Monday, July 21, 2014

MR The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Long before the Kaiju/monster film craze of the 1960s, there was the one, the only, the original... Godzilla's very own granddaddy, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms!!

Want more Kaiju-related reviews? Check these out!

Movie: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Directed by Eugène Lourié
Release date 1953
Genre Science-fiction/giant monster film
Country USA

Following the success of King Kong in 1933, an entire new cinematographic genre would be launched in the Cold War-era USA and post-nuclear Japan in the wake of the 1950s all the way through the 1970s.

This renewed interest in creature features might have been partially revived by this very particular film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Two years prior to the release of the original Gojira, Universal re-released King Kong. To much surprise the film was a huge success, even more so that ever dreamed before. Call it an effect of a world finally out of the second World War or the discovery of the Atomic Age. The film ended up not only making twice but four times its original box office break.

Which naturally didn't go unnoticed by other studios. Soon Warner Bros wanted to produce their own similar giant monster film.

Created in the wake of King Kong's second successful release, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" was originally just a mere modest film which ended up becoming this huge hit and had a big influence on Japanese Kaiju films for ages. Godzilla was in fact produced and released the following year!

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was directed by classic French film and art director Eugène Lourié. A well known filmmaker in the genre before he ultimately retired from film making to focus on the art direction and producing films.

The film stars starts Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway and Kenneth Tobey.

The film is more or less based on the Ray Bradbury short story "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" which has since gone by the name of its anthology collection "The Fog Horn". The final product ended up quite different from it and not a lot Bradbury's short story made it on the big screen (including a monster which was presented as more sympathetic, akin to King Kong, in the book). They actually asked Bradbury himself to do some rewrites for the film but he didn't had the time, a thing he apparently regretted later on. While the story differs a lot, several key scenes made it in the end such as a lighthouse attack.

This motion picture also featured the stunning visual effects by Ray Harryhausen, a master in the field also responsible for several other classic creatures during Hollywood's Golden Age.

Our story begins far up North, in the Arctic Circle.

American scientists are running some tests of atomic bombs. Lead by physicist Thomas Nesbitt. The film opens on a discussion, as our man starts to fear the effects all these nuclear explosions might do to the environment, "only time will tell..."

And of course what had to happen, happens. The atomic explosion awakens a deep-frozen dinosaur!!

This 30-foot long mysterious giant creature which had been trapped beneath the ice awakens! It kills one of Tom Nesbitt colleagues and just as quickly disappears in the Ocean. Nobody believes what Tom saw and he is shipped back to the USA to rest for a while.

But this is far from being the last we've seen of the monster. The creature starts to wreck havoc along its path as it swims away, following down lay lines in the East Coast of North America, attacking and destroying ships on its path. It finally destroys a lighthouse in Main in what is this film's most memorable scene perhaps (which would be sort of replicated in the 1965 Gamera).

Tom Nesbitt finally sees a pattern in all these disasters reports and decides to call in a specialist. He meets with this paleontologist Thurgood Elson and his lovely assistant Lee Hunter. He is able to identify the creature amongst several sketches of possible dinosaurs (in the most apparent design sketch stuck in between these various actual dinosaurs representation, finding the movie monster was pretty obvious...). The fictional dinosaur is dentified as a "Rhedosaurus" specimen. To confirm this report they get back to some surviving fishermen able to help identify and confirm the creature.

Meanwhile the sightings of the Beast continue. These were not random attacks, the Rhedosaurus is actually following the lines back to the New York City area, where the Beast seemingly used to live in the prehistory.  It's not a coincidence, many fossils of these Rhedosaurus where found there in the past.

The kind professor is killed during a deep diving expedition undersea by the Beast!

It finally arrives ashore in Manhattan. The military try stop it with some electric field and bazookas.. but all they manage is to make it bleed all over the city!

Its blood turns out just as dangerous as the Beast itself! After the military attempts to stop the Beast with no success, we get a very interesting hospital scene in the fallout of this plague let out by the creature's blood. A contagion begins to spread through the soldiers.

They only have one shot to kill the monster. Shooting a radioactive isotope back into the creature's neck. They lure it back to a deserted Coney Island. Tom Nesbitt goes atop the roller coast tracks with a sniper sharpshooter...

It's a pretty well written 1950s film actually. Captivating from start to finish. The dialogues never feel that cheesy, which helps it stand out the test of time. 

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was one of the very first giant monster movies which would spawn an entire generation of similar creature features, and actually the very first giant monster creature to use an atomic bomb as a plot device, which would continue to spawn monsters all the way through the 1960s!

It came from an idea from producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester. Due to the fascinating growing fear and paranoia people had of nuclear weapons at the time.

It was cleverly represented on screen using some actual stock footage.

It's kinda interesting how compared to Japanese monster films where nuclear bombs are considered weapons (due to the fear and destruction imagery left following the war), in American production the bomb has connotations with an experiment, people testing the limits of science.

What follows is a pretty intelligent and clever film, trying to make the film as good as possible, on such a limited budget.

Despite a somewhat modest budget, the film was produced on a mere ~$200'000 budget, it was able to make it back quickly just in the US alone culminating in over  $2.5 millions of revenu during the first year alone! Internationally it tripled that easily! No surprise the film went on inspiring the entire monster genre!

The Beast is merely glimpsed at first, here and there. Via some clever shots and alluded in some dark silhouettes.

The amazing stop-motion animation work was done by Ray Harryhausen, a very talented man in the field at the time. Great special effects all around.

The creature looked great, it was a sort of amalgamation of lizards, crocodiles and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While the Beast doesn't stand on its two legs, it's no less impressive and still looks like a fearsome savage monster. I consider this Rhedosaurus an all-time classic-looking movie monster!

Since it was made on such a small budget, they couldn't build full-scale sets for the monster, as such the film mostly relies on much simpler shots.

It's a very simple yet powerful film, with a great imagery.

One strange little odd note, that strangely would found its way on later similar giant monster films: the original idea was to have the Beast shout flames. But it had to be cut for budget restrictions. Yet the concept was still used on some movie posters to promote the film (and that's probably how it wound up inspiring Godzilla later on).

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is nowadays considered the main inspiration and father of the giant monster trend.

It's a very interesting and unique film, having had such a huge impact on Ishirô Honda and inspiring his Godzilla. Both films share the same basic overall formula, and along King Kong are sole responsible of the entire Kaiju /giant monster genre. Actually one of the very first working titles for Godzilla overseas was going to be The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!

The film is made more impressive because how much more difficult all these things were to make at the time. The film uses a lot of matte-paintings and some camera trickeries to combine live actors, a stop-motion Beast and the actual background footage (such as the roller coaster, since the scenes with the actors where not filmed on location).

The score is a very subtle but dynamic music composed by the legendary David Buttolph. The omnipresence of a triumphant orchestral cue would also found a way to inspire Akira Ifukube own score on Gojira.

Like I said, many more "giant monsters" would follow such as the Japanese Godzilla series starting the next year in '54 or the UK's own giant creature in Behemoth, the Sea Monster in '59.

Overall, I truly adore this classic little gem.

Along King Kong, it was partially responsible for an entire new genre of film.

Godzilla, the self-proclaimed King of Monsters would come and change things forever, partially due to Ishirô Honda's own fascination with this film and its powerful nuclear bomb imagery, only he would use it directly on the plot as a way to criticize the repercussions of this disaster. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms becoming his favorite film, he wanted to put his own unique spin on the same basic formula.

In turn Eugène Lourié became amazed by Japan's answer, the original Gojira. And trying to recapture the same visuals, it would inspire him to ditch stop-motion puppetry and venture into this unique mix of costumes and miniature as well, which resulted in his follow-up film, Gorgo.

Sort of making a film that is a clear tribute to another film which was itself heavily influenced by his own Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, coming full circle!

"The Beast.." is a very effective powerful and great film, which honestly didn't age that much beside the period it takes place in. It still stands the test of time thanks its great inspired dialogues and well crafted effects (I would dare say not as much as a lot of current Hollywood CGi-heavy productions!).

Highly Recommended!

I give it:
2.5 / 3 Gojiras!

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