Monday, June 10, 2013

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) Review

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms poster
Director: Eugene Lourie
Stars: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Lee Van Cleef
Genre: Science Fiction, Giant Monster, Horror

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is perhaps most notable for having a huge influence on Godzilla, but there's much more to it than that and if you look there's a very interesting film here.

So basically what we have here in the way of plot is this: during a nuclear bomb test in the Arctic Circle a frozen dinosaur from prehistoric times is thawed out. This dinosaur ends up terrorizing numerous ship crews and people and eventually the entire city of New York. Meanwhile the army and what have you try desperately to find a way to stop the beast.

I guess I will first focus on the similarities between this an Godzilla, which came out the following year. Of course the plots are very similar; in fact this film pretty much set the formula for almost all Kaiju films since. There's also the nuclear bomb element present here, an element that is so prominent to the Godzilla series. In post-war Japan and Cold War America the subject of nuclear weapons was one that both populaces were very familiar with, and this was the first film to combine that with a monster element. Aside from a similar plot a some shared themes there's not much else the two films have in common; though I must say that the beast's cry in this film sounds an awful lot like Godzilla's cry.

So we have this film (along with King Kong, which actually served as inspiration for both Godzilla and this film) to thank for being a major influence on the Godzilla films (in fact the first Godzilla was originally titled The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was acknowledged by all involved in making it that it was essentially a rip off of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), that's great, but how about the film itself?

I should perhaps mention that this film is based on a Ray Bradbury short story of the same name (originally of the same name, but later changed by Bradbury to "The Fog Horn" after the film's release). It doesn't share much in common with Bradbury's story, which is unfortunate. The film could have benefited from the poetic nature of the short story and the easy to sympathize monster that Bradbury created. The monster in here is just a monster; there's no depth. Besides the presence of a giant sea monster, the only thing this film really shares with The Fog Horn is the lighthouse scene. In fact, Bradbury had originally been approached to rewrite the original screenplay for this film, but when the screenwriters realized that this story shared a lot in common with Bradbury's story from 1951, they decided to buy the rights to the story in order to capitalize on Bradbury's name and popularity and rewrote some of the script and changed the film's name (which was originally titled Monster from the Sea).

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms light house

Perhaps the greatest thing about The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (besides its historical importance) is the stop motion animation done by Ray Harryhausen. It makes sense that Harryhausen would end up working on one of the most influential Giant Monster films; he was mentored by none other than Willis O'Brien, the man who did the special effects in King Kong. So you see, without Willis O'Brien (King Kong) we would have never gotten Ray Harryhausen (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) and without Ray Harryhausen we would have never gotten the Godzilla series, and without the Godzilla series who knows where the genre would have ended up. To complicate matters even further, the only reason Ray Bradbury was involved with this film was because while he visited Ray Harryhausen on set (whom he was good friends with). So if anyone else besides Ray Harryhausen had done the special effects Ray Bradbury would have never gotten involved and if Bradbury never got involved then the film might not have been as successful as it was and wouldn't have started the Giant Monster-mania that it did. So, a big thanks to Ray Bradbury...err, I mean Ray Harryhausen...or rather Willis O'Brien, or, you know what, thank you everyone.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms dinosaur

Anyway, Ray Harryhausen's special effects are fantastic. The dinosaur moves very fluidly and has a very convincing sense of realism to it. All the sets and models look great too. If you watch Giant Monster movies to see Giant Monsters (who doesn't?) then you will not be disappointed.

Many might assume that being that this is a sci-fi monster film from the 50s it will be pretty cheesy and rely much on camp value. This isn't quite true. The special effects still hold up and so does most of the rest of it. It's fairly well written and there's never any really cheesy dialogue. The characters are very well written too and very easy to sympathize with (I actually felt sad at some points in this film. Not something many 50s sci-fi films can do). There's the charming old man, the faithful and caring assistant, the first monster witness who no one believes. They're interesting characters, and the acting is pretty solid as well, though certain actors are very obviously better than others. There's also a scene featuring a young Lee Van Cleef, who looks just as cool in the 50s as he does in the 60s. Cleef had hitherto only been in a few films, notably High Noon and Kansas City Confidential, and it's nice to see him in here over a decade before his roles in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which he is most remembered for today (along with some other Western roles as well).

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Cecil Kellaway

It's an important film, it's an enjoyable film, and I'm glad to say that it is also a pretty damn good film as well. A must watch for fans of Godzilla or Giant Monster (Kaiju) films in general, along with fans of 50s sci-fi films.

3.5/5 stars

Purchase The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Amazon: DVD - Double FeatureStream
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