not only finishing the script but also playing the third character in a cast of three.

Battle of Blood Island and Last Woman on Earth were both two week shoots that went smoothly. In fact they went so smoothly and morale was so high that a week into the latter, Corman phoned home and asked Charles Griffith to write a third picture, a comedy horror in the vein of the pair of highly successful quickies they'd shot in 1958, A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. Griffith was experienced writing for Corman and he was as fast as Towne was slow, so faced with writing an entire feature in a single week for a cast that was already on site, he recycled his script for Thunder Over Hawaii to become Creature from the Haunted Sea. It had the same leads as Last Woman on Earth, Antony Carbone and Betsy Jones-Moreland, with Towne thrown in to boot. Not meeting Corman's deadline for Last Woman on Earth therefore got him stuck with two acting roles, both of which he completed under the pseudonym of Edward Wain.

The other reason a third picture was viable was because Corman's assistant, Kinta Zabel, flew in with money left over from another movie Corman was financing back home. The Wild Ride came about when Harvey Berman, who taught high school drama and ran a film class, suggested that he could shoot a juvenile delinquent film with his students for a tiny budget. Corman agreed but looked over the first day's footage and found it amateurish, so he sent his art director and a pair of his stock actors, including Jack Nicholson. He gave Zabel a $30k cheque to cover all costs and asked him to bring whatever remained to San Juan. Enough was left for five days of production. Griffith's script arrived on the last Thursday of the Last Woman on Earth shoot; Corman rewrote parts of it that night. They photocopied it on the Friday and gave it to the cast, Zabel locked in locations on the Saturday, they planned shots on Sunday and began shooting on the Monday.
What resulted was a bad movie but a fun one. It doesn't have the unlikely substance of A Bucket of Blood or The Little Shop of Horrors, but it unfolds well for the most part and doesn't get boring. The story revolves around a strongbox full of gold stolen from the Cuban treasury as Castro took over. Surviving Batista officials spirited it away but, needing a way to get it out of Cuba, unwisely decided to trust an American gangster called Renzo Capetto. They'll give him a quarter of it and use the rest for their counter-revolution, but you won't be surprised to find that Capetto promptly conjures up a plan to keep all of it. He and his henchmen will slowly bump off the Cubans at sea, while blaming their disappearances on a sea monster. They use a plunger to leave sucker tracks and a rake to leave claw marks. The catch is that there really is a sea monster and it kills Cubans as fast as they can in exactly the same way, leading to some fun confusion.

I'm sure you can imagine the sort of sea monster built with this sort of notice. Stuck designing it was Beach Dickerson, who like everyone in Corman's company ended up doing whatever needed to be done at the time. Primarily an actor, throughout a four decade career he also produced and directed, but he'd laugh to find that IMDb lists his most famous work as 'Costume Department, Creature from the Haunted Sea'. There to handle sound for Last Woman on Earth, he handled that role for this film too, played one of Capetto's henchmen and was tasked to build the monster, even though his experience with monsters was scuttling around in a crab suit in Attack of the Crab Monsters. He turned five helmets from Battle of Blood Island into one large head with tennis balls for eyes and table tennis balls for pupils. He stuck moss and brillo pads onto a wetsuit with black oilcloth to look slimy and pipecleaners for claws. It's utterly ridiculous but in a fun way.

After all, there's no way anyone could take this movie seriously; the introductions we're given to Capetto's gang hammer that home. He's 'the most trusted man ever to be deported from Sicily', whose pseudonyms range from Zeppo Staccato to Shirley L'Amour. He was 'rejected by the Navy, Marines and SS'. Anthony Carbone riffs on Humphrey Bogart and he's fun to watch. Betsy Jones-Moreland treats his moll, Mary-Belle Monahan, to an outrageous southern drawl. She wiped out a police chief convention at the Hollywood Bowl with a tommy gun and dealt heroin at Boys Town. Her brother, Happy Jack, developed a muscle spasm from watching too many Bogie movies. This part was written for Corman but in such a way that he couldn't play it. He cast Bobby Bean, who had been in The Wild Ride and flew to San Juan just in case there was something for him to do. As Pete Peterson Jr, Dickerson is like the fourth Stooge, a half retarded animal imitator.
Handling the introductions is Robert Towne, who showed in Last Woman on Earth that for a writer he wasn't a bad actor, but you wouldn't believe it from this evidence. He wildly overplays his role as Sparks Moran, an inept American spy known as XK150. His part was bulked up in 1963 when Corman had Monte Hellman shoot additional scenes in Santa Monica to pad the film out to a TV friendly 74 minutes. The opening scenes with Hellman's wife as fellow spy XK120 are surreal and hilarious, even though he's reminiscent of Nicolas Cage trying to look surreptitious. He kisses her goodbye suavely then trips over the staircase; the acting is terrible but the timing is awesome and they play it all delightfully straight. Griffith's script is flawed in the extreme but it has a lot of wit. Later in the film, Moran woos Mary-Belle outrageously, with no success. Jones-Moreland has great fun rejecting both him and the Cuban general, Tostada, with delightfully snarky rejoinders.

Looking back in an interview with Tom Weaver, she suggested that the movie 'started out to be a takeoff on everything Roger had ever done before. It was to be a comedy, a laugh a minute. Then all of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of it, that got lost and it got to be serious!' The second act is certainly lacking, but the third hints at slapstick as characters fall for other characters in a daisy chain of unwanted advances. Happy Jack wants Carmelita, discovered at a sorority house; Carmelita wants Sparks; Sparks wants Mary-Belle and Mary-Belle wants and has Renzo Capetto. Of course, the monster wants everybody. The poster asks us to 'not give away the answer to the secret' but it's that the monster wins, in Corman's favourite of all his endings, which he dictated over the phone to Griffith. With most of the cast dead, it survives, sitting on the strongbox at the bottom of the sea in a brief shot that has led to this film being called Corman's most personal.

In his autobiography, Corman states that 'the craziness of the shoot showed in the finished film,' and I'd heartily agree. The serious pulp story Griffith wrote for Thunder Over Hawaii and rewrote for Beast from Haunted Cave doesn't stand up in the slightest as a parody of those films, but the energy is palpable. The leads were making their second of two films back to back, while some of the crew were making their third in five weeks, but nobody shows signs of flagging. The movie is held together with little more than goofy energy but that's precisely what they aimed for, spicing up many shots with delicious narration and dialogue heavy ones by adding movement. One has characters throwing a coconut around a palm grove while they talk like it's an American football. Tommy Wiseau must have been paying attention, though clearly not to Corman's money saving ideas. 'Nobody was making movies like these,' said Corman, but that's because only he could.

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