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A Terror From the Deep

Monster From the Surf puts a bizarre time stamp on the early 1960s surf boom.

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It should come as no surprise that the worst movie ever made was a Hollywood surf film.

In the early 1960s, surfing was everywhere. Three of the four Los Angeles TV stations had surf programming. Hollywood got in early with Gidget in 1959. That kicked off a string of surf-themed movies thrown together at American International Pictures (AIP), starting with Beach Party in 1963. By the summer of 1964, production was wrapping on the set of AIP’s Monster From the Surf—a baffling mix of surfing, marine biology, and murder. By the time it was ready for release in 1965, it was clear that the studio had a perfectly bad film on their hands.

The film was directed by and starred Jon Hall, the trim leading man in John Ford’s 1937 epic The Hurricane. Hall had a career swashbuckling through big action movies in the 1940s, all designed around his athletic physique and stately profile, before he transitioned to TV in the 1950s, where he starred in prime-time series like Perry Mason.

For some reason, at the age of 50, Hall signed on for a B-movie with a budget so slender that he not only starred and directed, but also served as the director of photography and the cinematographer. This meant he was responsible for the look of each scene, which lenses to use, and the start and stop of every take by calling out “Action,” then entering the frame himself to deliver his lines.

The plot, appropriately, is paper thin: A noted marine biologist, seeing his son gravitate toward the surfing life in Malibu, dons a remarkably bad monster suit and begins murdering beachgoers and surfers. Hall plays the monster with Frankenstein rigidity in a kelp-draped costume, complete with long, knife-like fingers and Ping-Pong eyeballs.

Among the film’s plot holes and continuity errors is the noirish police chase down Mulholland Drive. The footage is pulled from two different stock clips—both night shots of cars exploding, each different vehicles from the chase car. The flaming crash marked not only the end of the film, but also the end of Hall’s movie career. He abandoned acting after Monster in favor of designing cinematic lenses at his skunkworks in Santa Monica.

Surprisingly, some of the surfing holds up. Monster credits Dale Davis as co-star, yet he has only two scenes in the film, one of which sees him murdered by the monster on the beach. By the time of production Davis was already a prolific surfer/filmmaker, responsible for Walk on the Wet Side, Strictly Hot, and a semi-weekly surfing TV show, and his biggest contribution to Monster was his second-unit footage of Hawaiian surfing. The film is short—only 66 minutes—and 12 of those minutes are Davis’ footage from the 1964 North Shore season.

Beneath the opening credits, Ricky Grigg drops in at big Sunset, barely squeaking by the first section. Eighteen minutes into the film, Miki Dora fades deep into a clean bottom-turn and soul-arch kickout, also at Sunset. At minute 21, Mike Hynson takes off late at Pipeline and gets pitched, followed by a young Jock Sutherland navigating Pipe on round rails. A teenage Nat Young appears surfing Haleiwa during his first trip to Hawaii. There are even quick glimpses of Greg Noll and Jose Angel.

The music, too, far outpaces the Hollywood production elements. The surf-guitar soundtrack was performed by members of The Hustlers from Riverside, California, whose heavy-gauge electric-guitar sound contains touches of Link Wray’s classic “Rumble” and at times veers perilously close to the modern rockabilly of The Cramps. (In fact, the screenplay of the final chase scene, including the screeching tires, can be heard in The Cramps’ single “Goo Goo Muck”—a fable about a nocturnal monster on the loose.) Entr’acte music was produced by composer Chuck Sagle, who worked closely with Frank Sinatra Jr. on the jazzy background music and title tune, “Dance Baby Dance.”

Inexplicably, there are three different cuts of the film with two entirely different titles: Monster was re-released as The Beach Girls and the Monster, which featured an even shorter running time and some of the surf footage processed in color. Monster From the Surf has one foot in classic Hollywood and one foot in local used- car commercials. The film was the perfect storm of terrible ideas and bad writing produced with a straight-faced professional rectitude that somehow got finished in time to become an instant anachronism. It’s a perfect record of Los Angeles and the city’s surf scene during the summer of 1964: packed beaches, heavy single-fins, and the go-go surf sound.

[Feature image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]