Thursday 23 May 2024

Viking Women & The Sea Serpent
(Roger Corman, 1957)

...or, as the storybook style title card has it, ‘The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent’.

A big name for what is, by anyone’s estimation, a fairly minor movie, but not by any means an unenjoyable one.

If nothing else, the film certainly delivers on its title in short order (a lesson Corman had clearly learned from the failure of The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes a few years earlier), as we are immediately introduced to our Viking Women, and quite a fetching bunch they are too, led by Abby Dalton (Corman’s main squeeze at the time) as the fair-haired Desir, alongside another memorable turn from the Corman regular Susan Cabot (The Wasp Woman herself!) as treacherous / witchy brunette Enger.

(Amusing anecdote from this production # 1: apparently, another actress had originally been cast as the lead Viking Woman, but on the first day of shooting, she turned up to meet the bus to the location accompanied by her agent, who refused to let his client sign a contract until she was awarded a higher fee. Assistant director Jack Bohrer got Corman on the phone, and recalled being immediately instructed to, “make Abby the lead and move all the other girls up one spot in the cast. Have the girls learn their lines on the bus ride to the beach. Tell the agent to get lost.”) (1)

When we join them, the Viking Women are hanging around in a wooded grove, having seemingly been abandoned by their long absent sea-faring menfolk.

They do still have one man with them for some reason - Ottar, played by Jonathan Haze of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ fame. If there was a line of dialogue to explain why he’s not off with the other Viking Men, I must have missed it, but… anyway, he’s here too, and the Viking Women are holding a vote on what to do about their lonesome situation, through the long accepted Viking movie means of throwing spears at a pair of tree trunks. (So much more dramatic that just raising hands, don't you think?)

Naturally, the faction who want to set out to sea in search of the menfolk emerge triumphant, and so that’s exactly what they all do, casting off from the balmy shores of Southern Cali - sorry, I mean, uh, the Nordic Lands - in a rather fetching little longboat.

(Amusing speculation about this production # 1: in a cliff-top long shot of the longboat casting off, we clearly see the rudder fall off. Cut to the studio-bound / back projected medium shot on-board ship, and there is some dialogue along the lines of, “oh no, what are we going to do”, “we can’t steer this thing with just an oar”, etc. Given though that this plot point never really plays into anything else in the script, would it be cynical of me to to suggest that maybe the rudder falling off in the long shot was a total accident, but, given that there was no time to re-take the shot, they just had to make the best of it and improvise by working it into the dialogue..?)

Anyway, once they’re out on the open sea, the initial scenes scenes on board the longboat are actually quite nicely done, complete with satisfactory back projection and some elegant, moody lighting. It seems as if the Viking Women have only been drifting rudderless on the ocean for a few hours though, when - in a development which feels like a vague, subconscious comingling of Homer’s Odyssey, medieval cartography and Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ - they find themselves drawn into the currents of “the vortex” - the film’s obligatory vast, ship-wrecking whirlpool - and encounter its guardian, the terrifying Sea Serpent!

So yes - bingo! About twelve minutes into the run time, and we’ve met the Viking Women, we’ve had the Sea Serpent - and thus the filmmakers can be confident that no one’s going to be storming to the box office demanding their money back after this one, irrespective of whatever happens next.

(Amusing anecdote from this production # 2: according to Corman, his chief takeaway from ‘Viking Women and the Sea Serpent’ was a decision never again to “fall for a sophisticated sales job about elaborate special effects”. Effects artists Iriving Block and Jack Rabin had apparently won the gig on the film by firing up both Corman and AIP’s Jim Nicholson and Sam Arkoff with a swanky presentation of painted mock ups demonstrating their skills - only for it to become abundantly clear upon completion of the promised footage that, “..they had simply promised us something they could not deliver”.

Quoth the director/producer himself: “First, I saw that they had shot the plates from the wrong angle and I couldn’t possibly match them. Second, the serpent was too small. I thought: My God, I’m not going to fit this into a ten day shoot. It was supposed to be thirty feet tall. I had rarely shot process myself because it is a specialized art, but I did the best I could […] with the boat rocking and the girls moving to obscure as much of the process print as possible. I shot the scene very low-key and fairly dark so you didn’t see too much.” ) (1)

In view of these circumstances though, I actually think the sea monster shots - brief and murky though they may be - come off pretty well. You get a good ol’ scary, scaly monster head arising from the murky water, emitting a suitably horrendous, unearthly yowl, so I mean, what more could you ask for? Seems like an entirely passable low budget Godzilla knock off kind of affair to me.

As Corman correctly notes though, what really sinks the effects here (no pun intended) is the disparity in scale and angles between the back projected ‘monster footage’ and the ‘live in studio’ foreground action. Presumably arising more from a combination of miscommunication, poor planning and the general inexperience than from any incompetence on the part of the effects guys, these problems are very much the kind of thing which could have been easily fixed up on a better resourced production, but on an AIP-financed double feature filler, with a few hours on the sound stage already booked and paid for no doubt, there was no obviously no option but to make do and plough ahead.

So, understandably, that’s more or less the last we see of the dreaded Monster of The Vortex, with the remaining two thirds of the movie instead concentrating on the primarily land-based exploits of the ship-wrecked Viking Women, who now find themselves washed up in the land of a barbaric tribe known as the Grimolts, who seem to specialise in enslaving / plundering the survivors of ships which have fallen victim to The Vortex.

“They can be handled, they’re only men,” Desir defiantly announces when the women’s captors start getting rough with them, thus earning the film a minimal scintilla of proto-feminist cred which it somewhat makes good on in subsequent scenes, as our heroines undertake a good deal of rough-riding, spear-hurling and brawling, rejecting the boorish advances of various Grimolt warriors, and generally proving themselves the equal of their male agressors (at least until their musclebound, aryan menfolk eventually make the scene, at which point they compliantly assume a secondary role in proceedings).

Stark, the king of the Grimolts, is played with no great amount of charisma by hard-working character actor and TV stalwart Richard Devon, looking here rather like a school headmaster who has had an unfortunate run-in with a shag pile carpet whilst on his way to a fancy dress party as Genghis Khan.

Making a rather more of positive impression however is Jay Sayer as Stark’s son Senya, delivering as good a rendition of the age old “snivelling, cowardly / effeminate son of domineering, tyrannical patriarch” archetype as I can recall seeing in recent years. (Like so many Corman actors, Sayer has a bit of barely supressed beatnik vibe about him, which I rather enjoyed.)

In fact, it's probably fair to say that the scene in which Viking girl-boss Desir rescues Senya by slaying the wild boar which is menacing him, only for the blubbering boy to insist that he must take credit for killing the beast himself in order to avoid facing the shame of admitting to his father that he was saved by a woman, probably represents the peak of this movie’s emotional intensity.

Elsewhere during the Grimolt sections of the film, we get to appreciate the fact that the production actually managed to obtain the use of some fairly decent looking ‘banqueting hall’ and ‘castle exterior’ sets, as well as rustling up an actual, honest-to-god boar for the hunting scenes. Look out also for Wilda Taylor, credited as ‘Grimolt dancing girl’, delivering an admirably wild and energetic routine during the obligatory banquet hall scene.

For the most part though, as soon as the Viking Women realise that - inevitably - it is Stark and the Grimolts who are keeping their long lost menfolk prisoner, the remaining run-time settles down into an entirely routine succession of escapes and re-captures, complete with lots of lots of interminable running around out in the scrubland surrounding Iverson’s Movie Ranch and (inevitably) the ever-ready Bronson Canyon caves.

In his memoir (see footnote), Corman claimed it was whilst feverishly shooting all of this running around type stuff that he broke his own record for ‘most set ups in a single day’, but for all the impact it has on screen, he might as well have chilled out and let everybody clock off and drive back into town for an early martini instead. It’s precisely the kind of undistinguished, work-a-day ‘action’ padding which, with a few changes of costumes and props, could have been slotted straight into any two-dollar western, war movie or sci-fi flick, making it tough not to zone out and let your mind wander, as the sundry Viking Women, freed Viking Men and Grimolts charge hinder and yon across the sand dunes.

Indeed, whilst all this was going on, I primarily found myself thinking about the strange lineage of Viking movies which runs through global popular cinema - a little mini-genre in its own right which has rarely attracted much recognition or critical attention.

I had previously assumed that the cycle must have been birthed from the success of Kirk Douglas epic ‘The Vikings’ (1958), or Jack Cardiff’s ‘The Long Ships’ (1964) - but, as checking those production years has made clear, ‘Viking Women and the Sea Serpent’ actually beat both of those films into cinemas. In fact, I’m not aware of any Viking movies made prior to 1957, so maybe we can chalk up a bit more originality for Corman and screenwriter Lawrence L. Goldman here than I had otherwise assumed.

Subsequent to ‘The Vikings’, Mario Bava made a couple of corkers in Italy during the ‘60s (‘Erik The Conqueror’ (’61) and ‘Knives of the Avenger’ (‘66)), whilst Hammer produced ‘The Viking Queen’ in ’67, and, a few years after that, the Tarkan films out of Turkey picked up the baton, delivering all the berserk psychotronic craziness one could possibly ask for.

Not, you’d have to say, something that could really be claimed of Roger Corman’s modest contribution to the sub-genre. As I think has probably been made abundantly clear by now, we’re not exactly looking at an all-time classic here, but regardless; for a breezy, 66 minute time waster, ‘Viking Women and the Sea Serpent’ proves perfectly enjoyable.

Most of the primary cast deliver engaging performances, and the whole thing swings by with an easy-going, upbeat vibe which makes it seem as if everyone was having a lot of fun with this material, however much of a nightmare the anecdotes related above suggest it must actually must have been to make. 

Rich in the kind of random eccentricities, sly humour and abundant charm which helps so many of these early Corman / AIP movies worth a watch in spite of their shortcomings, it’s difficult not to hit the closing titles with a smile on your face - especially if, like those lucky 1957 drive-in patrons, you’ve just seen it on a double bill with ‘The Astounding She Monster’ (which I’ve not seen, but it boasts an Ed Wood writing credit, and one of the greatest Sci-Fi posters of the ’50s). What a time to have been alive!


(1) Unless otherwise stated, all quotes and production stories in this review are taken from ‘How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime’, by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome (De Capo press edition, 1998), pp. 45-47

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