Tuesday, May 13, 2014

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1959)

"IT WAS FOOLISH, IT WAS INSANE, IT WAS FANTASTIC!" 
Quite a little seen science-fiction horror fest and quite a mystery why it's put out on DVD by Criterion!  But there you have it.  This tail-end-of-the-fabulous-fifties B&W less-than-A-production slips under the radar of most fans but has some things going for it.  Firstly, the plot . . . which has some things going for it as well.  Several nuclear submarines and other vessels have disappeared in the Arctic Circle so Washington calls a meeting.  Commander Wendover (Dick Foran) is ordered to take his own atomic submarine the "Tiger Shark" up there to see what gives.  Along for the ride are scientists Dr. Clifford Kent (Victor Varconi) and Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway) as well as young Dr. Carl Neilsen (Brett Halsey) who is the only one available who knows how to operate a new, experimental diving bell contraption.  The crew of the Tiger Shark is immediately summoned back from shore leave; among them is "lady killer" Commander "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz) who is interrupted while putting the moves on bombshell Julie (Joi Lansing).  None too happy about this atomicus interruptus, "Reef" is further annoyed when his old friend Dr. Neilsen turns out instead to be his pacifist son Carl . . . whom "Reef" can't stand!  Cue the testosterone posturing now.  What follows is seemingly endless scenes of people standing around talking . . . interspersed with scenes of people sitting around talking. 
Our gang eventually discovers that the submarine disappearances are caused by a flying saucer which has taken to lurking underwater near the North Pole in order to constantly refuel on its magnetic energy as well as scout for a new planet to make their home.  After about an hour of screen time where very little actually happens, the Tiger Shark encounters the "swimming UFO" and fires torpedoes which are stopped by a "mass of jelly" exuded from the saucer.  Perhaps extra cranky after spending a dull hour in this movie, Wendover orders the Tiger Shark to ram to saucer -- in which it becomes embedded.  Stuck together, the "Cyclops" (nickname the crew gives the UFO due to its single eye-like dome) and the Tiger Shark plummet to the ocean floor.  A small team (including "Reef" and Carl) take the diving bell down to the saucer and enter it. 
Inside a huge, dark chamber (filled with air), "Reef" hears a strange voice inside his head summoning him to the center of the ship where, inside a huge sphere (which looks like a psychedelic beach ball), he encounters a cyclopean, tentacly-alien who thinks Earth would make a great new home.  After a few of his colleagues get fried and/or melted by the alien, "Reef" shoots the creature in the eye with his pistol and runs back to the diving bell.  When Carl asks him where the others are, "Reef" callously growls "Fortunes of war!" and they high-fin it back to the Tiger Shark.  The "swimming UFO" surfaces to refuel at the magnetic North Pole so the Tiger Shark launches a missile which blows up the saucer rather anti-climactically.  Th'end.

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE plays like a war/submarine picture for most of it's first 50 minutes or so until, as one reviewer I read puts it, things go "batshit bonkers" for the rest of the film's running time.  Horror and sci-fi fan Alex Gordon produced this odd duck of a film and had a big say in the casting; bringing in favourites from Hollywood's past.  Skipper Wendover is played by likeable Dick Foran who appeared in such classic Universal 40's horrors as "THE MUMMY'S HAND "and "THE MUMMY'S TOMB" as well as "HORROR ISLAND".  The nominal star of the film, I suppose, would be Arthur Franz (who headlined the Sam Katzman sci-fi horror "MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS") and who, according to his co-star Brett Halsey thought himself deserving of better roles.  Speaking of Brett Halsey, after a brief scene in Universal's Black Lagoon sequel "REVENGE OF THE CREATURE" (where he gets gutted), he would go on to appear in such genre classics as "RETURN OF THE FLY" and "TWICE TOLD TALES" (alongside Vincent Price) as well as the best film ever made:  "HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS"!  Veteran cowboy actor Bob Steele plays the sub's CPO; he starred in countless B-westerns (including "BORDER PHANTOM") as well a the previous year's horror B "GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN".  Ubiquitous busty blonde Joi Lansing has only one scene here but she would be all over "HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE" a little later.  Then we have to suave, velvet-voiced Tom Conway who, apart from being George Sanders' brother, appeared in such classic Val Lewton films as "CAT PEOPLE", "I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE" and "THE SEVENTH VICTIM".  The cast here, as you can see, is pretty top-notch and they do their best with the absolutely dismal screenplay provided by Orville H. Hampton -- who fills their mouths with often-ridiculous dialogue.  The direction by Spencer Gordon Bennet is also . . . shall-we-say lackluster?  Bennet had little genre experience except for a history of directing serials such as "BATMAN AND ROBIN" (1949) and "ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN".  Used to scripts more heavily-loaded with action scenes, Bennet appears to have been flummoxed by the one Hampton provided him.  Granted, there isn't much ANYONE can do with the first 50 minutes of a talky, submarine-bound script where all the "action" is provided by the actors flapping their gums.  The film is also given a good laugh-factor by the overly-earnest narration which, for example, describes the Tiger Shark leaving the dock as "...what was to prove the strangest, most fearful voyage ever made by a submarine, atomic or otherwise!"  Perhaps if one is fearful of dozing off during the lack of on-screen action for nearly an hour!  

But having said all this, there is something oddly watchable about this film.  The direction is indeed limp but the ridiculous dialogue keeps one entertained.  Then there's the repeated shots of the submarine which looks akin to a bathtub wind-up toy.  However, when the sub finally encounters the UFO, it almost becomes worth it as the film veers sharply into bizarre territory.  The alien of the one googly eye is actually quite wonderful and one of the most memorable of all fifties monsters; it looks like a cross between the tripe-y Octomonster Richard Wordsworth turns into in "THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT", the Xenomorph from "IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE" and an eponymous plant from "DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS".  It's actually a puppet built around the arm of effects man Irving Block and looks completely fake yet somehow endearing and it somehow works. I suppose the relative dull visual of an hour filmed inside a dull grey submarine makes the appearance of this bizarre and mental image something for which to leap for joy!  There's also the visual of a frogman's face being melted/fried and another dopey frogmen getting sliced in two inside an iris-closing hatchway!  As I said before, the actors give it the old college try -- except maybe for Tom Conway who looks generally bemused every time he has to say a line.  The veteran actor seems to be attempting to suppress a smirk half the time and the other half he seems to be letting his mind wander; this, of course, may be due to the fact that he had had a stroke only a few years before so his powers of concentration may have been understandably lowered.

So, I can't for a minute say I heartily recommend "THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE"; however, if you're in the proper state of mind, it is quirky enough and paradoxically moves along briskly somehow during these long action-less sequences where people stand around.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that every couple minutes someone says something that is just so ridiculous or something happens that is just so odd that one's interest is kept on a light simmer.  And it all becomes almost worthwhile when the final 15 minutes or so of the film leaps at your eyeballs with such off-the-wall bonkers-ness!  For this crazy, lovable, one-eyed alien waiting for you at the end of the movie, "THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE" might just be worth an eyeballing.         

3 comments:

James wellyousaythat said...

That my friend looks like a barrel of Atomic fun

Cerpts said...

Truthfully, it kinda is. I guess it's that goofy alien and the bonkers final quarter of the film but my fondness for it has grown in the days since I watched it. I've not attempted a second viewing but one wonders if one's patience will be put to the test waiting through an hour of the movie to get to the goofy stuff. Although, the dialogue is quite goofy enough, as I wrote, to keep one entertained.

Weaverman said...

I watched it last year and can endorse everything you say. But just how it managed to sneak into the Criterion collection remains most mysterious.