As everyone who grew up in the 1950s knows, the government's testing of atomic bombs unleashed all sorts of unforeseen menaces upon the world, not the least of which were giant ants, giant spiders, giant scorpions, and in 1953's "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" a giant aquatic dinosaur. It's a wonder any of us got out of the decade alive. Must have been the strength and endurance of Eisenhower that carried us through.
Although the movie has a number of things going for it, it's a far cry from today's computer-generated monster flicks, and, in fact, it isn't among the best the fifties had to offer, either. Still, it's got its charms, not the least of which is that it's the motion picture that started it all. I'm referring to giant monsters awakening or mutating as a result of atomic blasts. The movie would be followed by all the rest of the giant-creature features in following years, but it was this low-budget, independent production that got the ball rolling. Made for about $200,000, the movie was subsequently bought by Warner Bros. and made millions for them.
The second and more important of the film's draws is that it was the initial film over which stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen had complete control, and his dinosaur creation continues to look good. The dino is a composite of several different critters, with a lot of Harryhausen's own imagination thrown in. It's sleek and menacing in an efficient rather than outright scary sort of way, but it's actually pretty cool to look at. Harryhausen, as you know, would go on to do the creature work for such notable undertakings as "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," "20,000,000 Miles to Earth," "Mysterious Island," "Jason and the Argonauts," "The 3 Worlds of Gulliver," "The Valley of Gwangi," "From the Earth to the Moon," "One Million Years, B.C.," "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad," "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger," and "Clash of the Titans."
The third of the film's appeals is that it's based in part on a work by fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, on a short story called "The Foghorn," about a sea serpent that hears the sound of a lighthouse foghorn, mistakes it for a mate, and falls in love. The lighthouse and the serpent are about all that's left of Bradbury's story, but it's the inspiration that counts.
"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" predates Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" by a year, but it doesn't predate Jules Verne's novel of the same name, so it was clearly Verne the producers were hoping audiences would recognize. The "Beast" story itself concerns a prehistoric, seagoing dino, a rhedosaurus Harryhausen called it, that had been frozen alive in the ice of the North Pole for 100,000,000 years and then awakened by an atomic blast. It immediately heads south along the Eastern seaboard, making for New York City and wreaking havoc along the way.
The human stars are largely unimportant, as they play second fiddle to the monster, but in case you were wondering they are Paul Christian (Swiss-born actor Paul Hubschmid) as Professor Tom Nesbitt, a handsome nuclear physicist who first sees the beast; Paula Raymond as Lee Hunter, a beautiful assistant paleontologist and romantic interest for the professor; Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Thurgood Elson, an absentminded-professor type who reluctantly comes to believe in Nesbitt's crazy dinosaur theory; and that staple of fifties' B-movies, Kenneth Tobey, stalwart as ever, as Col. Jack Evans.
The movie takes its own sweet time getting to the point, the only serious action occurring in the movie's last half hour. The rest of the space is taken up with introductions, exposition, and atmospheric build up. Nobody believes Nesbitt when he says he sees the creature, and it takes him the film's first hour to track down other witnesses to try and convince the government about how desperate the situation is getting. Finally, the creature attacks New York, and the movie reaches the climax for which everybody has been patiently waiting.
In the film's only genuinely silly scene, a cop walks up to the beast and attempts to shoot it with his revolver. I mean, this is a monster that must be 300 feet tall! The rest of the Manhattan activity involves the creature generally running amuck and the populace trying to get out of its way. Many a cardboard building is destroyed in the process, but Harryhausen and the prop people keep it from looking too phony.
Frankly, I was rooting for the monster. He's only defending himself, after all, and he's returned to New York because that was apparently his ancestral home. Watching the beast eat a roller-coaster is especially satisfying. Who knows, maybe fifty years from now "Jurassic Park" will look corny to us, too.
Naturally, the film is in a 1.33:1 Academy Standard ratio, its having been made so long ago. Actually, 1952 and '53 were the years Cinerama and CinemaScope came out, but a film with so low a budget as "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" could hardly afford the widescreen process. Anyway, the video quality on the DVD isn't bad. The print Warner Bros. used for the transfer looks to have been in fine shape, with very few age spots. Only the location shots suffer from occasional minor flecks, scratches, and lines. The black-and-white contrasts are fine, too, if not perfectly well set off; some of the definition lacks ultimate focus; and closely spaced horizontal lines sometimes display the jitters. In a film of this vintage, one makes certain allowances, and, besides, most of this is hardly noticeable. Mainly, it's a clean transfer of a clean original print.
The Dolby Digital monaural audio is only so-so at best. It is simple and straightforward, its greatest blessing being its quiet backgrounds, free from hiss, noise, or static. The mono reproduction renders voices and dialogue accurately, but it hasn't much frequency or dynamic range, so it can't be expected to do much with big special-effects type sounds, avalanches, buildings toppling, and such.
I actually liked the two commemorative, fiftieth-anniversary documentaries better than the feature film. They're short but fascinating. The first is "The Rhedosaurus and the Roller Coaster: Making The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," a six-minute look at the film's production and its creature designer, Ray Harryhausen. It may be brief, but it is more informative than many twenty-minute promotionals that pass for "documentaries" on other discs. The second item of interest is even better, a newly made, sixteen-minute look at two sci-fi legends, "Harryhausen & Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship." Harryhausen and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury are old friends (very old friends, like from the 1930s) and got together on stage in front of a very appreciative audience for some engaging and enlightening reminiscences. Then, there is a "Giant Monster Trailer Gallery" that includes trailers for this film and three others involving giant creatures: "The Black Scorpion," "Clash of the Titans," and "The Valley of Gwangi" (all of them available from Warners on DVD). The extras conclude with twenty-five scene selections, English and French spoken languages, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
I wish I could drum up more enthusiasm for the movie itself, but I'm afraid that "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" really doesn't hold up too well today. Certainly, as I've said, the creature still looks good, and the movie was, after all, a prototype for many such films to come. But it's been done better since. If you really want to own a 50's giant-monster flick, buy "Them!" If you're just looking to see what the 50's monster fuss was all about, I'd recommend starting by renting "The Thing from Another World," "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," this one, and "Them!" Did I mention "Them!"? Love that film.