November 12, 2021

Crooks vs. Creatures, Part 3: Creature from the Haunted Sea

Poster - Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
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Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

Pros: Robert Towne as an inept secret agent and Betsy Jones-Moreland as a glamorous gangster’s moll deliver some chuckles.
Cons: The rushed, ad hoc nature of the production is readily apparent.

This month I'm pleased to be participating in the Distraction Blogathon at Taking Up Room. Host Rebecca has invited fellow bloggers to write about a movie or list of movies that “have distractions in them, whether it’s a MacGuffin, red herring, dangling carrot or any other kind of hook.” (If you haven't already, click over to the blogathon page for many more cinematic variations on the theme.)

Back in 2020 I wrote about “Disguise, Distraction and Deletion in B-Movie Posters,” so distraction, at least as far as the marketing of films goes, is right up my alley. One of the prime exhibits in that post was the poster you see here for Roger Corman’s Creature from the Haunted Sea. Let’s just say there is nothing in the movie that even remotely resembles the owner of the giant clawed hand, which, for a kid back in 1961 trying to figure out what movie he should spend his hard-earned allowance on, was something of a distraction (I’m not saying I was that kid, and I’m not saying I wasn’t…)

But the distractions aren’t limited to just an exaggerated marketing campaign. Creature’s plot is full of distractions, charades and double crosses as an American mobster schemes to steal a fortune in gold from a group of corrupt Cuban military officers who looted the national treasury before fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Creature from the Haunted Sea is not only a good fit for the Distraction blogathon, it’s also a perfect fit for the third installment of my Crooks vs. Creatures series, featuring interesting mashups of crime, sci-fi and horror. Part One featured another Roger Corman produced low-budget shocker, Beast from Haunted Cave (with connections to Creature from the Haunted Sea we’ll get to later); Part Two looked at the offbeat, micro-budget saga of The Astounding She-Monster.

So this post is doubling as an entry in the Distraction blogathon and in my own Crooks vs. Creatures series. Somehow, I think Roger Corman, who never missed an opportunity to save time and money by reusing sets and doubling up on locations by shooting movies back-to-back, would understand.

Creature was the second time Roger had squeezed blood out of a stone as far as location shooting was concerned. In the late '50s, Roger, along with his brother Gene (also a producer), decided to dump their usual Southern California shooting locations for the exotic locale of Deadwood, South Dakota. To get the most out of the expense of transporting people and equipment halfway across the country, they made it a 2-for-1 deal, shooting two movies in quick succession with the same cast and crew. One was a conventional war picture, Ski Troop Attack (1959) and the other an oddball crime/sci-fi/horror mashup, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959). In Beast, a gang of crooks pull off a daring daylight bank job, only to encounter a mysterious monster in the woods when they try to make their getaway.

For Beast, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith dusted off a script he’d previously done for Corman, Naked Paradise (1957), and added a monster to give it maximum drive-in appeal. Both Naked Paradise and Beast feature an unwitting local outdoorsman who is hired by crooks to help guide them through rugged terrain and escape with their ill-gotten loot.

Lobby Card for Naked Paradise, 1957
In the beginning, Naked Paradise begat the Beast, and the Beast begat the Creature...

At the dawn of the ‘60s, Corman was at it again, this time locating to Puerto Rico to take advantage of “manufacturing” incentives that included film production. He simultaneously produced one war picture, Battle of Blood Island (1960), while producing and directing a sci-fi psychological drama, Last Woman on Earth (1960) on the island.

In his memoir, Roger recalled having such a blast shooting Last Woman that he impulsively decided to do another movie before pulling up stakes in Puerto Rico:

Last Woman was a two-week shoot. It was going so well and we were having such a good time that I decided to do another movie. I called Chuck Griffith in L.A. and woke him up. ‘Chuck, I need another comedy-horror film and you’ve got a week to write it,’ I said. … He was very sleepy and I wasn’t certain he understood completely the story line we discussed, but he agreed. I would use the same three leads from the first movie [Last Woman], plus pick up some local Puerto Rican actors. …

The story was truly insane: We are in the closing days of Batista’s Cuba in the 1950s and some of his generals are absconding with a chest full of gold and must get a boat to sail from Cuba in the middle of the night. The only man they can trust is an American gambler and gangster [Antony Carbone as Renzo Capetto]. He and his assistant [Robert Bean as Happy Jack Monahan] then plot to kill off the generals one by one, blaming a sea monster for the killings. The plan is to end up with all the gold. The trouble is there actually is a sea monster and it looks exactly like the one the gangster invented.” [Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1990, p. 71]

The three leads from Last Woman that Corman brought over to Creature were Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Robert Towne. If there is any saving grace to this hurried example of Corman’s ad hoc moviemaking, it’s the presence of Jones-Moreland and Towne.

Robert Towne’s participation as an actor is yet further testimony to Corman’s “efficiency.” Towne is one in a long list of celebrated filmmakers and actors who got their starts working for Roger. An award-winning screenwriter, producer and director, Towne penned such ‘70s classics as Shampoo and The Last Detail, and won a best original screenplay Oscar for Chinatown.

At the time of Last Woman and Creature, Towne was a young writer trying to get into the film business. Corman, always on the lookout for promising talent, commissioned him to write the script for Last Woman. Towne was taking too long, so Roger decided to hustle him off to Puerto Rico to finish the script on location, and make him do double-duty as an actor for good measure. [Corman and Jerome, p. 70]

Even setting aside the script writing duties, this was a tall order for any actor, not to mention a first-timer. Last Woman was an intense, post-apocalyptic psychological thriller that had Towne vying with Antony Carbone for the affections of the last woman on earth, Betsy Jones-Moreland. In stark contrast Creature from the Haunted Sea was a goofy sci-fi comic opera featuring a jury-rigged sea monster that would make a five year old snort in disbelief.

Corman had the Midas touch as far as converting rough but promising filmmaking talent into Hollywood gold. He’d throw his wet-behind the ears proteges straight into the deep end, and more often than not they’d start swimming laps instead of sinking. While Towne was never celebrated for his acting, when Roger threw him into the acting pool, he tread water very nicely (but he did cover his bets by adopting an alias, Edward Wain, for these first two acting credits).

In Creature, Towne plays U.S. agent XK150, aka Sparks Moran, who is assigned to infiltrate Capetto’s gang and keep tabs on the stolen gold. Creature immediately lays all of its comic cards on the table as it opens with a close-up shot of a shoe-shine boy/secret contact buffing Moran’s canvas sneakers as he stuffs a message from headquarters into the agent’s sock.

Robert Towne as Agent XK150 in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Robert Towne does a perfect Nicholas Cage imitation... before Cage was even born!

In another bit of business, Moran, who has gotten himself hired as one of Capetto’s deckhands, finds an out-of-the-way place on the boat to radio back to HQ. He uses a makeshift radio made out of parts disguised as hotdogs and pickles (!?), but has to eat one of the parts when another gang member stops by and comments on how tasty his lunch looks.

Towne plays it perfectly straight as he delivers such lines as, “It was dusk. I could tell because the sun was going down.” and “As a trained espionage agent I could tell she was attracted to me.”

Moran immediately falls hard for Capetto’s glamorous “moll,” Mary-Belle (Jones-Moreland). A single sneer from Mary-Belle drives the men wild with lust. Jones-Moreland is at her aloof best in a scene where she’s sunbathing on the boat while a Cuban general tries to flirt with her through his interpreter.

Interpreter: “The general says, ‘good morning you gorgeous, beautiful creature.’”
Mary-Belle: “Would you ask the general to remove himself from my presence?”
Interpreter (to the general): “She says, ‘good morning to you general!’”
[Then, after the interpreter has conveyed more of the clueless general’s salacious compliments…]
Mary-Belle: “Would you tell the general that I feel he would be most at home slowly barbecuing over a hot spit?”

Later, Jones-Moreland vamps it up as she sings the Creature from the Haunted Sea theme song in a sort of winking homage to the torch song numbers that were a staple of ‘40s hard-boiled crime thrillers.

Robert Towne and Betsy Moreland-Jones in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Sparks fly as Moran tries to convince Mary-Belle to run away with him.

Not everything in Creature is comedy gold, however (or even silver or bronze for that matter). One of Capetto’s men, Pete (Beach Dickerson), is a nitwit whose specialty is making animal noises (furnished by a sound library that seems to have been ripped from a Tarzan movie). The act gets old real fast, and audience patience wears dangerously thin when Pete discovers the love of his life -- a homely middle-aged woman who is one of the few inhabitants of the island where the boat has run aground. Unfortunately, the film wastes precious minutes running that unfunny relationship into the ground.

When Corman made his impulsive decision to extend the stay in beautiful Puerto Rico and make another movie, he naturally went to his go-to writer at the time, Charles B. Griffith. Griffith had already penned over a dozen movies for Corman, and was someone who could be relied upon to cook up a script in no time.

Corman wanted to do a comedy-horror picture because of the surprise success the duo had achieved earlier with two black comedies, A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Due to the insane schedule, Griffith had no choice but to once more recycle the Naked Paradise narrative of crooks hiring a guide to help them make off with their loot.

While Creature does have some inspired moments with Moran, Mary-Belle and the Cuban generals, there are too many dull stretches and sophomoric comic bits that would make a middle-school thespian blush with embarrassment. It kept the cast and crew basking in the tropical sun for another couple of weeks, and it looks like it was a blast to make, but it taxes the audience’s patience with its rushed script and in-your-face cheapness.

And then there’s the distraction of the Creature itself. It’s so ridiculous looking that the first time I saw the film, I thought it was one of Capetto’s men made up in a hastily improvised suit to scare the Cubans away for good. “Hasty” and “improvised” are the operative words for it, but for the purposes of Corman’s and Griffith’s cracked story, it’s supposed to be the “real” sea creature that coincidentally starts following the boat even as Capetto is plotting to bump off the Cubans and blame it on an imaginary monster.

Betsy Moreland-Jones, Anthony Carbone and Beach Dickerson in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
The cast discuss their plans for an extended two-week stay in sunny Puerto Rico.

While Griffith was able to deliver a script at the last minute, Corman's former go-to monster-maker, Paul Blaisdell, was unavailable. Blaisdell had created imaginative (and inexpensive) monster suits and effects for several of Roger’s low-budget wonders of the ‘50s, including The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957), but by the early '60s Blaisdell had become disillusioned with the film industry.

Instead, Roger tapped Beach Dickerson, the actor who played Pete, to work up a costume:

“Then Roger said to me, ‘We have to make a monster [that] can run on land and swim underwater.’ … I said, ‘What do you mean, we? Every time you say ‘we,’ you don’t do a thing.’ He said, ‘Beach, I know you can do it, so don’t worry about it.’ I said, ‘How much money are we talking about Roger?’ He said, ‘Well, for a monster that can run on land and swim underwater, I think a hundred and fifty dollars should be sufficient.’ ‘Including materials?’ ‘Of course including materials!’ Well, this kid -- Bobby Beam, another actor in the movie -- and I made a monster … and the thing held up. For one hundred and fifty dollars! …
[We] stole army helmets and stacked them to form its face. We draped its body in oilcloth, to give it a sleazy look, and we gave it fangs -- we cut out holes and pasted in the teeth. We got two tennis balls and a ping pong ball and cut them in two -- that was the monster’s eyes. Then we draped it in steel wool. That monster was seven and half feet tall -- we spent a fortune on steel wool. Those were the good old days.” [The Movie World of Roger Corman, J. Philip di Franco, ed., Chelsea House, 1979, p. 23]

It looks jaw-droppingly comical, which I suppose is fine for a movie that plays things strictly tongue-in-cheek. Except that Creature’s marketing at the time (exhibit A: the poster) gave no hint that the film was a comedy, unlike its predecessors, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors. It’s perhaps an indication that Corman wasn’t sure that Creature could stand on its own two comic feet like the other films. Over the years, it hasn’t garnered quite the same sort of cult reputation as its cousins.

Still, Creature does have Robert Towne’s dead-pan schtick and Betsy Jones-Moreland's diva act going for it. And that monster -- ya gotta admire the sheer audacity of that bug-eyed abomination!

The comical looking Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
"Darling, you look like a hundred and fifty bucks!"

Where to find it: You can cast your fishing line just about anywhere and hook the Creature; e.g., here and here.  


  1. I don't think I could enjoy the movie more than I enjoyed your article.

  2. I haven't seen this particular Corman opus--there's only so much cheapo Roger Corman one can take in a lifetime--but I enjoyed reading Roger's memoirs, especially his descriptions of his improv filming style. He'd probably be right at home in today's film environment of making movies with cellphones and laptops.

    1. That's my job: I watch the old Corman cheapies so you don't have to. ;) Most of these early films are more interesting as "documents" of film history, featuring big name talents cutting their teeth before they became big. I guess I have the ol' Corman spirit - I will take a movie made with a cellphone and some passion any day over a bloated, mega-budget superhero movie.

  3. I love this: "that bug-eyed abomination."
    Your writing is a joy to read.

    1. Thank you so much! I can assure you that I use the term "abomination" only in the kindest, gentlest way. :) Those were indeed the good old days, when you could get away with (sort-of) a makeshift monster for the cost of a lunch and a nice dinner.

  4. I own this on DVD & watched it in disbelief at how terrible and simultaneously awesome it is. Great write-up of a film born out of Corman's "efficiency."

    1. Thank you! I can't quite decide if Creature in awesomely terrible or terribly awesome. It's like panning through sludge to find flecks of gold. But it's a delight when you find it, like Mary-Belle's exchange with the general and his interpreter - one of the funniest, deadpan scenes ever!

  5. This is a fascinating article! It's funny that Corman shot some movies in Deadwood--I was just in Deadwood this summer. I'm going to have to look for "Creature" to see if I recognize anything. Thanks again for joining the blogathon with this great post. :-)

    1. Hi Rebecca! Thanks again for hosting, it's been a lot of fun! We've been talking for some time about visiting that area of the country, and I imagine we'll get there sooner than later. Roger Corman is just such a fascinating person, famously cheap, yet also a very gracious man who bent over backwards to help young talent. When I first encountered Beach Dickerson's quote I laughed out loud, "What do you mean 'we' Roger?..."

  6. Excellent review, Brian! You have to admire Corman's bargain-basement ingenuity, combined with a knack for finding the best talent. I agree that Beach Dickerson is insufferable in this movie, but it's redeemed (sort of) by the laughable monster. $150 almost sounds too much!

    1. Thanks Barry! You're right, it's not clear that Roger got his money's worth. It's just possible that Dickerson skimmed a little off the top for a nice lunch and mai-tai's. :)

  7. "That bug-eyed abomination" looks like a mascot for a giant yarn sale at (insert discount store here).

    1. Yes, he's the craft project from Hell that became a movie star! And years later, he popped up again in the intro to the Malcolm in the Middle TV show.