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"I had never thought of myself as doing Great Art. I felt I was working as a craftsman, and if, out of some good, solid craftsmanship, something transcended, some portion of art emerged, that would be fine with me. But this was still low-budget stuff-fast schedules, five-figure productions, exploitation subjects. Art was not something I consciously aspired to create. My job was to be a good craftsman."
That, and a canny businessman.
This is Roger Corman we're talking about, and in the late 1950s he had launched his own production company, The Filmgroup, to better control his career and to reap a greater share of its rewards. Other exploitation filmmakers of the era were content to farm out poorly-made flicks for a fast buck, with nothing but contempt for the audiences and disdain for the film business overall (Jerry Warren, I'm looking at you!) But Corman was something else: he had ambition, an abiding respect for film history and its great filmmakers, a serious thoughtful side, and an increasing desire to make the most of each production opportunity. His Filmgroup offerings of the late 50s and early 60s are certainly cheapjack quickies, but they are also inventive, quirky, and memorable.
Producing with his own money, however, tended to turn his "let's make two movies for the price of one" mentality into a "let's make three movies for the price of one." Such impoverished productions could not wow their audiences with anything like spectacle, of course, so Corman opted to focus instead on less tangible qualities, such as an off-kilter sense of humor akin to MAD Magazine. If he couldn't afford to take his movies seriously, then why should you?
Black comedies like A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) had scored big for Corman, both critically and commercially, so he went for the trifecta with Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). It was in every sense an afterthought.
Roger had gone to Puerto Rico for a "vacation," which is to say he was producing one movie (Battle of Blood Island, 1960) and directing a second (Last Woman on Earth, 1960) using money that was supposed to go towards the making of a third back on the mainland (The Wild Ride, 1960). Once he'd pulled this off and found there were still coins in his pocket and a couple of days left on the calendar, Corman asked the cast and crew of Last Woman to stick around so they could cram yet another movie into the mix.
Since this was a last-minute idea, Corman didn't have the luxury of much preproduction or story development, and simply tasked screenwriter Charles B. Griffith with rewriting the previous year's Beast from Haunted Cave to match the Puerto Rico locations they'd already staked out. Griffith was by now an old hat at this, since Roger had already asked him to do the same thing once before--Beast from Haunted Cave was a remake of Naked Paradise (1957) designed to be filmed at the same snowy South Dakota locations as Ski Troop Attack (1960).
Thinking there might yet be another way to economize, Corman also planned to take one of the onscreen roles himself, to save paying another actor's salary. Griffith, perhaps tiring of this game and looking to get some revenge on his penny-pinching boss, wrote the role maddeningly complex, and given to scene-stealing mood swings. Corman realized he'd have to surrender the part to a trained thespian...good thing he had a spare one on hand as the boom mic operator. So, Bobby Bean alternated between holding the mic, playing a key role, and also starring as the titular monster!
Anything as ramshackle as this is bound to show it, but Corman's approach makes merits of all the amateurism, inviting the audience in on the joke and treating the whole affair as a sort of good-natured home movie. Creature from the Haunted Sea is a broad farce that owes more to Mack Sennett and the Keystone Kops than it does to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). After some charming cartoon titles (animated by cult film auteur Monte Hellman), we meet CIA spook XK150, played by future screenwriting legend Robert Towne (using the pseudonym Edward Wain). XK150 has infiltrated a criminal conspiracy trying to smuggle the Cuban Treasury out of Revolutionary Cuba. The modern day pirates are led by Humphrey Bogart-look-alike Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone), his moll Mary-Belle (Betsy Jones-Moreland), and a gaggle of oddities including the afore-mentioned manic-depressive Happy Jack (Bobby Bean) and animal impersonator Pete Peterson, Jr. (Beach Dickerson). To cover up their theft, Capetto concocts a proto-Scooby-Doo notion of faking a sea monster to keep people away and deflect attention. However, a real sea monster arrives, that just happens to look and act like Capetto's hoax.
Corman factotum Beach Dickerson built the monster using $150 worth of tennis balls, oilcloth, and steel wool. It is no more convincing yet no less enjoyable than a kids' Halloween costume.
Compared to the arch satire of A Bucket of Blood, the comic sensibility here makes It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) seem subtle and refined. A sample joke: "It was dusk," XK150 narrates, "I could tell because the sun was going down."
Despite being played more slapsticky than any previous Corman horror-comedy, the advertising inexplicably sold the film as a straight thriller. Misled audiences were peeved, and it showed in the box office returns. Something this cheap couldn't help but be profitable, but Corman grumbled. He was almost instantly moving off in new directions - experimenting with color, adapting Edgar Allan Poe stories to the screen, exploring racial hatred in The Intruder (1962)...The Filmgroup was soon retired, and Corman stopped making "dare pictures" whose only motivation had been to squeeze every last production dollar to the maximum. Instead of making two or three films for the price of one, Corman took the money for two films and made just one, House of Usher (1960) with Vincent Price. And with it he graduated from craftsman to artist.
Producer: Roger Corman, Charles Hannawalt
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Charles B. Griffith
Cinematography: Jacques Marquette
Film Editing: Angela Scellars
Music: Fred Katz
Cast: Antony Carbone (Renzo Capetto), Betsy Jones-Moreland (Mary-Belle Monahan), Robert Towne (Sparks Moran), Beach Dickerson (Petet Peterson Jr.), Robert Bean (Happy Jack Monahan).
by David Kalat
Roger Corman, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a DimeAlan Frank, The Films of Roger Corman
Beverly Gray, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life
Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties