Friendly neighborhood pimp: A critical review of “Beyond Atlantis” (1973)

What did you do for Thanksgiving, tonstant weader? I run this blog, so I spent the holiday watching the low budget thriller “Beyond Atlantis.” The film is often remembered for its unusual approach to production. Actor/producer John Ashley wanted a grindhouse film, perhaps akin to “Woman Hunt,” a previous collaboration he did with this film’s director, Eddie Romero. However, the production company thought they could court star Patrick Wayne with a more family friendly film. Or else Wayne requested no naughty stuff. He gets blamed either way. The point is, things were toned down, and we don’t get no topless ladies.

Topless ladies is nice, but what drew me to this film was the promise of fishmen. I will watch anything with fishmen because fishmen can have the distinct aroma of H. P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror. However, the concern this Thanksgiving is that “Beyond Atlantis” smells less like fish and more like turkey.

What lies beyond Atlantis is some port town in the Philippines, which is lorded over by East Eddie (Sid Haig), arguably the most affable pimp and petty mob boss in cinema. Eddie catches wind of a treasure trove of pearls somewhere over yonder, so he enlists the aid of down on his luck gambler/fence Logan (Ashley) and presumably slightly less crooked boat captain Vic (Wayne). They eventually learn that the pearls in question are coming from an island populated by a bug-eyed sorta Stone Age tribe. The tribe’s comely princess (Leigh Christian) sets her normal-sized eyes on the treasure hunters. Her reasons for doing so are enigmatic at best, and might have something to do with the sacrificial temple at the center of the island.

In a neat trick, the first thing to stick out about “Beyond Atlantis” is its thoughtful shot composition and blocking. I mean that literally; the images running behind the opening credits are simple, clean and quite deft. Considering this film’s reputation, it’s a pleasant surprise for the start. Unfortunately, while the quality of the composition remains consistent through the movie, there is often not much point to what’s being posed.

Still, there is Sig Haig. He plays the cigar chomping, jive talking, purple silk shirt wearing East Eddie, who honestly fascinates me. Part of it is Haig’s performance, since the actor throws himself utterly into the role. It’s also the lopsided writing, which has Eddie forgive indebted gamblers and wannabe mutineers with astonishing ease, and not beat the crap out of a potential informant, at least not right away. He wants to put his share of the treasure into a brothel, a classy one, so his girls don’t have to walk around outside all day. What a guy. He also has no qualms about shooting people, strangles a Rudyard Kipling quote and has a shrieking vendetta against crabs, but that’s another story.

The unbalanced script, which permits Eddie to be such a sleazy charmer (a charming sleaze?), is not nearly as successful with every other aspect of the film. The characters are paper thin. Logan the gambler is there because we are told he likes money, so he wants pearls. Captain Vic seems less interested in pearls, so he’s there because someone has to drive the boat. Then there’s Dr. Vernon (Lenore Stevens), an anthropologist, I guess. Her motivation is ostensibly to study the tribe, but it kind of boils down to how many midriff-bearing outfits she can wear while conducting field research.

I’m not even going to touch the tribe. It would be generous to say that their intentions, customs and backstory are left vague on purpose. It seems more likely that the film has no idea what do with them. The script is a collection of questions that can’t even be called unanswered; they seem to get halfway raised and then discarded rather than asked. It’s baffling rather than frustrating, and it leads to some bizarre moments.

When the princess returns home to the island from a swim, she witnesses a sudden and unexplained execution. Later, her father says she must mate with an outsider because she is not the same species as the other members of the tribe. Elsewhere, Dr. Vernon corners a tribesman and asks him if he’s seen a certain idol. He responds by throwing a baby goat into a pond that contains some stock footage of piranhas.

Disconnects abound. Sudden flashes of danger or intrigue are swiftly and conveniently forgotten by the characters onscreen, and underwater chase scenes that should be tense feel light and playful (it doesn’t help that the editing is so brisk it makes all the action seem like it happens two seconds ago). Dingy bars and gambling halls are brightly lit. This blog’s favorite moment might be a massage scene where Eddie asks the massage girl to go lower on his back, and she flips him over. He tells Logan her hands are a gold mine, and she starts using her feet. Why not?

One would expect the plot to be a meandering mess, a sort of “people wander around the haunted house except it’s an island,” but it’s too unfocused for all that. Much of the film is stitched together from what looks like someone’s vacation videos: people in wetsuits and bikinis struggling to stay underwater, exterior shots of maybe the American embassy, beaches that look suspiciously like murky rivers, casinos that looks suspiciously like someone’s living room, a cock fight. Yeah. There’s only one, but even one cock fight is more than this blog was expecting for something everyone was complaining about was too “family friendly.”

The audio is a mixed bag. Portions of dialogue in the same scene sound like they were recorded on different sets and different days, then spliced together in the editing room. It would matter more if the script was worth listening to, I guess. To be fair, the score is kind of charming. None of it is directly memorable, but it strikes a cute balance between goofy wannabe-eerie synthesizers and pleasant 19th century Romantic era orchestral/piano cues.

For this blog, a goofy and pleasant soundtrack, bizarre outbursts and pacing, and the presence of Sig Haig are enough to make a film watchable, but more discerning eyes might not be so generous. “Beyond Atlantis” is not really worth viewing for the cosmic horror elements. There are some whiffs of the subgenre: fishmen, ancient civilizations and mutations brought about by incest. But the fishmen are underpaid Filipino extras with ping pong balls covering their eyes, the ancient civilization is all talk and no atmosphere, and the incest is pure speculation courtesy of the anthropologist. “I’m just making guesses,” she tells Patrick Wayne. “I don’t know nearly enough.” You and me both.

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