Essentially "It Came from Beneath the Sea" is a film where a giant octopus attacks the Golden Gate Bridge. Its origins come from right after "20,000 Fathoms" when stop-motion Archmage, Ray Harryhausen, was recruited by Colombia Pictures specifically to create a giant monster movie for them. This was Ray Harryhausen's first time working with a producer by the name of Charles H. Schneer, who would become his long-time collaborator on ten movies for the next twenty-five years. Harryhausen and Schneer would go on to create giant monster movies such as "20,000 Miles to Earth" and "The Valley of Gwangi", but also fantasy adventures like "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "Clash of the Titans", and even a SciFi fantasy film set in the Victorian era, "First Men in the Moon".
"It Came From Beneath the Sea", however, was pretty clearly designed with the sole purpose of being a rip-off of "20,000 Fathoms", only featuring a giant mollusk instead of a dinosaur. The climax of both films are nearly identical, only with frightened crowds running from mile-long octopus tentacles instead of a rampaging rhedasaurus. The monster in this version is considerably less emotive and interesting than the dinosaur, but the human characters are fascinating and sympathetic people. Even though its not very expressive, how many movies can you honestly say feature a gargantuan cephalopod tearing its way through San Francisco's wharfs? Or where nuclear submarines do undersea battle with a squishy beast several miles long?
The movie opens (following some fetishistic narration about the marvel of democratic science that is the atomic submarine) with a submarine crew traversing the Pacific suddenly encountering a strange object on their sonar. These crew members eventually find themselves trapped by an unknown entity, so strong that their engines cannot break them free of its grip. The ship's radiation sensors are off the charts, but the reactor is working fine. Its a very tense scene since you're seeing nothing outside of the tight submarine set, and most of the dialog is quick orders barked by the captain and techno speak describing how caught the ship is. Eventually the sub does escape, but not without ripping off a piece of the monster that attacked it - a hunk of rubbery flesh humming with radioactivity. Clearly something very strange is going on. Its an effective and exciting opening, even though you don't see whatever is going on outside the ship, the acting and script give a clear and alarming picture of the peril that these sailors are in. From that opening I could tell "It Came From Beneath the Sea" was going to be a very good movie.
We are then introduced to out main trio of characters, having been assembled by the US Navy to examine the strange object ripped off the hull of the submarine. Our hero is Pete Matthews, the dashing submarine captain, played by Kenneth Tobey, a type-cast actor known for half a century's work in SciFi films. He's joined by Professor Lesley Joyce, a beautiful but effective and strong-willed scientist. She's played by Faith Domergue, as basically the same character that Domergue played in "This Island Earth": strong, independent, and flirting with a romance with the lead actor. Finally there's her colleague, the John Carter has nothing to do with Mars. Carter isn't a very deep character, mainly around for sarcasm and to play as a possible option for Joyce other than Pete. Its mainly Pete and Joyce's movie, as they flirt together, slowly fall in love, but suffer the difficulties of jealousy, romantic confusion, and professional divisions. Luckily there's a giant octopus roaming the Pacific bringing them together to keep the pressure on their sexual tension.
Its actually surprising how much depth the human characters have in "It Came from Beneath the Sea". And indeed, how much variety director Robert Gordon is able to bring out of the middle section of the movie between the monster's attacks. These portions in giant monster movies are more or less filler, existing mainly because the studios couldn't afford to have Ray Harryhausen work stop motion for seventy minutes. But Gordon and his screenwriter, George Worthing Yates* were actually able to bring some life out of the filler. The love triangle stuff is compelling and interesting, leading to unpredictable but never condescending character interactions. And there's even a great deal of movement within the sets and characters. It feels like a movie taking place over a great expanse of locations, with numerous extras, and supporting characters. There are scenes clearly designed to be humorous that are still very funny, such as when John Carter describes how a mollusk moves by blowing up a balloon and letting it fizz by a Navy Intelligence officer's confused face.
Professor Joyce is easily the strongest female character we've yet seen in any giant monster movie. She's intelligent, independent, inventive, able to manipulate others in order to get what she wants, demanding to remain within the loop, and even brave. Yeah, she still gives a classic B-movie scream when she actually sees the monster and isn't allowed to take part in the final submarine battle with the octopus, but its still 1955, this is enlightened for the time. Joyce even is able to retain her independent science career after consummating her relationship with Pete, showing that she has no interest in living in a traditional nuclear housekeeper role. At no point does she ever give up any part of her own interests and ambitions just because she happened to find a man who lights her cigarette for her.
Why this movie exists.
Of course, it all comes down to the giant octopus. I'd say this is actually one of Ray Harryhausen's least inspired creations, unfortunately lacking much of the personality of many of his other monsters. While you felt bad for the Rhedasaurus, you never get to see the octopus's face, or really get much of a sympathetic feeling out of it. There are some very creepy shots where you see the octopus's tentacles reach out of the sea, enveloping a doomed crew horrified by these alien arms ready to tear them apart. Those shots should be familar to modern audiences of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, since they bothered the concept directly from this film, almost shot for shot. Harryhausen recreated the sequence where a giant monster tears through the streets of a major city, and the effect is almost identical. Only this time instead of a dinosaur eating a policeman, we get a mile-long tentacle crushing a group of frightened citizens. Interestingly, the monster was not mutated to giant size or awakened by nuclear attacks, it was always this huge. It actually became radioactive by nuclear tests, and this means that all the fish it usually would prey upon can sense its presence much easier**, so now the octopus has to eat something else... namely humans.
During the making of "It Came from Beneath the Sea", the filmmakers were actually not given permission to film on the Golden Gate Bridge, since the city government was worried what a movie about the destruction of the bridge would do to popular sentiment. They had to secretly film the bridge for use of rear-projection out of the back of van, running back and forth over the bridge in order to get all the stock footage they needed. The budget for this film was so low, that Harryhausen also couldn't build an octopus with eight arms, it only has six. So its actually a Hexopus. However, you only ever get to see three arms at any point moving, so I guess its a Tripus. No matter how many arms it has, it turns out actually to not really be that great of a threat. It is actually defeated in a rather submarine battle at the end, which is a shame since the movie up until then was moving so well and had proved so very entertaining.
All in all, "It Came from Beneath the Sea" is an inspired and entertaining giant monster movie, which can still be enjoyed even by modern audiences. Just the simple addition of a love triangle, giving its humans some way to interact makes giant monster movies so much more entertaining, and lets you actually care about the humans. Perhaps they focused too much on the humans, since the monster wound up being an oddly weak part of the movie. Either way, great movie.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!: Godzilla raids again in... "Godzilla Raids Again".
* Remember that name. George Worthing Yates wrote a lot of giant monster movies in the 1950s, most of which I've decided not to cover due to interests of time. Most importantly though, he came up with the story for "Them!", and would be the main American creative contribution on "King Kong vs. Godzilla". Other giant monster movies of his are "The Amazing Colossal Man", "Earth vs. the Spider", and "War of the Colossal Beast", all of which are pretty terrible, to the point that they were all featured in episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I mean, if you ask for me to cover those movies, I guess I'll do them. But let's be honest: barely anybody reads this blog, and I think most of those few who do have never heard of half of these movies I'm talking about.
** I'm not a biologist, but I don't think all fish have internal giger counters such as "It Came from Beneath the Sea" is suggesting. Yeah, I know, its a B-movie SciFi whatever, but still, it bugs me. Sharks and similar species do have various sensory organs to detect electromagnetic fields that living creatures produce, a sixth-sense to detect prey. However, most fishes don't have any such thing, and would still be easy prey for a giant radioactive octopus.