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Posts Tagged ‘The Beast from 20000 Fathoms’

Writing about Dracula AD 1972 a couple of weeks ago, I talked about the slightly odd phenomenon of good films being made to cash in on the success of bad ones. I’m not sure this necessarily applies in the case of the film under discussion now, but – well, you’ll see what I mean as we go on.

I find I just can’t summon up the enthusiasm to complete our recent run of Christopher Lee-and-Hammer-themed reviews by revisiting To the Devil a Daughter – especially not when there’s a stack of classic 50s B-movies sitting demanding my attention. So let us begin with Eugene Lourie’s (fairly) seminal 1953 monster movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Our story opens in the arctic north, where a team of US scientists and military personnel are engaged in a experimental operation with the codename Operation: Experiment. If nothing else this suggests that US government code-name writers of the 1950s were not quite up to scratch. However, everything else is working just fine and the plan to drop an atom bomb on the north pole goes like a dream. Quite what the benefit of doing this is to anyone involved is never made clear, but this is a film operating in a different, rather more innocent world.

This is not to say that all is cheerful. The tone is distinctly ominous: ‘every time I see one of those things go off, I feel like I’m writing a chapter in a new book of Genesis!’ says one character. Atomic energy still carries a dreadful mystique for these people. This turns out to be entirely warranted as it transpires Operation: Experiment has defrosted a giant reptile that was frozen under the ice cap. The creature slips into the Arctic Ocean and heads south for its ancestral stamping grounds, which just happen to be in the vicinity of New York City (yes, this film predates current thinking on continental drift as well as radiological theory).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the only witness of the creature’s first appearance has no evidence and is (not unreasonably) shipped off back to New York in a rubber plane when he persists in talking about monsters. He is Tom Nesbitt (a slightly odd name for someone who’s clearly of mittel-European origin, but then he is played by Swiss actor Paul Christian) and he spends most of the next half hour trying to get evidence that the beast is real before a genuine catastrophe occurs. In the meantime the beast is swimming merrily south, chowing down on fishing boats and lighthouses on the way.

With the aid of a genial and cuddly old paleontologist, who keeps reminding everyone he’s just about to take his first holiday in thirty years, and who might as well have DOOMED tattooed across his forehead, Nesbitt persuades his old army buddy (Kenneth Tobey, who we’ll be meeting again when we look at the original Thing From Another World) that the danger is real. However, this is just too late as the beast is already on the verge of attacking New York itself…

It’s hard to be really objective about a film so old and influential. The plot, by modern standards, is rather creaky and cliched, but this is the film that coined many of the cliches, writing much of the grammar of the monster movie genre. One notable deviation from this, however, is the way that the beast puts in a full appearance very early on. This appears to be a trademark of producer Hal Chester: the same thing happens near the beginning of Night of the Demon, another of his films.

That said, it’s not really around very much until the final act, when it runs amok in the streets of New York and we get a proper look at Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent animation. Harryhausen opts to invent his own kind of dinosaur, the rhedosaurus, and as you might have guessed it’s unlikely to get the seal of approval from genuine paleontologists for all sorts of reasons, the great man animating his own preferences rather than attempting something properly realistic. This is meat-and-potatoes stuff compared to some of the stunning work Harryhausen was to do in the sixties, but it does the job, in a film which is markedly less campy in tone than you’d expect from the subject matter.

There’s a lot of atom-age terror going on here, as you could probably have guessed, although none of it quite as hysterical (and unintentionally funny) as in the trailer – ‘Is mankind challenging powers behind the cosmic barriers?’ yells a caption, while talking heads of average people give measured opinions such as ‘Who knows what waits for us in nature’s no-man’s-land?‘ and ‘Impossible? Unbelievable? Fantastic? But I tell you – it could happen!‘ One almost gets the impression of modern civilisation being crushed between the primeval threat of the beast and the ominous new menace of the atomic age.

However, the movie doesn’t quite succumb to techno-fear, and in the process neatly answers the ‘why don’t they just use heavy artillery to kill the monster?’ problem which routinely bedevils this kind of film. The beast, you see, is loaded with prehistoric viruses to which modern life has no resistance. Blowing it up would just scatter infectious material everywhere. The solution is to shoot the creature with a radioactive bullet (the sharpshooter recruited is a pre-stardom Lee Van Cleef, who seems slightly disgruntled to be appearing in this kind of film), the implication being that while science may spawn the odd monster, it’s also full of ideas for getting rid of them too.

This movie, though by no means a masterpiece, essentially stakes out the territory for most of the classic monster movies that followed (director Lourie went on to direct one of my personal favourites, the 1961 British suitamation movie Gorgo, which is basically a rehash-with-a-twist of this film). But perhaps its greatest legacy lies in the fact that it was a smash hit in Japan, inspiring Toho Studios to make their own film about a rampaging prehistoric creature unleashed by a nuclear blast, the result being a legendary icon of which the world has not yet heard the last. (Rather appropriately, there are some startling similarities between the first section of the American Godzilla and Beast, as the idea comes full circle.) On its own terms, though, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a fun and competent movie which takes itself just seriously enough, and knows better than to outstay its welcome.

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