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THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and other vintage monster movies

I just caught the classic 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Turner Classic Movies. This is a seminal entry in the genre in many ways. It was the first feature film on which the late Ray Harryhausen worked as lead special-effects creator, and the debut of his trademark “Dynamation” technique for incorporating stop-motion creatures into background film footage through the creative use of split-screen effects. It was the first movie about a giant monster unleashed or created by the power of the atom, launching a whole genre of monster movies. Or perhaps two whole genres, since it was a direct inspiration for the following year’s Godzilla, whose legacy I’ve covered in an earlier series of posts.

But it’s a film I haven’t seen in far too long, since I barely remembered any of it, aside from the iconic sequence of the title creature (the Rhedosaurus, reputedly named in honor of Ray Harryhausen’s initials and/or the sound of his first name) eating an overconfident policeman. Thus I was able to come at it pretty fresh.

So how well does it work as a monster movie? Reasonably so. It opens with the kind of faux-documentary narration that was common in sci-fi films of the decade, with a young Bill Woodson’s voice intoning about an upcoming military experiment in the Arctic with characteristic Woodsonian gravitas. The experiment, of course, is an atom bomb detonation, which breaks up the ice and releases something that a pair of radar operators (one of whom is a young James Best, the future Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) briefly detect and dismiss. A pair of scientists examining the aftermath of the blast run afoul of the rhedosaur, which I think was revealed way too openly too early; there should’ve been more mystery about its appearance at this stage. Anyway, only one of the scientists survives, and he’s our hero, Tom Nesbitt (Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid under the name Paul Christian — it’s odd for a ’50s US film to cast a lead actor whose accent is so distinctly not American, and there’s even a line about Nesbitt being an immigrant). The rest of the first half of the film gets a bit plodding, since it’s mainly about Tom and others being told they’re crazy for seeing a monster, interspersed with brief glimpses of the hungry rhedosaur trashing ships and stuff (including a lighthouse sequence which reminded Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury of a story he’d published, leading the studio to buy the story rights from Bradbury so they could use its title; Bradbury subsequently retitled his own story “The Fog Horn”). Things get more interesting when Tom meets eminent paleontologist Dr. Elson (the charming Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant Lee (the lovely Paula Raymond), who’s the first to believe Tom and becomes his obligatory love interest.

The film picks up when Tom finds another witness to convince Elson, who then leads a diving-bell expedition to find the creature, only to be eaten by it. What’s appealing here is how dedicated Elson is to the cause of science; even though he sees the beast coming after the diving bell, he devotes his final moments to reporting his observations to Lee for posterity. I suppose one possible reading is that he was so blinded by his ivory-tower mentality that he didn’t have the sense to realize he was in danger, but I felt it came off more positively. Maybe it depends on the viewer’s attitudes toward science.

Soon thereafter, the beast attacks Manhattan, with no particular motivation beyond that it’s just what giant monsters do — an arbitrariness that might be more excusable if this weren’t the first entry in the genre. Well, I suppose maybe it’s justified by the earlier dialogue about the creature’s extended hibernation in the Arctic ice giving it a ravenous appetite; New York City would be the densest population center on land near its native territory in the undersea canyons off the New York shore. (Godzilla will be said in the following year’s film to have been displaced from his natural feeding grounds by the atomic tests, so that might have been his motivation as well vis-a-vis Tokyo — although the sequel claimed he was angered by the city’s bright lights.) Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of police effort to battle the creature before the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) gets called in — I’m not sure how often that happened in later monster movies. Another nice twist is that the filmmakers remembered that less visible organisms could survive from prehistory; the creature’s blood is discovered to contain a virulent disease that humans have no immunity to, so the military can’t risk blowing it up or burning it. Tom has the idea to use a radioisotope grenade to burn/sterilize it from the inside — although that leads to a climactic showdown at Coney Island where the roller coaster catches fire and burns down around or behind the creature,  making me wonder if the heroes really just made things worse instead of better, since if the fire did engulf the creature’s body, then the smoke would spread not only the disease contamination but the radioactive contamination as well. They sort of sacrificed story coherence for spectacle here.

As with many Harryhausen films, it’s the effects that are the real standout. It doesn’t have the greatest lead actor, but Kellaway does a good job and Raymond is a striking leading lady. The story is a pretty much by-the-numbers template for the genre to follow, without a fraction of the philosophical and character depth of the original Godzilla, but a decent beginning. (I hadn’t realized that the movie was co-written by Fred Freiberger, who would later produce the third season of Star Trek and the second of Space: 1999.)

One interesting thing: I don’t think the rhedosaurus is ever actually called a dinosaur in the film, just a prehistoric creature from 100 million years ago. Which is good, because it doesn’t have the anatomy of a dinosaur, instead having splayed-out legs and a dragging tail. Wikipedia calls it a diapsid, a member of the larger class that included dinosaurs as well as lizards, snakes, and crocodiles.

I’ve caught a few other monster movies on TCM in the past month or so, and though it’s been a few weeks, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on them as well.

It Came From Outer Space (1953) is one of the classic SF films directed by Jack Arnold, whose work I covered in my earlier review of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy. It also has producer William Alland and star Richard Carlson in common with Creature, as well as composers Herman Stein and Henry Mancini. It’s one of the best “alien invasion” films of the genre, because it’s one of the few (along with The Day the Earth Stood Still) in which the aliens are benevolent and the paranoia of humanity is the real threat. If anything, the film suffers a bit from the aliens’ benevolent intentions being made clear too early on. There are a lot of “cheat” scare moments in the film, characters (particularly leading lady Barbara Rush) screaming at things that turn out to be harmless, and it felt like a cheap attempt to shoehorn obligatory scare beats into a film where they didn’t really belong. But maybe the effect was deliberate, to underline the message that our fears are often nothing but our own imagination — to make viewers embarrassed by their own fear of the unknown and thus drive home the message about paranoia. In which case it’s a nice subversion of genre formula.

Of course, a key factor in the film’s quality is that it’s mostly the work of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was hired to do a treatment for a monster movie and offered the studio the choice of a more conventional evil-alien movie or a more thoughtful piece with benevolent visitors, and was surprised when they asked for the latter. He then did a very long and detailed “treatment” for the movie telling pretty much the entire story and dialogue, and credited screenwriter Harry Essex basically just adapted that treatment into script format, leaving most of it intact. Well, there are conflicting reports on how much Essex contributed, but the dialogue has Bradbury’s unmistakeable poetry to it, so I think it must be mostly his words.

The Magnetic Monster is another film Richard Carlson did in 1953, produced and co-written by Ivan Tors and directed by Curt Siodmak. Apparently it’s the first of a loose trilogy involving the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), not to be confused with the Office of Scientific Intelligence from the ’70s bionic shows. This is a weird film with kind of a faux-documentary flavor, in which Carlson and his team of scientific investigators tackle the theft of a powerfully magnetic radioisotope which turns out to be a magnetic “unipole” (I guess they meant monopole) that somehow has the ability to generate mass, threatening to enlarge exponentially and tilt the world off its axis unless they find a way to neutralize it. (Actually Carlson claims it would throw Earth out of orbit altogether, but that’s not how physics works.) There’s some halfway decent portrayal of the scientific process and of a real-life early computer called MANIAC to crunch numbers, alongside a rather bland subplot about Carlson and his wife hoping to move into a bigger house because they’re expecting a child, even though they had to be circumspect about it because you couldn’t say “pregnant” onscreen back then.

But what’s totally bizarre about the film is exemplified in the title. Even though the menace is a radioactive substance, the film persists in treating it as a living monster, even a consciously malevolent force. The characters talk about it in those terms even though it’s clearly ridiculous. Early on, when they first begin to realize that the isotope has vanished from where it was initially being studied, they talk about the threat of it running loose, rather than about hunting down the person who took it, even though the latter is what actually happens. It’s a deeply awkward and unconvincing attempt to trick audiences into thinking they’re watching a monster movie. I only cover it here because it’s too freaky not to mention.

Tarantula (1955) is another Jack Arnold-William Alland collaboration, again scored by Stein and Mancini, and starring Revenge of the Creature‘s John Agar as well as Nestor Paiva, who was in the first two Gill-Man films. It also stars the delightfully named Mara Corday and The Man from UNCLE‘s Leo G. Carroll. This is Arnold’s first stab at the giant-monster genre, in a similar vein to the classic giant-ant movie Them!, but with the innovation of using travelling-matte techniques to incorporate footage of a live tarantula into background plates. The FX are pretty good for the day, though there are some shots where the mattes don’t line up with the scenery and the giant spider’s leg vanishes in midair.

Carroll plays a scientist who, as we see early on, is experimenting with creating giant animals. There’s a marvelously convincing use of rear projection in the set to make it look like there are giant rabbits and such in the cages behind Carroll, as well as the titular tarantula, which escapes when Carroll is attacked by an assistant suffering from acromegaly as a result of the experiments (the assistant dies in the resulting fire and Carroll buries him in secret). Agar is a doctor trying to explain another case of acromegaly (or “acromegalia” as they called it) in the scientist’s assistant, who had normal proportions not long before. Corday plays Carroll’s new assistant, who’s supposed to be a smart career-woman scientist, but is actually pretty dumb — even when she discovers that Carroll is working on accelerating animal growth, it doesn’t occur to her to make a connection with the earlier assistant’s acromegaly death (or the disappearance of the other one), even though he’s  standing right next to her while he mutters about taking more care with human trials “next time.”

Anyway, this is kind of like Beast in that it takes a while before the characters figure out there’s a giant monster out there; this time even our hero Agar is slow to catch on to the threat. It also has kind of an anticlimactic ending; after the main characters are unable to defeat the tarantula themselves, they call in a military napalm strike that takes it down handily, pretty much leaving the protagonists irrelevant to the resolution of the film. True, it was rather common in ’50s monster movies for the heroes to take a back seat to the military in the closing action, but it seems particularly egregious here.

The main point of interest to Tarantula is the portrayal of Carroll’s Dr. Deemer. At first he comes off as a mad scientist, but ultimately it turns out that he’s got the entirely noble motivation of ending world hunger by developing a super-nutrient (and there’s a passing reference to the power of the atom being the key to its creation, just to work in the obligatory radiation/monster connection), and that he was more the victim of his assistant’s rampage after the experiment went wrong.

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) is kind of an interesting little film, though not a great one. It’s certainly a misnamed one, since there are multiple monsters — giant mollusks a bit bigger than human-sized — and they only challenge the Salton Sea in Southern California and the canals surrounding it (although there’s an implied risk to the world if they should spread beyond the region). This time there are no nuclear tests involved, just a sea-floor earthquake exposing and rehydrating a desiccated nest of ancient creature eggs. The main characters are the staff of the military base that discovers and must fight the creatures, mainly Col. Twillinger (Tim Holt), who initially comes off as stern and rigorous but softens for secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter. He’s an odd choice for a leading man, in sort of a Jack Webb vein, I guess. The most notable star here is Hans Conreid as the main scientist. The monsters are fairly nasty-looking, but they don’t look much like the mollusks in the nature film Conreid shows. Yes, one apparently common monster-movie trope that this film and Tarantula both share (along with Them!, IIRC) is the lengthy sequence of the scientist narrating documentary footage of the normal-sized versions of the giant animal in the film. I suppose these scenes are useful at inserting a bit of scientific justification for what we see, but even by ’50s standards they seem to go on awfully long, and they can undermine the plausibility of the fake monster by contrast with the real footage. (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has something similar — during Elson’s dive, there’s a big chunk of stock footage of a shark-octopus fight, though it’s passed off as something Elson is watching live.)

I’ve seen this movie twice now, but the main thing that stands out for me is a scene at the end where the secretary and her daughter are trapped by a creature that hatched in the lab because the daughter was playing where she wasn’t supposed to and turned up the thermostat. Twillinger is facing down the creature, trying to get past it and save the girls, and there’s a large fire ax clearly visible on the wall behind him. He looks around for a weapon, turns to look at the wall so that the ax is right in his line of sight… and then he picks up a fire extinguisher and sprays the beast with it instead! I’ve never seen such a blatant Chekhov’s Gun be so completely ignored.

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