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Monday, 22 March 2010

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)

Director: Robert Gordon
Stars: Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue



Man's greatest weapon of the seas is the atom powered submarine, we're told as this film begins and that's pretty great, all things considered, at least for anything except a movie called It Came from Beneath the Sea. 'The mind of man had thought of everything,' points out the narrator, 'except that that was beyond his comprehension.' And as the credits roll, reminiscent of Star Wars except they're scrolling out of the sea instead of the stars, we watch the waves roil and wonder what It is going to be. Well, we have to wait a little while before we can find out. This atomic sub gets chased across the Pacific by something that does a pretty good job of holding them stuck against their will for a little while before they finally manage to break free. Cmdr Pete Mathews brings the sub back into dry dock with something stuck in its pipes.

Given that this is 1955 you know that means one of two things: something that's going to suck royally or something animated by Ray Harryhausen. Fortunately it's the latter, a giant radioactive octopus, but this not being CSI: Miami they have to run thirteen days of tests to work out precisely what it is first. People laugh about scifi movies of the fifties so it's always surprising to find realistic science in them that puts our modern CGI fuelled shows to shame. It can be found here in the form of two serious scientists: Dr John Carter is the inventor of analytical biology and Prof Lesley Joyce is the premier expert on marine biology still living. Of course one of these characters has to be a lovely young lady and it's the latter. Prof Joyce is played by Faith Domergue, the same year she made This Island Earth, while Dr Carter is Donald Curtis, a year before Earth vs the Flying Saucers.

Compared to them, Cmdr Pete Matthews, played by Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, is just an arrogant little prick. He basically pressgangs our scientists into service, putting them to work for days at a time without much sleep. He walks past a No Smoking sign in the lab with a cigarette between his lips, while cornering the lovely professor with a set of chat up lines while she's too tired to resist. Or so he thinks! He underestimates her throughout the film, while Dr Carter is a little more understanding, even responding to the Commander's sexist assumptions that girls are just girls. 'There's a whole new breed who feel they're just as smart, just as courageous as men,' Carter tells him. 'And they are.' He even tries to give him a wake up call. 'They don't like to be overprotected, they don't like to have their initiative taken away from them.' Mathews doesn't have a clue.

He gets a couple of macho moments where he saves someone under risk to his own safety, but that's about it, and to be fair Carter gets the same. Carter and Joyce are the ones who really run this show. They work out what the monster is, they work out where it is and they work out how they can do something about it. Joyce even works out where it came from: the good old military test scenario. It comes from the Mindanao Deep, she suggests, spurred into unusual action by hydrogen bomb tests off the Marshall Islands. Now it's radioactive and many of the fish that provide its food have built in geiger counters that mean that they now stay away in droves, leading the giant octopus to find different food elsewhere. You know, like us.
Storywise it's a slow piece but kept interesting because of the love triangle at the heart of much of the dialogue that doesn't pertain specifically to the monster. Both Cmdr Mathews and Dr Carter are interested in lovely young Prof Joyce, even though she looks rather manly on occasion. No, it isn't Sylvester Stallone in drag. The film even leaves us on an ambiguous note when it comes to these three, though I'm guessing writers George Worthing Yates and Hal Smith were about to cop out and let our proto-feminist scientist forego equity and respect for blind machismo. We can't help but get caught up in the story and I'm sure everyone who didn't play on an American football pitch when they were in high school would be rooting for Dr Carter. I'm sure I'm not the only geek out there, folks.

Yates was the experienced writer, on a high after Them! a year earlier and with a number of notable genre films to come, including Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Attack of the Puppet People and War of the Colossal Beast. I guess we can let him off for King Kong vs Godzilla, because he only wrote the source story. Smith had written a few films, this being his last, but he was better known as an actor, for his voice work and for being Otis the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show. They do leave us with a few questions though, that stand out half a century later, especially to do with radiation. Most especially, is blowing up a giant radioactive octopus in San Francisco Bay really such a great idea, especially when the heroes are in the water not that far away at the time? I didn't see anyone suggesting decontamination here at any point whatsoever.

Given that this is a monster movie, I have to end up talking about the monster. It's a fun critter, suitably monstrous, which gets plenty of opportunity to wrap its tentacles around all sorts of stuff, not just atomic subs but tramp steamers too and even the Golden Gate Bridge. Iconic architecture is even more important in monster movies than it is in Hitchcock thrillers, after all. The only thing missing is a memorable sound effect but then there wasn't much of a budget to work with and I'm guessing that octopi don't tend to make a heck of a lot of noise, no roars or screams or weird ululations. We just have to make do with long tentacles slapping down onto unsuspecting San Franciscans.

Producers Sam Katzman and Charles Schneer only had $150,000 to work with, which meant that Ray Harryhausen could only afford to give his octopus six legs, dubbing it a hextapus. He does a pretty good job of keeping part of it in the water at all times so we hardly notice but it does look a little too much like a flexible starfish at points. Certainly it's great work for $26,000 for his stop motion work. What could you buy with that today? Two frames of some eight foot blue critter in a forest? Schneer and Harryhausen knew how to spend their money, this being their first of many films together. They'd follow up with Earth vs the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth before hitting a much more substantial budget for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The rest is history.

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