The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

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Before the MonsterVerse, before Gamera, Hell, even before Godzilla there was The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the 1953 creature feature based off the short story The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury. Despite often being lumped in with the other, 50’s, radiation infused monster movies at the time, in many ways, the movie, that featured a rampaging Rhedosaurus tearing New York a brand spanking new poop chute, could be accurately classed as one of the very first Kaiju movies as its tale of a scaly city smasher being rudely awoken by nuclear bomb tests directly inspired Ishiro Honda to tackle a more intimate, stylish and politically charged version with Godzilla a couple of years after. However, while Beast may lack the more thoughtful, doom laden imagery of Honda’s indisputable classic, it’s still a riproaring predecessor to an entire genre that can easily hold it’s own against the likes of the Big G and even King Kong.

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In the expanse of white known as the Arctic Circle, a project is in effect to test the results of nuclear bombs that has been named Operation: Experiment (how long did it take to think up that one, fellas?). However, one side effect the shivering boffins failed to anticipate is that the blasts awakens a 200 foot long ravenous dinosaur who seems royally pissed that it’s extended cryogenic snooze has been disturb by a 10 megaton alarm clock. The only living witness to the beast emerging from the ice is physicist Thomas Nesbitt, but after being nursed back to health, his claims of a giant dinosaur are simply dismissed as delirium despite the fact that it’s the 50’s and movies would have us believe that a new atomic horror crawled out of the ocean at least once a week.
Nesbitt perseveres, however, and despite the continuous chuckles of disbelieving old professors such as paleontologist Thurgood Elson, he finds an ally in his pretty assistant Lee Hunter who helps him not only identify the creature as a Rhedosaurus, but even manages to locate other eyewitnesses thanks to the creature’s continued path of destruction that sees it dragging ships to the bottom of the ocean and throwing claws with lighthouses like a spiny MMA fighter.
With Elson finally on board and the military finally alerted, Nesbitt’s story is proved irrevocably factual when the beast makes landfall in New York City and proceeds on a destructive path comparable to Ezra Miller tearing through Hawaii.
Racking up a sizable body count, the military finds that wounding the Rhedosaurus only results in the release of a prehistoric contagion in its blood that poisons and incapacitates many more. Can Nesbitt figure out a way to neutralise the virus and vanquish the beast in the gargantuan equivalent of killing two birds with one stone, or will the Rhedosaurus continue to gorge itself on the numerous police officers who insist on standing in its path?

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While lacking the historical impact of Godzilla’s references to Hiroshima, or the devil may care adventure of King Kong, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms manages to secure itself in the monster hall of fame by simply being crisp, clean creature feature that channels its impressive production values into some highly memorable set pieces that essentially helped write the book of staging giant monster attacks and allowed legendary stop motion mage, Ray Harryhausen, to obtain his first real nod at creating a career full of imaginative creatures (he was an uncredited technician on 1949’s Mighty Joe Young).
Of course, this being a genre piece made during the 1950’s, there’s a few aspects of the movie that feels fairly derivative of the times with the male characters essentially only being able to be told apart by their job or rank as a scientist, soldier or… a woman (1950’s remember), but if you aren’t witnessing a bunch of white guys all with rigid postures and a weird amount of base in their voices rationalise, debate and plot against the existence of a human gobbling monster, are you even watching a 1950’s monster movie at all?

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However, where Beast really comes to life is when it’s wrangling its titular lizard either to stalk its prey in a series of moody sequences or causing it to wreak all mannor of havoc on the normally unflappable population of NYC. The build up is superb as the flick has its star creeping through blizzards the arctic, emerging from the sea to give a couple of sailors the stink eye through their ship’s rain soaked window or, most memorably, attacking a lighthouse in atmospheric silhouette. The movie has a nice, satisfyingly spiteful streak too, chiefly evident in the scene where an overjoyed Elson spots the Rhedosaurus advancing towards his diving bell blissfully unaware that it’s going to knock him back like a tic tac, or, more famously, the moment when it regards the ridiculously foolhardy flatfoot shooting at it with his piss poor pistol (what did he thing he was going to achieve, it’s like trying to bring down an elephant with a spud gun) and then snaps him up like a screaming jelly baby.
The real star here, as he pretty much was with practically every film he worked on, is, of course, Harryhausen, whose creation is a wonderfully animated (pun intended) engine of destruction that’s totally worth the price of admission alone – even with the presence of an early-career role for Lee Van Cleef included. Despite the fact that it’s suspiciously more dragon-looking than that of a more classic dinosaur, its imbued with all the typical characteristics of a classic Harryhausen beastie such as little bursts of personality (watching briefly bat at a car it’s just crushed like a curious cat) or stupendously cinematic surroundings (a flaming rollercoaster in Coney Island is every bit as memorable as the top of the Empire State Building or the ruins of Tokyo) as it’s a shame it’s not more directly referenced. Although, with that being said, in an ironic twist of fate Roland Emmerich’s 1998 crack at Godzilla had way more in common than The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms than Toho’s favorite son, even lifting certain images and concepts for the unloved remake wholesale.

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Directed by Eugéne Lourié, a man who continued on a similar road to make a string of inferior monster mashes – most noticably the rubbery mother monster matinee, Gorgo – The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms remains by far his best effort as this pre-Kaiju Kaiju flick stands tall as the beast with 20,000 imitators. Unfathomable.

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