Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Classic Case

I love bad movies. But not just any bad movies; they have to be bad in just the right way.
Cheesy 1950s sci-fi and monster movies--the stuff of Mystery Science Theater 3000--are simply the best bad movies. And while there is no shortage of bad movies on TV these days (The Sci-Fi Channel has come to specialize in truly abysmal movies), it's hard to find really good bad movies anymore.

This is why, when I was a kid, Saturday afternoon was a holy time. From noon to 4 every Saturday, Boston's Channel 56 had "Creature Double Feature," two back-to-back monster or sci-fi movies like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, The Amazing Colossal Man, Reptilicus, and other grade-Z movies from the 50s and 60s. (And then at 4:00 they usually had a third cheesy sci-fi film.) Sure, they sometimes showed good movies, like The Thing, Them, When Worlds Collide, etc., but it was the really bad ones that were the most fun, as half the enjoyment was making fun of them (hence MST3K). There is something special about those old movies--a kind of innocence about them you don't get in today's super-cynical, post-ironic world. And guys in rubber suits or cheeseball special effects still are better than the bad CGI you get a lot these days.

So last Christmas I was very happy when I was given one of those boxes of "50 SciFi Classics." Sure, these are "classics" in the same way that a migraine I had once 20 years ago was a "classic headache." Still, though they may be some of the worst movies ever made (many of them were in fact done on MST3K), they are still fun to watch and bust on.

So, in the tradition of one of my favorite movie sites, The Agony Booth, I will share my summaries of these movies as I make my way through this box set.

Up first:

The Incredible Petrified World (1957)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Jerry Warren
Star of Shame: John Carradine
Monster(s): Creepy old guy; stock footage of gila monster

A storm-tossed ocean and appropriately seasick-sounding music forms the backdrop of the opening credits, which introduces the Parade of Shame. Interestingly, wardrobe was by “Kelpsuit.” Huh? We are also informed that the cavern sequences were filmed at Colossal Cave in Tucson, Arizona. Now I know where never to go.

After a 2:15 credit sequence spent staring at crashing waves, a voiceover informs us that, “This is the sea.” Ah! That’s what that was! I was wondering. We are then treated to what seems like a rejected Discovery Channel documentary on ocean life. Sample text: “The sea: birthplace of life....The ocean is a dangerous jungle.” The ocean is a jungle? Someone needs to get their ecosystems straight. We then witness a shark eating an octopus, which is the most action that will ever be shown in this movie. The narration then discusses a “layer” of the ocean 1,500 feet below the surface that reflects sound waves (?) and rises to the surface at night, then sinks again during the day. “It is composed of living creatures, capable of locomotion.” Ah. Unlike everywhere else on Earth. OK; go on... Oceanographers are torn as to what this layer is: it could be plankton, or fish. Or, some say, millions of squid. (I favor this latter explanation.) “This theory is supported by the fact that squid are tremendously abundant.” Well, so are housecats, hot dog buns, and table lamps, but I doubt they comprise this layer. The narrator then (erroneously) explains bioluminescence. We then go in for some deep narrative padding while the director apparently set a camera in front of a tank at the local aquarium and promptly fell asleep.

Finally, at 6:08, we discover that this little documentary--narrated, as it turns out, by Dr. Jim Wyman (played by Joe Maierhouser, who had a long and distinguished career....doing something, I'm sure; probably selling cars)--was being screened for a room full of oceanographers who apparently were not aware of what the ocean is. It's a prelude to the discussion of the impending launch of a new diving bell designed by Dr. J.R. Matheny (George Skaff). While the crowd devours hors d’oeuvres, one of the party guests pooh-poohs the diving bell. “It is madness! You’ve wasted $70,000.” Sounds pretty cheap for a diving bell to me. Dr. Matheny then discusses the work of Millard Wyman, Jim's brother, who has built a similar diving bell to investigate his theory that the ocean could provide enough food to sustain the population of the world.

So basically he's spending thousands of research dollars to prove that the ocean has fish in it.

Of course, given that there is already one diving bell, “Why then do we need another?” the skeptic protests. Why did they invite him again? Matheny’s bell is going down in the Pacific, while Wyman’s is in the Caribbean. Ah, of course. We then go the Caribbean, through the magic of the movies...

Professor Wyman (John Carradine, whose face should not be allowed near anything that can be easily punctured) is preparing to launch his diving bell. Lauri Talbott (Sheila Noonan) and Craig Randall (our star, Robert Clarke) wait on deck, drinking coffee (which will become an important motif, right out of the Coleman Francis Guide to Beverages in Movies). A foursome is ready to descend—Lauri, Craig, Paul Whitmore (Allen Windsor), and Dale Marshall (Phyllis Coates), the latter a reporter who is “only going down in that contraption” to get some cool pictures of...something or other. Dale is informed that “Tom” (purportedly her husband or fiancĂ©) couldn’t make it, she is handed a letter from him, and she takes off a ring and throws it overboard. This may or may not explain why she spends the rest of the movie being such a...if you'll pardon the term...bitch.

They all clamber down into the bell, where John Carradine incoherently mumbles what is apparently supposed to be a send-off speech of great profundity, but sounds like something someone would drunkenly mutter at a bar just before last call. They are going “deeper” than anyone has ever gone before (though not as deep as John Carradine would sink—Red Zone Cuba and “Night Train to Mundo Fine,” anyone? ), and Carradine is sad that he won’t be going down with them—and why isn’t he, come to think of it? He mutters some 1950s-esque sexist lines about the menfolk looking after the women—who get scared, of course—then gets his own butt out of there with remarkable rapidity.

And down they go, their progress measure by what looks like a Fisher-Price “My First Depth Gauge.” And that diving bell was built using a Brady House-like warping of space, as it is much larger on the inside than the outside. Unless it’s a TARDIS, of course, but we can probably rule that out.

They stay in contact with John Carradine over the radio—and Carradine over a cheap radio sounds like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. He’s impossible to understand; no wonder the whole project goes horribly awry. At about 1700 feet, the lights start to flicker, and everyone gets worried. Craig reports that “something is buckling” and “the cable slipped” and Carradine loses contact. His repeated shouting of “Craig!” fails to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, back in California, Dr. Matheny—whose hairline, I swear, has receded dramatically since the first scene of the movie—receives an urgent phone call informing him that something has gone wrong with Carradine’s diving bell. “Tsk. The conditions in which I deal,” Dr. Matheny says philosophically (albeit cryptically). He informs Jim Wyman that Carradine’s bell broke loose at 1700 feet.

Back on Carradine’s boat, a reporter grills John Carradine, who takes full responsibility for whatever happened. The reporter says, “The public will take a dim view of your research.” “I suppose so,” murmurs Carradine. Remember, this was the 1950s, when diving bell expeditions captured the public imagination much like the Moon landing a decade later.

Down in the bell itself, the foursome regain consciousness, which they had apparently lost, for reasons passing understanding. And as is always the case in these movies, they regain consciousness in order of star billing. Paul awakens the women using smelling salts (smelling salts? on a diving expedition?) and Dale immediately starts freaking out and collapses sobbing into the waiting arms of one of the menfolk.

Craig and Paul discuss their predicament and their impending death, as they don’t have a lot of oxygen. They talk about what might have been, and Craig, who had been looking forward to the dive, says, “Ah, well, I probably wouldn’t have seen any new sea creatures—” at which point he dashes over to the porthole and realizes (wrongly) that they are on what seems to be a shelf not far below the surface of the water—and they rightfully wonder how they could have risen back up after having descended so far. (I think they’re all asking that of themselves right about now.) “I for one couldn’t care less,” says the intrepid leader.

They immediately leave the bell. Now, how they open the hatch on the top without flooding the thing is a very good question. They bob around a bit in wet suits and swim fins, the first of many many such scenes. Meanwhile, up on the boat, they are picked up on sonar. It turns out that they are not close to the surface, and John Carradine muses that if they left the bell the pressure would crush them. They should be picking up their bodies floating to the surface. And, yet, they have not been crushed. Unfortunately.

There is some padding—I mean, swimming—and they end up in an undersea cavern near the ocean floor, complete with air and everything. Why they were not crushed by the pressure is not explained.

On the boat, John Carradine is asked, “How long before the bodies float to the surface?” by a crewmember who has an unusual idea of small talk. We then learn that the bell was completely funded by John Carradine, as no university had any confidence in the project. Gee, it’s hard to see why. They then reiterate the idea that Carradine’s brother in California has designed and built another bell. “It’ll be interesting to see where mine failed. I suppose we’ll never know the answer to that.” Geez, could he be more gloomy?

Meanwhile, in Tucson—I mean, underwater—the divers discover that the caverns go on for miles and miles. They muse about the fact that it may take a very long time to find a way out and rise back to the surface. But why? Even if, as they say, the bell hit the bottom and rolled into “one of these openings,” it can’t be that hard to find the way out. Oh, and if you’re wondering why there is light down there, it’s because the caverns are made of phosphorus. Of course, phosphorus requires an initial light source in order to glow, but why quibble at this point? Besides, we find out later that there’s air because an underwater volcano is spewing out oxygen. So let’s not get into the habit of looking for sensible explanations for these things!

The menfolk go back to the bell to get spears and shoes, so they can fish for food. There is some more deep padding as they forge implements in the bell into spears, and comment that one of the oxygen tanks is nearly empty. They then swim back to the cave, amidst stock footage of fish.

On the boat, John Carradine and the ship’s captain (I think that’s who that is) are enjoying some coffee while pointing out that a storm is approaching. Of course there is! There is always a storm approaching when an undersea rescue needs to be made. The sonar officer reports in that he saw two “masses” moving "not like dead bodies." The captain insists that it was a fish he saw and that it’s a waste of time waiting for the bodies to rise to the top. (Wait--is that what they have been doing there?)

Back in the cavern, the divers are eating and preparing for sleep. They wonder if they’ll be able to find enough fish (um, they’re under the ocean) and Craig says he saw some planktonic shrimp (aren’t they really tiny?). Craig and Paul muse upon where they are and how Craig—the experienced diver—has never been lower than 200 feet and had never heard about these underwater caverns. Paul goes off to sleep, saying “I’ll probably dream about breaking an altitude record in a helium balloon.” Ha ha. It would be so easy to kill him....

The next day, the foursome are wandering through the caverns. For the record, it is not “petrified,” and it is certainly not “incredible.” They come upon a cutaway to stock footage of a gila monster which hisses, then they walk away nonchalantly. Whew! That was close! They then find fresh water and drink like fi— well, they drink a lot.

The ladyfolk sit down and rest (being the weaker sex, natch) and Dale takes out the letter that she was given earlier on the boat from “Tom” which is impossible to read. Call it the “Illegible Petrified Word.” At any rate, it’s apparently a kiss-off note. She crumples it up; Lauri tries to be consoling, but Dale snaps at her. “There’s nothing friendly between two females. There never is and there never will be.” Youch. Lauri suggests they try to help one another, yet Dales rebuffs her suggestion, saying that who needs help “when there are two men around.” The 1950s!

There is then some more padding—I mean, walking. They reach an impasse and, deciding that they can’t squeeze through tiny cracks, decide to turn back and...there is...more...walking... Now fighting

There is an abrupt cut to Craig with his shirt off flexing in front of the women, for no adequately explored reason (one shudders to think) while Paul is off looking for shrimp. A typical 1950s leading male hunk type, he kind of resembles a ball of Crisco rolled in hair. He slowly puts his shirt on and boasts of how many shrimp he can eat. Ladies, are you turned on yet?

Paul yells from offscreen and they run toward him, where they discover a human skeleton. Lauri caterwauls “Craig!” with a voice that sounds like a giant parrot run over by a steamroller. They look, and lurking behind a rock, watching them, is an old man who looks like the “It’s” guy from Monty Python’s Flying Circus with giant carpet remnants pasted on to his face. “What on Earth?” asks Dale, apparently never having seen an old guy before. Paul says, “Boy, are we glad to see you!” Um, why, exactly? the old guy has a weird speech impediment (he sounds like Droopy the cartoon dog on Quaaludes). The old guy has been there for 14 years, trapped in a shipwreck. They then ask him if he knows the way out—a stupid question, since he just said that he’s been there for 14 years! The old guys says “The air comes from a volcano two miles away.” Ah, of course....Huh? “Do you want to see my home?” the old guy asks. No! For the love of all that’s holy, no! No! No! But they go anyway.

The old guy’s home is festooned with dangling fish mobiles—it kind of looks like an infant’s crib. He offers to make them dinner...”I have enough for all of you.” Why? Does he get a lot of company?

There is another cut and Craig’s got his shirt off again. Paul and he muse about the old guy—doubting his story about the shipwreck. Yeah, that certainly does sound implausible.

The menfolk go off with the old guy to the volcano, for some reason, which may have been interesting (doubt it, though), but instead of the movie going with them we are treated to the two ladyfolk sitting beside a pool musing about spending the rest of their lives there and how Dale hates the sun (there’s a surprise). That scene peters out and the menfolk return; “That volcano’s there, all right, spouting air by the ton.” Yeah. Lauri takes her turn to freak out, as she realizes that there is no way out. The men of course have gotten used to the idea. Craig takes this time to proclaim his love for Lauri. She, of course had longed to hear him say that. They kiss and the old guy gets even more upsetting by ogling them.

We then abruptly cut to California, where Dr. Matheny (whose hair has again receded even further) gets in a car that is bigger than John Carradine’s research boat. He tunes the car radio to K-PLOT, a plot-specific news broadcast, that announces that the California Marine Research has abandoned their launch of the diving bell.

Meanwhile, John Carradine catches a flight to California (I wonder if he could get his face through security these days—it could be used as a weapon to hijack a plane). The plane lands and it appears as if he has walked from the airport to the Marine Research of California headquarters, which is located in what looks like a toolshed. Still, they have a receptionist and everything, although it really looks a lot like my dentist’s office. He has an appointment to see Dr. Matheny and/or get his teeth cleaned. Then again, Carradine does sound like he’s already been shot up with Novacaine, so maybe this is a follow-up exam on a root canal or something.
Carradine is upset that Matheny has given up the diving bell expedition, but then expresses surprise that the other bell is similar in design to his own. Dr. Matheny reaches under his desk and—ta da!—pulls out a model of the diving bell. Well, “model” is probably a bit optimistic; it’s a semicircular piece of plastic with a porthole cut into it. Not exactly a working model. A picture scrawled on a cocktail napkin would be more detailed. Carradine proposes making a second dive himself in Matheny’s bell. He claims he knows where the bell failed—apparently, he made the bell too good (shades of "the computer was too perfect" perhaps) and yet he had neglected to take into account the pressure pushing up on the bell from below. Huh? Anyway, Matheny is easily talked into it. “Oh, you’d just find the resources to build another one anyway and it would just mean an unnecessary delay.”

There then follows a montage (accompanied by jaunty music) of Carradine and a bunch of others making and building...things (what they are exactly, no one can say). At one point, Carradine uses his own face to bore holes through cast iron disks. (Well, not really, but he could.)

Under the water, while the menfolk have gone back to the bell to recover the items they’ll need, the ladies bicker with each other. Dale throws a nutty and says she won’t be dominated. (She's got some issues.) Meanwhile, conscious of the fact that the air in the oxygen tanks is running out, the men obviously have to make as few trips as possible and carry as much as they can in each trip. So they return, one of them carrying a single metal disk (why is that necessary?) and the other uses every ounce of his strength to carry a small length of rope. There is then more swimming as they go back for more things.

The second bell dive is underway, and a radio voice announces that he has found the original bell “100 feet below me. And unless I’m crazy, I see two men in the water.” What are the odds both can't be true? And not a moment too soon as the air in Paul’s tank has run out, and Craig pulls him inside the second bell where someone (who?) is waiting.

And thus comes my favorite exchange of the movie:
“How long has he been out of air?”
“Just a few minutes.”
“I’ve got some coffee.”
Ah, the coffee motif pays off! Yes, the first thing you should give someone who has been drowning is coffee. Coleman Francis, eat your heart out!

Underwater, the creepy old guy starts fondling Dale, saying “I like you much more than the others.” He suggests they kill the others, like he killed “Maurice.” Then they can be alone. She screams, and the shrillness of her scream triggers the volcano to erupt (?). The old guy stands still while styrofoam boulders rain down on his head (moving two feet to the right would have saved his life). The women flee from stock footage of rockslides and lava flows. Craig has returned to the cavern for the girls, but is beaned by falling rocks and knocked unconscious, but only until the girls find him, at which point he wakes up and leads them to safety. Of course. There is more stock footage, things catch on fire for some reason, and we dissolve to the bell where everyone is safe. Dale apologizes to Lauri for having been a bitch, and they drink coffee (of course!).

Cut to the boat, topside, everyone cheering a successful rescue. Craig says, “Room to breathe. I never thought about it much, but there is nothing greater.” Uh, yeah, I guess not. The captain of the ship dreams of a two-inch steak, and everyone cheers.

Fade out.

Well. The title, of course, has nothing to do with anything in the movie. And while the running time was only 64 minutes, it easily felt like it was longer than all three of The Lord of the Rings movies combined. The lesson to be learned, of course, is that if you are going on a groundbreaking yet dangerous dive into the very depths of the ocean, make sure you bring along enough coffee.

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