Creature from the Haunted Sea directed by Roger Corman
On the front cover of Ed Naha’s indispensable book The Films of Roger Corman there is a subtitle that reads “Brilliance on a Budget,” and a look at Corman’s working schedule and method of production will surely bear out that statement. Take, for example, the background for his 1961 film Creature from the Haunted Sea. As the story goes, Corman and crew were in Puerto Rico in 1959, where Corman was executive producing the film The Battle of Blood Island at the same time as he was directing his own film The Last Woman on Earth. Realizing that if he had another week on the island he could just manage to come up with still ANOTHER picture, Corman instructed his oft-time screenwriter Charles Griffith (who had previously worked on no fewer than seven Corman films, including such immortal classics as It Conquered the World, Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Bucket of Blood) to come up with a script … in under a week! The script was somehow delivered and Corman managed to shoot his film in just five days! (He would go on to break that record the following year with The Little Shop of Horrors‘ two-day shooting schedule!) And the resultant picture has been flabbergasting and amusing its audiences ever since its release in June ’61.
In the film, deported American gangster/gambler Renzo Capetto (Anthony Carbone, here channeling the Bogart of To Have and Have Not right down to perfectly mouth-dangled cigarette), now based in Cuba, comes up with a brilliant plan. After the revolution, he is given the assignment of using his motorboat to transport a group of counter-revolutionaries, as well as a huge chunk of the Cuban gold reserve, off the island. Capetto’s plan is to somehow kill all the Cubans on board and blame their deaths on a legendary sea monster that is reputed to haunt the area. But the only problem is, the monster actually DOES exist, and it goes far in wrecking the plans of both the Cubans and Renzo and his gang.
And what a gang of bumbling misfits it is! We have Capetto’s pretty blonde moll, the hyphenated Mary-Belle Monahan (similarly hyphenated Betsy Jones-Moreland, a pleasing cross between Carol Ohmart and the young Kate Mulgrew); her stoopid brother, Happy Jack (Robert Bean, a former boom operator here playing a role sadistically written for Corman); Pete Peterson (Beach Dickerson), who largely communicates via animal imitations (!); and our narrator, Sparks Moran, who in actuality is the incredibly dim-witted secret agent XK-150, and played by Edward Wain (a pseudonym for Robert Towne, who had scripted Last Woman on Earth and would go on to write the screenplays for The Last Detail, Chinatown, and Shampoo!).
It seems that this Corman quickie is a very loose remake of the director’s own Naked Paradise, which had just been released four years earlier, and is a remarkably cheaply-made film, even by Corman standards; I have not been able to come up with a firm figure for the film’s budget, but cannot imagine it topping the reported approximate figure of $30,000 for Little Shop of Horrors the following year. Indeed, the monster on display here is guaranteed to engender laughs rather than chills, and almost looks like the type of creature that you might find on a kiddies’ Saturday morning puppet show on TV; the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street might be a good base for comparison, if you are trying to visualize it!
It is hard to be critical of a film like this, as Creature from the Haunted Sea was clearly intended to be nothing more than a light goofy comedy (that combines horror, gangster and spy elements), and the cast surely does seem to be having a ball on-screen in their tropical island paradise. So does the comedy work? Well, I must admit that during the first half of the film (meaning the first 30 minutes of this 63-minute affair; it should be added here that 10+ additional minutes were shot, in 1963, for television prints, which explains the Maltin Film Guide’s listing of 74 minutes for the picture in question), the comedy is so very lame that it is more groanable than laffable. But guess what? Somehow, the cumulative effect of all the patent stoopidity on screen somehow begins to grow on one, until the viewer is somehow sucked inexorably into the silly shenanigans on screen. Thus, when Sparks tells us in deadpan voice-over “It was dusk … I could tell because the sun was going down…” we are primed for laughter, rather than being pained. And the film surely does become loopier and loopier as it proceeds, especially when the gang members land on a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico and fall in love with some of the native women.
Truly, this is not the sort of film in which one comments on brilliant acting (the thesping on display here is of the most amateurish ilk), stunning special effects (the creature looks like a mass of seaweed strewn over a garbage bag, with ping-pong ball eyes … which is not far from the actuality), stylish direction (Corman’s work here is, well, workmanlike and efficient, if nothing more) or clever dialogue (I’ve already given you one of the more choice and quotable bits). The bottom line here is whether or not the film is entertaining, and I suppose that my response to that must be a qualified yes. Creature from the Haunted Sea will surely not be everyone’s cup of tea, and indeed, may be only suitable for that unique breed of individual known as the Roger Corman completist. For this viewer, the film was the 39th Corman-directed film that I have seen, and I do not regret having spent an hour of my life sitting before it and yes, occasionally laffing out loud.