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The Beast
From 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Warner Home Entertainment
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 80 min. / Street Date October 21, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, Lee Van Cleef
Cinematography Jack Russell
Production Designer Eugène Lourié
Special Animation Effects Ray Harryhausen
Film Editor Bernard W. Burton
Original Music David Buttolph
Written by Fred Freiberger, Eugène Lourié, Louis Morheim, Robert Smith from the Saturday Evening Post short story The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury
Produced by Bernard W. Burton, Hal E. Chester, Jack Dietz
Directed by Eugène Lourié

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is an endearingly simpleminded but visually impressive monster movie, the first of the 50s science fiction pictures to feature a giant, city-attacking prehistoric creature. It certainly wouldn't be the last. A rogue independent feature brought in-house at Warner Bros., it introduced plot elements that would be repeated dozens of times. But more importantly, it showcased Ray Harryhausen as a major solo special effects talent. Unable to afford the complex miniatures and glass paintings used on the Willis O'Brien film Mighty Joe Young, Ray invented his own method of putting animated models into realistic settings, a system he used throughout his career. The result is the Rhedosaurus, an unlikely but charismatic dinosaur that invites us along for a madcap Manhattan weekend.


Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian aka Paul Hubschmid) is collecting data from an arctic atom blast when he's almost killed by what he thinks is a prehistoric monster. Recovering in New York, he befriends paleontologists Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and his research assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond). They begin to believe his tale when a chain of strange events and sightings appears to be moving from Baffin Bay toward New York City. Deducing that Nesbitt's monster is returning to its ancestral spawing grounds off Long Island, Elson undertakes to trawl the sound in a diving bell in hopes of catching a glimpse of a 'paleolithic survival'.

In the disc's generous interview extras, Harryhausen explains the felicitous coincidences that led to his fashioning the animation effects for a story written by his childhood pal Ray Bradbury. Perhaps reacting to the socko 1952 reissue of King Kong, the writers of this Sci-Fi programmer gave its prehistoric monster an unlikely atomic motivation. They loaded their script with economical padding scenes to kill time before the beastie's third act appearance. Most of the giant monster genre clichés are seen here, maybe for the first time. There's a hero with a story nobody will believe, the kindly scientist with the shapely assistant for the hero to fall in love with, lots of terrified witnesses, initial monster attacks in isolated locales, and finally, an all-out attack on a major city. That template for monster mayhem was repeated almost without variation in scores of 50s productions - Toho's Godzilla is an obvious inspirational offspring. When Harryhausen began his Dynamation career two years later with Charles Schneer, their first picture It Came from Beneath the Sea was a typical programmer in the subgenre initiated by his own The Beast. Columbia's 1998 Godzilla is really an elaborate remake of this film, right down to the details: an early appearance sinks a fishing boat, and the Army blasts at the monster from the Manhattan rooftops.

Everybody loves Ray Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus, a massive monster that the 1953 Variety review raved about: "... makes King Kong look like a chimpanzee ... the sight of it stalking the canyons of New York is awesome ..." Using a generous helping of the character animation skills he honed for Mighty Joe Young, Ray gives the dino an appealing reptilian personality. It looks like a giant, scaly, pissed-off puppy, disoriented by but defiant of the changes in its hometown that have happened in the 30 million years it's been asleep. David Buttolph's magisterial score and streets full of terrified New Yawkers greet the Rhedosaurus when he alights just south of the Brooklyn Bridge; the vaguely fantastic setting of a Coney Island roller coaster is chosen for a climactic showdown.

Ray's effects are superb; not only are his composites of miniatures and miniature rear-projection mostly perfect, but his lighting of the Beast is excellent. A very effective set of angles is simply the upward sight of the monster's head as it strides up Wall Street, with the skyscrapers towering over him. In the nighttime scenes, the limited sight of the monster squinting in searchlights looks great; Harryhausen's manikin appears giant and imposing even in down-angles that should by rights diminish its menace. Almost every scene has memorable bits of business - the gentle way the monster paws a wrecked car, the way it charges into new intersections like a prehistoric Ratzo Rizzo: "I'm walkin' here!" Perhaps the most famous scene is the dinosaur's frightening encounter with a New York patrolman on the beat. The cop calmly unloads his pistol at the Beast, and while reloading is snapped up like an after-dinner mint and gobbled like a piece of popcorn. Later giant monster movies rarely matched this anonymous kind of terror, but this first example has perfect 50s angst: Death is no longer Gothic or romantic as in a 30s horror film, but instead an undignified and meaningless obliteration. In the new scale of things, individual lives mean nothing.

The aftermath of the monster's first appearance is marked by a 'voice of doom' broadcast montage that says a couple of hundred people lost their lives in the 'worst disaster in New York history.' Recent history is a terrible realization of the chaos of these 50s monster films that created thrills by reveling in fantasized calamities. This kind of existential, almost surreal terror puts The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms soundly in the Sci-Fi territory of brave new worlds.

Mention needs to be made of Eugène Lourié, the art director of classic French movies who later became a director and special effects expert (Crack in the World). The Beast must have put him in a rut, because he ended up having to remake it twice, more or less. The Giant Behemoth is a cheap derivative with less imaginative effects by Willis O'Brien, but 1961's Gorgo is a lavish Technicolor production with Freddy Young photography and massive scenes of panic in the streets of London. Lourié's designs here are simple but effective, with a memorable museum interior and a claustrophobic diving bell. His impressive design for a military planning room seems to have been repeated on a bigger scale for Gorgo. Ray Harryhausen's personal artistry may have been augmented by the Frenchman's concepts for key effects scenes, such as the superb attack on the Nova Scotia lighthouse, conceived all in silhouette.

The actors in this picture are secondary to the monster, but they have nothing to be ashamed of. As 'Paul Christian', Paul Hubschmid of Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur makes a stalwart hero. Paula Raymond is merely okay, but Cecil Kellaway wins our hearts in no time with his adorable scientist routine. It's sad to see Kenneth Tobey playing a second-string Army officer after doing so well in The Thing from Another World; when actors discovered that working in a Sci-Fi movie wasn't a ticket to better things, the field was cleared for the likes of Richard Carlson, Peter Graves and Richard Denning. From the Warners' stock company comes Donald Woods, and every kid immediately recognizes Lee Van Cleef as the army sharpshooter who picks his teeth with a grenade rifle. The IMDB list Paul Picerni and Vera Miles in deleted scenes; they definitely show up in the trailer.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was a huge success and probably initiated the production of the next year's Them! even though Jack Warner hated monster movies. As was typical back then, 'movie magic' didn't make stars of its artisans or even guarantee them work; Harryhausen's phone didn't ring any more regularly than did his mentor Willis O'Brien's. Fortunately, Ray soon linked up with a young producer willing to commit to his effects-based fantasy ideas, and won himself an active and rewarding career.

Warners' The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms looks just fine on DVD with a transfer from an element that seems in even better shape than the 1993 laser disc. The extras include trailers from this film (great trailer: The Beast! The Beast! THE BEAST!), The Valley of Gwangi and The Black Scorpion.

This disc has two fine interview featurettes: One on the making of the picture where Ray has kind words for all, and another taken at a Warners reception where Rays Harryhausen and Bradbury share a stage and discuss their long friendship. Bradbury is in a wheelchair and on the frail side but his enthusiasm for dinosaurs and his old pal is undiminished.

A text blurb on the jacket back says that the Beast was "constructed at full scale, all 50 tons of it" - ? The movie's wonderful original poster art is used for the disc cover: "It's Alive!"

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the Beast, Harryhausen & Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship interview docus.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 20, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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