In the course of a 1977 interview with Hollywood
correspondent Vernon Scott, American-International’s very own Samuel J. Arkoff,
the studio’s notorious penny-pinching producer, admitted to his mostly fiscal interest
in the horror film genre. “We got into
horror pictures [in 1955] when we discovered that without a big budget and
major stars our films were [relegated to] second features,” Arkoff reminisced. “I decided to make two pictures of the same
type and release them on the same bill… So we sent out The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues and The Day the World Ended as a pair and they cleaned up.”
Years later Arkoff would more completely
delineate his eminently prudent and successful marketing strategy to film
historian Tom Weaver. This insightful interview
with the irascible producer was included in Weaver’s seminal tome Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror
Heroes: the Mutant Melding of Two Volumes of Classic Interviews (McFarland,
1999). In essence, Arkoff revealed that,
as an independent, the box office receipts from the earliest films released
through the American Releasing Corporation (the original name of the company
that would morph into American-International Pictures), had been relatively
As nationwide theater chains were still mostly
controlled by the major studios when Arkoff first opened shop, his A.R.C.
features were only booked by cinema-owners as flat-fee rentals of nominal cost.
The films were also, more fatefully, consigned to the lower-half of a double
bill program; this was unfair as such second-bill status did not allow independents
to take a percentage of the total gross of a twin-bill. In the years following
a 1948 court-ordered anti-trust injunction against the major studios, Arkoff
began to deliver his own twin packaged films to theater owners. Such independent double-bills ensured that all
profit percentages would rightfully funnel into the pockets of the producers.
It almost goes without saying that The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues was a
purely exploitative title; an obvious attempt to capitalize on the name-recognition
coattails of several successful science-fiction films of the era. The chosen title instantly invoked allusions
to Universal-International’s Creature
from the Black Lagoon (1954), Ray Harryhausen’s visual effects vehicle The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953),
and Disney’s Academy Award winning 20,000
Leagues Under the Sea (1954). The
latter two films would, at the very least, get their measurements right… but
more on this later.
If there was any film that I never imagined
would enjoy a Blu-Ray release, it’s the non-acclaimed and universally scorned The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues. Having done so, one has to respect
Kino-Lorber’s self-aware decision to include Joe Dante’s (Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins) disparaging remarks concerning the
film’s dubious merit. There’s no
over-the-top self-serving ballyhoo present here, folks. Dante concludes his brief “Trailers from
Hell” supplement with these cautionary words: “I hardly know anybody who’s made
it all the way through The Phantom from
10,000 Leagues.” If nothing else, Dante’s
from-the-heart appraisal of the film’s dubious virtues proves he’s no
revisionist. He’s also not alone in his opinion;
amongst devotees of 1950s sci-fi, The
Phantom from 10,000 Leagues has a long established reputation as a talky,
turgidly paced snooze-fest disguised as a monster movie.
Nonetheless, there’s a fascinating back story
to all this. In 1962 Dante, then merely
one more disgruntled sixteen-year old horror movie fan, would fire off a letter
off to Forrest J. Ackerman, editor-emeritus of the influential 1960s/1970s
magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. In the course of his entertaining rant to the
editor, Dante suggested fifty films that, in his opinion, accounted for the
“worst horror films ever made.” The amused
Ackerman must have agreed with many of the youngster’s findings. He would later infamously assign Dante’s
“feeble fifty” to “the eternal fames of the brimstone pit” of horror-movie
history. The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues registered as “vapid” entry no. 38 on
Dante’s list, though it must be said this calculation was alphabetical rather
than meritorious in placement. To the
young letter-writers’ surprise, Ackerman chose to run his musings in the
magazine under the title “Dante’s Inferno,” an opinionated ten-page diatribe
that would cause no shortage of consternation amongst fans and the filmmakers
whose favorite films and/or contributions to celluloid history had been
Long before he became an acclaimed film maker in his own right, Joe Dante was already influencing the sci-fi/horror genre. His scathing criticism of "Phantom From 10,000 Leagues" helped gain exposure for the movie.
It was through the pages of Famous Monsters – and possibly even through the coal-raking of Dante’s article - that I was first made aware of The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues. But I somehow kept missing it on late-night television broadcasts. I finally caught up with the film, very belatedly I admit, in 2007 when it finally surfaced on DVD as part of MGM’s “Midnite Movies” series (packaged with the equally time-wastingThe Beast with a Million Eyes (1955). Echoing the sentiments of many fans of 1950s science-fiction, I wasn’t terribly impressed with this low-low-budget movie on first viewing. But having now re-visited it on this new Kino-Lorber issue, I have to say that I’ve modified my original opinion… with a caveat.
Though marketed as a straight-forward sci-fi film, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues mostly disappoints as it’s really more of a Cold War era espionage thriller with supernatural trimmings. In a supplement on this Blu-ray release, Dante sighs that the film is ultimately a missed opportunity as too much of the film’s eighty-minute running time is dedicated to a “time-consuming subplot.” With all due respect, I think this is where Dante has it wrong. The espionage angle is not by any measure a subplot but the true raison d’être of the entire enterprise. It’s actually the handful of non-suspenseful moments of unprovoked rowboat tipping by the titular sea-creature that is superfluous to the film’s plotting.
With the film having been released in the days of Cold War espionage and the last sputters of paranoid McCarthy-era hysteria, it’s not terribly surprising that throughout The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues every one of the main characters is wary and suspicious of the other’s motivations. Without giving away too much, we learn that one of the film’s characters – who, to be honest, we suspect of being duplicitous almost from the very beginning of the film – has been seduced into treasonous activity by a icy-cold femme fatale spying for an unnamed foreign power. Though the cheesecake blond tells her smitten co-conspirator she’s due in Antwerp in a few days, it’s a fair assumption she’s a Soviet dupe and not working for the government of Belgium.
To further suggest that the commies are behind the treachery, the film also features a dour red-herring secretary named Ethel Hall (Vivi Janiss) who spends a great deal of time snooping at door keyholes. What’s in a name? Well, I might be extrapolating beyond reason, but in 1955 when this film was produced, Ethel Rosenberg had already been executed by the U.S. government in 1953 for her alleged involvement in passing on atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. Likewise, Gus Hall was a prominent member of the Communist Party of the United State’s secretariat, often referenced in U.S. newspapers during this time due to his imprisonment for violation of bail provisions following his conviction under the Smith Act. There’s a mild confrontation scene when Dr. King (Michael Whalen) asks Hall, “What would you consider a just punishment for a man or a woman who would betray his fellow many for money? One who would take a scientific discovery of monumental scale and use it to line his or her pockets?”
Unusually, and most unlike sci-fi films of the fifties where our first sighting of the title creature is in the last minutes of the final reel, we get our first look at the phantom less than a minute into the film. It must be said that the “sea serpent” created by “a hideous blast that defies description”, is not terribly intimidating in either construction or appearance. It’s merely one more run-of-the-mill sub-nautical mutant formed from atomic energy emanating from a fissure on the ocean floor. The serpent, reportedly assembled from $680 in materials, mostly resembles an immersible Chinese Parade Dragon.
What is intimidating is that the radiation-scarred bodies of local divers and salt-water enthusiasts are washing up on the Californian shore with alarming regularity. The feds suspect there’s something suspicious going on at the Pacific College of Oceanography, and send two agents to investigate. This is where the story almost immediately meanders from semi-promising monster-movie to a straight-forward and not particularly involving espionage tale. Happily, if only to tie things together more neatly by the story’s end, the movie briefly returns to its original sci-fi premise. The mysterious director-professor of the institute acknowledges the error having science meddle with God’s own handiwork. As the final reels unspools the angst-ridden scientist delivers a Dr. Frankenstein-style lament (“Nature has many secrets that man must not disturb”) before dutifully sealing off the phantom’s sea-floor crater home with a box of explosives.
There’s really not too much more to add. This is a film whose small legacy is owed solely to the rabid sci-fi fan base that keeps the memories of such vintage 1950s atomic-era monsters alive… and, sigh, yes, may the aforementioned God bless them for it. Dante references an amusing observation courtesy of Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies: American Science-Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland, 2010). Warren has noted that a league is not a measure of depth but of distance. As a league measures approximately three miles in length, the author muses that if the titular phantom lives, as the film’s moniker suggests, some “30,000 miles beneath the ocean’s surface,” that places it some “20,000 miles out into outer space on the other side of the planet.” Even if the film’s producers had been more accurate in their calculation, such depth and/or distance was unnecessary. Most of this particular sea-monster’s victims are done in less than twenty-feet from the shoreline.
This Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray edition of The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, produced by Jack Milner and directed by his brother Dan, is offered here in its original black and white and with an aspect ratio of 1:85:1. Supplements include an audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith, a “Trailers from Hell” segment by Joe Dante, and original theatrical trailers for The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues and The Monster That Challenged the World.