The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues
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Atomic horror hit American screens like a bombshell in the 1950s. From "duck and cover" drills to backyard bomb shelters, nuclear fears became a part of American life. With the release of Godzilla (1954) in Japan, an avenging devil rising from the radioactive ashes of the bomb, Hollywood followed suit with its own atomic age mutant creature films like Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955). The independent producers of drive-in fare kept up with the times, if not the budgets. Title aside, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955) is no ghost story but one of the many B-movie responses to those bigger budget creature features.
At the fledgling Pacific College of Oceanography, located on a seemingly deserted stretch of the California coast, Prof. King (Michael Whalen) is working on "breathtaking things." In the nearby shallows, an aquatic reptile that looks suspiciously like a carnival sideshow knock-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is attacking fishermen and scuba divers who stray too close to his lair, leading to the stories of the "phantom." Enter Dr. Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor), a famous oceanographer and scientist who created "the first workable death ray." He stumbles upon the film's first victim (killed in the pre-credits sequence), which makes him the first of many suspects in the investigation conducted by Agent Grant (Rodney Bell) of the Department of Defense.
The phantom takes a back seat to the tangled plot of secret experiments, shifty characters, international espionage, paranoia, threats and assassination by spear gun, all revolving around a mysterious shaft of radioactive light from the ocean floor. The professor's secretary lurks about suspiciously trying to get a peek behind his locked office door while his assistant, George (Phillip Pine), is constantly sneaking around the bushes when he's not trying to break into King's files. There's also a sexy female spy who spends much of her time in a bikini (Helene Stanton), a slow-witted janitor and a local sheriff who is oddly unfazed by the growing body count and mysterious doings in his town. As one character succinctly puts it: "Science is a devouring mistress."
Shot on a tiny budget with a skeleton cast, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is as B as they come; for a college town, there's hardly a soul around apart from the featured cast, the anonymous sets and locations (look for the stock shot introducing "Jefty's Road House," are borrowed from the 1948 rural noir Road House) and cheap creature effects abound. Kent Taylor, the biggest name in the cast, was nearing the end of a long and busy career as a B-actor, capped by the lead in the short-lived early TV show Boston Blackie. Cathy Downs, who plays King's daughter and is just about the only character not a suspect, played Clementine in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) before sinking into obscurity. The rubber suit of the vaguely demonic creature bends and sags while the automated mouth randomly flaps open and closed. The biggest expense in the budget is the aquatic footage: there's more genuine underwater photography here than most drive-in monster movies.
The title suggests a mashup of the underwater monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Disney's recently released 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but the creators clearly had no idea that a league was actually an archaic unit of length measuring about three miles. The underwater action here takes place in shallows easily accessible by scuba divers. Call it "Creature from the Nuclear Inlet."
Directed by veteran editor Dan Milner and produced by Jack Milner, a sound editor by trade, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues was released on a double bill with Roger Corman's atomic apocalypse thriller Day the World Ended ("making that movie look great by comparison," notes Michael Weldon in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film) by American Releasing Corporation, a fledgling production company specializing in cheaply made exploitation pictures. It's better known under its second incarnation: in 1956 it changed its name to American International Pictures (or AIP) and went on to make its fame in exploitation movie history.
Producer: Jack Milner
Director: Dan Milner
Screenplay: Lou Rusoff (screenplay); Dorys Lukather (original story)
Cinematography: Brydon Baker
Music: Ronald Stein
Film Editing: Dan Milner (uncredited)
Cast: Kent Taylor (Dr. Ted Stevens/Ted Baxter), Cathy Downs (Lois King), Michael Whalen (Prof. King), Helene Stanton (Wanda), Philip Pine (George Thomas), Rodney Bell (William S. 'Bill' Grant), Vivi Janiss (Ethel Hall, Dr. King's Secretary), Michael Garth (Sheriff), Pierce Lyden (Andy, the Janitor).
by Sean Axmaker