Column: The Vault of Secrets: Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

By Orrin Grey

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). Directed by: Roger Corman. Starring: Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Robert Towne.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. In spite of being told time and time again that Creature from the Haunted Sea was vastly more comedy than horror, I was still completely unprepared for how much of a parody it turned out to be. We’re talking full-on Mel Brooks, Airplane!, Naked Gun levels of satire here. (Not the same quality of satire, per se, but certainly the same level.)

The screenplay by Charles B. Griffith (It Conquered the World, Attack of the Crab Monsters, A Bucket of Blood, Death Race 2000, and lots more) was reworked from a script that had previously been the basis for two more dramatic variations, Naked Paradise in 1956 and Beast from Haunted Cave in 1958. He converted the script into a comedic take in three days, for which he was paid $1,500. The result is a send-up of crime movies, spy movies, and, of course, monster movies.

It opens with an animated title sequence that transitions into an animated history lesson of Cuba, before we’re plopped into the middle of our plot, featuring an American secret agent (Agent XK-150) going by the name of Sparks Moran in order to infiltrate a gang of smugglers who’re smuggling the “Cuban treasury” — or maybe just part of it — out of Cuba to keep it out of Castro’s hands. The agent is played by Robert Towne, who would go onto some renown as a screenwriter, and is responsible for the screenplays of Chinatown, Days of Thunder, and the first two Mission: Impossible movies, to name a few.

The criminals include Renzo Capetto, “alias Capo Rosetto, alia Ratto Pazetti, alias Zeppo Staccato, alias Shirley Lamour,” who was “rejected by the Navy, the Marines, and the SS” during the war. You can see what kind of territory we’re in here. (Rosetto is played by Antony Carbone, previously of A Bucket of Blood, who also made an appearance in Corman’s adaptation of Pit and the Pendulum that same year.) There’s also Rosetto’s lady Mary-Belle Monahan, her brother Happy Jack Monahan, and a guy whose shtick is imitating animal noises. (Beating that guy in the Police Academy movies who made sound effects to the punch by a few years.)

In order to steal the strongbox they’re smuggling out from under the small contingent of Cuban soldiers who’re accompanying it, the smugglers hatch a plan to fake a monster using a plunger and some sharpened hand rakes. “But what none of us knew,” as XK-150 tells us, “was that the monster invented by Renzo had already been invented by someone else — by a couple of other monsters, I guess.”

Even people who’re unfamiliar with Creature from the Haunted Sea have often seen clips or pictures of its hilariously homemade monster — constructed out of a wetsuit (complete with visible flippers in one scene), Brillo pads, claws made of pipe cleaners, and googly eyes made from tennis balls, with ping-pong balls for pupils. It even showed up in an episode of Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies.

The monster is, admittedly, pretty adorable, but really, the whole movie is quite a bit of fun, once you get used to the level of lampoonery that you can expect from a film where the main character makes a radio out of hot dogs and pickles, and utters lines like, “It was dusk. I could tell because the sun was going down.” Besides its delightful title, Creature from the Haunted Sea also has a pretty great and very memorable poster that gives no indication at all that it is a comedy, asking, “What was the unspeakable secret of the SEA OF LOST SHIPS?” Even the trailer, which at least features a few jokes (and pretty much every shot of the monster in the movie), still doesn’t give much indication of what you’re actually in for. I can see why audiences in 1961 might have been pretty unhappy.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time, when we see just what it was that came from outer space.