My notes on The Sea Fiend (Devil Monster) (1936)
‘The men think he’s insane, and they have no confidence in him as a fisherman.’
I saw a print of this slapdash 1936 exotic adventure with a caption half-way through asking for audience patience during a reel-change. Obviously, this was primarily aimed at markets where a dual-projector system was considered a luxury, but a few shots of topless native girls swimming, grinding corn (maximising jiggle) or just standing about (the print has notable splices in these scenes, suggesting frame-collecting horny projectionists have been at it) would satisfy an audience who might otherwise be irked by old-fashioned, amateurish melodramatics and the literal acres of frolicking seal, aggressive octopus, leaping fish (‘I never saw so many tuna’) and crashing wave footage spliced in to bulk out the story.
Young, wooden hero Robert Jackson (Barry Norton, ‘Juan Harker’ in the Spanish-language Dracula) is begged by white-haired Mrs Francisco (Mary Carr) of a to persuade his fishing captain father (J. Barton) and to search ‘every inch’ of the South Seas region for signs her long-lost son Francisco (Jack Del Rio), whose ship was wrecked in the Galapagos five years earlier. Robert is especially noble in accepting this mission since he’s in love with Louise (Blanche Mehaffey), the schoolteacher José is still notionally engaged to – though he almost admits that he hopes to bring back proof the missing man is dead, so they can get together without undue guilt. The first half has little footage with the actors after the basic set-up and consists of narration piled on top of documentary scenes from earlier films of an educational or exploitative nature. In a bizarre stretch, Richard explains an undersea battle as an ‘evil’ octopus is about to eat a ‘good’ fish when a moray eel dashes in to the rescue and a whole school of smaller fish assail the octopus. This is plainly staged in a tank since the sea creatures sometimes flatten against glass, and is peculiarly sadistic in that the fish are plainly being encouraged to attack each other.
After the ‘money shots’, which at least appease grain-milling fetishists, the expedition locates the island where José has gone native (or is at least going after native girls). A Lugosi-accented chief (Bill Lemuels) explains that José is the island’s heroic fisherman and appointed as the next chief, but Robert basically shanghais the swarthy, shifty José by knocking him out and forcibly rescuing him from an apparently happy new life. Then, in the most exciting footage newly-staged for the film, José shows off tuna-fishing skills, while plotting harm to his love rival Robert. The title creature is a giant manta ray, characterised as a monster who bothers the tuna fishers – and again treated horribly by the filmmakers who presumably shot its harpooning the old-fashioned, non-special effects way. José turns heroic and loses an arm in a battle with the manta ray, which prompts Robert to wonder whether they did him a favour by rescuing him. When they reach home port, Louise’s response is to gush ‘oh, Robert, how can I ever thank you?’ and rush after José, who responds with a one-armed hug, leaving a stricken Robert to be thanked by José’s mother while perhaps musing this isn’t the ending he (or the audience) were expecting. It’s almost a refreshing finish, if clumsily-staged and acted, as if one of Lon Chaney’s mutilated freaks actually got the girl and the handsome juvenile had to watch from the sidelines.
For such a marginal effort, it exists in a variety of versions: a Spanish-language El Diablo del Mar (with bigger name stars – Carlos Villarias of that Spanish Dracula and Movita of Mutiny on the Bounty/Mrs Marlon Brando fame) and an abbreviated 1945 re-release. Directed by S. Edwin Graham.
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