Monday, April 29, 2024

Beyond Atlantis (1973)

... aka: La Atlántida: el paraíso perdido (Atlantis: The Lost Paradise)
... aka: Sea Creatures
... aka: Sea People
... aka: Terror en el fondo del mar (Terror at the Bottom of the Sea)

Directed by:
Eddie Romero

What started life as your usual low budget, shot-in-the-Philippines-by-Americans exploitation flick meant for the drive-in circuit soon morphed into something else entirely. Originally planned as an R-rated film with violence and nudity (i.e. the usual for this particular crew), Dimension Pictures founder / head honcho Lawrence H. Woolner decided to up the budget (which was still only in the low 200K range), hire some name value actors and aim for a more mainstream, family friendly demographic. That enabled them to hire Patrick Wayne, the son of John, who supposedly only agreed to do the film if it would be PG rated. (Note: If that's true, and I have no reason to believe otherwise since several people involved in this production made the same claim, Wayne was able to put his morals aside just a few years later to appear in bed with a topless Priscilla Barnes in the R-rated action film Texas Detour (1978) and later hit a career low playing part in the direct-to-VHS 80s gore flick Revenge.)

The resulting film was a big flop. Too tame for the adults who'd usually watch something like this and not a grand enough big budget spectacle for the kiddies, this was unable to find much of an audience. Toning things down also appears to have kneecapped its international sales potential. Going by ad materials, this doesn't appear to have had much reach outside of the North and South American markets, and didn't even do well within those parameters. There was also a UK release, but it was on the bottom half of a double bill with Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (better known these days as Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla).

Fisherman Manuel De Baracuda (Vic Diaz) has just returned to Manila after giving a mysterious young beauty a ride to a remote island in the South Seas. In lieu of monetary payment, she instead gave him a handful of pearls. Manuel sells the pearls to smooth-talkin', cigar puffin' pimp Fast Eddie (Sid Haig), who's the type always looking to make a quick buck. Whether or not it's by legal means is of little concern to the man. Logan (John Ashley), a diver with a gambling problem who frequently hits up Eddie for loans, takes one look at the pearls and visions of dollar signs start circling his head. These aren't just ordinary jewels of the sea but "Tuscarora pearls," which are very high quality, very rare and very, very expensive. Even though Logan doesn't want to split potential profits three ways, Eddie hatches a scheme that will involve another diver named Vic (Wayne), who owns a boat they can take to the island.

If two's company, and three's a crowd, might as well make it a party. Kathy (Lenore Stevens) eavesdrops on a conversation Logan and Vic are having at a casino, flirts with Logan and then sets up a date for the following day. That all turns out to be a ruse to weasel her way into their trip. You see, Kathy is actually Dr. Katherine Vernon and she's an anthropologist who's interested in searching for a lost tribe rumored to populate one of the islands. A mask she has that's from the same tribe contains the same pearls the men will be out looking for so she may as well tag along and do some research. Seeing how she's not interested in the money, Logan agrees. They put together a small crew of Filipino locals (hey, someone's gotta die, right?) and they're off.

After going to visit Manuel, Eddie is able to get (i.e. beat) enough info about him to locate the island. When they arrive, the village is seemingly abandoned yet hot food has been left out, meaning the natives fled to somewhere else when they spotted a boat coming. After barely managing to survive falling into a pit filled with flesh-eating crabs (!), Eddie and his traveling companions finally get to meet the tribe, a bunch of ping pong ball-eyed, tailless mer-people dressed in animal fur swimsuits and brandishing spears. They don't really have any special powers aside from being able to hold their breath underwater for lengthy periods of time. For some reason, tribe leader Nereus (George Nader) and his blonde, blue-eyed daughter Syrene (Leigh Christian) are the only two who look like normal humans and, by "for some reason," I mean because he was once a well-known star and she's hot so it would be a shame to make either of them wear a goofy-looking rubber mask.

The tribe offer some guest huts to the visitors but our heroes soon discover they have ulterior movies for wanting to keep them there. Vic's first mate (played by the director) dies while out scuba diving when his oxygen tank line is cut. And then Syrene is forced by Nereus to mate with one of the human men. I'm sure you can guess who she selects. No, not Sid Haig. Turns out the mutant fish-eyed people look the way they do because of inbreeding ("Incest?!") and now need to introduce some new blood into the tribe. And if anyone can do some successful seducing, it's the tan, toned and curves-in-all-the-right-places Syrene.

Though I'd imagine she'd probably be successful seducing about 99.9% of the heterosexual male population, Syrene makes the mistake of going after Mr. PG Rating himself. He swiftly rebuffs her advances and tells her he'll only put out if it's with someone he loves. No bother, Syrene isn't called Syrene for nothing. She uses her synchronized swimming mating dance and patented call to entrance and then mate with Vic under the sea in one of the most awkward scenes I've ever laid my poor eyes upon. Makes one wonder why she didn't just do that in the first place instead of asking. Maybe she has a humiliation fetish. I also have to wonder what was going through Mr. Wayne's mind thinking that appearing in an R-rated film would somehow project a worse public image than getting raped by a mermaid in a PG-rated film.

I usually enjoy lost world and trapped-on-an-island movies, but this (which is based on a story by the usually decent Stephanie Rothman) never amounted to much of anything. There's very little plot and even less action, but lots of wasted time with endless scenes of swimming and pearl diving. A large chunk of the higher-than-usual budget reportedly went toward filming the underwater scenes... and boy did they get their money's worth! What they didn't take into consideration is that absolutely no one wants to watch a movie where half the screen time is set aside for people gathering up clam shells from the ocean floor.

Director Romero's filmography contains loads of sleazy horror, action and exploitation flicks that were profitable in their day, so watching him try yet fail to restrain himself here is actually pretty amusing. Even though there's no nudity or explicit gore, the man just can't help himself when it comes to sneaking in trashy stuff! There are real chickens dying in cockfights, hookers, massage parlor girls, illegal gambling dens, a long catfight, beaten-up cops, terrible pick-up lines and double-entendres, a baby goat getting tossed into a piranha pond where a person will later die a bloody death and the camera practically staying glued to the female star's (admittedly very nice) ass during most of her scenes. Hey, it's a hard habit to break, baby!

Aside from Haig, who tries to turn in a fun character and almost succeeds, the acting is terrible. The good news for Wayne is that he's better looking than his father ever was. The bad news is that his acting skills are even more limited. Ashley, who also produced, was about ten years outside of his Beach Party days and whatever screen appeal he once had is about completely gone at this point. He never was a very good actor and continues on in that tradition here. Christian and Stevens are both stunning to look at but most of their line delivery (much of which seems to have been looped in later) is flat. The biggest shock in veteran Nader. With his track record you'd figure he'd easily outperform the others, but he's pretty awful here himself. This was the last movie he ever appeared in and, though he looks impressively fit for a 50-something, you can tell his heart just wasn't in it. Hopefully he was paid well and enjoyed his vacation.

After VHS releases from Wizard Video (one of their early releases from way back in 1982 before they started doing the great box art) and United, this was issued on DVD in 2000, courtesy of VCI and as part of their "Drive-In Classics" line. VCI also handled the upgraded Blu-ray release in 2019, though extras on the release are slim. This title is also easy to find on streaming sites. Decent prints are currently on Youtube and Tubi so I certainly wouldn't pay good money to watch this.

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