Saturday, November 21, 2015

TSFO Octopus Arm: Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954)

Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954)
Dir.: Wyott Ordung
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Creatures: shark, octopus, and a monstrous octopus-like thing with a glowing eye.

Monsters, nuclear waste, girls in trouble, sharks... some of the essential elements of low-budget "B" movie thrills back in the 1950s. It helps even more if the girl is in a swimsuit and is wet half of the film, and if the monster is a giant octopus of some indeterminate species, and if the giant octopus has a single eye the size of a cargo hatch and the creature glows due to possible exposure to nuclear testing. And, oh yeah, sharks...

Roger Corman had all of these elements down already in 1954 in his very first full producing credit, Monster from the Ocean Floor. The film is clearly influenced by the previous year's big monster hit, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Corman and first-time director Wyott Ordung seem to be taking great pains to try and replicate the thrilling underwater sequences that made Universal's film an instant classic. Great pains, maybe, but with a much lower budget, and so there is an obvious drop in quality when things are done on the cheap like this.

Still, the filmmakers get a lot of mileage from several shots of lead actress Anne Kimbell's eyes freaking out behind her goggles when her tourist turned skin diver character encounters various creatures underwater throughout the film. Her character, Julie, is an odd one. She seems incapable of walking down the beach without fainting at the slightest provocation, but when no one believes that she has seen something out of the ordinary (especially the marine biologist who is obviously trying to get into her pants), she doesn't hesitate to go out diving by herself over and over again in dark, strange waters to find some evidence that she was right. I want to give Corman and Co. some credit for making their heroine so self-sufficient throughout most of Monster from the Ocean Floor, but then they keep reminding us they have her on the standard "fainting girl" leash, and tug her back to perform her required duties as a helpless blonde.

On one of these trips, she runs into a very large octopus -- not the monster of the title, though -- and her reaction at its sudden appearance jars her immensely. As the camera zooms in on her face, there is a drum roll on the soundtrack, and the camera cuts to a stock footage shot of a giant octopus, not really being menacing, just doing what it does in the water. But the camera cuts back to Julia's face mask and the sheer terror her eyes suggest behind it. Of course, she skedaddles, and when she reaches Steve on the surface, he tells her, "An octopus is the biggest coward in the sea." It is kind of cute, and unintentionally funny (I think) when he asks her how big the octopus is, and she just throws her arms out as wide as possible like a little child would.


After Julia finds out from the locals that the disappearances of villagers being attributed to an unknown creature off the shore begin in 1946, it doesn't take her (or us) long to connect the dots. However, what she doesn't realize is that she has become the focal point of the village's mob rule belief that the monster can be convinced to simply go away if the proper sacrifice is given. And Julie is that gift. While Julie wades into the water to begin a dive to find more information, Pablo runs into the surf, cuts his hand open, drips blood into the churning water, and then walks back to show with a satisfied grin on his mug. Since this is unlikely to do much in the way of bringing danger to the girl, it plays like a monumentally stupid scene.

But it leads to the diving sequence, which is the best filmed (perhaps accidentally) part of the film. After swimming about through the kelp forest (according to Roger Corman's autobiography, the diving scenes were filmed off Catalina Island), Julia has another one of her "shocking moments," accompanied by the appropriately stomach-churning, percussive score, when a shark swims into view. Unlike the octopus scene, it becomes quite clear that the diving actress is in the frame with the shark and the frantic waving of her diving knife is probably a very real reaction to the situation. If not, she is a far better actress than she seems to be on land.

Since I doubt there was ever more than a single camera used underwater (it is Corman after all), it seems that the shark takes several passes at Julie. On the first pass, it seems to swim right at her face before turning to the right and gliding its body right past her. It comes back and swims right above her, and Julie waves the knife several times and even comes close to hitting the fish at one point. The next pass sees the shark swimming towards her midsection, where Julie pulls back her arms, and when the shark turns, it looks like she connects with the knife twice in the tail section. Two more passes just above Julie and then one more past her continue the excitement before the shark moves on to less stabby pastures, and Julie departs as well.

The shark appears to only be about five to six feet long, but it serves well as a momentary villain in the context of the film, even if all of the violence being attributed to sharks by the townspeople is really the work of the mysterious monster instead. Apart from the briefest of statements in Corman's book, I have yet to find any account of the filming of the shark diving sequence. If they were done in far more controlled circumstances such as in an aquarium or with safety glass, it might be more apparent, for it does appear they are truly in an ocean atmosphere. And that shark does invade Anne Kimbell's personal space more than once and quite clearly so. I find it surprising that they just decided to dive off of Catalina and waited to see what might appear and then use it in the film, but maybe this is the case. We are talking an ultra low-budget film here, and they probably just decided to shoot the works and see what they could get. If a shark molests the lead actress, then so be it.

As for that mysterious monster, its appearances are so cloaked in a Vaseline lens you'd swear it was a Penthouse photo shoot. Before the shark-diving scene, Julie walks along the beach and when something startles her, she screams and runs, only to fall down in the sand. A pretty cow with a bell hanging off a yoke is shown to be the cause of her distress, but just after we see the cow, the camera cuts to the surf and from just offshore, a glowing octopus-like creature rises above the water. It has a single, giant eyeball, and it waves its tentacles menacingly in Julie's direction. It is unclear whether Julie sees the creature or not; regardless, she passes out cold on the beach. When Julie comes to, she goes back to where the cow was, but finds only the makeshift yoke with the bell.

The cow scene leads right into the aforementioned shark scene. As I said, for a girl who faints at the sight of a cow, Julie has no qualms about diving in the waters of the Pacific Ocean unaccompanied, even when she has a burgeoning romance with a marine biologist who owns his own mini-submarine.

That's right. Steve has a mini-submarine. I didn't mention it before, because I wanted to concentrate on the shark, but we see his single-person sub throughout the picture. The little Aerojet is the way that the two of them "meet cute" at the beginning of the film. As she swims just off the beach, she gets startled by the sub coming to the surface and running into her path. Of course, after her initial anger, she falls for the guy. "Will it fly?," she asks sarcastically, and he replies without missing a beat, "Underwater!" Steve takes the Aerojet out on his own (and thereby gives us a taste of what his craft can do) and discovers an empty deep sea diving suit, fully intact exact for the wearer, and brings it back. What happened to the diver? Could it be the doings of the mysterious monster?

A bit later, Steve and Julie go diving together, but of course, he is in the relative safety of his Aerojet while Julie swims along under her own power. This also means that as he showboats, he leaves his date all alone in the open ocean. This leads into the octopus scene, which awakens Julie's curiosity about what is going on this town.

On her final solo trip into the ocean, Julie finally encounters the monster as she turns the corner around a reef. We can another one of her wild, panicked stairs while the kettle drums explode on the soundtrack. The monster is not seen very clearly -- the lens is about as foggy as can be -- but it is the same glowing, octopus-like creature that we saw off the beach. Steve has already found out that Julie is out there in the water somewhere, and even though he has no idea where she actually is, he jumps into his Aerojet to head to the rescue.

The creature starts to lurch its way towards Julie, who of course, is totally unable to swim away faster than the bumbling monster. He becomes trapped against a nook in the reef, and we get a closeup of the monster's head and eyeball as it peers in at Julie. Strange how the camera seems to be very clear as it points at Julie's panicked face, but even more foggy when trained on the monster. But here comes Steve in his rescue sub! His first pass at the monster gets waved off by a tentacle, but he turns the sub around and aims it straight at the giant head. He embeds the Aerojet fully into the monster's eye socket, and escapes out the top of the sub. Julie, and the village, are saved. The monster? Not so much.

Given the budget and varying talents at work, Monster from the Ocean Floor was far more involving than I expected. It's silly, the monster is even sillier, but I still rather enjoyed the experience of seeing it for the first time. (Until the other day, it was one of the few Corman fews I had yet to see.) And the shark scene was definitely better than I could have expected from such low-rent fare.

RTJ