|Poster via IMPAwards.com|
The sci-fi movies of the 50s were full of monsters; aliens, insects, and dinosaurs, the latter two usually having something to do with the atomic bomb. The origin point of this unique explosion was 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a low budget thriller which made millions off the image of a giant prehistoric reptile rampaging through the modern world. Though King Kong and The Lost World both featured giant monsters attacking major metropolitan areas, those sequences were climaxes following various jungle adventures; here, for apparently the first time, was a film devoted entirely to the subject of a giant monster on the loose. The film was freely adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story, which is fitting as it marks the solo debut of Bradbury’s childhood chum, stop-motion animation auteur Ray Harryhausen; while the live action of the movie sometimes flags, as an effects showcase it more than holds up.
A government project (with the uninspired codename “Operation Experiment”) is conducting nuclear bomb tests in the arctic, and the heat and radiation manage to melt a glacier containing a four-legged carnivorous Rhedosaur, which wakes from its suspended animation and immediately starts heading south. Prof. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) sees the beast before it makes it to the ocean, but is unable to convince anyone else of its existence, even as ships start disappearing. Finally, with the help of paleontologist Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant Lee (Paula Raymond), the beast is located in its ancestral grounds deep underwater in the Hudson canyon- however this expedition ends in Prof. Elson being eaten by the monster. The Rhedosaur finally surfaces in Manhattan and rampages through the city, and while the military are able to wound it with cannon fire, they soon discover that the beast’s blood contains an ancient and lethal pathogen.
The makers of this film were treading into unknown territory; this was effectively a new genre, and the story which inspired the film was a short vignette about a dinosaur mistaking a fog-horn for a mating call. As a result the pacing suffers a little; a long time is spent on Tom trying to convince the authorities of the creature’s existence even after it sinks a few ships. We don’t really care, since we know it’s real and are waiting for the big rampage to begin, and it simply feels like a lot of time is being wasted in order to stretch out the film’s low budget. It doesn’t help that director Eugene Lourie’s visuals are generally flat and unimpressive, though again this may speak more to a lack of money than anything else.
One thing Lourie definitely did right, however, was letting Ray Harryhausen- working alone on a feature after assisting his idol Willis O’ Brien on Mighty Joe Young- basically do whatever he needed to do to bring the Rhedosaur to life. The Beast itself is a joy to watch, as so many of Harryhausen’s creations are; it’s a simple design, but animated with a lot of flair, and the animator does a lot more with light and shadow than is seen in the live action plates. Harryhausen also had a hand in devising the film’s climax on Coney Island, a superb setpiece involving a roller-coaster and a top marksman (Lee Van Cleef, already typecast.)
Most 50s sci-fi would be defined by the atomic bomb, and Beast provides an early example of American film’s ambivalent attitude towards the subject. The bomb is directly responsible for the monster being unleashed (though the film avoids the direct metaphors that would make Godzilla so powerful), but in the end a radioactive isotope proves key to defeating it. The atomic age held both peril and promise, and throughout the decade Americans were reminded that the same force which had levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki could also provide power and save lives with X-rays. The only real constant in films like this is that atomic energy has changed the world, though in this case the new technology digs up something very old indeed.
Even if The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was surpassed by some of its imitators (most notably one in Japan), it remains a pretty effective thriller with strong performances and a memorable monster. It’s the rare B-movie which actually gets to explore new territory and invent new concepts, and its missteps can largely be put down to the filmmakers not knowing what would work. It’s a great showcase for Harryhausen, who would go on to even bigger things. A pity we never had a proper collaboration between him and Bradbury, though.
Based on “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury
Screenplay by Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger
Directed by Eugene Lourie