Sunday, May 6, 2012

PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES (1955), OCTAMAN (1976)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *psychological, cosmological*, (2) cosmological

“The sea rules us, Mister Baxter”—Dr. King in PHANTOM

These two films, though separated by a couple of decades, both deal with marine monsters, both of which are called “sea serpents” during their respective stories, even though neither one looks like the least bit like the traditional monster.  Both, like 1954’s CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON, offer their audiences a “close encounter” with a nonhuman life-form, and as such fall under the Campbellian function of the cosmological.

PHANTOM is not an easy film to watch. Though it sports an interesting Lou Rusoff script, Dan Milner’s direction is listless, hardly ever varying from a standard mid-level shot.  It’s perhaps best seen as a collection of themes that Rusoff would explore to better effect a year later with Edward Cahn on SHE CREATURE.
First we see a classic shaggy-dog joke, played for pathos: a fisherman goes fishing and gets caught and killed by a “fish”—the “phantom” of the title, who looks like a man with a dragon’s-head.  The fisherman and his boat, both showing evidence of burns that should be impossible at sea, both wash ashore.  They’re not the first such casualties, which prompts government agent Grant to arrive on the beachside scene.  While examining the evidence, Grant meets two suspicious individuals: young George, who works for the nearby oceanographic institute, and a man who initially calls himself Stevens.  His real name is later revealed as “Ted Baxter”—which name had no special connotations in those pre-MARY TYLER MOORE days—and that he too is an oceanographic expert.  Agent Grant eventually discovers that the government sent Baxter as an unofficial covert agent, because Baxter has become notorious for an experiment which Grant describes as a potential “death ray,” though its main application was using radiation on marine life.

Shortly thereafter the audience meets Dr. King, the obsessed-seeming supervisor of the institute, and his daughter Lois, first seen complaining about how he’s been “neglecting” her for his work.  King has his own complaints, for he suspects that both his employee George and his secretary Ethel are spying on him.  Later he’s proven right, though Ethel is spying for the U.S. government (because her son was one of the victims of the monster) while George has been suborned into a life of espionage by foreign spy Wanda.

And King has good reason to fear being exposed: like a sea-happy Doctor Frankenstein, he’s activated a deposit of uranium on the nearby ocean floor, which casts forth a gleaming “shaft of light” and which is guarded by the Phantom.  The reasons behind the monster’s actions are never explored: one presumes that it’s pleased with its mutation and so guards the source of it, though the trope evoked feels more like the notion of the dragon guarding his gold.

It also comes out that King derived his out-of-control experiment from Baxter’s research, giving Baxter a strong motivation to uncover King’s secret.  Unlike many similar mad-scientist films, King is not the least bit hostile toward Baxter’s investigations, and seems to encourage Baxter’s attentions toward Lois.  Oddly, at one point he invites Baxter to come calling at King’s house.  Baxter walks in on Lois when she’s coming out of the shower.  “Your father told me to open the door and come in,” explains Baxter in a line rife with Freudian potential.  Lois gets mad at her father but not at Baxter, another odd turn on the usual courting-tropes.

Grant and Baxter team up to investigate the monster, but since the Phantom’s confined to the ocean, Rusoff’s script brings in George as a secondary menace, for he tries to kill Grant with a spear-gun and both men with poison capsules while trying to get access to King’s research.  He does succeed in killing Ethel but is eventually taken prisoner.  King, finally overcome with remorse for the monster’s killings, uses a bomb to destroy himself, the deposit and his blasphemous creation.

The espionage-angle makes PHANTOM an odd entry in the 1950s monster sweepstakes, establishing an odd parallel between the way civilians are seduced by the spy life, with Grant making use of Ethel much the same way Wanda makes use of George—though Wanda’s methods include literal seduction.  The female principle gets rather unusual handling in the script.  Though Lois is fairly colorless, Wanda is described as a mixture of “beauty and poison,” Ethel is threatened twice with a spear-gun (once by George, once by King) before George uses that weapon to kill her, and King describes science as a “devouring mistress.”  As with many earlier mad-scientist movies, the implication seems to be that only individual scientists are responsible for reckless tamperings with nature, and that only the government can control such matters.

OCTAMAN literally revisits the storyline of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, being an uncredited quasi-remake of CREATURE by its original scripter Harry Essex, who also directed.  In the wilds of an unnamed Latin American country, a troupe of scientists, funded by a money-hungry promoter, search through a inland series of lakes, looking for a so-called “sea serpent”—though it’s really the “Octaman,” a humanoid being with the features and extra arms of an octopus.

Essex blamed the failure of the film on the risible costume, and it’s true that it’s a bad one, given a design that only modern CGI might make impressive.  But Essex’s direction is just adequate—OK with actors, not that good with scenery—and his script also fails to evoke even a tenth of the mystery found in CREATURE, or for that matter, KING KONG.  The promoter directly references KONG, apparently with the notion that he can capture the Octaman and exhibit him—meaning that he must not have seen the end of the picture.

Essex’s script is also murky about the Octaman’s powers of reproduction.  Unlike the denizen of the Black Lagoon, the Octaman has apparently fathered a mini-octopoid, for it’s seen at the film’s beginning when Octaman rescues it from a fisherman.  But it’s never seen again, and it’s not clear if the creature has any ardent feelings toward the crew’s female member (Pier Angeli).  Only at the end does Angeli do one thing that Fay Wray didn’t do: to distract the creature from her lover, she offers herself to the Octaman.  He carries her away, presumably to experiment with hybrid vigor, only to be blasted down by the menfolk.  Thankfully no one quotes the final line from KONG.

To paraphase Dino deLaurentis, “Nobody cry when Octaman die.”

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