The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues

The league is an old-fashioned unit of distance; like (say) the furlong, it's not usually used to refer to depth. As El Santo points out in his review of Phantom..., titles like this one seem to result from a misunderstanding of Jules Verne. Even if it were possible for a sea monster to come from a depth of 10,000 leagues — about 30,000 miles, a distance greater that the circumference of the Earth — this wouldn't make any difference: there is absolutely nothing deep about this Phantom. The title creature lives in such shallow waters that to call it the Phantom from 10,000 Millimeters (or about 33 feet) would be an exaggeration. And the script is even shallower. Any way you look at it, the title is difficult to fathom.

The movie opens eerily enough, with a fisherman out alone on the wide, grey sea. As he goes to cast his net, he sees something shining on the sea floor. Not far from the strange glow, he sees...

He sees...

Phantom suit

Oh, good grief.

We're about a minute and a half into the movie, and we're already getting a clear glimpse of the monster; that's never a good sign. It's still less encouraging to see a monster suit as awful as this one. It looks as if someone's totally misunderstood the concept of "sea lion" and merged Bert Lahr's costume from Wizard of Oz with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. As usual for monsters of this sort, it is a biped — surely the worst kind of adaptation for a sea creature — and as a result, its mobility is so poor that almost everyone who comes into contact with it is able to swim away to safety. The only way it manages to overcome its victims is by sneaking up on them, after which they are probably so overcome with laughter that they're easily subdued.

There's little doubt that our fisherman has caught a glimpse of this Phantom, since the water is so clear and shallow. But he does what we might do in his position: he shrugs and gets on with his fishing. The Phantom does a clumsy little dog-paddle to get himself closer to the surface, and then (apparently) uses his horns to tip over the boat. This, for some reason, catches the fisherman completely off his guard. As he flails about in the water, the Phantom bobs up from underneath him and... and... and tries to pull his trousers down over his ankles:

Pantsed by the Phantom!

The fisherman is so embarrassed about being pantsed by such a ridiculous creature that he decides not to come back up again.

Cue the opening credits.

The credits play out over a wide, low shot of the crashing surf, which is effective if unoriginal. Then, once the credits are over, the camera pans slowly to the right, to reveal the fisherman's boat washed up on the shore... and the fisherman's body beside it.

(Here, by the way, is the Movie Rule of Flotsam in action: whenever people are stranded at sea, they will wash up in the exact same spot as the remains of their vessel.)

Up to the body walks a man in a baggy sweatsuit. He stands over the body, pondering. Then, sensing someone coming, he hurries away. The newcomer is a professorial-looking middle-aged man in a snappy suit. If there's anything more suspicious than a man crouching over a body on the beach, it's a man in a full business suit on the beach... and if there's anything more suspicious than a man in a full business suit on the beach, it's two men in business suits, which is what we have a few moments later.

The second man-in-a-suit is a special agent of the Department of Defense, by the name of Ulysses William S. Grant. He demands to know the name of the first man-in-a-suit, who introduces himself as Ted Baxter (yes, yes; Ted Baxter is speaking to Mr. Grant. Get over it). What follows is a laughable attempt at an interrogation: Grant basically asks "Baxter" to tell the audience who he is and what he's doing there. "Baxter" (not his real name) insists he's a "beachcomber and tourist"... which would be a bit more believable if he weren't wearing that suit.

As the "interrogation" continues, another man arrives at the scene (from the look of things, this is more traffic that this stretch of beach ever gets.1). Seeing the other two men, he crouches in the bushes at the edge of the beach and tries to be inconspicuous. However, it isn't easy to be inconspicuous when you're being furtive... and it's still harder when you're carrying a speargun. Catching sight of the speargun, if not the man, Grant pulls his revolver and orders him to step out into the open.

Though Grant immediately recognizes this fourth man as George Thomas, somebody he'd met at nearby Pacific College, he keeps his gun pointed at him. This leads to a good bit of business, as the bewildered George reaches out to shake hands with Grant's gun. Grant demands to know what George is doing, skulking around in the middle of the night — and here's the first indication we have that the pale grey light we're seeing is supposed to be the night-time. I'd thought it was very early morning; it could just as easily be be full noon for all we can tell. George is unable to give a very satisfactory explanation, which is not surprising... speargun, remember? I don't think there's anything you can do on land with a speargun that doesn't seem suspicious.

Thinking of suspicious: the guy in the sweatsuit who got to the body first turns out to be Professor King, who teaches at the college. It's he that "Baxter" was on his way to see this morning evening. When King gets home, his pants legs sodden from the surf, he instructs his daughter Lois to let no one in to see him, and furthermore to insist that he'd been home for the last hour. No sooner has he retired to his bedroom when "Baxter" arrives looking for him. Lois makes her excuses, but "Baxter" sees the watery footprints King has left on the carpet. He insists on seeing King, but when Lois goes to her father's room, she finds he's got out through the window.

Now, about Lois: the senior scientist in these films always has a lovely unmarried daughter, and she always seems to end up with the handsome, square-jawed younger scientist who comes in and saves the day. Of course, the "younger" scientist is usually only young in the sense that he's just a bit less elderly than the ingenue's father... he could be old enough to be her father, but the film would find it perfectly appropriate to match them up. Fortunately in this case, though "Baxter" is pushing 50, Lois is not the blushing 20-year-old we'd expect in this role. She's played by Cathy Downs, who was thirty at the time... but though another disturbing May-December romance has been avoided, this brings up a different and even more distressing issue: nine years before, Cathy Downs had played Clementine in John Ford's classic Western My Darling Clementine. After Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, her major credits would be movies like The She Creature and The Amazing Colossal Man... not, perhaps, the career path she had in mind. Then again, Ted is played by Kent Taylor, who ended his career working regularly with Al Adamson; so maybe Ted and Lois are made for each other.

In any case, the budding romance between Ted and Lois is ghastly even by 50's monster movie standards, so I'm going to say as little about it as possible. To give you some idea what I'm sparing you, here's a choice bit of dialogue that pops up like a herpes sore in the middle of an otherwise healthy scene:

LOIS: You ought to do that more often.
TED: What?
LOIS: Smile!
TED: Oh... All I need is a little encouragement. (suddenly warming) And you've given that to me.

> Bleagh. <

Anyway: Professor King is out wandering on the beach when he comes across a turtle. Delighted, he picks is up... and holds it as though it were a particularly juicy sandwich he was aching to take a bite out of. But he doesn't eat it. Instead, he takes it back to his triple-locked, super-secret lab.

Everybody wants to get into King's secret lab. George, the suspicious speargun guy, is particularly anxious, but King's suspicious secretary Ethel is also itching to get a look behind the locked door. Andy the suspicious janitor has a slightly more mundane reason for wanting to get in, since the place hasn't been tidied in months; but even he is curious. He stops for a moment to tell Ethel (the suspicious secretary) that suspicious speargun George has been behaving... er... suspiciously. It's amazing that this utterly generic college is such a hotbed of intrigue.

When Professor King returns to his lab, he drops a small slip of paper. Ethel tries to pick it up and hide it, but George comes in and catches her in the act. On the paper are some map coordinates, which George rushes to look up. Excited by this crumb of information, George attempts to bribe Ethel to get him into the lab. Ethel looks at him as though he were a particularly objectionable lab specimen himself, so George picks up yet another speargun and looks meaningfully back at her.

In the lab, King dons what we're supposed to understand as a radiation suit — though it looks much more like some lead-lined Dr. Denton's. King begins performing some quasi-scientific mumbo-jumbo over the turtle. And hey — why not irradiate a turtle, possibly causing it to grow to enormous size? The world's children aren't exactly protecting themselves...

In the meantime, Grant has come across "Baxter" holding a Geiger counter to the dead fisherman's boat. Beachcomber, eh? But "Baxter"'s suspicious behavior turns out to be the good kind of suspicious behavior: he's really Dr. Ted Stevens, scientist and author of two books on the effects of radiation. One of Stevens's books describes the way in which "activated isotopes in heavy water" can create "the first workable death ray". But having explained this experiment in exhaustive detail, his book apparently concludes: "This is bad; don't do this." I guess that's enough to help him sleep at night. Now Stevens is concerned that somebody — heaven knows who — might have read his book without paying attention to that all-important final chapter. Professor King has certainly read part of Stevens's book: the dust jacket, where "Baxter"'s face is printed over his real name. King is the first person to see through "Baxter"'s flimsy beachcomber disguise.

Much to Grant's chagrin, "Baxter" — Stevens — aw, hell; let's just call him Ted, shall we? — has been sent out by the same Defense Department people that gave Grant his orders. Somehow it's not much of a stretch to imagine the Defense Department sending two people to do the same job with no knowledge of each other's existence... "two indifferent investigations", in Grant's revealing slip of the tongue.

Ted is convinced somebody's been extending his work on radiation and its effects, only without the safeguard of a conscience. To test his theory about somebody testing his theory, he makes a dive near the spot where the fisherman's body was found. What he finds there confirms his worst suspicions: there's a weird sort of glow in the ocean, and the area is guarded by the mutant Phantom we've already seen too much of. The Phantom is so slow and awkward that Ted is able to swim away and row to safety before the creature has even budged.

At very least, this movie doesn't try to insist that its title creature is anything other than a botched experiment. So many other films, like Monster of Piedras Blancas or Octaman, try to insist that there's some kind of evolutionary significance to their monsters, as though taking on human form gave them some kind of advantage. But really: what would be the natural prey of something so big and slow and awkward as the Phantom? Barnacles? Actually, in spite of its fearsome appearance, the creature could very well turn out to be some sort of plankton-feeder; after all, it doesn't eat its victims, or really damage them in any way except to give them radiation burns... and, of course, to drown them by holding them underwater. But holding them underwater may just be the creature's idea of a game... the way some scientists now think a good many Great White Shark "attacks" on humans may in fact be play behavior gone awry. At least that's what the goofy grin on the monster's face seems to suggest.

Right now, Ted's main interest is to find out whose created the Phantom... and more important, who is responsible for the mysterious glow in the water. The natural suspect, even amid all the other suspicious behavior, is Professor King. Ted explains to King that he's found the light and its guardian ("a hideous beast that defies description"). He's convinced the light is a uranium deposit that somehow — magically, perhaps — directs its radiation into a concentrated beam pointing up: a "death ray". This is odd, because radiation is normally a messy business that gets all over the place. I wouldn't think anybody could swim so close to it without dire consequences... but then, I am not a scientist. Ted goes on to claim that "marine life lives in a constant flow of heavy water", which surprises the hell out of me.

"You think that that knowledge may have come from my college?" protests King, making us wonder how the rest of the limerick runs.

Yes, replies Ted. "I'd be inclined to investigate you thoroughly," he continues; "But there's another element..." I'm assuming he means Lois. He's certainly been investigating her thoroughly. Ted also mentions that the Government has learned that someone has made overtures to a Certain Hostile Country to sell them the data from the experiment. The news manages to cut through King's bluster: he is genuinely shocked to hear it.

Ted then tells King that Grant has planned a dive in the same area, and this makes King very upset. Ted wonders why, if King didn't really know anything about the monster and the light and found the whole thing so unbelievable, he would be so distressed by Grant's dive.

But King has figured out why George has developed a fondness for spearguns. Back in his office, he wonders aloud to Ethel what she thought the appropriate punishment might be for a traitor... perhaps death? Now it's King's turn to fondle a speargun. Ethel is convinced King is thinking of killing her, so she runs off to Grant to tell him what little she knows.

Suspicious George manages to put away his spearguns just long enough to meet his ex-girlfriend Wanda. She's an icy blonde in the black dress, with full-length black gloves and a long string of pearls, standing under a 16-foot blinking neon sign that says SPY. Maybe I imagined that last detail; but I doubt it. I note Wanda's cigarette is lacking a long, black holder, though; otherwise her SPY outfit is complete.

Wanda is an agent in the employ of a certain foreign government, which will remain nameless, but whose initials are "CCCP" (Coackamamie Communist Creature Plot). Wanda had attached herself to George because her bosses want King's secrets. Unfortunately for all of them, George is too much of an imbecile to follow through. Wanda is sick of him, but still needs his help to get what she needs. She tells him to meet her with the goods the next day; she'll be "soaking up the sun" at Colby's Point.

And where is Colby's Point? you ask. Why, it's just south of Monterey, Jack!

(Don't look for the jokes to improve: this is as gouda's they get.)

Unfortunately for Ethel, Wanda the SPY happens to overhear her talking to Grant. Not realizing Ethel is most suspicious of King, she jumps to theconclusion that George has botched his mission. That's not completely fair to George, who is the middle of botching his mission. At the moment, he's busy putting poison pellets in the breathing apparatus Grant and Ted are going to use in the morning.

How does George know which equipment they're going to use? Easy: this college is so small and impoverished, they only have one or two of everything. Take boats, for example: here's the boat the fisherman had in the opening scene:

Boat Number 1

Any minute now, a couple is about to go for a dive, during which they'll pass right by the creature without being molested. After all, the best the poor Phantom can do is hop around and waggle his arms at them. But once they get back to their boat, the Phantom does his usual schtick, tipping over the boat with his nose and dragging them to their doom. Here is the second boat:

Boat Number 2

Note the size, the shape, the distinguishing markings... it's the same boat. Now take a look at the boat Ted and Grant use for their dive (here they are returning from a close encounter with the poison pellets and the monster):

Boat Number 3

Look familiar? Well, then, feast your eyes on the boat King uses at the very end of the picture:

Boat Number 4

Not only is it the same boat, in the same spot; but even though at last a full day has passed, the tide is at the same point on the beach, and even the shells and the footprints are in the same position. Why, if you didn't know better, you'd think the shots were filmed at the same time...

Where was I? Oh, yes: George. George comes upon Ted while Ted is examining the remains of the diving couple (the latest batch of dead people to wash up on the exact same stretch of beach, along with their boat). George reaches for his trusty speargun... and misses Ted at close range. George makes a run for it, and manages to get back to his car and drive away before Ted can catch him; Ted stands there watching him drive away, and actually snaps his fingers in frustration. Naturally, Ted doesn't recognize George... it's (ahem) too dark out this morning tonight. Plus, the speargun was wearing a false moustache.

George takes the spear to Grant, who has by this time twigged that Ted is on his side. "This kinda narrows the field," suggests Grant (yes, you dopes: it narrows the field to one man). Ted tries to warn Grant about the dangers of the dive they're preparing for: "There's a shaft of radioactive light," he says. "Touch it, and you're dead." Good thing the shaft of radiation points in one direction, and isn't at all diffused by the water... "It isn't going to be easy," Ted continues, " or pleasant." Since the same could be said of the movie, Grant decides to go through with it anyhow.

The poison pellets fail to kill Ted and Grant, and the two men complete their dangerous dive. It's Grant's turn to get a good look at the beast. Grant tells Ted that even though this mysterious somebody has attempted to murder them several times, that's not enough: they want to go after him for a more serious charge. This gets the audience's hopes up for a moment; but alas, he does not mean he wants the unknown assailant to succeed in killing them both.

George's plans have all failed, as usual, and he starts to panic (though he needn't just yet: Ted and Grant think they know who's responsible for all the mayhem, but they're wrong). George tries to convince Ethel that it was King who walked off with a speargun the other night. of course, he doesn't know that Grant has sent Ethel to do his own work for him by breaking into King's lab. When his attempt at subtlety fails, George pleads with Ethel to help him get into the lab; but Ethel is unmoved.

Now at his tiny wit's end, George runs off to Colby's Point. Wanda is waiting there, with her shapely derrière strategically aimed at the camera. Since George has nothing to offer her, Wanda gives him two things: one more day to get King's data, and the information that Ethel is cooperating with Grant's investigation.

But it turns out that Ethel is barely more competent than anybody else in this movie: once she gets into King's lab, she not only makes a mess looking for clues, she actually drops the keys Grant made for her and leaves them. And then, having narrowly missed being detected by King (who has come back to the lab unexpectedly), she comes back to look for the keys long after King has realized what she's done.

Even though King hands her back the keys and pointedly refrains from killing her, Ethel still doesn't figure out what's really going on. Too bad. On her way down the beach that morning at noon that night, she is ambushed by George, who shoots her in the back with his speargun. I'm not quite sure how George, who is hiding in the underbrush on the edge of the beach, manages to shoot Ethel, who is walking along the edge of the water, in the back. Still, it's a good example of the Movie Rule of Exotic Weapons: if you get shot by some peculiar sort of weapon, like a speargun, you die instantly. You'd figure a speargun wouldn't be the most accurate weapon a killer could use; and you'd also figure the chances would be pretty high that the spear would cause a long, lingering and messy death rather than kill the victim at once. Silly us: George has been fondling his speargun so long he must be an expert.

Once Ethel's body is found, Grant and the police spring into action and confront... the wrong guy. Professor King is subjected to another of the movie's ludicrous interrogations: when he asks if he's being formally charged, the presiding officer shrugs and says, "Not yet. It's just a matter of time."

But the most elementary investigation soon proves that George is the real culprit. His fingerprints are all over the spears; and what's more, he's left the speargun itself in his car. Even idiots like Grant and the local police can piece together clues as obvious as these. George has got to be "the dumbest killer you ever saw," says the officer; and for his and Grant's sake, aren't you glad?

So... the extra-sharp investigator Grant waits at Colby's Point, and before you can say "Cheese it! The cops!" they've overpowered George and taken him into custody. Queso closed!

Or is it?

Ted has now realized that the "death ray" and the espionage plan are unrelated, and that King must be responsible for what's been going on offshore. In his idealistic pursuit of pure science, King has overlooked Ted's warning about the consequences of his research. Ted confronts King, who asks for one hour to consider what to do. Just a few moments later, though, something happens to render the choice irrelevant: a freighter comes a little too close to the shore, and when it passes over the "death ray" it explodes. Horrified by the accident, even more than by the numerous individual deaths he's caused over the past few weeks, King decides the only course left is to destroy his creation — and himself with it.

So how is he going to rid the world of both the monster and the radioactive ray?

How else? He's going to blow it up with a few sticks of dynamite. That's right: he's going to disrupt the uranium "death ray" by scattering its radioactive materials all over the whole area. And in doing so, he will also destroy the college's only boat.

So perishes Dr. King. So perishes the monster that was at best only peripheral to his own movie. And unless I miss my guess, so perishes practically everybody in the vicinity, of various burns and cancers, over the next 20 or 30 years. This leaves Ted (Lois hanging tearfully on his arm) to intone the Moral of the Story: there are some secrets Man is not meant to know. King didn't just tamper in God's domain: he tampered in Ted's domain. Ted, after all, gave him the whole idea in his books. If only King had read Ted's last chapter...

The best reason for watching this movie has nothing to do with the plot, or with the monster. The most interesting thing about it is the hyper-Romantic score by Ronald Stein... a Warsaw Concerto with monsters. There are two main themes to the soundtrack: a heroic six-note motive that is the movie's Big Tune — I hope it's not supposed to represent the Timeless Romance between Ted and Lois, because if it is I'm going to be ill — and a similarly-shaped but more sinister melody, introduced by the brass, that specifically represents the monster. These two musical ideas are the heart of the entire score; if you listen carefully, you can hear that at certain points the two principal ideas are being developed at the same time. The score is as thoughtfully worked out as if it were a piece of abstract music rather than a soundtrack. If only the same care and attention had been applied to the script!


1000 Misspent Hours

And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

Back to Main Page ]

1. We are told that the area is deserted because the local college is on summer vacation. Yeah, right: California beaches are always deserted during summer vacation...

< Back