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  • Ravi Swami

"The Atomic Submarine", Dir: Spencer Gordon Bennet, 1959

"Gordon Bennett !" indeed :) - a phrase more common in the U.K than the U.S or anywhere else that actually refers to a Scots American and is generally used as an exclamation like "Gor Blimey !" when referring to something wild and "out there", which "The Atomic Submarine" certainly is, though in that intriguing way that many "B" grade movies often are.

I knew about the film long before (I'm talking several decades) I actually had an opportunity to watch it - thanks to Amazon Prime streaming - and in reviews it was generally accompanied by a still from the film featuring a weird but rather benign-looking alien "cyclops" that the crew of the titular super-submarine - "The Tiger Shark" - encounter after investigating reports of mysterious activity under the ice cap in the North Polar regions.

This image alone was enough of a hook to watch a film that in more ways than one is the prototype for Irwin Allen's feature film "Voyage to The Bottom of The Sea" and the TV series spin-off of the same name that followed, though the latter boasted superior visual effects by comparison for plots that expanded upon "The Atomic Submarine" template of mundane meets weird.

After a start featuring a booming American newsreel type narration that is intended to give the out-there plot some sense of being grounded in reality, along with documentary footage of the real-world advanced U.S nuclear submarine fleets of the post-war period, we see a war room where various military and scientific types discuss the aforementioned mysterious polar activity and what to do about it, in this case to deploy the Navy's latest and most powerful atomic submarine, "The Tiger Shark", under the command of "Captain Dan Wendover" (Dick Foran) - however, his role is sidelined in favour of "Richard "Reef"Holloway", a dashing Lieutenant Commander played by Arthur Franz who has to reluctantly give up a much-needed furlough and seeing his wife, played by the rather superfluous-to-the-plot blonde bombshell actress Joi Lansing - an inclusion clearly for publicity reasons and to reel in dads accompanying their kids to see what was pitched as a kids film, though it actually isn't.

Given her tiny role in the film, the writers were gracious enough to give her some decent witty dialogue before "Reef" Holloway rushes off to investigate the submarine mystery.

Once aboard the submarine, scenes of the interior are intercut with miniature shots of the sub' under the ice cap and these betray the budgetary limitations imposed on the film makers - although the submarine miniature must have been reasonably large to accommodate moving propellers and other internal mechanics, it looks small and toy-like as it maneuvers between jagged icebergs that look like tin-foil or cast resin.

The source of the mystery turns out to be a saucer-shaped alien underwater UFO or "USO" (Unidentified Submerged Object") that the crew dub "The Cyclops" since it has a single light in its' domed top, and after ramming it and getting stuck, they board the USO using a mini-submarine called "The Lungfish".

Attempts to dislodge the trapped submarine from the USO by using acetylene torches are unsuccessful since the USO's hull appears to have fused with it and Holloway starts to hear a disembodied voice that commands him to enter the bowels of the USO where he finds a large womb-like sphere that houses a *very* strange entity - a hairy octopus-like creature with a single eye on a stalk.

The alien - a vanguard for an invasion - announces that it intends to fuse with humans in order to survive on Earth as part of a plan to colonize the planet but of course Holloway will have none of that and promptly shoots the alien in its' eye which buys him time to get back to the "Lungfish" and escape with the remaining crew member after others are horribly killed by a flesh-melting ray inside the alien saucer.

Once safely back on board "The Tiger Shark" a plan is hatched to re-purpose a nuclear "ICBM" carried by the sub to destroy the saucer and stop it from returning to its' origin in space. In the meantime the alien has regenerated itself and pilots the saucer up and out of the ice cap, now pursued by the ballistic missile, which destroys it before it exits Earth's atmosphere, leaving the submarine to patrol the world's oceans for other possible exotic or not so exotic threats.

The film has been described as being a kids film but there are several quite gruesome scenes featuring the flesh-melting alien ray and its' worth noting that the films' co-writer was Irving Block, more well-known for that other "kids film", the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet" for MGM, in 1956.

Irving Block seems to have been something of a polymath judging by his bio, starting as painter in his native New York, he wrote fiction, designed and directed visual effects and produced films before returning to painting in his retirement, and he worked mainly in the fantasy and sci-fi genre that became a staple of cinemas running "second features" throughout the 1950's.

There are several classic "B" movies to his credit and it's clear from the subject of the film that Block was also widely read and open to all and any fictional speculations in the genre, some of which seem very familiar now as a result of various YouTube videos on fringe conspiracy theories, in particular aliens under the polar ice-caps, inspired in part by tropes already present in the works of writers like H.P Lovecraft, and others.

For me, it's this connection to Block that makes the film all the more fascinating and lifts it up a notch from being the usual "B" movie drive-in fodder - the design of the alien in particular makes it very unique and unexpected and suggests that the writers, at least, wanted to the push the envelope beyond the usual man in a rubber suit with horrific make-up that populated so many 50's sci-fi films up to that point.

The only downsides are the rather poor visual effects - though to be fair, the alien is quite well realized - and minimalist sets, but these are more than made up for by the concept itself, which hovers somewhere between outright fantasy speculation and the supposed factual reports about UFO's and USO's that emerged in the post-war years and which continue to inspire a fascination in some of the more extreme ends of the internet.

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