Well, it took the World of Cinema almost thirty years to come up with a monster as goofy as The Giant Claw, but they finally succeeded with this flick. In addition, the continuing humiliation of actor Ray Milland was brought to an impressive finale with this, his last movie. Milland, while never reaching the very peak of stardom, was a popular leading man in his day. The pinnacle of his career was winning the Best Actor OscarÃ† for his harrowing portrayal of an alcoholic in Lost Weekend.
By the sixties, however, he was forced to star in low budget if decent sci-fi flicks like X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and Panic in Year Zero. Eventually, however, he got stuck headlining true genre turkeys, like The Thing with Two Heads (wherein his noggin is attached to the shoulder of Rosie Greer [!], an effect ‘simulated’ by having Milland stand behind Rosie and lean his head forward). Later fiascoes included the lame-oid eco-horror flick Frogs, and, finally, The Sea Serpent. Milland was never a favorite of mine, but you’ve got to feel sorry for an old pro who has to appear in such absolute garbage in order to find work.
Also catching a ride on the Embarrassment Express is Timothy Bottoms. Bottoms reached a brief career high in the early 1970’s, starring in such flicks as The Paper Chase. There he played Hart, the main student to John Houseman’s OscarÃ† winning performance as Professor Charles Kingsfield. Also appearing in The Sea Serpent is Jared Martin, a recurring presence in bad ’80s sci-fi. Martin’s curly hair and one note ‘stare and shout’ acting style resemble nothing so much as a modern interpretation of Robert Foxworth’s ‘performance’ in the killer mutant bear movie Prophecy.
Since The Sea Serpent seems utterly a goofy ’50s sci-fi flick made twenty-five years too late, we open with a plot device typical of the period. In this case, the obligatory atom bomb that causes the monster’s rampage. The big difference being that in this case, the monster already seemed to exist. So the whole atomic bomb deal seems to be a rote contrivance, included because, you know, what’s a giant monster flick without an atom bomb to lend it ‘subtext’?
As a bonus for Bad Movie buffs, the film is obviously a poorly dubbed European picture. The American stars were merely imported to lend it box office weight. (It’s fun to castigate America’s ‘imperialism,’ but hey, a buck’s a buck.) This ‘bomb’ plot device, therefore, is used to bash America, a favorite European preoccupation. America never seems to be hated by some elements as much as when it’s confronting a totalitarian state. And this flick was made during the Reagan years, when the U.S. was pursuing the policies that would eventually cause Russian nuclear weapons to cease be pointed at Europe. The hate spewed in our direction was particularly thick then.
So we open on an ‘American’ bomber, of, needless to say, the stock footage variety. Code-named ‘Baby,’ (?) plane and crew are flying a routine mission over (presumably) the Atlantic Ocean. The crew receives a call from mission control, which is oddly not manned by military personnel. Instead, the radio operator is wearing a stereotypically ‘American’ outfit of jeans and a leather jacket. We are now treated to some awesomely authentic military jargon. “We are thirty miles from point B7, radio scale,” the pilot reports. “Height, twelve pentacs.” Wow. Could this script have been an early work by techno-thriller author Tom Clancy?
Just then, the plane experiences a systems failure. A nuclear missile is coming loose. (Boy, I hate when that happens.) This results in more sly jargon. “The reigns of the baby’s bottle have loosened,” the captain reports, badly mixing his metaphors. Asked if he’ll make it back to ‘mother,’ the captain replies, “the fruit is ripe.” Gee, if I were an enemy tracking an American bomber, I’d never figure out what was occurring from this clever code language.
We cut to a generic General’s office. It turns out that elements of the Russian military, including subs, are in the area of the bomber. They can’t afford to let them get the missile. Therefore, The General orders that the missile be activated before it’s dropped into the ocean. (Boy, I hope it doesn’t blow up ones of those subs. I believe that would cause an international incident of some sort.)
Of course, this decision is supposed to be outrageously irresponsible and dangerous. After all, you never know when an errant missile will piss off a nearby slumbering sock puppet, resulting in the deaths of untold Spanish bit players. And to make sure that we ‘get’ the whole anti-America thing, The General’s decision is issued as he stands in front of an American Flag and a smiling photo of the maniacal Ronald Reagan. This was made back in the days when it was still inevitable that Reagan would cause a war that would devastate Europe.
Anyway, the film makers want to make sure that we don’t misunderstand that this decision is evil and everything. So when the radio operator gives the instructions, the rest of the personnel look aghast, while the co-pilot (who’s Jamaican for some reason) notes that, “that’s madness, mahn!” Actually, I believe that ‘sir’ is the proper term when addressing your superior officer. (Besides, real missiles have a conventional explosive charge that be can used to destroy them without resulting in a nuclear explosion. This is what the ‘abort’ option does. Of course, this must be ignored, or the ‘plot’ won’t begin.)
The stock footage plane drops its cartoon missile. (Wow! Movie Magic!) This, unsurprisingly, results in a stock footage (albeit non-cartoon) nuclear explosion. We cut to what is obviously a home aquarium fish tank. Here we first espy the titular menace, complete with tennis ball googly eyes and regulation Jaws rip-off theme music, represented here in his sock puppet mode. Apparently, Sea Serpents become enraged when exposed to stock footage. Will it now seek revenge on Mankind? (Duh.)
We cut to a coastal town in Spain. A title informs us that it’s ‘1.985’
The owner orders the captain to go to the hospital. This requires him, however, to hire Pedro Fontan (Timothy Bottoms) to command the boat in the meantime. Fontan’s had trouble finding work because the last boat he skippered sank. He was the only survivor, and others in the community blame him for the wreck. Still, he’s the only licensed captain available, so the job is his.
The crew is unhappy with the decision, particularly First Mate Lemaris (Jared Martin). Lemaris’ brother was among the fatalities when Fontan’s earlier boat sank. Since Fontan already had a reputation as a drinker, Lemaris assumes that Fontan was drunk and caused the shipwreck. This sets up a ‘dramatic’ ‘character’ conflict. (Wowsers!)
That night we see that the trawler has turned into a toy boat and is floating around on a swimming pool. Fontan appears on deck and takes over the bridge from Lemaris. “You’re not drunk, are you?” he sneers. (Boy, can you stand the tension?) Fontan orders him to his bunk and takes over. Needless to say, roughly ten seconds after taking the bridge, hilariously obvious Jaws-type music starts playing. And when I say it’s similar to the Jaws theme, I mean it’s ‘I can’t believe they didn’t get sued’ similar.
The Sea Serpent sock puppet attacks the toy boat. We soon are treated to seeing all the various special effects techniques they used to bring the Serpent to, uh, life. First, of course, there’s the sock puppet, already seen. Second, however, is a more ambitious model used for short bursts of stop animation. Given the goofy design of the monster, particularly the googly eyes, this resembles nothing so much as the snake that swallowed the Christmas tree in Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. As an added bonus, the Serpent has also been supplied with an omnipresent shrill shriek, constantly heard whenever it appears.
Anyway the Sock Puppet attacks the toy boat in a not entirely convincing special effects display. Having mortally wounded the ship (and more importantly, completed its present plot purpose), the Serpent returns to the depths of the swimming pool from which it rose. The crew runs up on deck and begins to abandon ship, using two inflatable rafts. Of course, Fontan and Lemaris end up in one raft, while three crew members head off in the other.
We again see the toy boat, only it’s slightly better lit this time, so we get a better gander at exactly how cheesy it is. (Let’s just say that it’s like Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese, only without the macaroni.) Meanwhile, the three obviously doomed bit players are seen rowing away. (To where?) Unsurprisingly, they end up rowing into the Sea Serpent. Here we are introduced to its third incarnation: a life sized prop head. This is used for shots where they stick actors into its mouth, wherein they invariably flail their limbs while making ‘Aiiieee!!’ type noises.
We now see a visual that will become quite familiar over the remaining running time. You see, they made this one process shot of the superimposed Serpent rising from the water. Using a split screen, they will repeatedly use this shot during attack scenes. The Serpent matte effect is cut into the right half of the picture, while its victims pretend to be scared on the other side of the screen.
The sailors attempt to fend off the Sock Puppet Serpent with a toy oar, but soon fall victim to our aquatic beastie. Fontan and Lemaris, off in their own raft, can hear the screams but are too far away to see what’s occurring. Meanwhile, having built the life sized prop head (which looks exactly like what it is, a big prop), the producers get their money out of it by treating us to numerous, and repetitive, ‘Ahh, I’m being eaten by a Sea Serpent!’ shots.
Fontan, naturally, has trouble convincing anyone of his Sea Serpent story. Especially since Lemaris is convinced that he was drunk, and has spread his opinion around. He also so testifies at the Naval hearing. This must be a slow news town, by the way, because there are numerous spectators. Their job, of course, is to provide the obligatory ‘watermelon, watermelon’ noises at the appropriate moments.
By the way, I just want to give the elderly gentlemen who plays Fontan’s counsel a little well earned notice. His function is largely to shrill, “I object!,” to everything that Lemaris says. He also wears some eyeglasses that appear on and off his face whenever they cut back to him. It’s too bad they didn’t give him a glass of water whose level of liquid kept going up and down while they were at it.
Anyway, the defense council gets Lemaris for cross, leaving it to the prosecutor to assume the “I object!,” duties. Basically, all he gets is that Lemaris had a grudge against Fontan. Asked for a statement, Fontan implores the tribunal not to ignore his warnings regarding the Sea Serpent. Then the judges retire to reach their verdict.
We cut to a casino. Here we meet an attractive blond, Jill, and a somewhat beefy brunette, Margaret. You can tell this isn’t an American film because Margaret will prove to be our female lead. She’s upset to find that Jill is tipsy. Margaret advises her to go outside for some fresh air. Then she’ll loan her some more money, as it turns out that Margaret is a millionaire (a plot device that goes absolutely nowhere). Margaret follows Jill outside, where her pal bitches about the lack of oxygen (?).
“You can’t ask for cleaner air,” Margaret replies. “We’re right by the ocean!” (Uh, oh!) This remark inspires Jill to head for the beach. (Uh, oh!) Margaret chases after her, but Jill commandeers a paddle boat, with predictable results. Sure enough:
Theme music, followed by the film’s one stop-animated ‘Serpent rising from the water‘ shot, followed by the ‘matted monster on the right side of the screen, facing the victim’s boat spliced onto the left side of the screen‘ shot, then the ‘victim falling into the water‘ shot, climaxing with the inevitable’screaming actor in the large prop head’s mouth‘ shot.
Back at the tribunal, Fontan is found negligent in the shipwreck, losing his captain’s license. As the others file from the room, the prosecutor stops by to talk to the defense council. He just happens to drop a newspaper on the desk, which also just happens to contain a story about Margaret being put into a mental hospital after the Sea Serpent incident. Fontan excitedly grabs the paper and splits.
We cut to stock footage of Lisbon, Portugal, which apparently is where Margaret saw the Serpent. Cheerful zither music welcomes us to our new local. Fontan makes his appearance, entering the hospital where Margaret is being held. He gets the run around at the front desk, being informed that Margaret is being kept in isolation. Proving herself no Einstein, the clerk tells Fontan that he can’t see her, but also gives him her location.
Fontan has soon breached this intensive security set-up, and makes his way upstairs. (Apparently, the hospital staff numbers about six.) There he grabs a doctor’s coat (what a sly fox!) and manages to find Margaret’s suite right off. This proves to be a pretty fancy spread, but then Margaret is a millionaire. Margaret is reading in bed, wearing a negligee for a sexy little injection of cheesecake. This might be more effective were it not for the large, obvious sweat stains under her armpits.
Fontan informs her that he’s seen the Sea Serpent also. This leads to what seems to be an extremely long scene where Fontan tries to convince her that he’s on the up and up. This is made somewhat uncomfortable to watch, as Fontan creepily sits about six inches away from the nightgown clad Margaret, and keeps laying his hands on her bare arm for emphasis. “Listen, don’t come near me,” Margaret shrills. This is sort of odd, because in order to get any closer he’d have to climb into bed with her.
Finally, however, his description of the Serpent convinces her that he’s also seen the monster. Now, of course, they plan to escape from the hospital to seek evidence to prove the Serpent’s existence. Margaret, who only has the nightie to wear, dons the doctor’s coat. Fontan then grabs a wheelchair, and Margaret wheels him down the hall.
At the elevator, they meet a horny male intern. This leads to a ‘comical’ scene where he tries to pick up Margaret. Oddly, although he believes that Margaret is a nurse, he doesn’t mention that she’s wearing a doctor’s coat. After this close (and boring) call, they make their way outside. When they can’t find a car to steal (?), they purloin an ambulance (?). This is again ‘humorous,’ as an attendant is standing about two feet away from them the whole time, reading the paper. Ha, ha! Comedy, thy name is The Sea Serpent!
Having made their escape in this inconspicuous vehicle, our twosome ends up in some kind of scrapyard off the ocean. In an odd conversation, Margaret ends up asking Fontan, “What about your problem?” To which he strangely replies, “Well, you do think about other people, huh?” Considering that he’s known her for roughly ten minutes, this seems both a weird and rather rude remark. On what basis is he accusing her of selfishness?
Asked as to his plan, the best Fontan can come up with is to, “find somebody. Perhaps an important man.” This so far mythical fellow can then help them. Somehow. I’ve got to tell you folks, if this guy convinced me to escape from a mental hospital and then commit grand larceny, and after all that told me that he had no plan whatsoever…well, let’s just say that Margaret seems to take things in stride a little more than I would.
After picking up some clothes for Margaret, they head off to the ‘National Library’. Then we get a short scene of Lemaris speaking with the owner of the two trawlers that Fontan supposedly sunk. The first thing we notice is that owner guy is standing between two large boats, the merry paint jobs of which indicate that they were decorated by the folks who painted the Partridge Family’s bus. Lemaris has heard that Fontan is in Portugal. He requests a little money in order to track down Fontan, who is still criminally liable for the shipwrecks.
We cut to a toy lighthouse, giving us an indication of what’s coming next. ‘Inside,’ the keeper is ‘comically’ playing poker with himself. The Jaws theme, er, The Sea Serpent theme begins, confirming our previous hypothesis. Somehow, conveniently when we weren’t looking, the Serpent made its way up the high grade that the lighthouse rests on. Soon its Sock Puppet mode is squealing away as usual.
Its rampage of destruction begins when the Sock Puppet smashes a small model shed constructed of what I honestly believe to be Popsicle sticks. Then it somehow slithers up the lighthouse. Running to the top of the structure, the keeper finally sees the beast. He fires an emergency flare, but the constricting Serpent crushes the lighthouse before returning to the sea. Thus ends the film’s most ambitious, yet typically inept, set piece.
We cut to the Biblioteca Cientifica De Lisbon. This type of institution is seldom open to lay people, but frankly, this seems almost too small a plot flaw to even mention in this flick. Learning that they are looking for a marine biologist, the Librarian suggests Professor Wallace. Then she tells them that he probably won’t talk to them, though (?). Oh, and he’s supposedly also a bit crazy (??). It makes you wonder what the people she didn’t suggest are like.
Wallace, to our embarrassment and his, proves to be Ray Milland. He proves resistant to the Serpent story, leading to yet another boring and overlong scene. In the long run (and I mean, the loo-ng run), of course, Wallace buys into their story, for no real reason that we can discern. (Other than the need for the ‘plot’ to progress.) He even figures out the connection with the atomic explosion. Apparently, the Librarian was correct, and Wallace is a bit off his rocker.
We cut to a boat launching a dingy, apparently to drop illegal drugs off on the shore. Guess what happens next? Yep. Theme music/stop animation ‘rise from the water’ shot/split screen ‘boat and monster’ shot/guys fall into water shot/guys end up in prop head’s mouth shot. The Serpent then splits, leaving one survivor. (Plot point!) Yeah, boy. That sure added a lot to the movie. (Actually, it added about three minutes.)
However, there’s still a lot of time left to waste. So we cut to Margaret and Fontan engaging in another pointless, time squandering conversation. They are then joined by Wallace, who of course has failed to convince the authorities about the Sea Serpent. However, he learned about the survivor of the just previous attack. So off they go to see the guy.
Cut to the hospital, where the fellow appears to be comatose. An obvious ‘hoodlum’ type lures the attending nurse out of the room with a fake phone call. It’s the owner of the drugs that went overboard when the Serpent attacked. He believes that the guy is faking his condition to cover the fact that he stole the drugs. So he smothers the guy in order to set an example.
Downstairs, our heroic trio arrives, looking to interview the now late witness. For some reason, the guy’s attending physician allows them to visit his room. Thinking that he’s merely in a coma, they attempt to talk to him. Eventually, they figure out that he’s dead. “Now what!” Wallace gruffly replies. Somehow, the doctor immediately ascertains that he was smothered, and calls the police. Luckily, however, our heroes are able to sneak out of the room while he’s on the phone. Whew! That was a close one!
Cut to a dock scene. It’s nighttime, and Lemaris is prowling about, presumably looking for Fontan. We know that the Serpent will be making an appearance soon. This is because the dock is obviously two different shots spliced together in the middle. This is the same technique they’ve used for the scenes where the Serpent rears over a boat.
Then, however, the seam where the film strips are glued together is generally hidden by the black water and sky. Here, you can see exactly at what point in the pier that the film elements are joined together. This is because one half of the film is noticeably bobbing up and down, drawing attention to where it borders the other, steadier half. Anyway, Lemaris spots ‘Porto,’ an old drunk, standing watch on the dock. Porto fills him in on how Fontan has hitched up with Margaret.
Lemaris takes his leave, then turns back to see the Serpent make its attack. (What, exactly, are the odds that this guy in particular would happen to see the Serpent?) Porto, frightened, tossed his lantern at the beast. It misses, setting fire to the pier as it shatters. A resulting explosion (?) sets Porto on fire. Porto leaps into the water, while we watch a number of toy boats explode in rather non-spectacular fashion and subsequently burn. This goes on for a while, as it’s supposedly an ‘epic’ scene.
The next day, we see Wallace bringing Fontan and Margaret to a deserted warehouse district. Their target building supposedly contains flare pistols, which Wallace believes they can use as a weapon against the Serpent. Lacking a key, he’s brought a crowbar instead. (This is ‘comical’.) Then it turns out that the supplies they’re stealing belong to “Naval Command.” Whatever that means.
Well, who should show up at that exact moment but Lemaris? (Boy, does this guy have an instinct for showing up in the right place!) Hilariously, we eventually figure out that the three of them aren’t supposed to have noticed him. This in spite of the fact that he’s standing about six feet directly in front of them, and that we can see their eyes wandering around. Somehow, though, he remains invisible to them until he lights his cigarette. Then, startled, they hear the click of his lighter and suddenly notice him (!).
Lemaris shocks our group with the information that he also has seen the Serpent. Oddly, he gets the circumstances wrong. “He came up on a ship that old Porto was guarding,” he misremembers. Actually, as we saw about three minutes ago, Porto was acting as a dock night watchman. Oh, well, maybe Lemaris just has a flair for the dramatic and is making the story more interesting (I wish something would). The oddest line, however, isn’t when Lemaris apologizes for making Fontan’s life hell, it’s when he continues on to say, “I should have believed you!” Yeah, if he hadn’t been blinded with hate due to his brother’s death, he would have seen right off how credible that whole ‘no, no, my second shipwreck was caused by a sea monster!,’ story was.
In spite of the fact that there are now three witnesses and a well-documented trail of destruction, Wallace believes that they’d still be locked up in an asylum if they tried to tell their tale. Therefore, it’s back to plan one: Steal some flare pistols and use them to personally attack the beast. And it now turns out that the plan isn’t to kill the Serpent with the flare pistols (good luck), but merely to frighten it away from populated areas (?).
Lemaris, of course, offers his help. “No,” replies Fontan to the other three, “It’s between it and me!” (?) The others proffer about two obvious arguments why they should except Lemaris’ offer (one is pretty much ‘we could use the help’), and Fontan’s firm conviction collapses. Whew! That must be what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were like!
Fontan and Margaret head on down to the weenie row boat that they apparently intend to use to confront the Serpent. They engage in some more hard to follow dialog, which often sounds like the script’s lines were cut up and reassembled out of order after being written. Then, to no one’s surprise, but pretty much everyone’s boredom, Margaret reveals a romantic interest in our, uh, heroic lead protagonist.
Fontan, however, feels that their class differences are too great, and rejects her affections. “You’d have to give me a very good argument to change my mind,” he continues. Then, in a bit that has the clichÃˆ-o-meter counter clicking away like mad, she says (gee, three guesses), “How about this?,” and kisses him. (Cue obligatory ‘swell of romantic music.’) The approaching Lemaris points out the situation to Wallace, who grumpily responds with the film’s only halfway decent line: “Oh, just ignore them! I’ve seen it coming for a long time!” Yeah, you and all of us out here, too, buddy.
After revealing that they have procured some dynamite as well, our foursome waits until nightfall to make their excursion. Things start getting even more confusing from here. For some reason, they seem to believe that the Serpent is somewhere very near the bay that they are currently standing by. Wallace’s plan is to use a flare to attract it (?) and then lure it by a nearby bridge, where he hopes it will become trapped “trying to get through the beams” (??). This master plan agreed upon, the ‘adventure’ begins.
It turns out that our group has somehow gained access to a smallish cabin cruiser. Oh, and an obvious toy model of it as well. They randomly come to a stop and fire up a couple of flares. These attract the attention of not only the Sea Serpent (that was quick!) but a toy ‘harbor patrol’ helicopter as well. Oh, boy, get ready for an awesome display of ‘spectacle’!
The toy boat goes under the toy bridge, while the toy helicopter dives for a better look at the toy Sea Serpent. The pilots of the toy helicopter decide to come in closer so that they can take a picture, a situation which has ‘bad idea’ written all over it. Showing not the best judgement in the world, the toy helicopter lowers until it is literally about to land upon the Serpent. Needless to say, it rears up and destroys the helicopter in a pseudo-spectacular display.
The serpent, for some reason, awkwardly begins to climb one of the supporting struts of the bridge. This accomplished, it begins constricting, threatening to bring the structure down. (Let’s remember that it was the actions of our ‘heroes’ that brought the Serpent to its present location.) Fontan and Lemaris start tossing bundles of dynamite at it (given their supposed position, they must have world class pitching arms), but these explode harmlessly in the water.
Just by coincidence, a toy train now appears, approaching to cross the bridge. (By the way, giant monsters always attack trains, so you’d be well advised to pick some other mode of transport when they’re rampaging around the countryside.) Our heroes, standing beneath the elevated bridge at some distance away, start waving their arms and shouting in an attempt to get the train to stop. Somehow, this fails to work. In what is undoubtedly supposed to be a heart-stopping moment of suspense, the train arrives at the bridge just as the monster is collapsing the supporting pylon.
Whew, the toy train made it to the other side just before the bridge collapsed. Gee, I’m so, so relieved. Oh, all except for the final car, which the camera kept cutting to so that we would understand that it’s ‘important.’ For said car is a fuel tank car, and it falls into the waters below, where mysteriously it bobs on the surface. Landing on the flames left from the helicopter crash, the fuel car immediately explodes.
Suddenly, a horrible shriek rings out. No, it’s not from the audience, frustrated that the movie’s not over yet. Instead, it’s from the Serpent. Proving that its Sock Puppet incarnation is its dumbest, the ersatz beast just floats there shrieking until the fire drifts over and envelops it. This ‘awesome’ scene continues for a while, showcasing close-up non-reactions from our cast, which indicate that the director never told them what they were supposed to be ‘seeing.’ Finally, the wounded Serpent swims away.
The next morning, our characters are walking upon the beach. Wallace has plotted out the Serpent’s likely travel route by tracing currents. His plan is that they procure a ‘torpedo boat’ (!) and pursue the monster. Yep, Wallace is suggesting nothing less than a full fledged sequel (!!). (Besides, you’d think that after the death and mass destruction caused by their last jaunt, they’d have learned their lesson. Apparently not.) Instead, our lovers shout, “oh, no!,” and run gaily down the beach. Still, the mere intimation of a sequel is the scariest thing in the film, so at least they go out on a high note. Brrrr.