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Chasing the Manta Diablo: My Quest for a Copy of ‘The Black Pearl’

I’m no stranger to the world of animatronic creatures. I’ve been watching, collecting, and researching nature-runs-amok films and anything inspired by Spielberg’s classic, Jaws (1975), since the late 1990s. If it features something that crawls, swims, or flies, chances are I’ve probably seen it or own it, or both. As a young collector I would watch films like Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), and Up from the Depths (1979) on repeat. Sure, the economic reason for these films to exist is obvious, but what I’m more interested in is how writers and filmmakers of these films adopted the Jaws storytelling formula into their own derivative works and how many of these films, specifically from the 1970s, address the issue of man and his–usually negative–impact on nature. My curiosity for these films has largely driven my penchant for collecting.

In recent years, I’ve been setting my sights on slightly more obscure fare–films that maybe had a very limited release (or no formal release at all–as was the case with the 1992 Canuxploitation cult classic, Psycho Pike) and those made specifically for the small screen. The Bermuda Depths (1978), a Rankin/Bass & Japanese co-production, is a great example of the latter. It stars Carl Weathers (two years after Rocky) and Burl Ives as the crusty, local captain–slightly reminiscent of Captain Quint. (IMDb: Scientists investigating the briny deep are threatened by a giant turtle and the spirit of a young brunette swimmer in the Bermuda Triangle.) Much like the film about which this article is dedicated, The Bermuda Depths is softer in tone, rich with symbolism related to humans and their entanglements with magical and unexplained powers of nature, and would likely be categorized as fantasy instead of a horror film. The film also features very little animal-on-human violence. However, unlike the film about which this article is dedicated, The Bermuda Depths is easy to find.

Enter, The Black Pearl — a 1977 USA/Spanish co-production based on the 1967 Newbery Honor winning  novel by Scott O’Dell about the son of a pearl dealer living in the Baja peninsula and his encounter with a giant manta ray, or, manta diablo. The film adaptation was shot in the Bahamas and Spain and boasted a huge, animatronic manta ray that could have made a formidable opponent for “Bruce” (Spielberg’s great white shark) or even Captain Ahab’s whale, Moby Dick, though unlike Jaws and its many copycat films, The Black Pearl was intended for a slightly younger demographic, one that was not necessarily thirsty for more limb-tearing Jawsy-esqe terror. And while it is now considered scarce by home video collecting standards, the film featured a handful of notable names of the period: The writer responsible for adapting O’Dell’s novel into a screenplay was Victor Miller, best known for writing the original Friday the 13th. Saul Swimmer, director of The Black Pearl, had also directed The Concert for Bangladesh which was produced by George Harrison and represented the first benefit rock concert ever. Though despite its connection to celebrated films and filmmakers, The Black Pearl remains a bit of a forgotten 1970s oddity. 

Backing up a bit, it’s worthwhile to place The Black Pearl within the larger context of sea-centric stories of the period. The 1970s were a time of heightened interest in oceanic mysteries like The Bermuda Triangle. The Bermuda Depths, books like Charles Berlitz’s 1969 bestselling novel, The Bermuda Triangle, and made-for-tv films like the 1975 thriller, Satan’s Triangle (starring Doug McClure and Kim Novak) and the Leonard Nimoy’s series, In Search of… (which dedicated an episode to the “mysterious phenomenon” of The Bermuda Triangle) are evidence of pop culture’s fascination with the mysteries of the deep. In addition, the commercial success of Jaws suggested that there was an appetite among the moviegoing and book-reading public. Of course, literary and cinematic works of this ilk long predate the 1970s. Certain works of Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway have dealt with the struggles between man and beast and man’s (often destructive) exploration of the oceanic unknown. The Black Pearl–by what little I have to go on as of this writing–appears to fall in line with these other stories.

Aside from my interest in films of the 1970s and ‘80s, the elusiveness of The Black Pearl has also fed my desire to find a copy. As a collector, some of my best experiences are when I’m consumed by the thrill of the hunt. Hours of online research and crate-digging are part of the job, which can make the hunt both frustrating and appealing. Produced by Universum Film in Spain and Royal Productions in the USA, I assume it received a VHS release here in the States. Records indicate that it was also released on VHS in Canada under the alternate title, The Secret Cave and in France as, La Perle Noire. The online catalog WorldCat, which itemizes the collections from over 72,000 libraries in 170 countries, lists one copy (under the Spanish title, La Perla Negra) at the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid and another at the Biblioteca de la Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona. While it’s great news that they exist, Spain is just under 3,400 miles away from Boston and I don’t have an applicable library card. So, buying or even scheduling an in-house viewing of those copies seems unlikely.

Another lead came via the website, Todocoleccion, an online marketplace similar to eBay where two separate copies were listed–plus photos! Unfortunately, I struck out again. The first tape listed was a Universal Video VHS release but the issue was that it had already sold–despite the listing remaining live on the page. The second listing, also a Universal Video release, was just for the case plus artwork–no tape! A damn tease, for sure. But despite these failed attempts my quest for a copy of The Black Pearl continues. As a devotee to physical media–especially legacy formats and those nearing the end of their shelf lives–I’m committed to finding a copy the old fashioned way and have resisted any temptation to scour the darker corners of the Internet for torrents of the film, though I suspect the latter does exist somewhere.

Ultimately, I’ve not yet seen The Black Pearl, so I’m hoping that my eventual discovery of this VHS sunken treasure won’t echo the tagline found on the North American poster: “His fabulous treasure turned into sheer terror!”

About John Campopiano

John Campopiano is an archivist, independent filmmaker, and film writer living in Boston. He is the co-producer, writer and director of Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary as well as co-producer and writer on the upcoming documentary, Pennywise: The Story of IT. John is also co-author of the upcoming book, Creatures For Kids, which is examining 30 years of monster movies and creature features made for children, young adults, and their families. In 2015, he launched the New England Media & Memory Coalition (NEMMC)--a regional organization dedicated to fostering discussion and promoting a better understanding of how media and digital and analog technologies intersect with and relate to memory, identity, nostalgia, and senses of place. When he's not engrossed in films, John serves as the Archives & Rights Manager for the PBS documentary film series, FRONTLINE.

One comment

  1. I was JUST thinking about THE BLACK PEARL and wondering if it was still as obscure as ever. I watched it numerous times on cable as a kid, and every few years I’ll do some Googling to see if it’s come out on DVD yet. I must’ve seen it a dozen times between 1980-1981, but never since then. I was a huge JAWS fan as a kid, so I thought THE BLACK PEARL was a little too “for kids”—but it made a great double feature with JAWS 2.

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