Friday 19 March 2010

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Director: Eugène Lourié
Stars: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway and Kenneth Tobey

It must be the contrariness in me but I just love Robert Osborne having to introduce films like this on TCM where he has to talk about 'horrible disgusting terrorising mutant monsters'. It's one of the joys in my life. Frankly though this is one of those scifi films in the middle of the ranks, nothing to be ashamed of in the slightest. For all its tiny budget it's more than a few leagues ahead of the real Z grade movies that relished exploitative titles like this, but it's still behind the serious classics of the science fiction genre. Most notably it began the modern monster movie phenomenon and introduced to the mainstream movie industry a man by the name of Ray Harryhausen, the inheritor of the stop motion throne of Willis O'Brien.

Our trigger for action is the rather generically titled Operation Experiment way up in the Arctic Circle, but maybe generic is the point. We get the idea of it's all about by watching Prof Tom Nesbitt and Col Jack Evans and the rest of their military scientific team put on their goggles and wait at the rendezvous point for the plane that's headed two hundred miles north to explode something huge and atomic nearby. It's capably shot, with a glorious mushroom cloud, billowing fire and huge ice floes tilting and collapsing, though this is quite likely stock footage patched together with talent. The explosion shakes up plenty, as I'm sure you'll be stunned to discover, and it brings something strange onto the radar screen, though it soon disappears again as if it had never been.

It doesn't take long for us to find out what it is, but given that the movie is called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms they really don't have a heck of a lot of opportunity to play by the classic monster movie rulebook and only give us hints. It does kowtow to that once, as the creature lumbers off behind a crag of ice to be hidden by an incoming blizzard, but thirty seconds later we see it full on, a hundred million year old dinosaur wandering around the Arctic, prompting George Ritchie, one of the scientists, to fall off an ice ledge in fright and end up buried by an avalanche. Prof Nesbitt sees it too, while trying to save Ritchie, but that just gets him flown home to be checked into the Hartley Hospital so they can look him over. 'Psychiatric interrogation re traumatic hallucinations' says the card. In other words, they think he's nuts.

You can write much of the rest of the plot yourself, merely plugging in the particular details at hand. This time out the hero convinces a young lady called Lee Hunter, the assistant to Prof Thurgood Elson of the Dept of Paleontology. He's the world's foremost expert on the Mesozoic age which is a good job because the monster turns out to be a rhedosaurus who dates back to precisely that era. We know that because Nesbitt identifies it from a sketch and so does Jacob Bowman, the helmsman of a ketch called Fortune that was attacked by the monster somewhere off the Grand Banks. It's working its way down the Arctic current, possibly to its old stomping grounds, the submerged canyons of New York, the only place the relics of the rhedosaurus have ever been found. Guess what the ending is going to involve, I dare you.

Well, let's back up a step. Sure, this is a pretty routine and predictable creature feature and we've all seen the story many times before, but this film is something of an original. Producer Hal Chester sparked the idea from two events in 1952: the theatrical re-release of King Kong, the success of which proved that there was a market for monster movies, and the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb as part of Operation Ivy. Connecting the two seems obvious today but this was the first film to do it and it took another year before anyone really took it a step further. Released in June 1953 it was followed a year later by The Creature from the Black Lagoon in March and Them! in June. Then in November came the granddaddy of them all, Gojira, the original Godzilla movie, though this wouldn't see American release until 1956.

There are other influences obvious too. Prof Elson is played by Cecil Kellaway, a delightful South African actor whose voice and appearance prompted many roles as clergymen or professors, especially as he grew older. Watching this film for the first time in many years, he couldn't help but remind me of John Hammond, the part Richard Attenborough played in Jurassic Park, especially when he takes the boat out to the submerged canyons to look for the creature, wondering what it would be like to take the thing alive. I could easily see him in a sequel blithely adding to a conversation, 'Oh, we have a rhedosaurus.' It seems strange to compare these two films, given the vastly different style of their effects but both were pioneers, one in modern CGI and the other in stop motion animation. Proponents of both approaches could easily use these two films for their arguments but as much as there was certainly magic in Jurassic Park I'd still go with the old stop motion approach to monster movies any time.

The script came out of Hal Chester's original ideas but he didn't write it. In fact six writers contributed, including science fiction author Ray Bradbury who was visiting his friend Ray Harryhausen on the set. Reading the script, then titled Monster from the Sea, he suggested that some scenes were very reminiscent of a story he'd written a few years earlier for the Saturday Evening Post called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, such as the memorable one where the dinosaur climbs out of the sea to destroy a lighthouse on the coast of Maine. The very next day the studio bought the film rights for him and the picture changed its name to match his story. However, perhaps distancing himself from his pulp roots, he renamed his story to The Fog Horn for future reprints.

The cast are capable, real actors playing real parts rather than what would soon become faded stars playing faded parts. Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid plays Prof Nesbitt, under his stage name of Paul Christian. He was a star in German language movies at the time but had rarely appeared in English film, though to highlight his linguistic talents he has a scene here in French. His first English film was Bagdad in 1949, a terrible film but one with great dialogue, especially between Hubschmid and Vincent Price, who appeared behind him in the credits. Kellaway was a hugely experienced actor with credits dating back to 1933, including prominent roles in Wuthering Heights, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Harvey. Kenneth Tobey, who plays Col Jack Evans, was riding high in science fiction after leading the cast in The Thing from Another World two years earlier. He'd be back for It Came from Beneath the Sea in 1955.

Other actors were just starting out but would go on to forge names for themselves. Lee Van Cleef gets a very early role here as a sniper, though he only gets a couple of lines and not much screen time. James Best gets even less and I didn't even recognise him as the chubby radar man at the beginning of the film. People like Donald Woods, Steve Brodie and King Donovan are recognisable faces too. The biggest star though has to be the monster, brought to life through the effects magic of Ray Harryhausen, here working in a major motion picture for the first time, after a number of self made short films for children. This really set his career in motion and he'd soon return for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and on to Clash of the Titans in 1981.

Harryhausen's rhedosaurus is great fun to watch and it's obvious that he'd learned his craft well, hardly surprising as he'd worshipped Willis O'Brien, the stop motion animator behind The Lost World and King Kong, for years. He'd even worked with him on Mighty Joe Young. While the rhedosauraus was fictional and differs from true dinosaurs in many ways, its motion is thoroughly believable, especially when thrashing its tail or munching on New York City cops. There are many iconic scenes that would prove hugely influential, not least the destruction of the lighthouse, the finale among the rollercoasters of Coney Island and perhaps best of all, the scene where the rhedosaurus comes up against high voltage electric wires. These are awesomely lit, with the sparks lighting up the monster then throwing it back into darkness. Compared to what Harryhausen does with his stop motion rhedosaurus, the real life octopus versus shark fight is just boring. No wonder this started a whole new trend in pictures.


jimmie t. murakami said...

Ray Harryhausen is God he quite simply owns the universe, and Hal dont you ever forget that alright!!!.

old pajamas said...


Thank you for this and more. I recall so well, and happily.....old pajamas

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Glad you both enjoyed!

Coming soon: 1955's It Came from Beneath the Sea, with Kenneth Tobey returning to battle a Ray Harryhausen animated octopus that takes out the Golden Gate Bridge.

David said...

Correction: James Best was not the chubby radar man. He was the other one (on the left).