by Mel Valentin
Released in 1953 and loosely based (actually “suggested”) on a short story by Ray Bradbury, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" ushered in the giant-monster-awakened-by-atom-bomb-testing sub-genre. Although "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" was co-written and directed by Eugène Lourié ("Gorgo," "Behemoth the Sea Monster"), a Hollywood veteran with numerous art directing and production design credits to his name, the real auteur was a then little-known stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen. Inspired by Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking effects work to "King Kong," Harryhausen apprenticed himself to O’Brien in the late 1940s to work on O’Brien’s last film, "Mighty Joe Young." By the early 1950s, Harryhausen was ready for solo projects, but none came his way until the low budget "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms."The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms opens with the usual tropes of the sub-genre. The military, intent on testing the latest in nuclear technology, detonates an atomic bomb in the Arctic. Two scientists, George Ritchie (Ross Elliott) and Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian), venture out post-blast for field testing, presumably to check for radiation levels and habitat destruction (the former, probably, the latter, unlikely). Only Nesbitt returns from the field, barely alive. When he awakes in an army hospital, he claims both he and Ritchie saw a prehistoric dinosaur. Despite his credentials as a scientist, no one believes him. Nesbitt’s friend, Col. Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey), returns to the site of the accident, but finds no trace of a rampaging prehistoric monster.
"Ladies and gents, meet Mr. Ray Harryhausen."
Nesbitt approaches a paleontologist, Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), and his assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond), for help, but Elson is unconvinced by Nesbitt’s story. Nesbitt, however, comes across news of fishing trawlers lost off the coast of Nova Scotia. A lone survivor claims a monster attacked and sunk his ship. The attacks continue, first a lighthouse (onscreen and directly derived from Bradbury’s short story), then some cottages and homes (offscreen, the better to save on the effects budget). Nesbitt is finally believed when the dinosaur, a so-called Rhedosaurus, attacks New York City, causing widespread panic, fatalities (180 dead, 1,500 injured), and property damage ($300,000 million dollars, according to a newspaper headline).
Story wise, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms isn’t anything you or I haven’t seen before, but if The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms seems clichéd now, it’s because it set up the template for the other science-fiction/horror flicks that followed (i.e., irradiated giant-sized monsters attacking major cities), including, only a year later, Godzilla, Toho Studios first (of many) attempts to cash in on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ commercial success. Seen from a much more cynical jaded perspective fifty years later, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms isn’t exactly the most engaging or exciting flick to sit through. The pacing is often slow, sometimes excruciatingly slow, scenes are often bogged down in heavy exposition, and the monster, first seen in the opening scenes, doesn’t reappear until the halfway mark and then, only sporadically.
At least, though, the monster gets a chance to wreak major amounts of havoc through large parts of Manhattan before making his (assuming the monster is male) way to the Coney Island Amusement Park to make his (presumably) last stand against the U.S. military that refuses to let him do his thing. Not surprisingly, the credit for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms's commercial success goes to Ray Harryhausen. It’s Harryhausen's stop-motion animation, all the more remarkable since Harryhausen worked alone, that really sold the monster to audiences fifty years ago.While modern-day audiences might not be as impressed with the dinosaur’s movements or the obvious backscreen projection Harryhausen used, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" really was an accomplishment back then and heralded Harryhausen as a rare auteur who never directed a single film, but whose presence could be felt in every scene that featured stop-motion animation. His detailed monster designs, good to great on their own, were complemented by Harryhausen’s obvious love for his creations. He didn’t just move them around a miniature soundstage, he gave them (virtual) life and, in doing so, took visual effects technology one step closer to the future. And it all began with "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms."
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originally posted: 06/05/08 09:00:00