Thalassophobia: a phobia of deep bodies of water, such as ocean or a lake. It’s not a fear of water itself, but more of what might lurk within it. The terrifying notion of bobbing along the surface of a vast darkness; beneath you, unknown depths and the multitude of horrors that they might hide. What’s that? Did something touch your leg? It could be seaweed, or it could be…a monster! You do not need to suffer from thalassophobia to be able to tap into that fear. It’s almost primal: just as you would naturally hesitate before entering a dark room, most of us do not like the idea of boundless amounts of water beneath our feet. Just the idea of being at the mercy of an element which is unnatural to us and could at any given moment crush or drown us like a mere bug, is terrifying and therefore, naturally offers the perfect backdrop to the most frightening, anxiety inducing, horrid kind of terror.
First a brief word about the term “aquatic horror” and what exactly do I mean by it. Technically this terminology could encompass pretty much any type of horror that simply happens in a maritime setting, after all, the word aquatic merely refers to something occurring in water. However, the simple presence of watery location does not necessarily an aquatic horror make. For example, Alvin Rakoff’s 1980 Death Ship or Steve Beck’s 2002 Ghost Ship, both happen at sea, but are essentially in the subgenre of ghost horror rather than aquatic horror. Same is true of Christopher Smith’s 2009 maritime romp Triangle, which blends sci-fi and horror in a claustrophobic reality loop fashion, but besides taking place on a boat, does not directly concern horrors that stem from the sea. Aquatic horror is something that draws its power from the sea (or other body of water) and the terrors that lurk within it. Sometimes outlandishly fictitious, sometimes something that genuinely exists in the world, the variety of aquatic monsters is as vast as the sea itself. Some scarier are than others, but all equally utilizing that same fear of the unknown: the fear of that what swims underneath your feet.
Like most monster films, the roots of aquatic horror go as far back as 1927 to Harry O. Hoyt’s silent fantasy adventure The Lost World. The pioneering stop motion techniques of Willis O’Brien featuring various prehistoric beasts, paved the way for films such as King Kong (1933, also O’Brien), which in turn would go on to inspire a whole genre involving giant creatures, including those that inhabit the underwater domain. The themes and trends of these creature features have morphed and shifted throughout the decades, reflecting the atmosphere from which they sprang and engaging with the prominent fears and doomsday scenarios of their times, most conspicuous of these perhaps being the atomic fears of the 1950’s creature features. This naturally encompassed much more than just the ones involving seaside terrors, with monsters of all shapes and sizes being brought to existence by the newly found horrors of the nuclear age, but nevertheless, many notable films examining these well justified fears of the day do involve monsters of aquatic nature.
The film often cited as having started it all is Eugène Lourié’s 1953 monster mash, The Beast from 20, 000 fathoms. It is one the first, if not the first, atomic monster films and in its wake the cinematic landscape of creature features was never quite the same. While it went on to inspire numerous copycat projects (many of them covered in this article), it’s greatest legacy to the world of science fiction is undoubtedly the birth of the Godzilla franchise, first of which followed the The Beast just months after its release.
But more on the mighty Gojira later, first we must travel to the icy plains of the Arctic Circle where a giant prehistoric beast, more specifically Rhedosaurus, gets rudely awaken by nuclear bomb tests conducted by American scientists. Physicist Dr. Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid) is the only one left to tell the tale of the mighty beast and despite his esteemed career and reputation, it is not until the monster begins to make its way towards coast of North America wreaking havoc on its way, that people starts to listen to his (not so) crazy stories. Together with palaeontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), his plucky young assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and a little help from the US armed forces, he must find a way to destroy the beast before it destroys humanity.
Loosely based on a short story titled “The Fog Horn” by the legendary sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was in fact the original title of Bradbury’s story but he renamed it after selling the story rights to Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester), The Beast does not shy away from the horrors of the atomic age, instead taking a full advantage of these new found terrors. The film’s titular monster might not be created by atomic testing, but it’s sudden presence in our reality is a direct result of using them and by abusing those powers humanity might have just signed it’s own death warrant. In her essay Darwin and The Atom: Evolution/Devolution Fantasies in the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them! And The Incredible Shrinking Man Cynthia Hendershot contemplates the significance of this monster being awoken by atomic forces and how something prehistoric coming back to life through these means makes us examine the fragility of our own existence in the face of the new atomic age: are humans to become the next dinosaurs, doomed for extinction? She goes on to compare the creatures attack on New York city to an atomic bomb attack, pointing out the similarities of the two very different catastrophes: both attacks drive people underground to seek shelter, both wipe out cityscapes in blink of an eye and both been brought to existence by new technology whose power humans do not fully understand or control. Like the atomic bomb, the creature also brings with it an invisible terror as it carries germs long lost to this world and that puny humans have no way of fighting off. Like the poor souls exposed to radiation, the soldiers fighting the monster collapse and die after being infected by these terrifying unseen forces. But it’s not all doom and gloom. As is the case in many monster features of the atomic age, the very thing that caused the problem in the first place, also ends up being our salvation. In the case the The Beast the creature is finally beaten by jamming a rifle grenade loaded with a potent radioactive isotope to one of its open wounds, thus giving a slightly more positive spin on the atomic powers and their possible usage.
It is of course not just the themes of The Beast that make it the classic amongst creature features that it is. Besides being the mold that many of the subsequent films of the next decade would fashion themselves after, it does genuinely stand above most of them in story and special effects departments. Many of the cheap, half arsed copies that followed simply took the large strokes from The Beast and in their hurry, seemed to have forgotten that in order to make a good movie, you need a good script and at least some kind of attempt on actual story arc. The Beast in the other hand takes its time letting the viewer get to know the characters and build suspense and excitement around the monster as it makes its way towards New York. The Characters may be the same old stereotypes that you will see in almost any sci-fi/horror of the time, with the handsome and brave hero, older scientist with expert knowledge and a beautiful yet spirited and educated leading lady, but as The Beast does not rush around with its story, we have time to get to know and understand these characters a bit better, making them more than just mere archetypes.
While many of the ensuing sea monster films would suffer greatly from the distinct lack of monstrous screen time, this was not an issue with The Beast. Ray Harryhausen’s masterful animation sequences are as plentiful as they are beautiful and certainly have a lot to answer for when it comes to the film’s initial success, as well as it’s well deserved cult status. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the first project with Harryhausen in full charge of the technical effects and his considerable talents are more than evident even at this early stage in his career. A scene taken directly from Bradbury’s short story with the creature destroying a lonely lighthouse on the Canadian coastline is one of the most memorable giant monster scenes of all time. Equally the beast’s rampage around New York and its subsequent death in the fiery inferno of Coney Island’s amusement park are truly beautifully executed and the time and effort spent in animating these sequences is evident even when looking back at the film 70 odd years later. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is definitely the film to watch when wanting to get to know 1950’s creature features. It encapsulates the era perfectly in numerous ways and even if it’s special effects may be dated and the acting overly dramatic, it offers great monster filled entertainment suited for the whole family.
Eugène Lourié, the director of The Beast, would go on to direct further two sea monster romps, both bearing a more than slight resemblance to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. First of these was the 1959 British-American production The Giant Behemoth that took the giant rampaging monster across the pond and to the streets of London. In it a paleosaurus, mutated by nuclear testing and now saturated with radiation and able to burn anything that comes its way, makes appearance at the coast of Cornwall and Essex, before making its way up the Thames and the streets of England’s capital. It’s not doing these out of spite; the creature itself is indeed slowly dying because of the radiation and is returning to shallower waters to die in peace. This process is not quite quick enough for the good people of London, so the scientist Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) and Prof. James Bickford (André Morell), together with the British armed forces, must find a way to get rid of the beast before it destroys the whole city.
In the original script for The Giant Behemoth was an amorphous blob of radiation, but at the insistence of the film’s distributors (Allied Artists), the creature was changed to something resembling the monster that send panicked New Yorkers deep underground six years earlier. While the special effects do not quite compare to those created by Mr. Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien’s animation effects nevertheless offer some very enjoyable moments as the Behemoth rages through London. The problem however is that the monstrous action takes a tad too long to manifest, undoubtedly losing many modern viewers in the process. The first proper sightings of the creature are of its incredibly stiff, plastic looking head as it attacks a ferry on the river Thames, and these scenes of apparent horror do not unfortunately fill you with excitement for what’s to come. However, those who stick with it will be pleasantly rewarded as the creature moves on land and O’Brien’s animation sequences really come to their own. Scenes of a giant lizard knocking down walls and crushing cars as panicked masses run from the wreckage are undeniably very reminiscent of the scenes of carnage created by The Beast in New York, but nonetheless have their own unique charm to them and are for the most part, a joy to watch.
In 1961 Lourié returned to the sea monster genre for the last time with Gorgo. This British-Irish-American co-production advertised itself with the slogan “Like nothing you ever seen before!” which of course is bold-faced lie, as Gorgo very much follows in the footsteps of The Beast, The Giant Behemoth and Godzilla, offering nothing groundbreakingly new to the genre. The biggest difference between this early 1960’s creature feature and its predecessors is the motivation behind the monstrous rampage. While The Beast and The Behemoth were rebels without a cause, Gorgo in the other hand has a very good reason to be pissed off: it has just been kidnaped by greedy assholes who sell it to a London circus and use it as a tourist attraction. Luckily the mama monster, Orga, is not far behind and heroically wrecks half a London in the search for her child. In the end the two are united and return to the deep depths of the sea from where they came from.
Gorgo also no longer continues the atomic theme of Lourié’s earlier features, instead blaming a volcanic event for the creatures awakening, and the rampaging antics of Gorgo and his mother are created by suitmation and miniaturization, instead of the time-consuming stop motion. The special effects are nowhere near as well executed as their Japanese counterparts, at times offering a few good chuckles on the expense of the glaringly obvious man in a monster suit, but Gorgo is nevertheless not a completely hopeless effort. If nothing else, the happy ending from the monster’s point of view of definitely a refreshing change from the monster being “heroically” killed by the local army and seeing Gorgo escape his captors and be reunited with his loving mother is very satisfying indeed.
Ray Harryhausen naturally went on to do a long and lustrous career in the world of animation, bringing creatures of all imaginable sort alive on the big screen. In 1955 he returned to the underwater atomic terrors in Columbia Pictures production It Came from Beneath the Sea. Directed by Robert Gordon it tells a tale of a giant octopus getting it’s kicks by destroying various notable landmarks of North Californian coastline. After having driven from its natural habitat of Mindanao Deep by hydrogen bomb tests it goes on a spree of destruction, taking on nuclear submarines, Japanese fishing fleet and even unsuspecting family out for a scenic seaside drive. The creature is eventually blown to pieces with a submarine torpedo, but not before attacking the Golden Gate Bridge, Embarcadero waterfront and the San Francisco Ferry Building. Harryhausen’s animation sequences are impressive as ever, including a memorable scene of the atomic octopod assaulting the iconic suspension bridge. Other than being another great example of the master animators work, it also quite hilariously demonstrates some of the budgetary issues (i.e special effects budget getting out of hand) of the film: those who watch closely (well, not that closely) will notice that the giant beast only wields six tentacles instead of the usual eight. The atomic themes are not explored quite to the same degree as in The Beast and feel more of a side note in the story, rather than the main theme. In fact, much of the film’s running time is taken up by the love triangle between the main protagonists Cmdr. Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), Prof. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis), which in turn hinders any actual suspense from being adequately built and makes the middle part of the film drag somewhat. It is nevertheless a film worth seeing, if for nothing else than for Harryhausen’s beautiful animations.
In October 1954, mere 16 months after the release of The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms, the monster that would go on to be the most well-known, influential, record breaking beastly creation ever imagined into reality, hit the silver screens across the Pacific ocean: Gojira, or as the world at large would become to know it, Godzilla. Rejected by numerous directors because of its outlandish premise and receiving mixed to bad reviews on it’s initial release, Godzilla has gone on to become the most recognizable icon of the giant monster world, as well a well-respected symbol of nuclear holocaust. It’s reign of terror has seen many phases and multiple incarnations, but few as memorable or impactful as its debut appearance 66 years ago.
The story of Toho’s legendary monster starts from a failed project titled Eikō no Kage ni (In the Shadow of Glory): a post war drama due to be filmed in Indonesia. It was to be a Japanese-Indonesian production that’s mission was to ease the tensions between the two countries and hopefully open the Southeast Asian film market for Japan. However, the anti-Japanese sentiment was still rife in 1954 and the producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and the crew were unsuccessful in attaining visas and had to return to home empty handed. On route back home, Tanaka, inspired by The Beast and Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident (which had taken place only weeks before), came up with an idea of a giant monster rampaging around Japan. Upon his return, he pitched the executive producer Iwao Mori a project titled The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. With Mori’s approval special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya was attached to the project, Takeo Murata came on board to co-write the script, Ishiro Honda jumped in as the director and the rest, as they say, is history.
As far as the giant monster genre goes, Godzilla offer no great surprises in the story department, following pretty much the same guidelines of a monster movie than any other film of the same ilk. The story concerns a prehistoric monster woken from its slumber on the ocean floor by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. After wreaking havoc in Odo island, it’s not long until the mighty beast is making its way to Tokyo, bursting through barriers and leaving devastation in its wake. Palaeontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) and her two love interests Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and salvage ship captain Hideo Ogata (Akira Takarada) must find a way to get rid of the monster before it’s too late. No big revelations there. However, the way Murata and Honda’s script tackles the themes of the story is quite unique when compared it it’s American counterparts. The Bomb is the source of the problem in both Godzilla and The Beast, but the way it and its effects are presented differ quite significantly. While The Beast contemplates the delicate nature of human existence and undeniably ponders on the terrors that the atomic age brings with it, it also in the same breath glorifies the very same technology, offering it as the solution to the monstrous troubles plaguing the good people of New York. The solution to Tokyo’s newly found giant lizard problem is also a weapon of terrifying magnitude, Dr. Serizawa’s “Oxygen Destroyer“; a device that disintegrates the oxygen atoms, leaving any living organism near it an asphyxiated, rotting mess. The way this horrific new technology is portrayed is quite different though: Initially Serizawa refuses to allow his doomsday device to be used, fearing that the technology will find its way to the wrong hands and be eventually used as a superweapon in war between world superpowers. After seeing the carnage Godzilla has left behind, he reluctantly agrees, but not before burning all his notes on the projects. So great is his dedication and the disgust toward his own creation that in order to truly keep this horrific technology a secret, he voluntarily goes into his own watery grave while saving Japan and possible the world from the mighty powers of Godzilla. The film ends with Dr. Yamane proposing the possibility of another Godzilla rising up from the sea if nuclear testing is not ceased, making the film’s anti-bomb sentiment ring loud and clear and comprehensively destroying any notions of revering such technology.
But it is not merely the glaringly different take on atomic devices that makes Godzilla stand out. It’s also the much more humane approach the film seems to have to its subject matter. One of the very first scenes is of concerned relatives of a missing freighter crew, rushing into a government office, trying to find out what happened to their loved ones, instantly taking the story to the level of everyday people. The same approach continues throughout the film, with various scenes depicting panicked people huddling under the burning ruins of Tokyo and hospitals overrun with injured victims of this horrific attack; all scenes that could just as easily be in middle of a war time drama. While The Beast and other American productions also show the destruction these monsters create, there is something very poignant in the way Honda has manages to portray the devastation Godzilla brings with it. It engages the viewer in much more intimate level and rather than simply showing hordes of alarmed people running for their lives, it focuses on the victims of this fantastical event as real people, grieving and distraught in middle of a personal tragedy. The whole atmosphere of the film is much more solemn and bleak than any of its American analogues. Even the destruction of the monster doesn’t bring on masses of celebrations, but rather dark contemplation whether humanity has learned anything from its mistakes. The hero does not get the girl and sail into the sunset with her in his arms, but rather dies in order to destroy the monster that would ultimately be even deadlier than any prehistoric beast could ever be.
Like The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms, Godzilla naturally also outshines many of its contemporaries when it comes to special effects. The creature design was a brainchild of Teizo Toshimitsu and Akira Watanabe, under Tsuburaya’s supervision. The early concepts were for a gorilla or whale-like creature, but these were abandoned for a more dinosaur like design. Combining elements from Tyrannosaurus, Iguanodon and Stegosaurus, the designers created a unique type of monster that would go on to be a king amongst giant beasts. Tsuburaya’s original plan was to use the same techniques that so successfully brought The Beast alive in the streets of New York: stop motion. However, due to budgetary and more importantly timing issues, the painstakingly time-consuming process was ditched, and the production settled on suitmation. Constructed of bamboo, metal mesh, latex and rubber and weighing incredible 100 kg, the suit was not suitable for just any actor and eventually Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka were chosen to perform simply due to their strength and endurance. Even with the original suit modified to a lighter version, Nakajima is said to have lost 20 pounds during the filming, but nevertheless went on to portray the mighty giant numerous times until his retirement in 1972.
While, like most films of its time, Godzilla’s special effects are obviously more than dated by todays standards, you do have to admire the craftmanship of not only the suit, but the miniature world that went with it. It might be obvious that we are looking at a miniature Tokyo rather than the real thing, but what is also equally obvious is the hard work and skill that has gone into building it and the scenes of Godzilla’s rampage around the city scape are still a thrilling sight to see. The soundscape of the film also deserves a special mention, as the famous roar of the towering beast is nearly as memorable as the monster itself. While various animal sounds were originally experimented with, nothing seem to quite fit. In the end the film’s composer Akira Ifukube moved on to musical instruments, eventually creating the legendary sound by rubbing a tar coated gloves across cello strings. Ifukube’s beautifully composed main theme is also a true legend on its own right, easily rivalling iconic horror themes from Suspiria to The Exorcist.
A beloved landmark of Japanese cinema, a forerunner of kaiju genre, template for suitmation, franchising success and a cultural icon: Godzilla has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The ongoing franchise has spanned over 60 years and 36 films, with no end in sight. While it is not possible to go through the whole saga in the confines of this article, rest assured that the Godzilla universe will be returned to in the later parts of this article series.
Ishiro Honda went on to a prolific career in the kaiju genre, directing several of the Godzilla sequels including Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the 1956 Americanized version of the original film. Honda also continued to explore the world of aquatic monsters outside the franchise and in 1958 he directed not one, but two maritime romps, The H-Man (Bijo to ekitai ningen) and Varan the Unbelievable (Daikaijû Baran). The H-Man differs from rest of the sea monster films notably with the creatures in the centre of the story: instead of giant lizards or mammoth molluscs, humanity is faced with blue liquid humanoids that cover their victims in their slimy embrace and liquefy them into human soup. Quite a bit of the action actually takes place on dry land and as well as scientists, the plot also involves cabaret girls and drug smugglers. However, one thing still remains in familiar territory: the monsters in question are a result of nuclear explosion.
Meanwhile, in Varan the Unbelievable an ancient lake monster goes around stomping on innocent lepidopterologists, before making t’s way to Tokyo. it was another Honda film utilising the technique of suitmation and inside the suit was none other than Godzilla himself: Haruo Nakajima. Rather than being purely based on an already existing prehistoric beast, Varan was another original design, more resembling a dragon than a dinosaur. While some of the scenes of monstrous rampage do have their charm, Varan does not get anywhere near the atmosphere of Godzilla. There is a distinct lack of character development and the story drags on in an amazingly dull fashion. However, despite this, like Godzilla, Varan also received a heavily edited Americanized version a few years after the initial release. The 1962 reimagining directed by Jerry A Baerwitz contains numerous added scenes and characters and is altogether a completely different story to Daikaijû Baran, but by no means, a better one.
Godzilla was not the only iconic underwater monster to invade the silver screen in 1954, as the very same year Universal Studio’s brought out their own legendary monster: Creature from the Black Lagoon. Its meticulously crafted, inventive monster, together with a great story and beautifully designed cinematography have helped to make it iconic piece of monster cinema. It was a late arrival in the Universal monster cannon, coming to the scene six years after the last Frankenstein film (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948). Despite this, the Gill-man was warmly welcomed to the proud company of Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf man, The Mummy and The Invisible Man, and would become one the best loved monsters of them all.
The story is set in the deep, dark corners of the Amazon River where a geological expedition finds a fossilised arm of an unknown creature. After returning to the marine biology institute for more tests, the expedition leader Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) convinces Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) to fund a return expedition and ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) to join him. Soon the three men, together with David’s girlfriend and colleague, Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), as well as another fellow scientist Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell), are on their way to the jungle and the prehistoric horrors that wait for them.
For a project of this calibre, it was paramount to create a creature with a unique look that would not only stand out in the sea of low budget creature features, but also truly terrify the audiences. While the make-up artists attached to the project, Bud Westmore, would go on to reap pretty much the sole credit for the creature’s look, it was in fact a former Disney illustrator Millicent Patrick who took the original designs of a sleek, eel like creature and re-designed it into the monster we know and love today. Having been blessed with extraordinary talent and natural good looks, the studio saw a great opportunity for promoting the film and Patrick was sent to a publicity tour dubbed as “The Beauty Who Created the Beast”, which, while successful in all fronts, unfortunately would end up ending her career with Universal. Westmore, known for being arduous and domineering person to work under, not only ended up taking over the tour, changing it to “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beast” and having him tour the press accompanies by several classic monster masks, but in fit of petty jealousy, removed Patrick’s name from the credits and had her fired. In fact, if you pay attention to the film’s opening credits, you will notice that the only other person credited in the make-up department besides Westmore, is the hair stylist Joan St. Oegger. While Westmore’s contributions to the look of the monster were in no doubt numerous, something of this magnitude was naturally not the work of just one man and the makeup artist Jack Kevan was the man behind the creature’s bodysuit, while Chris Mueller Jr. was responsible for sculpting the all-important head, both demonstrating enormous amount of talent in their chosen field.
The filming took place in Universal Studio’s in California as well as North Florida’s Wakulla Springs, where much of film’s the underwater action took place. For this reason, the production naturally needed two monsters and so the actor Ben Chapman was casted to act out most of the creatures on land scenes, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man in the on-water and underwater scenes. Due to the costume it is almost impossible to comment on either man’s acting abilities in the role, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Browning’s performance in the film’s underwater sequences. Browning, who worked as a location scout, got the role semi accidentally after the producers saw him swim and liked what they saw. A few weeks later he received a phone call offering him the role which he gladly excepted. Watching Browning perform underwater, it is easy to see why the producers decided to take a chance on him. His graceful performance as the amphibious beast is nothing short of a magnificent, making the unbelievable, believable. Browning wore no swimming goggles nor a breathing device while underwater (one was tested but it messed with the aesthetics of the suit) and had to put up with a suit that was not only extraordinarily hot to wear but awkward to move in. Despite all of this, he has managed to bring an incredible amount of elegance in every shot, gliding through the water like that was his natural element. The iconic sequence between him and Julie Adams swimming in unison, is not only remembered for its blatantly sexual connotations, but for the absolute beauty of the scene.
Much like Godzilla or The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms, Creature from the Black Lagoon stands out with its well-crafted story. It brought the audiences something a bit exotic, taking the story off the familiar landscapes and deep into the wilderness of the Amazon, where the anxiety of being stuck in the middle of nowhere with an unknown threat added another wonderfully claustrophobic level of horror to the story. While the creature itself will most probably not scare most of modern audiences, the terrifying power it exudes is still quite intimidating today. In one of the early scenes, the creature, freshly awoken to the strange hairless monkeys encroaching on his territory, comes to investigate the camp they have set up. The assistants left at the camp get a fright and attack the creature, only to be torn apart by it. Now, this carnage is naturally never fully shown, but the implications of the violence that they encounter, and the raw, unadulterated power of this beast are very clear and terrifying. What also works for the story’s benefit is its open ending. While the monster in question might be frightening, it’s hard not to feel at least some level of sympathy for it. After all, it is the humans who have infringed on its domain and its fear and anger towards them is somewhat understandable and in parts, even justified. Letting the creature live not only left the story open for a sequel but gave the whole film a much more humane outlook on the human-monster encounters and overall, more hopeful perspective on things.
In 1955 the Gill-Man returned to the big screen in Revenge of the Creature. With Jack Arnold continuing as director and Ricou Browning reprising his role as the creature, the new chapter in Gill-Man saga takes the creature in the unknown waters of Florida. After being captured in the Amazon and brought back to Florida’s Ocean Harbor Oceanarium, the creature is subjected to the torturous studies of animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson). Unsurprisingly Gill-Man is not too happy about being chained to a small concreate pool, being poked and prodded by the very unprofessional staff of the Oceanarium and being ogled by mouth breathing tourists, so he swiftly makes his escape to the warm waters of Florida coastline. But of course, simply having the creature rampage around Florida’s quiet coastal areas is not enough, but he has again developed a romantic interest in a beautiful lady and this time it’s the ichthyologist Helen who is the target of his amorous devotions. Helen gets kidnapped, a pursuit ensues, and you can maybe guess the rest. Needless to say, that Revenge of the Creature is nothing like its predecessor. Not only is it a much weaker story with none of the suspense and drama of the first one (not to mention the underwater cinematography), it is for the most part an utterly vile thing to watch. And no, it’s not because of graphic content, but because the blatant and horrific animal cruelty these so-called scientists put this poor creature through. I’m sure the sympathies weren’t exactly on the side of the humans when this film was first released (or at least I hope not), but watching it in the light of what we now know about the treatment of marine animals in places like Seaworld, it really makes your skin crawl, leaving you to hope that the creature will indeed get the revenge that the title of the film so glaringly promises.
In 1956 the Gill-man saga got its final piece with The Creature Walks Among Us. By this point Jack Arnold had moved on to bigger and better things and as per his suggestion, his former assistant director John Sherwood stepped in to fill his shoes. Ricou Browning would once again grace the screen with his underwater antics, while Don Megowan was responsible for the creature’s land-based appearances. The story takes place shortly after the events of the second film with a group of scientists lead by Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) going after the creature in the Florida everglades. After the capture operation goes awry and the Gill-man ends up getting doused with gasoline and set on fire, the group take in back on board in hopes of saving his life. They subsequently discover that the creature not only has gills, but also a fully working set of lungs and underneath his scaly skin, lies another layer, smoother human-like skin. So, they clothe this bizarre looking frankenfish and take him to Barton’s private research facility where they attempt to make it fit for “civilization”. That of course goes as well as one might imagine, with the creature once again going on a rampage and this time escaping for good. Despite the silly sounding plot, The Creature Walks Among Us is the stronger of the two sequels, offering more intriguing characters and entertaining plot. Humans are still the biggest monsters of the story, but at least their actions do not actively make you want to throw something at the TV.
One cannot of course talk about monster films of any kind without including the fantastic works of the living legend and all-around movie making maven, Mr. Roger Corman. Throughout his lustrous career spanning over mind boggling six decades, Corman has tried his hand in pretty much any job going in the film industry and his contributions to the horror genre and the world of cinema in general are par none. Starting as a messenger boy in Twentieth Century Fox, he quickly got promoted to a script reader. He then took some time off to study English literature in University of Oxford, after which he returned to Lod Angeles, taking on various jobs in TV and film, eventually establishing himself as a writer and selling his first script House in the Sea to Allied Artists. In 1953 the film got produced under the title Highway Dragnet with Corman working on set for no pay, but for the pure joy of learning how films get made; a decision that would end up getting him an associate producers credit and a leg up in the industry.
The next year Corman managed to pull together $12,000 to produce his very first feature, Monster from the Ocean Floor. This cheap and quick production, filmed only in six days, would become the standard method of Corman style filmmaking: do them fast and do them cheap, often asking his crew do things like chase the emergency services around to get some decent stock footage for the films. Despite these techniques, Corman always worked smart and even more so, always made sure to hire people, both behind and in front of the camera, who had real passion and enthusiasm for film making. Over the years he has been credited for launching the careers of prominent filmmakers and actors, most notably Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicolson and Dennis Hopper.
Directed by Wyott Ordung, Monster from the Ocean Floor takes place in a quiet Mexican seaside village where a young artist Julie Blair (Anne Kimbell) is enjoying her holiday. After being told about a local legend of a sea monster, Julie cannot get the idea out of her head, not even when a handsome marine biologist Steve Dunning (Stuart Wade) tries to convince her otherwise. The two naturally fall in love, despite Dr. Dunning’s continued sexist comments and attempts of discrediting Julies monster theories. As more people go missing in the cove, even Dr. Dunning hast to admit that something is not quite as it seems in this quiet little holiday haven and the pair go on to investigate the mysterious happenings.
For a monster film, Monster from the Ocean Floor has very little in the terms of monstrous action. The titular monster only makes a brief appearance around midway through the film and at the very end, when Dr. Dunning heroically kills it with his paddleboat submarine, leaving many viewers wanting for more. The one-eyed giant octopus also airs more on the side of humorous rather than terrifying, undoubtedly reminding most modern audiences of certain pair of space creatures that used to frequent classic Halloween episodes of The Simpsons. But, the cheap monster effects to one side, considering the budget and speedy filming schedule, Monster form the Ocean Floor is an impressive attempt of aquatic horror. The acting is hallway decent, Anne Kimbell shining especially as the inquisitive Julie (never mind Julie’s terrible taste in men) and big part of the film is actually taken up by underwater cinematography, including some rather nice footage of an actual octopus and a scuffle with a real shark! It may not be the best example of Corman’s creature features but considering the filming condition and the fact that Monster from the Ocean Floor was his very first production, it is certainly a worthwhile film to get acquainted with.
In 1957 Corman produced and directed Attack of the Crab Monsters, a short 62-minute feature that was distributed by Allied Artists as a double feature together with another Corman Sci-fi romp, Not of This Earth and ended up becoming Corman’s most profitable production up to that point. Corman has later been quoted speculating that the success was due to the film’s wild title as well as the decision to make every scene filled with either action or suspense, keeping the audiences constantly on their toes. The film is set on remote Pacific island where a scientific expedition crew has been sent to find out just what the heck happened to the scientist that came before them. Unbeknownst to them, their fellow scientists have been devoured by radiation induced giant crabs that have the ability to absorb the minds of their victims and use this talent shamelessly to lure more people into their deathly trap. When the expedition learns of the crabs’ master plan to multiply their numbers, they cannot simply stand idly by and must stop the fearsome creatures before they take over the world. The film is pretty much just as silly as it sounds but does offer a bit more airtime for the actual monsters than Corman’s previous dive in the sea monster genre. The giant crabs with humanlike eyes roam the island, shaking the walls of the research stations, sticking their deadly claws through walls and snapping up the unfortunate souls who wander in their cavernous nest. As promised, very little time is actually spent crafting a story or building the characters and as a result this research team is pretty much in constant peril. Lacking in plot, yes most definitely, but definitely packed with action.
In 1959 Corman worked as an executive producer for his brother Gene’s project, Attack of the Giant Leeches. Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, it takes the underwater dangers out of open water and to murky swamps of Florida Everglades. As the title would suggest, giant leaches are in attack mode, dragging their victims to an underwater cave where they slowly suck them dry of blood. Once again atomic radiation is speculated to be the cause of such horrific mutation and in the end only thing that will work on these monsters is dynamite. While a slow, lingering death in the arms of a giant leech is surely the thing of nightmares, these monstrosities are far from being in any way frightening and the cheap costumes that look like a black rubbish bags with teeth, are more likely to evoke laughs than fear. Nevertheless, the film has kept a devoted fan base over the decades and even received a remake in 2008 in the hands of the director Brett Kelly (more on him later) and a stage play in The Village Theatre, Atlanta Georgia, in February 2020.
Coming into the 1960’s Corman was hard at work as ever, and having finished filming the mystery drama The Last Woman on Earth and the WWII film Battle of Blood Island in Puerto Rico, he decided to make good use of the excess footage from The Last Woman on Earth and make another film and thus in 1961 Creature from the Haunted Sea was born. With a script written in three days and filming taking only five, Corman’s modus operandi of doing things as quickly as possibly has never been quite as glaringly obvious. Everything about the film from the script to dialogue and special effects just feels hurried and not quite fully thought through. The story follows American secret agent XK150 or Sparks Moran (Robert Towne) as he infiltrates a gang of criminals trying to pull a get-rich-quick scheme by helping a group of Cuban loyalists to escape Cuba with the country’s national treasury. The plan is to kill the Cubans one by one and blame the deaths on a mythical sea creature, with the crew members using garden tools and toilet plungers to help to create the illusion of a monster on a loose. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to these criminal masterminds, a real googly-eyed monster lurks in the deep, ready to pounce on its unsuspecting victims. The plot is funny on paper only, as most of this ill-through-out monster romp is taken up by cringe worthy, juvenile humour, tediously boring sequences with very little happening, making for a very unbalanced and badly paced viewing experience. The titular creature only makes a few brief appearances during the film’s 63-minute running time and if you go in looking for a sea monster film (as I did) you will be sorely disappointed. That being said, this creature, hastily put together from a wetsuit, Brillo pads, moss and tennis balls, is one of the funniest sea monsters you will ever see. Had its fantastically goofy appearance been more prominent part of the film, I am sure I would be singing it’s praises rather than slating it. As it stands, as far as Corman’s monster films go, Creature from the Haunted Sea is not something I would particularly recommend as an example of his work in the genre and instead would advise viewers to concentrate on his other offerings, which as we have established, are indeed plentiful.
Or course, Corman was not alone in producing lower budget creature features for the horror hungry audiences and numerous smaller studios and independent filmmakers jumped on the sci-fi/monster bandwagon with terrifying creations of their own.
The 1956 Edward L. Cahn picture The She Creature is quite possibly one of the most bizarre adds to the genre. In fact, it’s debatable whether it belongs to subgenre of aquatic horror, but as the titular monster is technically a creature from the sea, I shall include it. The story revolves around an evil hypnotist Dr. Carlo Lombardi (Chester Morris) and his assistant/kidnap victim Andrea Talbott (Marla English). Dr. Lombardi’s show consists of him taking Andrea back in time to her previous lives and predicting murders that are going to happen in the near future. Little do people know, that is Lombardi himself who is behind these grizzly killings, using Andrea and her prehistoric sea-monster ancestor to do the deed.
The biggest shocker of this film is not so much the sea dwelling humanoid, but the twisted relationship between Lombardi and Andrea. Well, relationship is pushing it. I do not think you can really call it that when the other party is only in it because she has been compelled to with hypnotic powers. The lengths of Lombardi’s depravity are somewhat unclear (although it is mentioned that the only thing he cannot do is to make Andrea love him), but what is very clear is that this is not in any way, shape or form a healthy working relationship. Not only is Andrea there without her consent, but Lombardi quite regularly keeps her in coma-like deep hypnotic state with complete disregard to her safety and from what I can gather, makes regular, unwelcome advances on her. What’s even more shocking is how none of the audience members and supporters of Lombardi seem to bat an eyelid when presented with a woman who is clearly there against his will. Even the police investigating the murders do not seem to detect that something is seriously wrong here. Truly shocking stuff.
As aquatic horrors go, The She Creature is perhaps not the best example of the genre. It mostly takes place on dryland and a lot of the running time is taken up by human drama rather than monstrous action. However, it is an interesting little hostage drama with a completely outlandish monster twist.
In Ken Milner’s The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955) we once again encounter a creature created by experimental atomic radiation. When a fisherman is killed by a man-sized monster and his body, covered in radiation burns, is washed ashore on a local beach, biologist Ted Baxter (Kent Taylor) and Federal Agent William Grant (Rodney Bell) must investigate what’s behind this mysterious death. After two more people fall victim to the (not so) fearsome beast, Baxter and Grant decide to take their investigation underwater and find a not only the monster, but also the radioactive rock it is for some reason guarding. It turns out that both have been created by another marine biologist, Dr. King (Michael Whalen) and after some hesitation, it is he himself who ends up destroying both the rock and the monster. Alongside the paper-thin monster plot, runs a side story about foreign espionage and, of course, a budding romance between Dr. King’s daughter Lois (Cathy Downs) and Ted Baxter, neither if which adds very much intrigue into the film. As creature features go The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is a relatively boring affair and with a monster that resembles something put together by a group of primary school students for their school play, it also offers very few beastly thrills. Not only is the appearance of the beast clunky and cheap, it gets so little screen time the hour twenty minutes that it barely feels like a part of the film. Besides that, the monster is strictly sticking to the rock it’s guarding and not doing much else, making it quite possibly the most static sea monster of all time.
With the fantastically titled The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) the director Arnold Laven brought alive a story of giant mollusc monsters attacking a community by the Salton Sea. After an earthquake rips open the bottom of the sea, releasing the prehistoric beasts, local navy personnel start to die in bizarre circumstances and it’s not long until the navy divers encounter the fearsome beast in face to face battle. It is up to the navy and their wise science staff to work out how to best get rid of the pesky beasts. While the idea of monstrous molluscs might sound laughable, The Monster that Challenged the World is actually one of the better creature features of its era. The story is well paced, with enough beastly action in between the drama to keep one interested and while it may not offer any great surprises in the character department, they are still a bit more real than what you usually see in the films of similar ilk. There is actual logic in how these characters behave and instead of keeping the beaches open because of the hot weather, they shut them straight away, no questions asked. Good on you people of Salton Sea! There are some unintentionally funny moments due to the cheap special effects and something about these oversized sea slugs is quite adorable, making them more sympathetic than scary viewing. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to encounter one in the wild and I for one am glad the US navy dealt with the problem with the gusto they did.
Irvin Berwick’s The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) brings us slightly different kinds of terrors as sleepy coastal town gets ravaged by a bloodthirsty sea creature. That in itself is of course nothing ground-breaking in the genre, but for once this creature has not been created by atomic radiation, nor is it a prehistoric relic that has found its way to the modern day. Instead its origins are never fully explained, beyond a brief reference to an old legend. The only reason for the monsters blood filled jaunt through the town seems to be the fact that a local lighthouse keeper(John Harmon) has been secretly feeding it for years, and having run out of fish (as you so often do in coastal areas) he has resorted in giving the creature meat scraps from the local butchers, naturally creating a hunger for human blood. Now it’s rampaging around town, ripping off heads and sucking people dry of blood, with no end in sight. Nasty stuff. Well it would be if a bit more time was spent on the creature’s bloodthirsty crime spree instead all the other drama happening in this tiny little town. The monster itself is something worth seeing though. The cheap bodysuit with very little detail looks like a lovechild of Creature from Black Lagoon and a garden variety domestic pig and is not so much terrifying as it is laugh inducing. The fact that it does go around decapitating people does however work for its advantage and having a shot of the creature casually walking around with its latest victim’s head in tow is something that might take a few viewers by surprised.
In the 1960’s the monsters were no longer satisfied by tipping fishing boats over or attacking major metropolitan areas. Now they were after surfers, beach girls and people unfortunate enough to get shipwrecked. Jack Curtis’ 1964 low budget island romp The Flesh Eaters takes the aquatic genre on slightly different direction with a microscopic, yet deadly monster. In it a washed-up actress Laura Winters (Rita Morely) and her assistant Jan Letterman (Barbara Wilkin) take a flight to Cape Cod. Unfortunately, the plane flies right into a massive storm and the pair together with their pilot Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders) end up taking shelter on a small, barren island. As luck would have it, the place happens to be a populated by Prof. Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck), a German-American marine biologist, who offers the weary travellers a place to stay while they wait for the storm to pass. But things are not quite as rosy as they seem, as the unlikely group soon finds that the waters surrounding the island are teeming with a glowing, flesh eating microbes that can devour a person’s flesh within minutes. The more they investigate, the more obvious it becomes that good Dr. Bartell has something do with these creatures, but just what that involvement is and how to escape this terrible terror is a different matter altogether. The Flesh Eaters is a typical sci-fi/horror exploitation of the time, with bumbling acting and ludicrous, hole ridden plotline. It does however offer more than average amount of gore compared to other products of the time, including a scene with someone swallowing one of the flesh eaters and as a result being eaten from inside out with blood and guts gushing in the air. And not only that, it is, against all odds, also a genuinely entertaining little package. The plot mighty silly, but the pacing is solid and camerawork surprisingly interesting. It’s good, campy fun with the added bonus of some actual bloodshed.
In Del Tenney’s 1964 The Horror of Party Beach a human sized fishmen start causing chaos in a coastal community. After being created by radioactive waste being dumped on a sunken skeleton, this monstrosity goes around killing beach tramps and their companions left right and centre by sucking their blood with its tentacle-like mouth. Luckily the local authorities are on the case rather sharpish and eventually the monster and its companions are subdued with sodium bombs and everyone go back to their beach parties. Rather than its paper-thin atomic themes, The Horror of Party Beach is mainly remembered for its outrageously bad reputation, having been cited as “one of the worst films of all time” by more than one critic. And for a good reason: besides the shabby special effects including the monster that’s mouth looks like it’s been stuffed full of hot dogs, the acting is beyond hammy, plot illogical and badly paced, and the soundtrack provided by the surf rock ensemble The Del-Aires will likely make you want to bury your head in the sofa cushions. It is pure, unsullied, B-movie trash and kind of fantastic in all its awfulness.
The very next year the surfers of America were in danger again in Jon Hall’s The Beach Girls and the Monster. Unlike the title would suggest, the story does not actually concern beach babes, but a young Richard Lindsay (Arnold Lessing) who is taking some time off from his scientific pursuits in order to focus on his other passions: Surfing. His father, oceanographer Dr. Otto Lindsay (Jon Hall) is not best pleased with this development. On top of his young trophy wife and her cheating ways, he now has a son who is wasting his talents by loitering on the beach. Just awful. Add to this a houseguest that seems to have overstayed their welcome and a bloodthirsty monster that hunts beautiful young women around the local beaches, and you have a recipe for a disaster. And indeed, in the end, we find that it is daddy dearest who has been going around in a monster suit and mauling people to death. No real explanation for this is ever given as the film abruptly ends with Dr. Lindsay driving off a cliff in one of those exploding American cars and so his murderous secrets are gone in the cleansing fires of an automobile explosion. Strictly speaking The Beach Girls and the Monster is not really a sea monster film, as the monster does end up being fake, but it is quite an entertaining watch. The monster is as clunky as the ones seen on The Horror of Party Beach and acting as wooden as it gets, making for a very enjoyable hour and 10 minutes.
By the time 1970’s came around, the fears of the atomic monster were nearly completely forgotten. However, this did not mean that aquatic horror was dead. On the contrary, the genre would see a resurgence in a form of the summer blockbuster, the numerous cheap copies that would follow and more environmentally minded horrors that would go on exploring the danger of genetic manipulation as well as the terrifying impacts of air and water pollution. Join me for the next segment of the aquatic horror series, as we sail toward murderous great whites, genetically modified piranhas and undersea facilities getting battered by ancient monsters from the deep.
Herdershot, Cynthia. 1999. Darwin and the Atom: evolution/devolution fantasies in The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms, Them! and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Paranoia, The Bomb and 1950’s Science Fiction. Bowling Green State University Popular Press. pp. 75-89.
Weaver, Tom. 1988. Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes. Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes: The Mutant Melding of Two Volumes of Classic Interviews. McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers. pp. 82-83.
Katy Waldman. The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950’s. From Slate, January,31, 2013. https://slate.com/technology/2013/01/nuclear-monster-movies-sci-fi-films-in-the-1950s-were-terrifying-escapism.html
Nick Pinkerton. Directors: Roger Corman. From Film Comment, September 2016. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/interview-roger-corman/
Aaron W. Graham. Little Shop of Genres: An Interview with Charles B. Griffith. From Senses of Cinema, April 2005. http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/conversations-with-filmmakers/charles_b_griffith/
Back to the Black Lagoon: A Creature Chronicle. 2002. [Blu-Ray] David J. Skal. USA. Universal Studios.
The Bomb. 2015. [Online] Rushmore DeNooyer. USA. Lone Wolf Documentary Group. Amazon Prime.