Warner Bros. march steadily onward in their quest to put what seems to be every old film in their vaults into two-disc, four-movie sets. Among their latest installments is "TCM Greatest Films: Sci-Fi Adventures" with "Them!," "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," "World Without End," and "Satellite in the Sky." The term "greatest" in this case seems unnecessarily lavish praise, since only one of the four films comes anywhere near "greatness" by any stretch of the imagination, another one is average, and two are decidedly below par.
Satellite in the Sky
Probably the less said about this 1956 film, the better. I vaguely remember seeing it when I was kid, but couldn't remember a single detail. I tried watching it as the first film in this set but couldn't get past a few minutes before giving up for better things. The movie is remarkably talky and slow for a sci-fi film. For the record, it stars Kieron Moore, Lois Maxwell (of later James Bond fame), Donald Wolfit, Bryan Forbes, with Paul Dickson directing. It has something to do with sending a rocket into space to detonate a bomb and, naturally, everything going wrong. Emphasis on the "wrong."
Film value: 3/10
World Without End
"World Without End," also from 1956, fares a little better than "Satellite in the Sky," although not by much. Instead of being talky and boring, it's mostly talky and corny. On a return trip from Mars, four astronauts (Hugh Marlowe, Christopher Dark, Rod Taylor, and Nelson Leigh) encounter trouble and go through some kind of Einsteinian time warp, winding up some 500 years in the future. As we've seen from countless postapocalyptic films since, people by this time have wiped out most of the planet, and only two surviving human types remain: normal-looking folks who live either underground in hiding or above ground in subservience to another group of mutated humans called "beasts." Shades of H.G. Wells and his "Time Machine" here, which, coincidentally, Rod Taylor would star in a few years later.
Not only have people changed, so have animals, with spiders the size of pickup trucks. Unfortunately, the movie also incredibly melodramatic. The people living underground seem intelligent enough, but they're afraid to advance their civilization. Worse, the men are all old or middle-aged and wear skull caps (for no apparent reason except to make them look oddly futuristic), while the women are all young and beautiful and wear short skirts and mid-twentieth-century hairstyles. They also speak perfect mid-twentieth-century English, don't smoke, don't drink, and don't swear. Apparently, we still have censors in the year 2508 A.D.
By today's standards, the film's special effects look primitive, and despite the filmmakers shooting the project in CinemaScope, the studio appears to have afforded it a minimal budget because the sets run high to plywood and colored lights. This movie makes the early "Star Trek" television shows look like George Lucas productions. The fact is, "World Without End" seems like little more than a widescreen version of the old Buck Rogers serial with Buster Crabbe. At least the old serial was fun.
Film value: 4/10
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
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, like 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. 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. All the rest of the giant-creature features would follow, but it was this low-budget, independent production that pretty much got the ball rolling.
One of the more important of the film's draws is that it was the earliest 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 way, yet 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 the first "Clash of the Titans."
Another of the film's appeals is that it's based in part on a work by fantasy writer Ray Bradbury, a short story called "The Foghorn," about a sea serpent that hears the sound of a lighthouse foghorn, mistakes it for a potential mate, and falls in love. Even though the lighthouse and the serpent are about all that's left of Bradbury's story, 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" itself is a prehistoric, seagoing dino, a rhedosaurus Harryhausen called it, frozen in the ice of the North Pole for 100,000,000 years and reawakened 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're 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 movie is all 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 how desperate the situation is getting. Finally, the creature attacks New York City, 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. The creature destroys many a cardboard building 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.
Film value: 5/10
From the German expressionistic films of the Twenties to Universal's movie monsters of the Thirties and Forties to the gigantic, mutated critters of the Fifties, horror cinema underwent considerable change in its early, developmental years. Growing up in the 1950's as I did, though, the history of film didn't matter so much as the here and now, and a lot of the old creature features from that era still mean a lot to me. Of all of them, I think "Them!" from 1954 stands out as both a personal favorite and the epitome of the breed. After more than half a century it remains THE quintessential giant-bug picture.
Just when audiences were beginning to tire of watching Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and Dr. Frankenstein's creation reducing folks to dust, along came the nuclear bomb and fantasy monsters turned to sci-fi monsters. The late Forties and Fifties ushered in a new era of cinematic oddities from within our own world and from without. The space alien invaders were fun, of course--"The Thing from Another World," "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," "Invaders from Mars," and such--but for me the transfigured insects held a special fascination. There were giant everythings back then from overgrown tarantulas, scorpions, and grasshoppers to supersized humans, based invariably on the same pretext that in reality was scaring a lot of the world's citizens: namely, that nuclear radiation was having an unforeseen and devastating effect on all of Earth's life.
The movie begins in New Mexico, where a pair of police officers find a little girl in a state of shock wandering in the desert. The only word they can eventually persuade her to say is "Them!"
In the best horror-movie tradition, the movie does not immediately reveal its monsters. The mystery and suspense surrounding a series of bizarre events mount as the investigation goes on. Strange occurrences happen: the police find a trailer caved in, they uncover odd footprints, they hear weird noises in the desert air, and they discover several people brutally murdered.
The first investigating officer is Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), a local cop, but it isn't long before an FBI agent shows up, Robert Graham (James Arness). Then, when it appears that maybe, perhaps, conceivably, there's an off chance that insects, of all things, may be involved, the government calls in two experts in the field, the father and daughter team of Doctors Harold and Pat Medford (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon). Whitmore and Arness take care of the macho heroics; Gwenn is the old, absentminded, fuddy-duddy professor (think of Richard Attenborough in "Jurassic Park"); and Weldon handles the beautiful-heroine angle.
What the team quickly discover is that the government tested the first atomic bomb nearby in White Sands, and after almost a decade the radiation has turned a nest of normal-sized ants into eight-foot critters. When the first big ant puts in its appearance, it's like seeing the shark for the first time in "Jaws." It's a surprise, if not so much a scare.
Knowing what they're facing, the team call in the army to do battle with the ants in the desert, but then the team learn one more piece of bad news. They may have defeated the huge creatures here, but a queen has escaped and started her own nest in the storm drains of Los Angeles.
While the ant constructions are understandably less sophisticated than what Hollywood can conjure up today on a computer screen, they're effectively menacing in their awkward, lumbering way. They appear to be huge puppetlike contraptions manipulated by unseen wires. Still, the special-effects department did a good job detailing them, and the lighting used always keeps them appropriately shadowy and partially obscure. It works in an old-fashioned yet frightening way, which contributes to the film's charm.
Graham asks at the end of the movie, "...if the monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" Dr. Medford answers in properly dire tones, "Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world nobody can predict." Yeah, well, you could be sure it wouldn't stop Hollywood from trying not only to make predictions but to make them come true as well.
Film value: 8/10
Ironically, it is the early 1.33:1 ratio black-and-white films ("The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "Them!") that come off best. The contrasts are good, though not perfect; definition is reasonably crisp, though not razor sharp. More important, the picture is largely without blemish, and there is little noticeable grain, noise, wear, or tear. The two later films ("Satellite in the Sky" and "World Without End"), shot in 2.35:1 ratio CinemaScope, look relatively faded, soft, grainy, and noisy.
All four films come in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound only. It is certainly clear and clean, but it's also a touch bright and hard, especially in the two early films, not uncommon for soundtracks of the era. The hardness of the response most adversely affects the music, but, then, there isn't much music of note, anyhow, so it doesn't matter much. You'll hear everything that's going on distinctly and without strain. Good enough.
Despite what it says on the keep case, the first two films--"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "Them!"--appear on flip sides of disc one and the later two films appear on the same side of disc two. Perhaps this cramming of two CinemaScope films onto one disc side explains why they don't look so good. In any case, there are virtually no extras on the later two films (and only English as a spoken language, with English and French subtitles), although there are plenty of extras on the black-and-white films.
On the "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" you'll find two commemorative, fiftieth-anniversary documentaries, which in some ways are 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.
On "Them!" you'll find the bonus items listed in the format of a tabloid newspaper. Glaring headlines reach out to grab you with the sensational news of ants invading the Earth, that sort of thing. Fun stuff. Among the actual bonuses are two-and-a-half minutes of deleted, behind-the-scenes archive footage from the film; a short text article called "Bugged at the Movies," chronicling other giant-insect films; a cast list; thirty scene selections; and a theatrical trailer. English is the only spoken language provided, but subtitles come in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.
A slipcover encloses the slim-line double keep case.
One really good sci-fi film, one so-so film, and two less-than-mediocre films may not seem such a bargain when you think about it, but at the price, the set still merits consideration. "Them!" is worth the price of admission alone.
In addition to the "Sci-Fi Adventures" set, Warners are also making available "TCM Greatest Films: Romance" with "Splendor in the Grass," "Love in the Afternoon," "Mogambo," and "Now Voyager" and "TCM Greatest Films: Marx Brothers" with "A Day at the Races," "Room Service," "At the Circus," and "A Night in Casablanca."