Tuesday, April 9, 2013

All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 21 - The Giant Behemoth

Originally the plan was that Episode 21 would be a review of "Varan the Unbelievable".  However, little did I know that "Varan the Unbelievable" is perhaps the most painfully unremarkable movie ever made, more or less completely indistinguishable to spending an hour and a half watching an empty white wall.   "Varan" was so truly depressing that I wondered if this countdown should end right here and there*.  I refuse to write anything more about that movie.  Luckily there was "The Giant Behemoth" to pull me back up and remind me just how much fun giant monster movies can be.

"The Giant Behemoth" is a 1959 film that curiously was a cooperative British and American venture, produced by the American Allied Artists and the British studio, Eros Pictures.  In the UK there was a slightly different cut and the movie was known as "Behemoth, the Sea Monster".  The plot is well described by the poster:  a giant radioactive dinosaur marches into London and causing a very significant ruckus.  This was a film directed by Eugene Lourie, who previously in 1953 started the giant monster craze with "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", inspiring pretty much every movie on this countdown that came afterwards.  "The Giant Behemoth" is basically a retread of that original concept, only moving the monster to London and featuring a very different human plot.  While "20,000 Fathoms"' effects were done by Ray Harryhausen, "The Giant Behemoth" is the last major film to show-off the work of Willis O'Brien, the effects master on "King Kong" and Harryhausen's master.  The 1950s had not been a very fertile time for O'Brien, who mainly shuffled between various unfinished projects and created a terrible low-budget film called "The Black Scorpion", so really "The Giant Behemoth" is his last hurrah.  However, this is not the last time we'll hear from that man, as his cinematic influence would go on to inspire the films "Godzilla vs. King Kong" and "The Valley of Gwangi".

As Western 1950s giant monster films go, "The Giant Behemoth" is cut out of pure stock template.  The Behemoth is a yet another ancient creature awakened by the folly of human nuclear testing, who inevitably finds his way to a major metropolitan area for a spectacular final climax.  Most of the film focuses on scientists in a lab trying to uncover what is causing strange attacks on the English coastline, and the story is so serviceable that they did not even bother including a major female character for a weak romantic sideplot.  Yet, I had to say "The Giant Behemoth" was still a great deal of fun, even with stock motion clearly inferior to contemporary Harryhausen creations and the aforementioned plot issues.  The pacing is excellent, the monster's radioactive powers are both excellently cheesy and actually make for an interesting threat, and the movie knows exactly what kind of audience its going to please.  Its original and exciting enough to keep you watching and there is much to enjoy.

Rather than opening with stock footage and blank narration of the terrible blasphemy that mankind is committing with nuclear testing, "The Giant Behemoth" uses the typical nuclear warning opening to introduce us to its main characters.  Our hero is not a supremely handsome 1950s cocky ladykiller that curiously is also a science master, rather its this pudgy balding man with terrible skin named Steven Karnes named played by Gene Evans.  There's no Playboy Bunny pretending to be a mathematician for him to flirt with either, rather his main companion is a stoic British nuclear scientist played by Shakespearean actor, Andre Morell.  I don't believe there is much romance going on between Karnes and his Andre Morell counterpart, James Bickford in "The Giant Behemoth" but there is one scene where both characters come to the door late at night wearing robes, perhaps implying something.  Anyway, Karnes has been studying the effects of nuclear explosions on marine life, and how radioactivity is slowly expanding across the food chain.  Unfortunately he doesn't have any dramatic proof showing how dangerous nuclear bombs can be on the ecosystem - but luckily a Giant Behemoth is about to attack England proving all of his theories.

Another point "The Giant Behemoth" gets right is its reluctance to show the monster is full forum until the final climax.  Yet its not absent from the movie, the film is not lacking in action while the monster is out-of-frame.  In the very second scene, a Cornish fisherman gathering up his daily catch sees the creature and is killed instantly.  This is because the Behemoth is so deeply radioactive that it can kill on sight, its basically a walking Elephant's Foot from the Chernobyl disaster**.  We get the effect of this radioactivity shown to us through a hilarious cheesy effect of white circles flowing out of the screen and hitting the old man.  Next thing you know, when he's found, his face is covered in radiation burns, and in his last words he references the Book of Job, giving our monster a name.  A week later, after the funeral, the beaches are covered in dead fish, and a local man trying to romance the dead fisherman's daughter - the only named female in the entire film - discovers a hunk of weird pulsating flesh that burns his hand.

This leads the crack team of Karnes and Bickford to hop on the train to Cornwall to begin their investigation into the Behemoth.  For the next forty minutes the film is largely concerned with uncovering the creature and debating just what is going on in England.  Bickford initially played the Agent Scully, being unwilling to even admit that there is radiation in the waters of England at all, until finally given proof of fish that glow in the dark.  Our balding American gets a slim glimpse of the creature in the ocean, but it isn't until the monster attacks again and leaves a thirty-foot-wide footprint that its obvious that England has a dinosaur problem.

Consulting the finest archeologist in London, Dr. Sampson, it becomes clear that the monster we're dealing with is a "Palaeosaurus"***, which is just a made-up dinosaur that fits the needs of the film.  Dr. Sampson, by the way, gives the greatest performance in this film.  He's so manic, that he might as well be insane.  Sampson is adorably excited when he learns that a dinosaur is alive in the modern time, and then looks so horribly disappointed when he's told its radioactive and needs to be killed.  The guy stops right in his tracks and looks so truly defeated.  This man has been waiting his entire life to see his childhood dream come to pass, which makes it doubly unfortunate when the Behemoth's radioactive powers explode Sampson and the helicopter he's riding to take pictures.  Poor silly man.

Let's take this time to actually discuss the monster, shall we?  The Behemoth is so radioactive that it can kill a man on sight, we've discussed this.  But what you don't know is that he's also as electrically charged as an eel.  I'm not sure why that detail was included, perhaps its meant to explain why Mr. Behemoth can apparently use his radiation as a death ray.  Our Giant Behemoth has come to London up the River Thames as part of an ancestral instinct to travel to the place where he was born... which is curious since I really doubt  that the Thames existed millions of years ago because England itself had nowhere near the shape or geography or climate that we recognize today.  (Then again, why am I complaining about scientific accuracy when I used the term "Brontosaurus" before?)  I like the design of the Behemoth, I think his big ol' eyes are cute and add a bit of personality to the creature beyond merely being a killing machine.  Still the animation is very fluid, if not nearly as brilliant as Harryhausen work.  My main problem is that the legs don't look like, their joints don't twist correctly, its very distracting.

Anyway, the Behemoth goes on a killing spree in London as one does.  This means that our crack team of scientists must come up with a solution to kill it.  They could fire "an isotope", but they instead choose to shoot a torpedo with a radium tip into the monster's face.  The idea here being that the Behemoth is being poisoned by all the radiation he's absorbed, so making him more radioactive should finally kill him.  They choose a torpedo because the river's water should shield the city from most of the radiation - which isn't that bad of an idea since that's how most nuclear plants contain nuclear fuel rods already.   Our ugly American hero goes into the minisub and fires the torpedo and saves the day.  Now the Thames River will just be radioactive for the next twenty thousand years.  The day is saved.

But wait, what is this report over the radio?  There's dead fish washing ashore on the US Eastern seaboard??  Ut-oh!  Here we go again!  This is the best ending ever, all cheesy giant monster movies should end with a sequel hook.

In conclusion, "The Giant Behemoth" is, like most giant monster movies, not exactly fantastic art, but I loved watching this movie.  It was a lot of fun.  Its cheesy, its corny, but its got an intensity to it.  You just want to keep watching to see what the monster looks like and what its going to do.  The movie is well-shot for the most part, with a surprising use of handheld camera in at least one shot, which I would have thought was way too avant garde for a Fifties B-movie.  Also, the soundtrack is fantastic, perhaps the best of any American score of that decade.  I'd rank it even above "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms".

On the next episode of All-Out Giant Monster Attack! - the arrival of the most benevolent giant monster of them all, "Mothra".


* I'm worried some of my readers (not that there appears to be many left) would actually be pleased to see this countdown end.  Oh well...

** I guess I should explain that reference.  The Elephant's Foot was a hunk of nuclear lava created by the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor which scientists found while attempted to clean up the sight.  It was only a few meters across but estimated to be hundreds of tons in weight, made up out of the melted core of the reactor and whatever else it came into contact with.  The object was so deadly that merely being close enough to see it would have been instantly fatal.  The only pictures we have of it were created using a crude pulley system to move the camera around the corner, where it was remotely operated.  Really shocking stuff. 

*** "Palaeosaurus" is not even a real dinosaur name.  It means "Ancient Lizard" so is about as imprecise of a name you could give to an extinct creature as you could ever imagine.  The terms was used for about a dozen dinosaur species in the 19th century back when scientists were only beginning to study ancient creatures, and now is completely void.


  1. Hey, have you heard about this one game called "Kaiju Combat?"
    It's currently undergoing development, and fans of the game have a chance to get their very own Kaiju into the game.
    You should make a kaiju and try to get it in the game.
    That'd be super neato.

  2. Don't give up Blue, I certainly enjoy the Giant Monsters attacks reviews, because I've actually seen most of these movies.

  3. Hey Blue, have you seen that idea for a new Zelda game that Aaron Diaz (guy behind Dresden Codak) posted? I thought it seemed pretty cool.

    1. I very much saw that, and it was fantastically awesome. I still say my concept art for The Legend of Sheik is more impressive, but then again, I'm an egotistical nightmare.