ENTERING THE WATER AND ESCAPING:
FROM HOUDINI TO THE HOODOO SEA
“What was the Unspeakable Secret of the SEA OF LOST SHIPS?”
*Poster for Creature from the Haunted Sea
It’s common knowledge that Houdini planned to reach out
after death and contact this world of the living again.
But did Bogart plan the same escape? And did he succeed,
channeled into the part of a way-below B-movie actor in
a film entitled Creature from the Haunted Sea?
“If it’s possible for anyone to get through after
death, that person will be me.” This was the vow
of showman/magician/ultraman Harry Houdini.
Time after time, across the country, around the world,
he defeated death by out-smarting it. Whether locking
himself underwater in a safe, enduring The Water
Torture Cell, or throwing himself bound in chains
into an icy river, he came out alive again.
Water was his favorite element to challenge,
though he was known to hang tied upside-down
in the air, or while staging another feat in California,
he confessed, “I tried out ‘Buried Alive’ in Hollywood,
and nearly did it. Very dangerous; the weight of the
earth is killing.” (1) Then in 1919, he ventured into
the early life of motion pictures, which he saw as
realizing “the American ideal of speed and
His movie The Man from Beyond promised, “A man
Entombed in a Massive Casket of Ice 100 Years
Comes Back to Life. The Weirdest and Most
Sensational Love Story Ever Screened” and
featured his famous dethawing act from vaudeville.
His experience conquering water even allowed him
to share his Promethean knowledge, patenting a
new and improved deep sea diving suit “arranged
to permit the diver, in case of danger for any cause
whatever, to quickly divest himself of the suit
while being submerged and to safely escape
and reach the surface of the water.” (3)
But when he died in Detroit on the Halloween
of 1926, contact was lost. “The ordinary people
of Europe and America mourned the death of
Houdini, but they knew of his promise to
come back. It was said that in the manner
of his return he would demonstrate immortality
so vividly that no one would ever be able to
disbelieve again and all the world would be
converted.” (4) For ten years his wife Bess
worked the air in séances (the very thing Houdini
crusaded against, the spotlight of fraud mediums
and phony spiritualists), reaching for the ten word
code she would know him by, finding nothing
before she finally let him go. Where are you?
What more could she do? This mystery of
human existence seemed to baffle her.
Winds blew, curtains fell, magic stopped,
things were laid to rest.
Is life after death possible, probable,
more than the mystical, or the ravings of B-movies
and pulp dreamers? Time. Reception reaches.
Across the continent, over an ocean, up mountains
to Tibet where life and death have been the hum of
meditation for well over a thousand passing years.
“In nature an embodiment of the ocean of buddhas/
With concentrated attention I call to you:/Send out
waves of your compassionate energy.” (5) In 1933,
after the 13th Dalai Lama wrote these verses, he
passed away and the search was on to find him
Reincarnation is the path he follows.
In the words of the Buddha of Compassion:
“Both mind and body must have immediate
sources…the immediate source of a body is
that of its parents. But physical matter cannot
produce mind, nor mind matter. The immediate
source of a mind must, therefore, be a mind
which existed before the conception took place;
the mind must have a continuity from a previous
mind. This we hold to prove the existence of
a past life.” (6)
So how could anyone discover, or
rediscover this great man who returned to life?
Lake Lhamo Lhatso held the answer. “The people
of Tibet believe that visions of the future can be
seen in the waters of this lake…Sometimes the
visions are said to appear in the form of letters,
and sometimes as pictures of places and future
events.” (7) Houdini’s ten word code come to life.
The blue sky on water revealed the clues and
in 1937, after four years out of sight, the 14th
Dalai Lama was found, a two year old boy
under a turquoise roof, who knew who he was.
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”
*John Keats’ tombstone
In the meantime, America continued.
Only 18, while Harry Houdini was making his
first movies, Seaman Humphrey Bogart floated
the ocean aboard the Leviathan. The U-Boats let
him pass back and forth unsunk and after the war
he drifted, closer to where he would become.
Trying his hand at directing a film called Life
was the opening door for him to act. Parts in
plays and early pictures followed, then it happened:
from the stage production of The Petrified Forest
his gangster character was projected over theater
screens in 1936. Going rough through the
Depression into the next war years, reflecting
the time-culture in the roles that made him bright,
Bogart was created. “To his cynicism, his own
code of ethics, his hatred of the phoniness in all
human behavior, he now added the softening trait
of tenderness and compassion and a feeling of
heroic commitment to a cause.” (8)
Like Houdini’s water shows, Bogart
seemed to truly glow when he was filmed on
the ocean. To Have and Have Not (1945),
Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951)
put Bogart on the waves and it’s real, he’s in
control, steering the careening boat around
danger. It’s that vision of him that is timeless.
At his funeral services in 1957, a glass display
case holding the model of his yacht The Santana
took the place of a coffin and the whistle from
To Have and Have Not was interred with his
ashes. Director John Huston decided, “He is
quite unreplaceable. There will never be anybody
like him.” Sealing Bogart’s memorial was
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing the Bar,’
tolling Time and sea: “But such a tide as moving
seems asleep,/Too full for sound and foam,/
When that which drew from out the boundless
deep/Turns again home.”
“Everything is wrong…strange…We can’t be
sure of any direction. Even the ocean doesn’t
look as it should.”
*Flight Leader, Flight 19, gone in 1945.
Roger Corman was born in 1926,
the year Houdini died. After he served in the navy,
he made his first film The Monster from the
Ocean Floor in 1954. Fiendishly, he returned
again and again to explore the power from water.
There was The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues
(1956): “SHEER HORROR as a living nightmare
stalks the ocean floor!” “See! The battle for life
at the bottom of the sea!” and Attack of the Crab
Monsters (1957): “From the depths of the sea…
A TIDAL WAVE OF TERROR!” So it was only
natural that he would be drawn to The Hoodoo Sea.
“The Bermuda Triangle is a stretch of
the Atlantic Ocean bordered by a line from Florida
to the islands of Bermuda, to Puerto Rico and then
back to Florida.” (9) However, disappearances of
ships and aircraft have strayed well beyond this
anomalous area, to include the Caribbean island
Martinique, location of To Have and Have Not.
One year after that film was shot, in the winter
of 1945, the five Avengers of Flight 19, a
Flight Leader and 13 other men, were lost off
the Florida Keys. Bogart and Bacall would return
to this very place in three years for the making
of Key Largo.
What brought Roger Corman to The
Bermuda Triangle were the tax incentives.
Arriving in Puerto Rico in 1961, he quickly
directed The Last Woman on Earth and produced
Battle of Blood Island. Then, with a week before
the crew had to return to America, he decided,
why not direct one more film?
Whereas Bogart had script writers like
Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway,
William Faulkner and Truman Capote,
Roger Corman had Charles B. Griffith, a man
who had set new standards in black-comedy
with his screenplays Bucket of Blood (1954)
and Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Corman
remembered telephoning the States, “‘Chuck,
I need another comedy-horror film and you’ve
got a week to write it…There’s no time for
rewrites. I’ve got a small cast so write for them’…
He was very sleepy and I wasn’t certain he
understood completely the story line we
discussed, but he agreed.” (10)
The result, Corman confessed was
“truly insane.” Inspired by the nearby revolution
of Fidel Castro, Creature from the Haunted Sea
“was a story about a band of Batista’s generals
making off with a treasure chest of gold from
Cuba. The man they hire to captain their boat
is a mobster. He murders the generals and
covers up the crimes by inventing a story
about an undersea monster who devours people.
But there is an undersea monster.” (11)
Corman’s monster is none other than
the $150 creation of soundman/actor Beach
Dickerson who shares: “I decide to get five
helmets and make this giant head. Then we
get a wetsuit, some moss, lots of Brillo pads.
Then we get tennis balls for the eyes. Ping-Pong
balls for the pupils, and pipecleaners for the
claws. Then we cover him with black oilcloth
to make him look slimy. I mean, we decked
him out and he was absolutely glorious.
And I must say, that son of a bitch, he ran on
land and swam underwater for the whole
shoot and when it was all over he went to
The monster is telling of the production
itself, tossed together in a rush of crazed inspiration,
allowing what’s around to influence. It is seeing
the movie inside someone’s head…someone
sleeping in the shade of the Bermuda Triangle.
What a shock when into this dream assembly
suddenly appears an Academy Award winning
icon. Pulled through, after four years out of
sight, Humphrey Bogart is back.
His first utterance in the dark under palms
is, “I am,” followed by, “Let’s get on with it.”
Renzo Capeto, American gambler, gangster and
yachtsman is Bogart’s incarnation, though at
times it seems his actor Anthony Carbone
struggles to control the possession. The same
posturing body language, the cigarette going,
the sailor hat, the toughness, the smiles, his gaze,
mannerisms and speech patterns. How could you
possibly make a boat movie with gangsters in
black and white and not invite Bogart?
The plot was right, the place, the boat,
everything agreed. It was an open door
awaiting his reappearance.
So, coasting with the perfect ghost,
the boat floats right into the plot of To Have and
Have Not. As in that earlier film, while hoping to
look like a fishing vessel, their mission has been
discovered by a patrol boat and The Bogart
of both films arms his deck hands for trouble.
“Now let’s appear casual,” he orders in 1961
and, “Mary Belle, sing a song.” Hoagy Carmichael
backed Lauren Bacall, but Mary Belle has an
out-of-the-blue piano track to make up a
love song, as she bobs along. A shooting match
erupts again and they escape again. Even the
beyond-odd character Pete Peterson Jr, an
animal mimic, is an impaired exaggeration of
Walter Brennan’s Eddy, with his dead bee routine.
Boat full of thieves, the cramped onboard camera
work resembles Key Largo, while Renzo plots
for the chance to take over their course, and
But this is the Bermuda Triangle,
a mysterious and dangerous place, unpredictable,
as the theatrical trailer for To Have and Have Not
already warned: “The danger zone of the
Mid-Atlantic where strange ships slip through
the fog with even stranger cargoes…where all
barriers are down and the only law is the law
of the Caribbean.”
Prescient, in what amounts to his
swansong, Creature’s Bogart echoes Tennyson
in his conversation with an equally fated
Cuban colonel, dreams of what to do, where
to go next:
“You can go anywhere you like. I’m
“America? No, I can’t go back there
True, his encore appearance is over,
he’s bound for some unseen shore. The monster
roars out of the water, there’s no place to get
away, and The Bogart runs out of life on the
beach, unable to move, staring at the sky.
Footnotes (Stock Footage):
(1) The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini,
Ruth Brandon, Kodansha International, NY,
1993, page 151.
(2) Ibid, page 196.
(3) Houdini U.S Patent # 1,370,316 granted
March 1, 1921. Quoted from
(4) Death and the Magician: The Mystery of
Houdini, Raymond Fitzsimons, Atheneum,
NY, 1981, page 163.
(5) The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred
Legacy of Reincarnation, Glenn H. Mullin,
Clear Light Publishers, Sante Fe, New Mexico,
2001, page 448.
(6) My Land and My People, His Holiness
the Dalai Lama of Tibet, McGraw-Hill
Book Co. Inc., NY, 1962, page 236.
(7) Ibid, page 21-22.
(8) Humphrey Bogart, Alan G. Barbour,
Galahad Books, NY, 1973, page 96.
(10) How I Made A Hundred Movies in
Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime,
Roger Corman, Random House, NY, 1990,
(11) Ibid, page 237.
(12) Ibid, page 73.