The Undersea Adventures of Craig McKenzie

As a kid I saw various undersea scifi movies, all terrible I think, but I never saw LATITUDE ZERO, alas. I think I would have dug it. It’s a lot more than terrible. There was one really boring one with lots of enlarged fish which we walked out of at the Odeon, Clerk Street — I’m idly curious as to what it was, but all I remember is the fish.

Then there’s one I saw the end of on TV that has a collapsing belltower underwater, and a long shot of a spoon, I think, dropped into the water and going down, down, down… I’d be grateful for any info you can give me about the title. (OK, YouTube to the rescue — the belltower seems to be from CITY BENEATH THE SEA of 1953, which has Robert Ryan but no spoon, so that’s a different movie. The spoon was a ladle on a wire, and it appears in CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY, also with Robert Ryan.)

Also on the big screen we saw THE AMAZING CAPTAIN NEMO, a jumped-up TV movie, which as kids we found entertaining enough (Nemo is José Ferrer this time. He issues his 20th-century guests with puffy pirate shirts which they pronounce to be INCREDIBLY COMFORTABLE and that’s all I remember. I was thrilled by the idea of the amazing Nemo chemise. I mean, these guys were on a Victorian submarine with laser cannons and everything, but the shirts were so comfortable that’s what amazed them.)

Joseph Cotten in LATITUDE ZERO is Nemo too, in a slashed-to-the-waist shirt, but they don’t call him that, they call him Craig McKenzie (which they pronounce “Cregg” because they’re Americans and Japanese). He’s a Scottish submariner from the nineteenth century who pilots a Nautilus-type sub with laser cannons and lives in an undersea kingdom or domed city if you will. With constant harpsichord muzak, or is it the score?

This is probably Cotten’s only Japanese fantasy film based on a radio series. He’s allowed one.

It’s not that Cotten, and Cesar “Butch” Romero and Patricia Medina have forgotten how to act, I think, more that Godzilla man Ishirô Honda, the director, isn’t able to give them much sense of what he wants. So the prevailing dramatic note is “Will this do?” Richard Jaeckel is enthusiastic, though.

Linda Haynes hasn’t learned yet how to act yet — she’d become an interesting naturalistic low-key player by the time of THE NICKEL RIDE, but at this point she just seems profoundly depressed in her skimpy plastic clothes. She’s meant to be the medical officer but dresses like a dystopian showgirl. She talks carefully, like a drunkard. She has a way of exiting frame, when tasked with an important mission, that signals unambiguously her intent to walk two paces until out of shot and then pause like a mannequin until “Cut!” is called. It’s a very textured performance, is what I’m saying.

Romero and Medina slosh back cocktails for the whole movie. “They must just be permanently pissed,” mused Fiona. I do like the idea of supervillains whose sole motivation is inebriation. There might be a show in that. How else to explain Butch grafting condor wings onto a slumbering lion? It’s the sort of thing we’ve all done, of course, and regretted in the morning.

Godzilla effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya handles the dinky model work, and lays on a super underwater volcano that bursts to the surface in varihued splendour.

Now, look here. Akira Kurosawa considered Ishirô Honda a trusted colleague. The man helmed numerous entertaining fantasies. So we can’t dismiss him. But neither can we consider him to be any damn good. He can cut together various unconvincing special effects to make a coherent, if ludicrous sequence. But he can’t film people getting out of chairs. Not without discombobulating angle shifts. And I know he didn’t design the sets and costumes here but he apparently was content to film them, which does not redound to his credit.

Favourite exchange: when Romero threatens to dissect a scientist’s brain in order to extract his memories, the prof gasps, “That’s impossible!”

Not for me,” says Romero, with some grandeur. Romero, it must be admitted, knows how to do this shit.

Later, having transplanted his sub captain’s brain into the winged lion, he will ask: “Kuroiga was a fool as a woman, is she also a fool as a griffin?” As damning an inquiry as any I can recall.

Cotten and Butch, left to their own devices by a director focussed on — what, exactly? No man can say! — take diametrically opposed approaches. Cotten takes it all VERY seriously, allowing no trace of camp — looks as if he’s reviewing Salaambo — whereas Cesar R. is high camp throughout, and even gives it a kind of wit. Well, BATMAN is very much relevant experience here, and CITIZEN KANE isn’t.

LATITUDE ZERO contains jetpacks, gold lamé swimwear, a flying lion, bat people, holograms, finger-lasers, brain surgery, tiny flame throwers, a bathysphere, a bath of invulnerability, unwearable costumes, a rockslide, gratuitous trampolining, rodents of unusual size, sliding doors, balconies, a submersible model car; crumbling to dust, skeletons, glass paintings, deadly glitter, explosions, corridors, blinking lights…

The phony lion/flying flunky creates an OZ vibe — Butch’s CCTV screens the equivalent of Margaret Hamilton’s crustal-gazing — confirmed at the end when everyone tries to convince Richard Jaeckel that it was all a dream. “But you were there, and you, and YOU!”

Jaeckel inspects the dailies with dismay.

LATITUDE ZERO stars Hideto Ogata; Jed Leland; Duke Santos; Sheriff Kip McKinney; Betty Thaxter; Golf caddie (uncredited); and Godzilla.

15 Responses to “The Undersea Adventures of Craig McKenzie”

  1. The only underwater movie I remember Seeing in a movie theater as a young kid is the Walt Disney movie, 20,000 leagues under the sea. Obviously you’ve seen more underwater movies that I have.

    Maybe you can help me identify in underwater movie that I saw when I was a kid on TV. It was probably made in the 50s or early 60s.

    There is a small squad of navy guys in some sort of Alien installation underwater. The doors operate like the iris of an eye. One of them gets stuck and crushed as the door closes on him. Ring any bells?

  2. No bells whatever! It may have been one of the first iris-like doors, though, perhaps pre-First Men on the Moon…

    Perhaps someone else can help?

  3. The film with the iris-like doors is probably The Atomic Submarine, which Criterion, of all companies, released on DVD in their 2007 Monsters and Madmen set. I haven’t seen it, but the description matches the plot summary which Glenn Erickson gives in his review.

    This is a delightful piece, by the way. Thanks for making me laugh!

  4. You’re welcome, just passing on what the film did for me!

    Can’t find a reference to a bloke getting crushed in a door for Atomic Submarine…

  5. Wait, now I have, thanks to TV tropes: “The Atomic Submarine (1960). A crewman gets crushed when his arm is caught as he tries to dive through the Dilating Door as it closes. So in this case it was a Contracting Door.”

  6. Erickson reviewed the film as part of the Monsters and Madmen set, not individually: maybe that’s why his reference didn’t come up. What he describes as ‘the grotesque sight of a commando cut in two by a closing iris doorway’ seems to be the only bit of the film that nobody ever forgets, especially if they saw it in their impressionable youth.

  7. Seems like Daniel has solved the mystery, Bryce!

  8. bensondonald Says:

    LATITUDE ZERO: So the whole thing takes place at the Equator? Wherever it’s set, I now need to see it.

    AMAZING CAPTAIN NEMO: Saw that in the last few years. It’s actually three episodes of a failed TV series by Irwin Allen. The plotting was barely on the juvenile level. Atlantis turned out to be a few sparse rooms inhabited by some men in miniskirts.

    VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA: The movie. Arguably even goofier than the above, but money was spent and it’s way more watchable. Howlers include the sub breaching the water like a whale, chucks of an iceberg sinking, Walter Pigeon constantly smoking cigars, and a romantic title song sung by Frankie Avalon (“Come with me … on a voyage … to the bottom … of the sea …”).

    STINGRAY: The undersea scenes were shot dry in slow motion; a big flat aquarium between the models and the camera provided the live fish swimming around. The Supermarionation shows always felt like a kid’s idea of how adults talked and acted. I loved the idea of using bongo drums instead of sirens; whenever I hear bongos I want to declare, “Anything can happen in the next half hour!” Best episode ever: Troy Tempest hallucinates discovering a fortune and setting himself up with Marina and Atlanta in harem costumes. I was close enough to puberty to dwell on the implications.

    CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY: Ryan plays Nemo as lovable and avuncular, chastely courting a pretty widow while showing off a city that’s somewhere between Oz and Willy Wonka’s factory. I liked that this micromanaged paradise included mild comic floozies in the tavern. Can’t shake the feeling it was originally supposed to be the kid exploring this fantasy world, but got rewritten to focus on the plot of Chuck Connors trying to escape. An interesting angle was that the original Nemo wanted to bully the world into peace, while this one was an isolationist.

    MYSTERIOUS ISLAND: The mostly silent version. Not that satisfying until the final reels, where the sub finds a deep-sea race of weird little creatures fired up by blood in the water. A still of one of the creatures evidently inspired Sally Cruikshank to make “Fun on Mars”, which led to the character Quasi.

  9. Yes, ATOMIC SUBMARINE is the iris door, for sure… saw that at age 8 and was excited/scared, for sure. I feel sure that the colorful but terminally stupid underwater sub movie that’s 70% pictures of enlarge aquarium fish is 1973’s THE NEPTUNE FACTOR…!

  10. bensondonald Says:

    I stand corrected. Cruikshank’s duckman is not the same as the goggle-eyed critters from “Mysterious Island”. Another movie, or just a strange costume?

  11. chris schneider Says:

    One underwater adventure that you don’t mention is CITY UNDER THE SEA a.k.a. WAR GODS OF THE DEEP, which has Vincent Price as a quasi-Nemo and Jacques Tourneur as director. IMDb tells us that it even includes footage from the Honda-directed ATRAGON.

    I heard for years and years how awful WAR GODS was. Only saw it, finally, on television as a dissipated adult … whereupon my thought was “It’s not *that* bad!” I could ignore the comedy-relief animal. Instead, I could concentrate on Vincent Price and Tab Hunter and chains wielded with malicious intent. No outright kinky stuff, alas, but enough of a promise to keep me watching.

  12. I think it might be a duckman variant from the same Mysterious Island, it’s too close…

    City Under the Sea has about ten minutes of eerie stuff, then it goes downhill fast, as AIP interference caused Tourneur, and writer Charles Bennett, to lose their enthusiasm. But it’s better than Master of the World, for instance.

    The Neptune Factor sounds right! I wonder if I should revisit it to recapture that sense of childhood ennui?

  13. Danny Carr Says:

    All the half-remembered films that I was taken to by my dad in the 70s have merged into SINBAD AND THE UNDERWATER CITY OF LOST DINOSAURS. Maybe I should write this film.

  14. I think there’d be a market for it! Plenty of dads out there.

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