Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Terror Beneath The Sea (1966)

Pencil erasers are not that much fun, are they? They're generally pink or white, soft or hard as a rock, and they either do their assigned task (i.e. Erase pencil marks) or smear graphite everywhere and tear through your paper. Yet, there was a time I can recall when erasers (or, let's face it, toys disguised as erasers) were pretty damned fun for monster kids and sci fi fans. In the early 80s, a company called Diener Industries introduced the youth of America to their "Space Creatures" line of "pencil erasers." They were about two or three inches high, various colors (sometimes pink but never white, if memory serves) and looked to be based on some great low budget genre creations. The ones I recall having were a yellow amphibian based on the monster from Destination Inner Space, a beefcake version of The Fly, and a naked alien from I Married A Monster From Outer Space. I also recall having a Medusa and a couple of very soft (and chewy, might I add) robots, as well as a few dinosaurs. Though I didn't own one, there was also a bald alien with gills on his face. According to the "Neato Coolville" blog, he was inspired by an episode of "The Outer Limits" TV series. The fishmen in Terror Beneath The Sea (aka Kaitei daisensô) also bear a striking resemblance. Maybe it's something around the mouth?

A group of doctors and reporters are gathered on a submarine for a demonstration of the Navy's latest homing torpedo, the Bloodhound. Firing upon an unmanned target sub, Ken (Sonny Chiba), Jenny (Peggy Neal), and even Commander Brown (Franz Gruber) notice a badly-matted-in figure dive away from the sub seconds before the torpedo strikes. Their interest piqued, Ken and Jenny go skin-diving to investigate a bit further, and Jenny gets attacked by and snaps a photo of a fishman. When the authorities (read: Commander Brown) are incredulous, the duo go back down and discover a hidden underwater cavern. Attacked by fishmen, they are subdued and brought before the evil Dr. Moore (Erik Neilson). He reveals his plan to take over the world and rule it from under the sea and turn people into fishmen (actually "water cyborgs") to serve under him. And now kindly, old Professor Howard (Andrew Hughes) has also been captured. The trio has to escape and take down the mad scientist before Commander Brown and Captain Bob (Steve Queens) blow his hidden lair to smithereens.

After the massive success of the first four "James Bond" movies, every studio wanted its own superspy/espionage thriller or some variation thereupon. While many of the movies that came out were not even close to matching the quality of the Bond series, a lot of them successfully incorporated the most prevalent (read: exploitable) aspects in their bid for a piece of the box office pie. Arguably the easiest of these aspects to plug into a film is the outré villain, and Dr. Moore certainly fits the mold. He is always seen with sunglasses on, as if he's either hiding some hideous secret (a la the Bond villain's propensity to be less than machine but more than man) or he's just too cool to not wear them. His "utopian" civilization prototype/lair is completely sterile and functional. The only noticeable splashes of color are on a map of the world in the main control room. Other than that, it's whites, blacks, grays, and some powder blues. The suggestion is that under Moore's leadership, the world would be drab, devoid of variety and the oddball asymmetries that actually make life interesting.

This extends, then, to the water cyborgs/fishmen/process men/etc. They are created from humans but they are homogenized. Each one looks exactly like the others (with the obvious limitations of the FX budget and actors' body types), and their minds are blank memory banks with information fed into them. The controls for the fishmen are simplicity themselves. A knob is turned to "Fight" or "Work" or whatever one-word, blanket phrase an automaton would need to be effective. Of course, this sort of thing could only exist in a sci fi film of this era, and I'm sure that even then, it was probably quite risible. Further, and perhaps most horrifying, the water cyborgs are completely gender neutral. So, never mind losing the basest desire for sex. You couldn't do it, even if you tried. The transformation process is done partly surgically, and as with any procedure like this, it immediately calls to mind the idea of vivisection and surgical ethics. This is not explored at any great length in the film (and let's be perfectly clear, no one involved with this production is out to do anything other than entertain), but I find it intriguing, nonetheless.

The special effects and makeup effects are strictly functional, and they rarely achieve (or seem to have any desire to achieve) a sense of verisimilitude. The underwater shots are obviously shot dry, and the models all move with that iron-stiff non-deviation that hampers much miniature model work, particularly from this time period. The fishmen costumes are interesting but not for very long. The creatures look mildly cross-eyed, though I can't say whether that's just how they were filmed or how they were actually constructed. Either way, the suits were never intended to actually go underwater (and if they were, they weren't built to do much while submerged). In the scene where Jenny is attacked while scuba-diving, the film cuts from Jenny (very much underwater) to a medium closeup of a fishman (very much not underwater) against a black background. Then, as it strikes, the amphibi-man is now matted in, ruining the shot's perspective. Yet it's enjoyable as all hell, and when the cyborgs start sporting guns, you'll find you no longer care how threadbare their appearance is.

It's also a tad disheartening the level of padding that this film has in it. Ken and Jenny go scuba diving not once, but twice. Each time, we're treated to lengthy, sub-Cousteau-ian shots of underwater non-wonders. When the process for creating the water cyborgs is explained to our protagonists, it is displayed onscreen in the minutest detail. And while the transformation shots are effective (Jenny looks like she may actually vomit), they go on for far too long and much of the operation could have been elided. I can only assume that, since the film was geared towards kids, the filmmakers couldn't take for granted that their target audience would get what was happening one hundred percent without showing them. Also, this is the kind of shit kids love. However, for a seventy-nine minute movie, this extraneous stuff eats up a bit too much runtime. I think this is both the greatest attraction and biggest deficiency of the film. The story itself is so pared down that it can't make feature length, but the padding used to get it there is largely (but not all) the stuff the audience wants (action and monsters). It's nothing to get overly-enthusiastic over, but as a fast, popcorn movie, Terror Beneath The Sea goes down nicely. 

MVT: Chiba showcases the charisma that would later catapult him into the cult cinema pantheon. The hand-to-hand fights are not monstrously exciting or well-choreographed, but the man throws himself completely into everything he does, and he is the main attraction every time he's onscreen.

Make or Break: The "Make" is when the first water cyborg pops up sporting a gun. It gives the film's finale a different flavor than similar climaxes like Island Of Dr. Moreau. Plus, it looks super-cool.

Score: 6/10

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