Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pearly Whites

We forge ahead through our 50 Classic Science-Fiction Films box set. This week:

She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Roger Corman
Star of Shame: None to speak of
Monster(s): Stock footage of sharks, weird old woman in floral sarong

There is arguably no filmmaker whose name is wont to strike fear into the hearts of moviegoers more than Roger Corman. Not that his films were particularly scary (or at least not intentionally so); they were just bad. These days, Corman appears to have achieved elder statesman status, and his students—like Jonathan Demme—now pay him tribute, which is more upsetting than you can imagine. IMDb lists 382 films with Corman as director; it’s entirely possible that the sum total of all their budgets would be only a fraction of what a major movie today costs.

Corman’s films (like Attack of the Giant Leeches) have often turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for good reason, although The She Gods of Shark Reef was not one of them. Why this movie was included in a box set of science-fiction films remains a mystery.

Given all of that, it’s easy to make at least three generalizations going into this movie:
  • it will have been shot on a shoestring budget at the same time as another Corman film (Naked Paradise, as it turns out)
  • it will prominently feature native women cavorting in festive sarongs
  • someone will get eaten by a shark (even if the “shark” is primarily stock footage and/or the size of a schnauzer)
So, that all said, let’s dive in, shall we?

The title sequence spares no expense; over shots of water, plain yellow text announces the title and its “stars.” In my DVD version, the yellow of the graphics bleeds into the water making it look like sloshing urine. It’s an appealing start. The opening song is “The Haunting Love Song from She Gods of Shark Reef.”

We are then told that the film was shot on location in the Territory of Hawaii. It’s entirely possible that the filming of this movie put off admitting Hawaii to the Union by at least a year. Certainly international treaties have been breached.

The music stops, there is some stock footage of a shark swimming, and we find ourselves underneath a dock, where Lee Johnston (Don Durant) and an old Indian guy fresh from snake charming, it looks like (complete with turban) stealthily swim up. It’s obvious they’re up to no good. However, Corman makes a bold (and probably budget-related) move by choosing not to light the scene in any way, so it’s not entirely clear what is going on. They slosh about in the water while guards patrol the dock, but not very observantly.

Lee and Mutoppa (as we will find out much later his name is) climb up on the dock, and Mutoppa takes out a large machete, which is what I think the movie had been edited with (Corman does like to reuse things). It’s suddenly day, and Lee sneaks up behind a guard, waiting for him to turn around before garroting him. There are some awkward closeups of the guard’s nose as he struggles and makes odd noises, which sound like they were overdubbed by Crazy Guggenheim. As Mutoppa plunges the machete into the guard, we switch to "MacheteVision" as the camera zooms into the man's chest. That done, Lee and Mutoppa find a wooden crate, break into it, and start to take out some guns. Another guard shows up, and they put the guns back in the crate. Mutoppa, Sikh and tired of the whole affair (ahem), dives into the water and takes off. This catches the attention of the new guard, and with an odd whistle, Lee jumps on him. There is a brawl. In one classically dumb moment, the guard charges at Lee while holding a rifle, but elects not to shoot the rifle and end the whole thing, and instead attempts to club Lee with it. It doesn’t work, and the guard is overpowered. Lee decides that Mutoppa had the right idea, and dives into the water.

It is during this scene that we are impressed with the Hawaiian locations, particularly the corrugated metal shacks.

A hairy hand unfurls a map of what looks like the Himalayas, but is apparently Hawaii. Lee’s voice intones, “Under cover of darkness—” (well, bright, sunlit darkness anyway) “—I made my way to the other side of the island—” (They were on an island?) “—where my brother had a small trading schooner.” Ah. He then says that they were sailing for another island where he could hide, but a hurricane swept out of the China Sea (huh?) and they foundered on a reef. That would be “Shark Reef,” of course. There is then stock footage of storms and a shipwreck.
The next morning, several kayaks filled with be-saronged women sail out and free Lee and his brother, Chris, from masses of seaweed. There are sharks, but the women have a way with them.

Chris (Bill Cord) is the hero and he has blond hair, which is in direct contrast to his “evil” brother who has black hair. Corman at least knows his cinematic iconography. Chris also has a tattoo that says “U.S. Navy,” for some reason, although nothing further is ever made of this. They arrive on the women’s island, which is devoid of men (natch) and ruled over by an old, den mother-esque figure named Queen Pua, although she kind of looks like Cruella De Ville. She asks Chris what happened; he says his compass went out in the storm (?) and they were wrecked on the reef. There was also a third guy named Jim who was killed and presumably eaten by sharks. Cruella tells him the gods are angry and that there has been “great wind for a month.” She also chides him, “You were foolish to set out in so small a boat.” Jeez, rub it in, why don’t you.

Lee then comes to and asks where they are. Cruella says, in a thick, weird accent, that they are on the island of Monokai, which is owned by the “Island Company.” I’d be curious to know what kind of company can get away with owning an island of women. She then says, “Visitors are not allowed on this island.” Of course they’re not. Chris says that they don’t want to be there either, and asks when they can leave. Cruella says “A company lunch [?] will be here in 10 days.” Lee says, “10 days? We can’t wait that long,” to which Cruella responds, “You will not mind.” And the way that the prettiest native girl has already taken to Chris, I’m sure he won’t mind at all.

Cruella then takes them to the “guest house,” which is an odd thing to have on an island that doesn’t allow visitors. She then has the women get the men some sarongs. Chris says they were out collecting specimens for a museum. Yeah, right. “You are a scientific expedition?” Cruella asks, and you can tell she doesn’t believe it either.

Chris asks about the girl who rescued them, and reaches into his pants (?!). Cruella wisely stops him and says, “There is no need to pay.” I’m hoping that’s all he had planned to do! Cruella then says that everything is provided by “The Company.” Chris asks, “What company.” “The Island Company,” says Cruella with reverence. “A world-famous concern.” Of what? “Pearls.” Ah. The men grin. You’d think there’s be a bit more security or protection for an international pearl diving enterprise. I’m not sure an old woman is particularly effective, although she is pretty strict.

Some time later, Cruella is surreptitiously hoisting a flag, which is apparently some kind of signal. The men notice. Lee is concerned that the police will have his description. Since he looks identical to every other white male in the 1950s, it would be hard for them not to have his description. Lee reiterates that he is on the lam, and they are determined to find a boat and flee ASAP. Lee is eager to find the island of Rara Too (?) where Mutoppa will hide him. Yeah, I’d trust that guy. “If only you hadn’t killed a man,” chides Chris. “There was no other way,” says his brother. “That’s always the way it is with you.” Ouch.

Chris then asks Cruella about the message. “I send message every day. Today I tell about you.” I didn’t know hoisting a flag up and down could convey such a nuanced conversation. Chris then mentions that he saw something inside the reef; we cut to it, and it looks at first glance like a large stone coffin, but is actually a stone head, kind of like an Easter Island statue after Slim Fast, or perhaps Mono Tiki Tia from Scooby-Doo. Cruella says that it is actually Kangarooa (?) the Shark God, who is responsible for bad weather. Chris asks if there is anything they can do to put him in a better humor; Cruella just says that he is hungry. Ah.

Chris and Lee go fishing, or something, attempting to collect specimens that will give them money. Cruella waxes poetic about luck and cruel fate; she’s quite the downer. You’d think being on a beautiful tropical island would have improved her spirits. But then, she does worship a shark god, which seems to say it all.

Lee then asks about food; Cruella points off camera (the Craft Services table?) and says “Go there when you are hungry. The women will help you.” They then pass another hut, which is where the pearls are stored until a ship comes and takes them. The men are not allowed in there; “company rules.” I would have thought it would be a subclause in the “no visitors allowed on the island” rule, but maybe the Company has really thorough corporate attorneys. Cruella then claps her hands: “Feed these men!” She must be head of HR.

The men then sit down to dinner with the women, who start singing and dancing. (You knew it was only a matter of time.) Chris cozies up to one particular woman, Mahia. She explains how the dancing tells a story, in this case about how the men were stranded there. Like they need to be reminded.

Then a proper hula dancer starts up, telling the story—it would seem—about how she feather dusts the furniture (I could be reading that wrong). Mahia then coerces Chris into dancing with her, and a ukulele starts playing. Cruella is not happy (yeah, big surprise). Admittedly, I can never hear a ukulele without thinking of Tiny Tim, but while Chris and Mahia are tiptoeing through the tulips, she puts a lei around his neck, which he, being a complete klutz, breaks. Yes, he’s a lousy lei. Anyway, this is apparently a big taboo and everyone freaks out. Cruella gasps, “Bad!” and pulls Mahia away. You know, they could have explained this to him earlier. "Breaking lei=bad." Think of all the problems they could have avoided.

The women gather up spears and shields and head for the kayaks. Meanwhile, there is another poorly acted porch scene between Lee and Chris. “You’ve never been taboo to a woman in your life,” says Lee. “They’re all hopped up on this superstition,” responds Chris. “I saw a shark come through the reef this morning,” says Chris. “Great,” says Lee, “if those babies can get in it means we can get out....I’ll scout around and see if I can rustle up anything.” Aaron Sorkin could only dream about writing dialogue like this. Chris helps one batch of women launch their kayak, and Lee ambles about the island.

Not much happens for a while, so while they are all puttering around, maybe now would be a good time to share some facts about Hawaii. Did you know that Hawaii was admitted to the Union on August 21, 1959? The are eight “main islands,” which are, from the northwest to southeast, Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. The last is the largest, and is often called the “Big Island.” The Hawaiian archipelago is situated some 3,200 km (1,988 mi) southwest of the North American mainland. Hawaii is the southernmost state of the United States and the second westernmost state after Alaska. Only Hawaii and Alaska are outside the contiguous United States and do not share a border with any other U.S. state.

Hawaii is the only state of the United States that:
  • is not located in North America
  • is completely surrounded by water
  • has a royal palace
  • does not have a straight line in its state boundary
  • continuously grows in area (due to currently active lava flows, most notably from Kilauea (Kīlauea).
The Hawaiian language is comprised almost entirely of vowels, and it is not unheard of for Hawaiian words to mysteriously acquire long strings of the letter “e” seemingly overnight—

Oh, wait, I think something might be happening in the movie...

Lee has found an old disused boat in the woods. Meanwhile, Chris is walking along the beach and sees Mahia out for a swim and dives in after her. She disappears under the water, and the two of them frolic like dolphins. They run back up on the shore, and she explains what the deal with the lei was. Cruella had said that the Shark God was hungry and that when people drown on the reef, the shark god eats. Since Mahia had saved Chris and Lee, the shark gods were, in a word, pissed. This could also explain why Cruella had been chasing the men around with a bottle of ketchup and a shrimp fork. Mahia is upset about the taboo business, and sensitive Chris responds by heaping shame on her religion. There’s nothing like blasphemy to turn on the ladies! They then kiss. Cruella notices and boy is she mad. Or something.

Lee then tells Chris that he found a boat, but it needs a new mast. (You know, there’s a ton of intact kayaks on the beach.) Cruella then accosts the men and tells Chris to leave Mahia alone. The men are more resolved than ever to get off the island.

Jungle drums start beating, and there is more singing, likely a ritual to atone for whatever they have to atone for. Cruella appeases the shark gods by throwing what look like moccasins into a fire, which subsequently explode. (I guess they don’t have Odor Eaters on the island.) “Kangarooa, take our sin away from us,” she intones, looking at Mahia while she says this. Jeepers. “We are humble people, Kangarooa. Give us a sign!” And she throws some wood on the fire—and it burns! I guess if you set the bar low enough, anything can be a sign from the gods. But, uh oh, the gods are not satisfied. The next day they have to make the “purification.” Whatever that is, it can’t be good; religious purifications always involve something unpleasant. Funny how that works.

At any rate, I guess you could say that Kangarooa is hopping mad.

Mahia explains this all to Chris in some sort of fractured English. Kangarooa is hungry; well, just feed him for crying out loud! Ah, but they’re going to: they’re going to swim out to the shark gods—and Mahia is going to be lunch, since it was she who made the gods angry. Chris is not happy about this, and we already saw how tolerant he was toward their religion.

Chris and Lee watch the women sail out toward the reef. (I guess it’s the next day already?) Chris finds a spear and a surfboard on the beach (?) and paddles out after them. Cruella starts speaking in tongues (or maybe it’s just her goofy accent) and seems way too cheerful about chucking Mahia and several other women overboard. I guess the stone head is the shark god, but it really looks like it was purchased at a discount god store. I mean, come on, if you’re going to invest in a deity, that’s not the time to cut costs. But if the head is the god, what are the sharks? And how is a big stone head a shark god? I’m no anthropologist, but the whole theology of these people seems a little whacked.

Anyway, the sharks arrive and Chris probably doesn’t do much to erase the whole taboo thing by killing one of them with a spear. Way to go, buddy. Cruella is really pissed now. Chris carries Mahia back to the shore, and he is pursued by Cruella and the others.

Cruella is in quite a state and sends out another signal with the flag, which is apparently an alert to the police to come immediately. Why it takes so long is anyone’s guess, because anyone close enough to see the flag must surely be close enough to get a boat there in about five minutes.

In the guest house, Chris talks Mahia into leaving with him. He doesn’t need to twist her arm all that much. Meanwhile, Lee is almost done replacing the mast on the boat he found. Again, he does realize there are a bunch of intact kayaks sitting on the beach in plain view, right? Cruella watches them assembling the boat. You’d think she of all people would be in favor of them leaving. She goes to the guest house and accosts Mahia and attempts to take her away to safety. Since Cruella just tried to feed her to a shark, I’m not sure I’d trust her all that much. There is then a really upsetting catfight between Mahia and Cruella, and Chris and Lee come to the rescue.

They drag Cruella back to the guest house, and Chris tells Lee that he intends to take Mahia with them. Lee is not happy, and not only because there is a big honking boom mike in the shot. Meanwhile, they bind and gag (yes!) Cruella, something they should have done an hour ago. “It’s always the same with you, Chris,” chides Lee. “You always have louse things up because of some dame.” Ouch. Lee then smiles knowingly. “She an ace in the hole!” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but Chris apparently does and slugs his brother, whose sarong starts riding up upsettingly. They then agree to look for supplies and a map. “Do you want me to go with you?” asks Chris. “No, there’s no time. It’s nearly dawn now.” Huh? They were just outside a second ago and it was noon.

They agree that to keep Cruella from telling the others, they have to take her on the boat, too. Suddenly it’s a Carnival cruise they’re booking. Lee goes to the company office and takes some maps. One of the women sees him in the office and freaks out. The rest of the women start chasing him, which I suspect is no small fantasy on his part. But now that everyone knows they’re leaving, why do they need to take Cruella with them?

They sail for the reef; they ungag Cruella who accuses Lee of stealing pearls, which Lee protests. For some reason, they can’t go forward and they can’t go back, so they decide to land on the reef. Why? Good question. They tie up Cruella, and she lays a guilt trip on Mahia—“I fed you, I looked after you since you were a little girl.” Yeah, but didn’t she just try to feed her to a shark?

While they’re waiting, Lee then swims back to the island (weren’t there sharks in the water?) and goes after the pearls, knocking out one of the women in the process. Boo! (I guess to take the curse off it, it was a large, mannish-looking woman. But still...) He makes off with a sack of about a dozen pearls. Not exactly a high-volume enterprise they’ve got there.

Chris explains to Mahia that Lee is wanted by the police for stealing guns. Oh, so that’s what he was doing at the beginning of the movie.

Chris and Mahia are cuddling on the reef, and while they are thus engaged, Cruella frees herself and swims back to the island. She makes it in seconds—faster than Lee made it back to the reef from the island. Quite the swimmer, Cruella is. What is she, Gertrude Ederle all of a sudden? And, hey, why didn’t they pass each other? Good question. I guess Lee took back roads the whole way or Cruella was swimming too fast to be seen clearly.

Back on the reef, Lee chides his brother for letting Cruella escape. “The whole island will be after us!” I thought the whole island already was after them. And, by the way, why did the women let them get away so easily? Chris spots the sack Lee is holding, and castigates him for going back to steal the pearls. Mahia is surprised that no one was guarding the storehouse. Lee reluctantly admits that someone was. “They won’t be warning anyone for a long time,” he says proudly. “It always ends up this way, doesn’t it, Lee?” chides Chris. Man, these two have some issues. They should spend the pearl money on a good group therapist. “We can’t go on running forever, Lee,” says Chris. “I can,” says Lee, and karate chops him across the throat. Chris goes down. The brothers fight and Lee defends himself by bonking Chris on the head with the sack of pearls, which lays Chris out. Lee heads out to sea in the boat. In the distance, the women are in kayaks and are gaining, albeit slowly—although it took Cruella five seconds to swim the same distance. As if that weren’t bad enough, a shark fin cuts through the water, purportedly heading toward him.

This next sequence is very confusing. Lee ends up in the water, either knocked overboard by the swinging of the sail or by deliberately jumping overboard to fix the sail, neither of which actions makes much sense. Lee gets tangled on a rope and can’t get out of the water as the shark approaches. Chris jumps in to rescue him, and Mahia jumps in to rescue Chris. Well, the shark gods had better not complain about being hungry after this all-you-can-eat buffet. Mahia grabs a dagger and slits open one shark, which I suspect is not going to help mend any fences with Cruella. In Lee’s struggle to get back on the boat, the sack of pearls is upended, and ill-shapen pearls—they look more like rock salt—rain down on the sea floor. So much for that idea. Then a teeny tiny shark gently head butts Lee in the stomach, and that’s apparently the end of him. Chris despondently swims away. He and Mahia climb into the boat, as Cruella beckons from a nearby kayak. “The tide is high and the wind is strong. We’ll leave evil behind us,” says Mahia, as Cruella sadly calls after her. They sail into the sunset, although it’s supposed to be dawn. Lee is slowly digested—hopefully, the shark gods are appeased. Heaven knows the audience isn’t.

Man, this was a dull one; the admittedly scenic locations really didn’t make up for the lack of plot. Funny, the DVD box gives star billing to Bill Cord (Chris), but the only highlight of his career was appearing in a couple episodes of Perry Mason. Don Durant (Lee) had a bit more of a distinguished career, appearing in a ton of westerns, in film and on TV. Jeanne Gerson, who played Cruella, didn’t do much else, although IMDb has her listed as “Slave Woman with Donkey” in The Ten Commandments. That’s one for the resume. By the way, I get the "Shark Reef" of the title, but what about "She Gods"? There weren't any; just "shark gods." But then I guess Shark Gods of Shark Reef would have been a tad redundant.

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