The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues

Rating: 1 out of 10.

A treat for so-bad-they’re-good movie fans, this 1955 clunker from ARC/AIP takes place almost exclusively on a California beach where FBI agents hunt movie history’s most incompetent spy and a radioactive sea monster. 1/10

The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues. 1955, USA. Directed by Dan Milner. Written by Lou Rusoff. Starring: Kent Taylor, Cathy Downs, Michael Whalen, Helene Stanton, Phillip Pine, Rodney Bell, Vivi Janiss. Produced by Jack & Dan Milner. IMDb: 3.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

I recently wrote a 3/10 star review over Roger Corman’s post-apocalyptic clunker Day the World Ended (1955). That was American Releasing Company’s (ARC) top-billed film on a double feature that also included The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues. So The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is the bottom-part of said bill, and its quality is likewise inferior. It’s unclear who the main character of this film is, but the smart money is probably on Dr. Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor), a marine biologist who has studied the effects of radiation on marine animals, as well as something he call’s ”nature’s own death ray”, which are naturally occurring uranium pockets that create radioactive laser beams shooting up from the ocean floor. He is also a special investigator for the FBI, sent to investigate a certain Professor King, also marine biologist and researcher of this so-called ”nature’s own death ray”.

We meet Dr. Stevens on a California beach when he is inspecting the body of a fisherman, who in the film’s opening scene was seen falling into the water when his row-boat was headbutted by a sea monster vaguely resembling a Moomin troll with fangs. As he examines the body, he is greeted by another middle-aged man, who presents himself as FBI agent Bill Grant (Rodney Bell). The two team up to find out what has killed the fisherman and left him radiation-scarred, and if Professor King or someone on his staff are involved. And if there is any merit to the townsfolk’s reports of a sea monster called ”the phantom”. On the beach the two also discover a young man hiding in the bushes, holding a spear gun. This is George Thomas (Phillip Pine), Professor King’s assistant. During a stern interrogation conducted by the two government agents, he explains that his job is to study marine life, and that’s why he’s down at the beach at night. Yes, it is night, although you wouldn’t believe it by looking at the screen, as the scene is clearly shot in broad daylight. George explains that when he saw two people standing over a dead body, his natural instinct was to hide. And, Stevens points out, George didn’t kill the victim with a spear gun, he was radiated to death.

Kent Taylor and Rodney Bell

The story that follows is somewhat entangled, but I’ll try and untangle it: Professor King (Michael Whalen) is secretly experimenting with sea animals in his very locked (and cramped) laboratory, mutating them with the help of radiation. Why he does this is unclear, and the film never bothers to explain it. But what seems clear is that he is not doing it to hurt people, but hopes to somehow use his knowledge to help humanity. However, the nature of King’s experiments are not known to the two investigators, who are trying to put together the pieces of how this alleged ”death ray” fits together with the killed fisherman, Professor King’s secret work, the so-called phantom, and the ”enemy” agents rumoured to move about the beach. And don’t worry: even after watching the movie it still isn’t quite clear how it’s all linked together, as the script is so inept that you don’t understand half of what is going on, because the screenwriter simply seems to forget to provide the answers.

Dr. King clearly isn’t interested in talking to Stevens, who presents himself as a tourist called “Baxter”, because he escapes through his bedroom window when he sees “Baxter” coming, leaving his flabbergasted, beautiful daughter Lois (Cathy Downs) at lack for an explanation as she receives “Baxter” in their mutual home, still in the middle of the night. Perhaps the government should have thought twice about sending one of the world’s “foremost experts in the effects of radiation on marine biology” as as an undercover agent to investigate another one of the world’’s “foremost experts on the effects of radiation on marine biology”. Especially as Stevens’ face IS PLASTERED ALL OVER THE COVER OF HIS BOOK, called ”The Effects of Radiation on Marine Biology”. Which one would expect the suspect, being an expert on the effects of radiation on marine biology, to have read. However, the two soon become friends, as Stevens grows convinced that King has no (deliberate) involvement in the death of the fisherman. In fact, Stevens starts dating Lois, with the father’s blessing.

Michael Whalen as Professor King.

However, the assistant George Thomas does turn out to be a shady character, in fact he is in league with a proper ”enemy” spy lounging under an umbrella on the beach – a woman called Wanda (Helene Stanton), who speaks with a Slavic accent and is all femme fatale. Wanda is losing patience, as Thomas hasn’t been able to get into King’s lab to learn the secrets of his research despite months of trial and error. One problem with his attempts is that his modus operandi is to try to convince King’s elderly secretary Ethel (Vivi Janiss) to simply open the door for him, despite the fact that she doesn’t have the keys to the door. One might think that a communist spy might have learned some lock-picking, or would even think of the obvious idea of taking an axe to the door. But, and I’m quoting Wanda, Thomas is something of a disappointment to his superiors. And it doesn’t help that Professor King is very aware that Thomas is trying to steal his secrets. Why he doesn’t see fit to fire his assistant who clearly isn’t assisting him very much is anybody’s guess. And to make matters even more complicated, it seems that Ethel is also prying on his work, but for some reason that the film seems to fail to explain before she is spear-gunned to death by Thomas. But it’s possible I just didn’t catch it.

There’s also one of the most clumsy romances ever put on screen. Complete with all the cliches: Stevens surprising Lois in the shower, Lois asking for help with her zipper, Lois penetrating the hard scientific exterior of Stevens. Not only this, but Stevens is actually a government investigator, and by all accounts Lois is a suspect, and even if she wasn’t, she is the daughter of the main suspect. Furthermore, the role of Stevens was clearly meant to be played by someone younger. At the time Kent Taylor was 47, looking like 55, and Cathy Downs was 29, playing someone clearly younger. Still Grant keeps referring to Stevens as ”young man”. Michael Whalen was five years older than Taylor.

Cathy Downs and Kent Taylor.

And what about the phantom? Well, it actually doesn’t show up very much, because underwater shooting costs time and money, and the phantom costume was almost impossible to work in. We do get another death, as a young couple goes for a moonlight swim in clear sunshine. Stevens also pays the phantom a visit when he investigates the radioactive ray, and at one point Stevens and Grant go and say hello to the monster together. And finally Professor King, realising the danger his mutated sea monster and the death ray pose to general security, takes the boat out to the death ray …

… and that’s enough with the spoilers.

Now, let’s backtrack just a little bit. In 1954 a Hollywood lawyer named Samuel Z. Arkoff and a shrewd movie marketer called James H. Nicholson met through a lawsuit over the movie title Bride of the Atom. This was the original title of an Ed Wood film featuring Bela Lugosi, which was produced by a young British producer called Alex Gordon. But it was also a title used by James Nicholson to re-title an old horror movie for the company he worked with, Realart Pictures. To prevent Nicholson from stealing his movie name, Gordon hired lawyer Arkoff, who contacted Nicholson. The matter was settled, and Gordon’s film eventually became Bride of the Monster (1955, review) – but more importantly: Arkoff and Nicholson immediately bonded. The two realised there was an untapped market for exploitation films aimed at a teenage audience, and that it was possible to make dirt-cheap pictures that could bring in ten times their budgets in profits. They founded the distribution company American Releasing Company (ARC), that would eventually change its name to American International Pictures. They hired Alex Gordon and Nicholson’s wife, and ARC was ready to roll.

Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson.

ARC had taken notice of producer Roger Corman’s first film Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954, review), which cost only 20,000 dollars to make, but which made Lippert Pictures a whopping 850,000 dollars at the box office. ARC quickly bought Corman’s second feature The Fast and the Furious (1954), and commissioned him to start producing films for them through various front companies. However it was soon clear that Corman’s cheap pictures, that always ended up as bottom pairing at double features, weren’t enough to make ARC a profit, because they got a smaller slice of the ticket returns that the first-billed picture. And because of the cheap nature of the films, it was difficult to convince any exhibitor to play them as top-billed movies. The only solution, they figured, was to start producing both the upper and the lower half of the double bills themselves. However, crafty as Corman was, he couldn’t produce (and direct) two films at the same time. So ARC had to start looking for other people to film their bottom half films.

Enter Jack and Dan Milner. Jack Milner was a sound editor who had made his debut on Monster from the Ocean Floor, and served as associate producer on The Fast and the Furious, and Corman knew that he and his brother Dan, a film editor, harboured dreams of producing and directing their own film. ARC greenlighted them to make the bottom half to Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended, if they founded their own company and kept costs to a minimum. According to one source, the budget for Phantom from 10,000 Leagues was as low as 30,000 dollars. Wikipedia puts it at 75,000 dollars, and states that the costs were split 60/40 between ARC and the Millers, which means that ARC only had to put up 45,000 dollars, which I find more plausible. Depending on how you calculate, the equivalent of today would be a 600,000-800,000 dollar movie budget, which in Hollywood naturally couldn’t even get a movie star out of bed.

The Phantom, played by Norma Hanson.

As was usually the case with ARC/AIP movies, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues was born out of a title dreamed up by Jim Nicholson, who then had his art department draw up a poster, and asked his brother-in-law, Lou Rusoff, to write a script around it. Rusoff also wrote Day the World Ended, and continued to write a number of movies for AIP in the future. The original story for The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is credited to a Dorys Lukather, about whom I can find no information. Dan Milner was set up as director (and uncredited editor) of the film, and Jack as producer. 

The problem with shooting a film that partly takes place at night is that it requires expensive lights as well as a strong power source, things that are hard to fit into a 75,000 dollar budget, especially of many of the scenes are to take place on a beach or other location where you would have to bring your own generators. The standard practice for cheap movies are to use so-called day-for-night shots, meaning you film the scene in daylight and then under-develop the film to make it seem dark. The problem with day-for-night shots is that if you don’t set them up carefully, they are obvious, because of bright skies, or as in this case, shining white sand on which the actors cast clear black shadows, which the naturally wouldn’t do if there was no sun. In fact, when I first saw the film I didn’t realise it was supposed to be night in many of the shots, I simply thought the images were darkened because of degrading or bad transferring. It wasn’t until the characters pointed out that it was night-time that I caught on.

Apart from the crappy day-for-night shots, one can say about the direction that at least Milner and cinematographer Brydon Baker have a general idea of how to set up a shot to make them resemble a movie. Other than that, it is all very pedestrian, static and unimaginative. An uncredited Wyott Ordung was in charge of underwater direction.

Underwater attack!

I have not found any info on who made the monster for the movie. AIP’s monster maker Paul Blaisdell was offered to make it, but declined, probably because he didn’t feel he would be able to make the two suits simultaneously – he was creating “Marty the Mutant” for Day the World Ended at the time, as well as acting the part. The phantom has sort of a vaguely reptilian look, but humanoid arms and a head that looks like a cross between a hippo, a Chinese dragon and a puppy begging for scraps at the dinner table. It’s difficult to say what it’s made of, but I suspect that the head is probably foam rubber and latex, and the body-piece looks very canvassy. It obviously wasn’t made to fit snugly to an actor’s body, instead you can see the whole suit billowing around the actor like a big dress in the water. This terror of the seas is almost completely immobile, and the worst it gets up to is head-butting row-boats, and pull at swimmers’ legs.

The film is clearly a way to capitalise on the popular Creature from the Black Lagoon franchise, with the sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955, review) released just a few months prior to this film. However, Milner & Milner didn’t have the underwater camera crew of Universal. They had Wyott Ordung. The underwater scenes are chaotic and murky, but still better than the scenes on dry land, as Ordung was clearly a better director than Dan Milner. In an old interview in Fangoria magazine, retold by Bill Warren in his essential book Keep Watching the SkiesOrdung says that he worked uncredited on the film as production manager, associate producer and even put most of the crew together, and was paid a lousy 150 dollars a week for it.

Suit actor and diver Norma Hanson. Photo courtesy of Women Divers Hall of Fame.

It was probably Ordung who found Alfred and Norma Hanson, two very experienced commercial divers. Alfred developed safety features for hard hat divers, and Norma at one point held the depth record for women diving on air, 220 feet. At the time, Norma was working as a show diver, which is probably the reason the film crew found her. Alfred worked as diving consultant on the movie, and took turns with Norma in donning the impossible monster suit. Ordung says that prior to filming, they tested the suit on Norma, and it almost killed her when the cumbersome thing got tangled up in the kelp at the bottom of the sea. Here is, by the way, a clip from a TV show about hard hat salvage diving, featuring Al and Norma Hansen.

The acting is probably the least atrocious aspect of The Phantom from 10,000 LeaguesKent Taylor is smooth and professional in the lead role, despite having less than intelligent lines. However, he is totally mismatched with his romantic interest, not just because of the age gap. There simply is no universe where Dr. Ted Stevens and Lois King would hook up, and the romantic subplot must be one of the worst of movie history. Clearly romance was not Lou Rusoff’s strong point – which he also proved in Day the World Ended. 

Kent Taylor.

Taylor’s ”partner”, FBI agent Grant is played by Rodney Bell, a somewhat surprising candidate for playing a hard-boiled crime fighter. The short, stocky actor has a pleasant and jovial manner, and is clearly enjoying himself immensely in what is effectively a second lead, and the smartest, toughest guy in the movie. He’s actually not too bad an actor, despite being oddly cast, but the illusion of the tough G-man is somewhat shattered because Bell seems to have way too much fun solving murder mysteries. But I do like the fact that people who look like me sometimes get the chance to play the hero. Bell breezes through the part like the professional he is.

The worst written part of the film is handed to Cathy Downs, who plays the daughter of a brilliant scientist, but still seems to understand less about science than a seven-year-old, or about anything else for that matter. One might have bought it, had the role been played by a teenager, but Cathy Downs was almost thirty at the time. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Michael Whalen as Professor King, except his lines, which would have needed a John Carradine to make work. Lines like ”Knowledge sometimes has jaws, like a steel trap! And it can destroy either the hunter or the hunted!” See more unforgettable dialogue, collected by Lyz Kingsley of And You Call Yourself a Scientist. Character actress Vivi Janiss is superb as the bitter, prying, secretary of Professor King, and one would so much had hoped that she would have found a bag of gold somewhere and been able to leave the embittered scientists who treats her like air, and go on an adventure around the world. I’m sure she would have had a ball. Instead she is speared by the worst spy in history for no obvious reason.

Vivi Janiss and Phillip Pine.

The double bill of Day the World Ended and The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues was a box-office hit, and went on to rake in over a million dollars in ticket sales. I have found no contemporary reviews of Phantom, but one imagines they probably weren’t kind. The film has a 3.6/10 star audience rating on IMDb, based on over 1,600 votes, and no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. Curiously, AllMovie gives the film a 2.5/5 star rating with Bruce Eder writing: “this isn’t a bad little movie — it’s more interesting than any number of major studio dramas of the period, and moderately entertaining within the context of cheap 50’s cinema”. TV Guide was not as kind: “‘Freezing Horror!’ screamed the ads, and they were right; the audience was numb from unintended laughter.”

Richard Scheib at Moria gives the film 1/5 stars: “Even as cheap 1950s monster movies go, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is dull”. Award-winning author Jessica Amanda Salmonson writes under the nome de plume “Paghat the Ratgirl” at Weird, Wild Realms: “I swear to Great Ghu I’m not making it sound dumber than it actually is. The sheer incompetence is its chief charm. As a Z-horror attempt to ride the coat tails of the very successful Creature from the Black Lagoon this cheezy imitation delivers as little as the production studio could get away with.”. And Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant gives it a “Fair” rating, writing: “Taken at face value, [the] synopsis sounds like an adequate foundation for a monster potboiler. Unfortunately, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues is an excruciatingly dull eighty minutes of repetitive scenes and unimaginative storytelling.” Bill Warren writes: “From the meaningless title, to the creature’s design, to all technical aspects and the incredibly confused plot, The Beast from 10,000 Leagues is among the worst movies of the 1950’s”.

TREMBLE!

Quoting Mark Cole, this movie is “strictly a bottom of the barrel snooze-fest”, partly because of the hopeless script and partly because of the incredibly stale and static direction. Much of the running time is taken up by people walking in and out of doors. A typical scene consists of someone opening a door, entering a room, having a brief conversation, and then leaving the room. There’s endless repetition of Professor King entering the secretary’s office, taking of his coat, hanging it on the coat-hanger, from where he picks up his lab coat, puts it on, unlocks the locks to his lab, enters the lab – cut to the lab – where he locks all the locks again, takes off his lab-coat, puts on his radiation suit and goes to work with his back to the camera. Most scenes are filmed from the exact same angle of roughly five different locations or sets. I have seen worse films, but this is is one of the dullest.

Even the title is confused. The monster is not a phantom, it’s a nuclear dragon hippo that headbutts boats. It’s not “from 10,000 leagues” (whatever that means). It’s from Professor King’s lab a stone’s throw away.

Lead actor Kent Taylor was a modestly successful B actor in the thirties and forties, but never quite became an A-lister, despite his rugged good looks. In the fifties he turned to television, and found some success in the lead of the crime series Boston Blackie (1951-1953). He made a decent living on TV throughout the fifties, with recurring roles in Zorro (1958) and The Rough Riders (1958-1959), and did the occasional film on the side.

Cathy Downs and Kent Taylor.

Like a latter-day John Carradine, Taylor seems to have been the sort of actor who wanted to work, and didn’t feel it was beneath him to lend his face to ridiculously bad movies. In the late sixties and seventies he, much like Carradine, found himself playing leads (sometimes opposite Carradine) in super-cheap exploitation, science fiction and horror films, starting with Edward L. Cahn’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963) and Herbert L. Strock’s The Crawling Hand (1963). In 1968 he appeared in Filipino schlockmeister and gore enthusiast Eddie Romero’s Brides of Blood, but Taylor’s legacy as a cheapo horror exploitation actor was cemented when he got involved in the works of Al Adamson in 1967 with the film Blood of Ghastly Horror, which holds a lowly 2.1 rating on IMDb. Other Adamson masterpieces Taylor appeared in bore names like Satan’s Sadists (1969), Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970), Brain of Blood (1971) and Girls for Rent (1974), which was re-released on video with the alluring title I Spit on Your Corpse!

The G-man in Phantom from 10,000 Leauges was probably Rodney Bell’s biggest and best remembered role, which in itself says something of his career, but he did act in close to 150 films and TV series, albeit mostly in small supporting roles, uncredited bit-parts or as an extra. He is not to be confused with the younger Australian actor with the same name. Cathy Downs was yet another former model picked up by a major studio in the forties – in this case Fox. Fox did even groom her as a star at one point, and the highlight of her career was playing the title role in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), but from there it all went downhill. However, she is something of a darling among friends of fifties science fiction, as she went on to play the leads in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Missile to the Moon (1958). Like Taylor, Michael Whalen was a dashing leading-man type in the thirties and forties, and is perhaps best known for playing supporting parts in a couple of Shirley Temple movies. He played the lead in the mystery drama The Dawn Express in 1942, and also appeared in Missile to the Moon.

Cathy Downs.

Phillip Pine was actually a rather successful actor, appearing in close to 200 films and TV series between the forties and the eighties. He played a co-lead in the classy film noir Murder by Contract in 1958 and had a small roles in Robert Wise’s very good boxing crime drama The Set-Up in 1949. Pine appeared in almost all of the early science fiction anthology TV shows, such as Tales of Tomorrow (1949-1952, review), Science Fiction Theatre, One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and guested even more sci-fi shows, like Adventures of Superman, The Wild Wild West, Star Trek (the episode The Savage Curtain), The Six Million Dollar Man, The Invaders, and more. He also starred in two more theatrically released sci-fi films, The Lost Missile (1958) and Project X (1968), as well as the TV films The Invasion of Carol Enders (1974) and The Clone Master (1978). He also wrote, produced and directed a couple of small films in the seventies and eighties. Vivi Janiss was never a big name in film, but carved out a very respectable career as a radio actor and guest actor on a number of high-profile TV series.

Wyott Ordung was a guy who seems to have rattled around the lower tiers of Hollywood in the fifties, often working uncredited on different tasks. His greatest accomplishment is probably his screenplay for the wonderfully psychedelic no-budget film Robot Monster (1953, review), one of my absolute favourite fifties Z movies. He also directed the surprisingly competent Monster from the Ocean FloorRoger Corman’s first movie, in which he also acted. Brydon Baker had been a stock cinematographer for a short period in the thirties, but has no credits between 1935 and 1955. The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues seems to have been the film with which he made his return to cinematography, after which he kept on working for another ten years, with titles including From Hell it Came (1957), which was Dan Milner’s third and last directorial effort, The Astounding She-Monster (1957), Space Master X-7 (1958), The Incredible Petrified World (1959), Return of the Fly (1959) and Valley of the Dragons (1961).

Janne Wass

The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955, USA). Directed by Dan Milner. Written by Lou Rusoff. Starring: Kent Taylor, Cathy Downs, Michael Whalen, Helene Stanton, Phillip Pine, Rodney Bell, Vivi Janiss, Michael Garth, Pierce Lyden, Norma Hanson. Music: Ronald Stein, Cinematography: Brydon Baker. Editing: Dan Milner. Underwater director: Wyott Ordung. Makeup: Eddie Parks. Sound: Frank Webster. Wardrobe: Frank Tate. Aldred Hanson: Diving consultant. Produced by Jack & Dan Milner for Milner Brothers Productions and American Releasing Company.

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