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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Monster from the Ocean Floor

On the surface (no pun intended), this movie has little going for it for the sci-fi fan. It fits better into the monster/horror genre, as the monster isn't created by science gone awry. It "just is." However, there is some family pedigree that makes Monster from the Ocean Floor (MOF) a candidate for this study. First off, it has Roger Corman as the Producer. This was his first solo effort as Producer. Corman would go on to give us several more B-grade sci-fi films which would regularly make peoples' so-bad-they're-good lists. Secondly, MOF features Wyott Ordung as Director. Ordung wrote the screenplay for Robot Monster and helped on the screenplay for Target Earth. With these men involved, it merits at least one sitting.

Quick Plot Synopsis
While on vacation in Mexico, a young beautiful blonde woman hears about a "devil" monster which has taken several villagers over the years. She meets a dashing, handsome and single marine biologist and the buds of romance begin to sprout. She becomes determined to find out about this monster and do something about it. Her new boyfriend can only muster condescension. Pablo, an old local (actually played by Ordung) tells of a one-eyed beast which rises from the surf at each full moon. It just so happens that the next night is a full moon. Julie is frightened by a cow loose on the beach. She catches a glimpse of the creature in the surf before fainting. The next day, only the cow bell remains. A local old woman decides that Julie must be sacrificed to the beast to appease it. Pablo is her minion. He tries three times to get her killed off, not by feeding her to the creature, but by letting a shark get her, or her scuba tanks sabotaged. (just how this would appease the beast is unclear). Pablo has a change of heart and gives up the plan. Her boyfriend, Steve, is moving on to another area to research. She stays to look for the monster. On one excursion, she apparently snags the monster with her boat anchor. She sends some of the scraped off goo to Steve. He analyzes it and decides that she was right, there is a monster and rushes back. He arrives just as Julie is scuba diving alone to find the monster. She does, screams under water, and faints (also under water). Steve jumps into the mini-sub to go save her. He does this by ramming the sub into the creature's one big eye. He pulls limp Julie up to the surface. She's fine. They kiss and ride off together. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
The premise is pure monster story, so there's a familiar plot pattern to just sit on the couch and mindlessly enjoy. Yes, you can predict just about every event, but that's part of the charm. The mini-sub is almost the real star of this movie -- the actual hero. It is pretty cool.

Cold War Angle
As a simple monster story, there's almost none of the Cold War themes in it. The only thin connection is Steve and Julie musing about whether the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll somehow caused the monster, since it first appeared in 1946, though half a world away. None of this is developed, however.

Mixed Heroine -- One notable feature of MOF is how it centers around Julie, rather than the men. In some ways, she's a foreshadow of the (later) liberated heroines of the later decades. She (alone) feels the altruism to help the villages by finding and confronting the mystery beast. The men around her are too self-absorbed or flagrantly chauvinistic. "You're a lovely girl, Julie, but lovely girls just don't go running around worrying about non-existant sea monsters." Yet, for all her noble resolve, the Julie character is still saddled with the usual frail-female stereotypes. She screams and runs at the slightest things. She trips over nothing while running away (a movie female staple) and faints. Julie, the conflicted-heroic, is an interesting study in character development.

Scuba Sells! -- Underwater cinematography made Creature from the Black Lagoon a big hit. Audiences thought it was cool. MOF gives them a lot more underwater footage with little more going on that a diver swimming or the min-sub puttering along. The visuals themselves were presumed exotic enough on their own. Later movies would include scuba footage too, to tap into the craze, so having so much of it in MOF makes it noteworthy -- even if it comes across as padding today. Back then, it had appeal.

Star Sub -- The one man, pedal powered minisub gets a LOT of screen time. It's as though Corman and Ordung were personally very impressed with the big boy toy and might have come up with a movie in which to star it. The mini-sub was developed by Aerojet General (a weapons contractor) as a possible Navy scuba tool. When a government contract didn't pan out, they offered it for sale at Abercrombe & Fitch. The pedal-propelled model sold for $4,850. This was a very heft sum in 1954, over a year's pay for the middle-class working stiff. Working guys couldn't afford it, and rich guys don't pedal-power things. (too much like work). It's not too surprising that they didn't sell like hot cakes, despite Corman giving them a plug in the credits.

Pre Jaws -- In some of the underwater footage, where Julie is searching for the monster, the background music has a very familiar two-note pattern as the tension builds. John Williams may have unknowingly been influenced by movies like MOF when writing the score for Jaws. Watch MOF and listen for yourself.

Monster: Man-made or All Natural? -- Like many monster movies (as opposed to sci-fi), the one-eyed thing "just is." The dialogue describes it as shapeless, like an amoeba, but this looked too silly on screen, so Corman had a more shape-ful quasi-octopus monster grafted in. There's a bit of vague conjecture that A-bomb tests. The old fisherman villager, Pablo, conjectures that sometimes "nature, in her way, do many strange things." Science is not clearly to blame for this beast, so it's left as "just is."

Poor Production -- One inescapable feature of MOF is the very B-grade production quality. The photography is okay. The sound track, however, is all over the place. At times, when it's a musical score over some underwater footage, it's almost pleasant. At other times, the natural sound and dialog has been overdubbed with stock sound effects (swooshing water in a tub) and re-dubbed voices which sound like they were reciting their lines while standing inside of steel drums. As intrusive as the poor sound is, it's nowhere near as surreal as the total dubbing in Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), so one has to admit, it could be worse.

Bottom line? MOF doesn't try to be much, so in that regard, it doesn't fail much either. There's nothing compelling or thought provoking. It's just a plain ol' monster story with the usual elements. For the 50s sci-fi movie tourist, it's worth at least a stop to see the man who gave us Ro-Man, Wyott Ordung (both his directing and the man), as well as see Corman's first production. It's not a movie worth buying, but renting...maybe. Watch for free, certainly.

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