The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

scifi-series05

Director: Eugene Lourie

Starring: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway

I’m dragging you lot kicking and screaming back into the 1950’s for some big monster mayhem and we’re going to begin in a familiar environment with a familiar face – oh aye, you’ll see. May contain a shape-shifting policeman and spoilers…

beast01

It’s the North Pole (not Pete’s) and the military is unleashing a secret experiment codenamed, errr, ‘experiment’. Apparently, other possible names in the hat were ‘codename’, ‘secret’ and ‘kaboom’. And as men stand grimly before a series of chilly matte backdrops in various states of faux-attention, an atom bomb tears the sky asunder. The fools! They’ve only gone and disturbed a slumbering prehistoric animal, I tell you! Trapped in the northern ice for a million of your Earth years the thawed-out beast heads for home which unfortunately for its species is no longer a breeding ground for exotic toothy growlers; it’s New York City… oh, wait… Heh! Well, the obstreperous creature creates a right old hoot and a holler when it gets there, pooping on cars, eating policemen and trying to blag a free ride on a rollercoaster. But don’t worry, genius scientist Tom Nesbitt enlists the aid of fellow professor and even more geniuser Dr. Elson and his gorgeous assistant Lee (who’s a genius in her own right; she makes coffee “strong enough to enter the Olympics…” – would it not have been better to say ‘strong enough to enter the Olympic weightlifting team’ or something) and together they will meet the mighty dino head on.

Hendry's The Thing! Dead giveaway - assimilated head growing out of his ear!

Hendry’s The Thing! Dead giveaway – assimilated head growing out of his ear!

We get a fairly speedy intro, stock footage and stern-faced actors looking out into the car park distance as the bomb goes off. And then it happens… Captain Pat Hendry! Kenneth Tobey’s back at the North Pole, back in the snow, back counting Geigers and on the look out for radiation. Come on, it makes perfect sense they’d call in an expert. But wait a minute… he’s called Jack Evans. Well, I say he’s called Jack, most everybody calls him Jack – except for the narrator who christens him John. Oh, and there’s no 8-foot alien frozen in ice this time. What we have here is a primeval chomper, happily hibernating but failing to heed newsman Scotty’s plea to ‘keep watching the skies’ as a nuke lands on its noggin. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian – real name Huberschmid, I think he’s Swiss) and his pal George Ritchie (Ross Elliott) go out to take a few readings after the bomb shit has dispersed. Georgie-boy is overjoyed at the prospect; “Every time one of these things goes off I feel as if we were helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.” Erm, yeh… And the Lord sayeth ‘let there be light’. And there was light, and a ginormous dinosaur whose wayward fart shall causeth an avalanche to bury poor old George and very nearly Tom too. Amen. The incident proves too much for Nesbitt as he is admitted back to base raving; “The monster, it’s coming… watch out… the monster! The monster!” Chuck a cup of water in his face – always works that…

George's glove puppet ventriloquistry was a big hit in the Arctic

George’s glove puppet ventriloquistry was a big hit in the Arctic

Beast quietens down after this initial burst of activity. This is a bad thing because we then have to concentrate on our leads. Unfortunately Kenneth isn’t one of them; he’s pretty much on the sidelines. No, our heroes are Nesbitt and Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond). He’s a serious fella is Tom; “Man has been walking upright for a comparatively short time; mentally we’re still crawling,” he observes haughtily while sipping invisible coffee from an empty cup. Also, Nesbitt doesn’t sound like a ‘Nesbitt’; he sounds… well, yes, like a Huberschmid. Why didn’t they work the accent into his character (though there is a ‘when he came to this country’ reference – but that doesn’t explain the surname)? At times he is enunciating ever so deliberately in an effort to come off as English. Sadly it’s sort of funny. Once the injured (but no longer raving at least) Nesbitt is back home, no-one believes his story of a fanciful carnivore stop-motioning around the Arctic. A psychiatrist tells him that the mind sees many things in stressful circumstances and as an example says; “There was the famous Loch Lomond monster, you probably recall…” Er, no, I recall the famous Loch Ness monster, mate. You might find a few wallabies over at Loch Lomond but no plesiosaur-type critter. Anyway, he finds an ally in Ms Hunter and she wastes no time in bombarding him with pictures from which he must ID his sighting (clue: it’s the one that looks like it’s been drawn by the Art Dept). It’s an odd scene, this, not only to deliver our monster ID but also to ignite a burgeoning romance yet these two wet kippers fail to summon a spark of chemistry between them. And there’s a strange moment in their future/ past chat when archaeologist Hunter looks decidedly uncomfortable (as if she’s dropped an SBD and is praying Nesbitt doesn’t catch a whiff):

“Between us, we span the ages. You deal with the past and I with the future,” he chirpily tells her.

“And how uncomplicated the past was,” she desponds, puzzlingly.

“And how bright the future can be,” he returns, all nonchalance and if he noticed her shift in mood he doesn’t show it. He looks quite smug, in fact.

I can’t for the life of me work out whether Raymond is essaying a ‘shy realisation of her love’ for Nesbitt or ‘a debilitating psychological hurdle in her past.’ I’m presuming it’s the former because the script doesn’t return here.

Lee waited anxiously for Tom's verdict on her impressionist nude self-portrait

Lee waited anxiously for Tom’s verdict on her impressionist nude self-portrait

There is some recompense with the arrival of Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) who brings some much needed levity to proceedings. First off he laughs Nesbitt out of his office, but on the second pass and with a witness/ survivor who picks out the same picture that Nesbitt ID’d with Lee, he swings into action (and Tobey returns round about here, pouring scorn on ‘flying saucers’ – in-joke?) yet somehow falls under the spell of Nesbitt’s fragile logic;

“If a particle of the sun broke off and flew into space, I wouldn’t consider the man who brought that news to be insane. As a scientist I would examine every facet of it,” so says Nesbitt – and considering a particle, in the strict sense of the word, would be something atom-sized, I doubt it would be news as such.

“But if a particle of the sun were to break off a hundred million people would’ve seen it,” replies Elson, the brains of the bunch, neglecting to note that atoms are quite small and the likelihood of a hundred million people seeing it would be particle-sized.

“If it broke off it would make no difference if one saw it or no one at all, it would still be… The same as the monster, it still is.” That’s cheating!

“Hmmm… perhaps I’m getting old.” Clearly – if you’re unable to pick that analogy apart.

But in the diving bell sequence, Elson is all child-like wonder as he goes searching where once submerged caverns punctuated the murky depths, the location of the last recorded rhedosaurus fossil; “I feel I’m leaving a world of untold tomorrows for a world of countless yesterdays,” he wistfully comments. Still, y’all know the drill; diving bell, you go in the diving bell, diving bell goes in the water, you go in the water, monster’s in the water… our monster… Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies… It isn’t long after Elson cheerfully announces a coffee break when Big Rhed shows up and actor Kellaway goes for broke in the creature description stakes; “The clavicle suspension appears to be… cantileveric!” He foams. “The most astonishing thing about it is that…” is that it’s about to eat you, pal. RIP Doc. Elson, taken before his time. Don’t let Lee read the tribute though; she can’t even get yer name right… Doctor Eldon?

"You're a very attractive lighthouse, and I've been out at sea a long time..."

“You’re a very attractive lighthouse, and I’ve been out at sea a long time…”

So, yeh, our creature is the aforementioned rhedosaurus (don’t look for it in a history book, Big Rhed is fictional) and quite a handsome chap he is too. Director Lourie keeps it under wraps early on, dodging between snowy hillocks (got to be somebody’s stage name, that – Snowy Hillocks) or in darkness. The creature overturns a fishing boat but an altogether more striking sequence is the lighthouse attack with the monster apparently drawn to the light and demolishing the building. This is where the Ray Bradbury credit comes in; he was asked if he would like to re-write what was then called Monster From The Sea and on reading the script he noticed in the lighthouse scene a similarity to a short story he had done, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The studio wasted no time in buying up the rights to his story and changed the title, all of which gave their movie added stature by having the author’s name attached. Years later when his story was reprinted, Bradbury re-titled it The Fog Horn. Principally, his story isn’t The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms but simply the lighthouse scene so it’s not surprising Bradbury didn’t want to mislead readers into thinking movie and book was one and the same. Question is; did screenplay writers Lou Morheim and Fred Frieberger deliberately tip the hat to Bradbury in the first instance to get him on board?

I think Dr. Elson just dropped his ballast...

I think Dr. Elson just dropped his ballast…

It’s a while coming but the big set-piece is worth the wait as Big Rhed stomps his way through NYC amid scenes of panic, crumbling masonry, a trampled blind bloke and mangled vehicles. There’s also one astounding moment of resurrection befitting JC, our Lord and Saviour (obviously Jim Caviezel) when a copper gets a chance to use his pop-gun and is duly munched. Then into the chaos stride five policemen armed with shotguns – clearly, one of them is the bloke who just got chomped though he’s absent from a following action shot of them opening fire so maybe Lourie realised it in the edit and removed him. But that’s not the only thing odd about it; when said copper first appears he’s a different copper, chunkier. No, I’m not gibbering, have a look…

Fat copper approaches the beast... erm, thin copper approaches... eh? Wait, didn't you just get eaten?

Fat copper approaches the beast… erm, thin copper approaches… eh? Wait, didn’t you just get eaten?

Then something happens to elevate Beast and I just wish Lourie had made more of the twist, maybe earlier as well (though it is alluded to by a doctor about halfway through). See, the soldiers start dropping like Raid-sprayed flies and it transpires the creature is carrying a virulent contagion and bazooka-ring the monster’s blood about nilly-willy isn’t recommended. Don’t know about you but I get the feeling Abrams/ Reeves watched Beast in the days leading up to Cloverfield’s production. This supposition is borne out when I read that a single frame from Beast has been inserted into Cloverfield (and one each from King Kong & Them as well). I don’t know where and I haven’t looked; surely only geeks go through a film in frame advance to find hidden stuff. Anyway, there’s an excellent finale in the midst of the Manhattan Beach amusements and an early appearance by none other than Lee Van Cleef as army sharp-shooter Stone given the unenviable task of firing a ‘radioactive isotope’ into Big Rhed. The sight of Nesbitt and Stone clambering into a rollercoaster car wearing protective suits is unintentionally hilarious.

Big Rhed waits for the buffet car...

Big Rhed waits for the buffet car…

Beast is notable as being Ray Harryhausen’s first solo gig. There’s a definable joy to the dino and you can tell Ray is having the time of his life rampaging this thing around NYC with a corncob up its arse about something or other (perhaps coz it’s run out of tasty policemen). But there’s one moment in his work that stands out and it is a wonderful moment, with the dino chilling down a side street, under observation by the military lads, when it suddenly tries to bite the moving spotlight tracking its progress. It’s a top bit of animation and it is this kind of attention to painstaking detail that makes Harryhausen a legend. I think he’s done better work for sure but this being his debut so to speak… I dunno, it’s that raw, rough ‘round the edges spontaneity I like. Most of the time practise and experience robs you of ever capturing the moment again and while I think there’s an element of that here, this is the bloke who gave us the evil skellingtons in Jason so I’m probably talking bollocks and every time was like the first time for Ray…

Van Cleef - taking no dino shit...

Van Cleef – taking no dino shit…

So, overall, not all that good really, let down by a soft cast and a silly script but rescued somewhat by Harryhausen’s wizardry. Beast will always occupy a place in cinema history as the movie that launched dozens of ‘monster on the rampage’ flicks and certainly Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the original Japanese Godzilla owes it a debt of gratitude (and it poos all over Emmerich’s Godzilla for that matter). I also want to mention the contribution of DP Jack Russell (Psycho) who pitches in with a lot of atmospheric lighting; he’s definitely got a thing for light and shade, especially when thrown by window blinds…

 

Trailer: http://tinyurl.com/nxdjzhu

 

Big Rhed gets 2.5 Harryhausens out of 5

beast-score
Cheers, folk.

ThereWolf, October 2013

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About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

37 responses to “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)”

  1. Toadkillerdog says :

    Great job Wolfie! I have seen this flick a million times and while not good, it does have that Harryhausen work that keeps drawing me back. The part you wrote about the “most astonishing part..its about to eat you” cracked me up!
    I knew Bradbury was attached to this but did not know how, thanks for clearing that up.
    Yes, this flick launched a boatload of imitators.
    BTW Cloverfield still sucks

    • ThereWolf says :

      Tank you very much, TKD.

      If I’m honest, I quite like Cloverfield – but I had no idea about a frame of Beast inserted in there. I’ve had a look now, the footage is on Youtube, but it’s not really worth adding the link; blink & gone.

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    I haven’t seen this movie in a dogs age but I do remember liking it a bit as a kid for just being entertainingly goofy.

    Good write up Senor Lobo.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Captions were funny once again Wolf.

      • ThereWolf says :

        Cheers, Xi.

        No, I hadn’t watched it for eons either & remembered the goof-factor; watching it now I’d forgotten all the early chat. But it kind of works, the carnage is worth waiting for.

        Captions are the last to go in usually; I’m ready to post and it’s like ‘shit, got no captions…’ Give me a headache thinking ’em up sometimes! I’m pleased they done the business for ya.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I have a soft spot for daft 50’s scifi can’t help it I love all the cheese ball goofiness of those period flicks.

  3. Just Pillow Talk says :

    Wolfie is dead on: this thing slows way the hell down after the opening. I remember liking this as a kid, but rewatching it was tough. Apparently I had a longer attention span as a kid. Oh look, a bright light

    • ThereWolf says :

      Nice one, Pillow. I didn’t find it tough, just hadn’t accounted for the blandness of the two leads. Obviously, as a youngster I’d blotted all that out. Thought I had watched again in during my adult years but if I did I must’ve been smashed!

  4. Barfy says :

    Maybe old 50s b&w “monster” movies don’t hold up so well but sure were fun to watch late at night as a kid. Sandwiched between Mr Microphone and used car commercials. Good memories.
    Bang up review. Wolf, thanks for writing this up.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thanks, Barfy.

      I love old monster movies; I do have good memories, rolling in from the pub late, channel hopping and finding one of these flicks on Channel 4 or BBC2, sitting down with a bag of chips or something (that’s chips – not crisps, yeh) and having a great time.

      No idea who Mr Microphone is!

  5. Jarv says :

    I like this film. It’s entertainingly goofy and trashes pretty much all of the “modern” monster movies.

    Harryhausen was great.

    Lovely write up, I chuckled at the description of the total lack of chemistry

    • ThereWolf says :

      Cheers, Jarvis.

      Harryhausen, you can see the love in his work. I know most of the CGI guys of today take great care and create some stunning work to be proud of – but you just dont see the ‘love’.

      Ah, the two wet kippers… maybe I’m being harsh on the actors, there’s nowt on the page for them after all. But they should still be able to muster a particle-sized sliver of attraction at least…

      • Jarv says :

        It’s true. I’ll forever love Clash of the Titans, shit clockwork owl and all, and the amount of craftsmanship he put in just oozes off the screen.

  6. kloipy says :

    Great stuff Wolf! I love the trailer to this movie much more than the movie itself. It is filled with all the goodness of that time

    ‘The Beast!……The Beast!………The Beast from 20000 Fathoms!’

    • ThereWolf says :

      Heh, yeh… don’t make trailers like that anymore. “It could happen… it could happen… it could happen… YES! IT COULD HAPPEN!”

      Thank you, the Kloip-meister!

  7. Continentalop says :

    Man. Sucks it didn’t hold up. Like a lot of CoCers here, I loved it as a child. Now I’ve got to make sure to never see it as an adult and taint my memory.

    Captions were funny as hell, btw, as usual.

    PS – have you ever seen WAR OF THE GARGANTUANS? If not, I’m recommending that (and I’m sure TDK and Tom will second).

    • Toadkillerdog says :

      Conti, I second, third and fourth War of the Gargantuas!
      Let me also throw a shout out to Daimajin!

      • tombando says :

        Ahhh yes, War of Gargantuas! Where one of them runs in a perfectly straight line right to left across japan. Its grreat

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thanks, Conti.

      I mean, once I got to the diving bell scene & the Beast attacking NYC – I was right into it again. It’s still a lot of fun, I’d still recommend another viewing.

      Pretty sure I haven’t seen Gargantuans, I’ll look into that one…

  8. Judge Droid says :

    Quite like the sound of this one. Good review, mate.

  9. tombando says :

    Another great writeup wolfie. This movie’s good fun. I too am a Clash ’81 fan.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thank you, Tom.

      Yeh, Clash ’81 is okay – but that remake… (Wolf holds his nose).

      • Echo the Bunnyman says :

        Good review Wolf. I quite like this, and rewatched it recently–made better by a dvd extra that had Harryhausen and Bradbury seated next to each other, discussing it nostalgically.

        All of the issues you mention exist, but I do love the rhedosaurus and think the rampage scenes are still real classics. The cheesy aspects actually endear it to me, more than deter it. Like Xi, I’ve got a fondness for the movies of the 50’s, precisely because they were so silly.

        It does slow down for large bits of it. As for Bradbury’s story, it’s funny to think it was based on this. In truth, the whole plot of Ray’s tale is exactly the same as Wolf’s caption for the lighthouse pic, no lie. It’s about an old lighthouse operator and the young kid who joins him one night, and they watch the monster come out of the dark because it thinks the lighthouse is probably a female beast and its looking for a mate.

      • ThereWolf says :

        Cheers, Echo.

        You’re kidding! It was a throwaway caption, I thought Big Rhed was just drawn to the light! That’s hilarious. I’m made up with that now!

        No, I agree, I love the monster & subsequent rampaging and I don’t want to put anyone off watching Beast coz the mayhem (plus diving bell bit) is worth waiting for.

        That’s a nice DVD extra as well, liked to have seen Harryhausen & Bradbury chatting. It may have been on the disc I had but I didn’t pay much attention to the menu screen…

        Congratulations on the impending nipper, mate. Good news!

      • Echo the Bunnyman says :

        There, that’s the reason the story is changed to Foghorn. Its not the light beam that attracts the beast, it’s the foghorn that sounds exactly like the monster’s roar. So every once in a while this thing rears up out of the depths, hear the foghorn, travels looking for the other monster and when he finds out he’s been tricked, he tears the lighthouse down. The operator figures it’s happened a handful of times before. They just keep rebuilding it.

      • ThereWolf says :

        Sounds like a good read, that.

  10. Toadkillerdog says :

    Wolfie,
    have you ever seen/reviewed Valley of the Gwangi?
    One of my favorite flicks when is was growing up

  11. Toadkillerdog says :

    Wolfie!
    I have THE movie for you…or Jarv.
    it is called…Dark Wolf. I shit you not.
    Ok, i have not seen it – i was flipping channels and saw strippers titties and read the synopsis about a were wolf looking for a human mate but i had to turn it off because it was trick or treat time

    • Jarv says :

      Dark Wolf, eh?

      Never heard of it. Shall look it up.

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        Jarv
        here is imdb review to whet your appetite

        Dark Wolf (Quick Review) Let’s get right to it: This is a repugnant piece of rotting roadkill with cow sh*t on it. It’s just an awful movie. It’s an urban werewolf movie with some of the worst acting imaginable and a story as weak as any gangly nerd from an 80’s high school drama film. What’s worse is that poor Kane Hodder was duped into playing the gigantic evil werewolf. Kane f*cking Hodder. Someone’s trying to ensure that playing Jason Voorhees is the height of his film career…

        Anyway, former Playmate Jaime Bergman is also in the movie and she eventually becomes a werewolf, too. It’s kind of a crappy cop drama with the world’s worst looking werewolf in it. But it does have moments of near-rampant nudity. But that’s about all. Want to know more? Okay, the werewolf is generally an ugly-looking black blur zipping around the screen. And when we’re privileged enough to actually see a transformation sequence, we’re presented with something that resembles a full-motion video from a video game made during the early stages of the Playstation. The first Playstation. The CG animation is really that primitive. Only good for horror hardcore fanatics that want to see small moments of nudity surrounded by rampant visual vomit. 2/10

      • Jarv says :

        Sounds pretty rancid. I’ll have to have a look.

    • ThereWolf says :

      I’ll look out for it.

      Dark Wolf – sounds like me at work at the moment…

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