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THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES (1956)

"It was being guarded by a – a sea serpent! A hideous beast that defies description!"

Director: Dan Milner

Starring: Kent Taylor, Cathy Downs, Michael Whalen, Rodney Bell, Philip Pine, Vivi Janiss, Helene Stanton

Screenplay: Lou Rusoff

Synopsis: While out with his nets, a fisherman sees a strange light in the ocean. A monster rises from near the light, knocking the man into the water and dragging him to his death. His body and the boat later wash up on the beach. While walking on the beach, Ted Baxter (Kent Taylor) sees someone standing over the body, who flees as he approaches. Ted examines the body, and as he is doing so is questioned by William S. Grant (Rodney Bell), a Special Investigator for the Department of Defense. Ted explains that he is in town to see Professor King (Michael Whalen), the head of the Pacific College of Oceanography, then points out that the fisherman’s body and his boat seem to have radiation burns. As the two men are talking, Grant sees someone watching them from the bushes. Calling the man out, Grant identifies him as George Thomas (Philip Pine), Professor King’s assistant. Nearby, Professor King enters his house hurriedly. His daughter, Lois (Cathy Downs), notices that his shoes and pants legs are soaking wet. King explains that he was collecting marine specimens. Lois observes that he appears to be working harder than ever with the College on vacation, and tells him that George, his assistant, and Ethel (Vivi Janiss), his secretary, are constantly questioning her about his work, which he keeps secret. King reacts angrily. There is a knock at the door, and King instructs Lois to tell their visitor that he has been asleep in bed for the past hour. As King goes into his room, Lois admits Ted, who asks to see King. Lois tells her father’s story, but Ted notices wet footprints on the floor. Insisting that his business is urgent, Ted makes Lois enter King’s bedroom. To Lois’s surprise and embarrassment, they find that King has left through the window. The next morning, Ted is examining the fisherman’s burned boat with a Geiger counter when he is again accosted by Grant, who tells him that he knows his real name is Ted Stevens, and that he is an expert on the effects of radiation on marine life. At the College, Ethel tries to gather information about King’s experiments. George catches her with a paper dropped by King, and tells her that any help she gives him in uncovering King’s secrets could be worth a lot of money. When Ethel threatens to turn him in to King, George in turn threatens her with a spear gun. In his laboratory, King conducts an experiment with a small turtle, exposing it to a source of light similar to that out in the ocean. Ted takes out a small boat and goes out diving in the area where the fisherman was attacked. As he explores the ocean floor, he sees first the strange light, then the hideous creature that seems to be guarding it….

Comments: The main claim to fame of The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues is that it was an early release of the American Releasing Corporation (nice generic name, that!) which very shortly afterwards, like one of its own creatures exposed to a strange power source, mutated into the immortal AIP. The only other thing about the film that is in any way remarkable is that it violates every known tenet of monster-film making by giving everyone a clear, unobstructed look at its monster within the first forty-five seconds of screentime.

Now, there are several reasons why they really shouldn’t have done this. One is a little thing called "suspense", a concept clearly unfamiliar to the brothers Milner who, not content with their opening scene, proceed to give away the identity of the person responsible for the creature’s existence within the first twenty minutes. (Okay, this is a fifties science fiction film, so it ain’t going to be too hard to guess. But still….)

The second reason this clearly shot attack scene is a bad idea is that the extent to which the film’s title is an exaggeration becomes immediately apparent. Rather than coming from the promised "10,000 leagues" or even [cough] fathoms, the Phantom’s habitat is a comfy twenty feet below the surface. The final reason the Milners might have been better off trying a little discretion is that their monster is really, really crappy. This rigid, unblinking, wobbly-tusked creature is capable of only two actual movements: it can open and close its mouth (although to very little purpose) and it can wave its arms a bit.

Rowboats appear to be the only kind of vessel owned by anyone in this beachside community, and the Phantom carries on its reign of terror by bumping the underside of the boats with its horn and tipping the occupants into the water. (My least favourite boat convention is the one that says anyone falling out of a boat will surface about ten yards away. My second least favourite is the one that gets a workout here: anyone falling out of a boat will scream with terror, despite having no reason to do so.) The Phantom then launches its "savage" attack by grabbing its victims by one leg. Unfortunately (as was rightly pointed out by Tabitha, our local cable horror hostess), this leg-obsession looks less like a violent attacking motion than it does like a motion usually associated with over-excited dogs.

Once our introduction to this unimpressive monster is complete, we then get acquainted with the rest of the cast, most of whom are gathered on one of the most crowded sections of "deserted beach" I’ve ever seen. The fisherman’s body is discovered by "someone" in sneakers (don’t worry, the Milners will tell us who in about two minutes), then by scientist-with-a-secret Ted Baxter aka Stevens, then by Federal Investigator Bill Grant, then by George Thomas, whose motto seems to be "spear guns – don’t leave home without one". We then meet Professor King, he of the suspiciously damp sneakers, and his uh-oh-here-comes-the-love-interest daughter, Lois.

King is a genius, so of course his daughter is a total dimwit. (I prefer the version of this situation suggested by "The Simpsons", in which Lisa fails to inherit the dreaded "Simpsons’ gene" because it’s Y-linked.) Lois’s relationship with Ted Stevens is extremely painful. In this kind of film, a "cute-meet" is inevitable, but Ted and Lois do nothing but "cute-meet". First, she admits him to her father’s bedroom, only to discover that King has escaped through the window. Then, after encountering the Phantom, Ted wanders up the sand still looking back at the water and, with an entire beach to choose from, manages to step on Lois as she lies on a towel.

Finally, we get the shower scene. The Kings occupy a beach house with a clear glass window in the front door, one not covered by a curtain. So naturally, when Lois takes a shower she leaves her clothes out in the lounge-room. And even more naturally, knowing that his daughter showers mid-afternoon after swimming, Professor King invites strange young men to "just go in – the door’s always unlocked". Now, can we see where this is headed?

But that wasn’t enough for the Milners: they had to follow this tripe with an "oh, dear, my zipper’s stuck" scene. The couple spend most of their time walking on the beach – as you would, with a new corpse washed up every night; and there is a supremely stupid moment when Ted and Lois discover one of these while walking towards her house. Ted tells Lois to go home, and she turns and runs back the way they came! Fortunately, the Lois-Ted guff is interspersed with some extremely silly pseudo-science, a ludicrous spy sub-plot, and – as a glance at our "Immortal Dialogue" section will confirm – a seemingly endless supply of deeply purple prose.

The main culprit in this respect is King himself, whose standing as a "brilliant scientist" is mainly reflected in his dedication to his wardrobe. Upon entering his office, King takes off his jacket, hangs it up, then puts on his lab coat. Then he unlocks his lab (trying the wrong key first each time). Then, inside his lab, he takes off his lab coat, hangs it up, and puts on his radiation suit. When he leaves the lab, the entire ritual is, of course, reversed. King seems to have some very odd idea of the responsibilities of his profession. He does, briefly, reflect that he should be willing to sacrifice his life for his work, but he seems more enthusiastic over his second thought: that he should be willing to sacrifice a bunch of other people, too. Certainly, he shows precious little remorse over, or even interest in, the mounting pile of corpses being washed up at his doorstep. It is not until a tanker explodes after travelling over the "activated" uranium deposit (and you may well ask what a tanker was doing that close to shore) that he seems to realise that his "death ray" might have a down side. At that, King works himself up to Do The Right Thing, and in a fairly unlikely climax destroys the uranium deposit, the Phantom and himself with a couple of sticks of dynamite.

King’s action also puts paid to the machinations of just about everyone else in the film. His secretary, Ethel, has been spying on him for reasons that are never made quite clear. (One interesting point: Ethel hates King because her son was drowned while collecting specimens for him, yet she is quite clearly referred to throughout as "Miss". Advanced ideas, I wonder, or just sloppy writing…?) Ethel ends up with a spear in the back courtesy of George, King’s assistant, who is trying to sell his secrets to Unspecified Bad People. The representative of the Bad People, a female spy called Wanda, makes the goons from KAOS seem like dedicated professionals.

Slinking around like a poor – make that broke - man’s Mata Hari, and with an accent that would be right at home coming from a drunken Bela Lugosi impersonator, Helene Stanton’s Wanda sinks this film to embarrassing depths. That said, she and George make a great couple, if only for their mutually appalling taste in clothing. George fancies shirts and ties that lean to the, shall we say, colourful; while Wanda’s flounced and frilled strapless white one-piece must be seen to be believed.

The final people snooping into King’s secret experiments are Bill Grant, a Federal Investigator, and Ted Stevens himself, who turns out to be working for the government as well, and whose background is revealed in one of The Phantom’s sillier scenes. Exposition is often clumsily handled in films like this, and here Bill Grant simply recites Ted’s resume, while Ted stands there smirking at him. Ted is one of filmdom’s least likely undercover agents. The explanation offered is that the government wanted "two completely different investigations" (Kent Taylor’s reading here makes this sound like "two completely indifferent investigations", which is closer to the truth) and so sent in a scientist without telling their actual investigator. Now you might just be able to swallow this; but do you really think that the government would have chosen an agent whose publishing company has the odd habit of putting enormous photographs of their authors on the front of their books? Since King seems to be the only other person working in Ted’s field, it was hardly likely that he wouldn’t be recognised.

But there is another reason why Ted would never have been used for government work, and it is here, briefly, that The Phantom becomes rather intriguing. (Don’t worry: I’m sure it was unintentional.) Many science fiction and horror films are exasperating in seeming to feel that the correct response to an experiment that goes wrong is not to do any other experiments at all (I’ve complained about this before, specifically in reviewing Jeckyll & Hyde (1990)). Ted Stevens is interesting as a rare cinematic scientist who, realising that his work was going in dangerous directions, simply stopped it and did something else. And this is precisely why he would never have been taken into government employ. I can believe that "Washington" knew all about Ted’s work; however, I can’t believe that "Washington" would have allowed him to just give it away. In an era when Robert Oppenheimer suffered intense persecution as a result of trying to prevent the development of the hydrogen bomb, it’s hard to believe that a scientist who developed a "workable death ray" and then dropped it would be regarded as anything other than a major security risk – not to mention frankly un-American. Still, I’m sure none of this occurred to either Lou Rusoff or the Milners. That it occurred to me is probably no more than a sign that The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues is somewhat less than completely intellectually engaging.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB

Immortal Dialogue