Giant Monstershow: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow continues. Half b-movie, half decent monster flick, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a typical example of 1950s giant monster fare. Coming from 1953, the film was directed by Eugène Lourié, and is based, in an extended fashion, on The Fog Horn, a short story by Ray Bradbury.

Somewhere in the Arctic, an American research team detonates a gigantic nuclear bomb. After the test, a pair of researchers head out onto the ice to collect data, only they discover that the explosion has unleashed a prehistoric dinosaur from the depths. Only one of the scientists survives. He is Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian). He’s suffering from exposure and raving about a gigantic monster. Of course, no one believes him. He’s shipped back to New York City for an extended stay in the hospital, where he is being treated for both his injuries and his delusions.

Meanwhile, the monster, which is very real, has become a plague on the Canadian fishing fleet. The beast, it turns out, is just following its instinct — proceeding south to its former breeding grounds from the distant past, which just happens to be off the coast of New York City, where our intrepid hero and his co-stars also happen to be. It’s a coincidence that strains credulity, but it hardly matters. After all, this is a film about a giant killer lizard.

Nesbitt, having been released from the hospital, gains allies in his struggle to prove the monster is real. His most valuable are paleontologist Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant, Lee The Beast from 20,000 FathomsHunter (Paula Raymond), who also serves as this film’s throwaway love interest.

Everything in the film up to this point is mere setup for the final act, when the monster makes landfall at the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan, and begins tearing up the city. New York is placed on lockdown as the army and Nesbitt’s crew struggle to defeat the beast, leading, of course, to a fiery finale. Anyone who has seen any number of giant monster flicks in their life will be familiar with how this film plays out. In fact, there isn’t much to make this film stand out from any other in the genre, except that it’s an earlier example, and it features creature effects done by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

His work in the film is excellent, but that’s where the quality stopped. His stop motion creature was composited into backgrounds and the blending never worked. The technique was used to effect twenty years earlier in King Kong with much better results. Whether it was a different film stock, or lenses, or a less capable director of photography, I don’t know. But the evidence that something wasn’t working is right up there on the screen, with sequences that are both engaging and silly at the same time.

Of course, in this day, hardly any special effects from Hollywood’s past holds up. And that includes stop motion. It’s a technique requiring great skill and patience, but at no time could it ever be accused of looking real. It was something audiences once accepted as one of the best methods available for putting a fictional creature up on the screen. Computer effects have since relegated it to the dustbin, and that’s not a bad thing.

That makes all these old monster flicks artifacts of cinematic history. Viewers today go into them to be entertained, but also see them as museum pieces. Amusing, but difficult to get lost in completely.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is fun and simple, but were it not for Ray Harryhausen, it would probably be a very obscure film. It’s the type of flick that relies heavily on stock footage. The good news is, most of the stock footage was used intelligently. The bad news is, some was used to pad the runtime. And then there’s the shark vs octopus scene. It takes place on the bottom of the sea, but was too obviously filmed in an aquarium. It’s cheapness writ large.

And that’s the film. It has very fun and enjoyable moments, but it’s wrapped in a b-movie veneer. I almost included this as a Shitty Movie Sundays entry, but it just avoided having to go toe-to-toe with that bad alien movie. This flick is for monster movie aficionados only.

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