Saturday, January 26, 2013
All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 4 - The Beast from 20000 Fathoms
"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is notable as being the first film of many in the 1950s which would feature giant monsters as terrible retributions accidentally created by Man overstepping into God's domain. Nuclear power, especially in the mind's of authors ignorant to the actual science, offered an unlimited explanation for any kind of amazing fantastical story. If you wanted a giant monster to rampage through New York, it was very simple to make that happen, simply have a nuclear explosion unlock the creature out of its frozen stasis in the Arctic. Or more simply, just say "radiation" did it, and then you could have giant ants, giant spiders, or giant gila monsters and there you go, a movie.
This was all happening at the same time that the definition of a B-movie in Hollywood had radically changed. Back during the time when a filmgoing experience usually meant buying a ticket for two movies and some short films, a "B-movie" was simply a cheaper film made by the Big Five studios to accompany an "A-movie", the more expensive and presumably marketable film. The major studios of the Golden Age of Hollywood quite literally controlled everything, including the theater chains. After the Supreme Court ruled that this was illegal, theaters became independent, and double-booking of movies began to fade away. This also came during the rise of television, so people didn't want to spend hours and hours at the movie theater anymore when they could get motion pictures at home. A-movies were growing longer and more sophistic and expensive in order to distinguish the quality of movies from TV shows. B-movies then were no longer made by the major studios and instead created by low budget independent producers, and the difference in quality between "real movies" and a B-movie was never more apparent. Since they didn't have very much money, they had to focus upon easily marketable genres that would appeal to the lowest common denominator of audiences, such as horror, action, or SciFi monster movies. "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" was a part of that tradition, and unfortunately suffers deeply from the typical problems of a 1950s B-movie, which make "20,000 Fathoms" a mixed film at best.
"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" actually originated as a short story written by none other than legendary science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, entitled "The Fog Horn" that was published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. "The Fog Horn" was a very simple tale involving a giant monster that comes to a lighthouse, attracted by the noise of its fog horn, thinking that the sound was the call of another creature of its nearly-extinct species. Ray Bradbury was actually a longtime friend of stop-motion effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen, and both were fans of the Willis O'Brien effects from the 1925 silent monster movie "The Lost World"**. Together they had planned for years to do a dinosaur movie, and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" was technically that dreamed collaboration, even if Bradbury's credits on the movie were merely inspirational and the real writing was done by a team of four other people, including the director, Eugene Lourie. Lourie is a name we'll be hearing again in future episodes, so keep him in your mind. The fact that Ray Bradbury had almost nothing to do with this film's writing, effectively only creating one scene, should be obvious when you see it and realize how poorly paced and vapid most of this film actually is.
Producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester had only a $200,000 budget, as compared to "Mighty Joe Young"'s budget of $1.8 million. They were also producing completely independently, only having gotten Warner Bros to distribute "The Beast" after selling their movie for twice its budget, making a decent profit. Unfortunately, the lower budget should be very apparent when 90% "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" not only does not have any beast from any number of fathoms running around, or even very much going on at all. Ray Harryhausen was forced to make do with no supporting team at all, which luckily fit his working style well, but still meant he only had a single monster model, not very many resources to work with, and very little screentime for his creation. That screentime Harryhausen got he used very effectively and created a very cool dinosaur to terrorize New York City, but still, that's only a fraction of this movie.
Most of "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" involves a plotline in which a Finnish-native nuclear physicist working in the Arctic catches a glimpse of a newly-freed dinosaur right after an atomic test. Everybody in the army immediately decides that the professor is suffering from some stress-related delusion, so they send him to New York where he spends about an hour working to prove that he's not crazy. Naturally none of this has any tension or mystery, because you know there has to be a giant monster, otherwise there's no movie, and nothing the professor does actually has any effect on the monster's actions or personality. Its just scene after scene of this guy talking to other scientist guys or flirting with the female assistant or talking on the phone. Basic rules of screenwriting would tell you that there should be some kind of urgency in your movie, but "The Beast" is a movie that takes it easy, making sure to as cheaply as possibly pad itself out to feature length before the monster finally appears. In most of these reviews I've mentioned that the monsters have great charisma as compared to their human co-stars, and even in some cases have outshined them. Well, usually that's a compliment to the special effects staff. In this case, its a testament to how terribly flat all these humans are.
Actually, most Fifties SciFi movies suffer from many of these same problems, which is why I'm going to try to skip as many Fifties giant monster movies as I can get away with. Honestly, I don't like them. Clunky exposition is given by bland White people in lab coats talking to even more bland White people in military uniforms. Most of the screentime happens in a room with White people talking. The monster or alien usually only appears long enough to justify the title. Even classics like "The Thing From Another World" are hardly more watchable than utter crap like "Monster A Go-Go". At least they're all a grade higher than Coleman Francis movies. So while the Kong movies actually had likable humans, to the point that "Son of Kong" is enjoyable even when half the movie feels like padding, "The Beast" has no such success. Get that fast-forward button out, and use it well. Skip to the monster scenes, particularly the last half hour or so.
Ray Harryhausen's monster, the Rhedosaurus, is the real star. Its a large lizard-like dinosaur, somewhat larger than King Kong, though its hard to tell because his size its very consistent. The Rhedosaurus is quadrupedal unlike a T-Rex, which walks on only two legs. Again, don't really ask for scientific accuracy from these movies. And of course, it has the best scenes of the movie. In a recreation of Bradbury's lighthouse attack, Harryhausen poses the monster and the lighthouse in silhouette, partially to cover design flaws, and partially because its a cool artistic pose. Then of course, there's the rampage through New York's streets, where Harryhausen is able to let the monster pick up cars, devour policemen, and smash through a building, while using rear projection to give the illusion that the stop-motion is occurring in the largest city on Earth with a panicked riot rushing in all directions to escape the monster. Even the monster's death fall is the best piece of acting in the entire film. Still, there's a big difference here with the Rhedosaurus versus the Kong family of films. While those monsters were merely misunderstood animals that we humans had abused, the Rhedosaurus is a true beast, a viscous maneater with only the faintest of sympathetic emotion that comes only from Harryhausen's brilliant animation.
The climax is one of the coolest pieces of staging for a giant monster movie yet. After smashing through Manhattan, the Rhedosaurus decides to park itself in Coney Island. Turns out the beast also is carrying some ancient disease that's causing a minor plague amongst its victims and the soldiers trying to kill it. So in order to stop the creature, the daring lead scientist pulls out a magical item which is only called a "radioactive isotope" which could slay the monster in a single hit. All he needs is somebody to fire the shot. Luckily none other than Lee van Cleef, in a very young early role, shows up as the army marksman. Lee van Cleef, even in the bittest of bit roles here, somehow manages to completely dominate the screen with pure masculine charisma: "You know how to use a grenade launcher?" asks Bland Boringston McScientist "I pick my teeth with it." replied van Cleef, previewing decades of Western badassery. "If you can load it, I can fire it." Fucking awesome. Lee van Cleef fighting a giant monster on the Coney Island Cyclone, this is... this is awesome.
So "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is a mixed bag, I honestly did not enjoy watching most of it except for the glorious two minutes with Lee van Cleef. Its a movie notable more for its historical status than as actually still being a good movie today. Once upon a time, movies actually could stand entirely upon special effects and didn't need anything else. And its not good, but I at least understand it. But importantly, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" made five million dollars on its minuscule budget, showing to Hollywood just how profitable giant monster movies would be. Its only after this pioneer that we got movies like "Them!", "It Came from Beneath the Sea", and for better or worse, "The Beginning of the End". And you can even see the effect "20,000 Fathoms" had on another giant monster movie that would come out just one year later in 1954, a movie with a very similar plot involving a giant monstrous dinosaur being awoken from nuclear tests and destroying cities. However, that's an obscure movie, you probably never heard of it.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!, the Japanese enter the game with "Gojira".
* H.G. Welles actually predicted the atom bomb with his 1941 novel "The World Set Free", when at the very same time the US government was building at work trying to make his fictional vision a reality. Welles even went further to imagine the untold destructive possibilities of nuclear proliferation and chaos it could bring. Another author in 1944, Cleve Cartmill was able to predict the atomic bomb's nature and even its chain-reaction design so well that the FBI investigated him to be sure he wasn't a spy.
** Since this film keeps coming up, I think I actually do have to review it. But I'm saving it for something special.