The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
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…
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.
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…
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.
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?
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?
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…
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.
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…
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…
Big Rhed gets 2.5 Harryhausens out of 5
ThereWolf, October 2013