A real curio among Japanese monster movies, Terror Beneath the Sea's origins remain something of a mystery. It was apparently conceived by Americans Walter Manley and Ivan Reiner as a made-for-television movie cheaply produced in Japan using mostly western-world faces. Japanese co-financing came from Toei Studios; they provided studio space and leading man Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba in exchange for the Japanese rights. In America Terror Beneath the Sea (1966) when straight to television, but in Japan, as Kaitei dai senso ("Battle Beneath the Sea"; Japanese posters carried an alternate English title: Water Cyborgs), the film was given a full-blown theatrical release. The picture's murky origins have created a lot of confusion over its intended aspect ratio (see below), but Dark Sky Films have nevertheless provided an otherwise splendiferous transfer that shows off the film off in all its wacky glory.
In what plays very much like a 1940s serial, reporters Ken Abe (Chiba) and American Jennie (Peggy Neal) investigate a botched U.S. Navy guided torpedo test, and while scuba diving are kidnapped by Creature from the Black Lagoon-like underwater monsters and taken before Dr. Rufus Moore (Eric Nielsen), who operates a SPECTRE-like underwater base. There, Ken and Jennie witness the ghoulish operations of Dr. Joseph Heim (Mike Daning), where men are turned into water cyborgs, a slave army Moore plans to use to conquer the world.
Terror Beneath the Sea has up to now been dismissed as a very minor entry in the Japanese monster movie boom that was in full swing during 1966-67, when every Japanese studio jumped onto the kaiju eiga bandwagon, and outsiders like Manley and Reiner joined in as well. In the U.S., home video versions were murky-looking at best, barely hinting at the enormous energy infused the film by director Hajime Sato (Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell) and its surprisingly unsettling monster transformation scenes. Dark Sky's DVD goes a long way to rectify this, and the film's '60s-a-Go-Go look with its bright primary colors and comic book style mise-en-scene would make Terror Beneath the Sea a great second feature paired with something visually similar, say Danger: Diabolik (1968).
Sato's pacing keeps everything moving and to his credit the film is never dull if frequently ludicrous. One shoot-out has the good guys and bad guys positioned in an almost perfect circle. They madly fire at one another at point-blank range, yet almost no one gets shot. The water cyborgs are crudely designed full body suits, with immobile, expressionless faces and ill-fitting "skin" that at times resemble green pajamas. That said, the men-into-monsters transformations are done with a lot of color and imagination, which really burst off the screen in Dark Sky's transfer. Like Bernard Kowalski's SSSSSSS, the gradual loss of one's humanity is creepily dramatized, this in spite of the general rubberiness of the elementary make-up effects. (What looks like Vanilla cake frosting seems to have been used as well.) Also adding considerably to the film's atmosphere is Shunsuke Kikuchi's (Female Convict Scorpion; Jailhouse 41) evocative score, worthy of its own soundtrack album.
As Japanese film scholar Guy Tucker has suggested, nominal lead Sonny Chiba, still years away from international stardom, was at this point career-wise rather like a very young Tom Cruise, Chiba's similarly overgrown eyebrows further adding to this comparison. He doesn't actually have much to do, however, and the real interest is watching all the Caucasians. Names like Neal, Nielsen, Daning, and Andrew Hughes (who here plays a kidnapped scientist) were a familiar presence in Japanese films of all types during the 1950s through the mid-1970s. None were professional actors (their voices are re-looped for the American edition) and most had unrelated day jobs, but either as a lark or perhaps out of some genuine hope of fame worked steadily in films needing white actors. Daning plays similar roles in both The X from Outer Space (1967, also co-starring Neal) and The Green Slime (1968), while Andrew Hughes later appeared as "Dr. Stevenson" in Toho's all-star monster rally Destroy All Monsters (1968). Beyond the deliriously goofy The X from Outer Space, busty blonde, Peggy Neal, who is like a '60s Jeri Ryan, had a major role in Las Vegas Free-for-All (1967) a delightful epic comedy starring Japan's Crazy Cats. In that film she played a femme fatale trying to steal a fortune from co-star Kei Tani, and her gangster boss in that film was none other than Terror's Eric Nielsen.
What life must have been like as a Caucasian finding minor-league stardom in the Japanese film industry, appearing in a kaiju eiga one week, the latest Oshima film the next, was probably more interesting than the goofy escapism of Terror Beneath the Sea. Where most of these people are today remains a mystery.
Video & Audio
As noted by DVD Savant in his review of The Flesh Eaters, Terror Beneath the Sea's distributor, Dark Sky, is apparently allied with the Monsters HD channel, and its DVD release was apparently formatted with the HD 16:9 ratio in mind. There has been a great deal of confusion over this title's OAR, probably stemming from the fact that Japanese distributor Toei shot virtually everything during the 1960s in ToeiScope (a format essentially identical to CinemaScope and Panavision), though back then what wasn't 'scope invariably was presented full frame, not cropped wide screen. (The Japanese didn't adopt the cropped 1.85:1 aspect ratio on their domestic films until the mid-1970s.) The Japanese Movie Data Base lists Terror Beneath the Sea as CinemaScope, and this reviewer had suggested ToeiScope in several books on the genre. However, Toei Video's Region 2 DVD is 4:3 and this seems correct. The 16:9 enhanced transfer presented by Dark Sky looks phenomenal, with superb color and clarity, but the widescreen cropping is obviously too tight here and there. In tight close-ups of Chiba and Neal together, often Neal's face is cut off at the eyeballs, and the already singularly inept U.S. main titles are rendered virtually unreadable in 16:9 format. That said, most of the time the framing almost works, and the film elements look almost brand-new. The titles are from the original Transworld TV release, but the rest of the film appears sourced from a Japanese negative. The mono soundtrack uses the original English dubbing used for the American release. Optional English subtitles are provided, but there are no Extra Features.
After decades of awful 16mm TV prints, even minor Japanese genre films like Terror Beneath the Sea can at long last be appreciated for their impressive visual style and wild imagination. Despite some lingering aspect ratio problems, Dark Sky's great-looking DVD comes Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.