As fan of both 50s monster movies and Japanese kaiju films I’m surprised it has taken me this long to watch The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Not only was it one of the early giant monster goes on a rampage movies but it inspired Ishiro Honda to create Godzilla, with a Japanese perspective on the atomic bomb. (Obviously their perspective is different from ours in the United States but a lot of monster movies came from a fear of the atomic bomb and misused atomic energy as much as it did worries about communists.) And yet I only saw it today thanks to a recording of MeTV’s Svengoolie. I’ll be sparing you the bad puns but there was some interesting trivia attached as well.
Based on a story Ray Bradbury wrote in the Saturday Evening Post, later re-titled The Fog Horn (where the lighthouse destruction scene comes from), the story was brought to the attention of the producers by another famous Ray, Ray Harryhausen, who ended up doing the effects though originally they wanted Harryhausen’s old mentor Willis O’Brien of King Kong fame. It also features a cameo by Lee Van Clef, who only got billed in the TV guide description because of his more famous later works. All he does is fire a grenade near the end of the film. It’s a 50s monster movie so of course the hero here is the scientist.
RELEASE DATE: 1953
RELEASED BY: Warner Brothers
RUNTIME: 1 hours, 20 minutes (2 hours for the TV Svengoolie version with added trivia and comedy)
DIRECTOR: Eugène Lourié
WRITERS: Lou Morheim, based on a short story by Ray Bradbury
GROSS INCOME: IMDB doesn’t list it, just the estimated budget of $210,000
The Plot: During an atomic bomb test in the Arctic, atomic scientist Professor Tom Nesbit (Christian) and his associate spot a giant monster just as the associate is killed in an avalanche by the monster. Naturally nobody believes his story, even after two boats are reportedly destroyed by a sea serpent. Thanks to one witness willing to come forward with him and the help of paleontologist Lee Hunter (Raymond) and her boss Professor Thurgood Elson (Kellaway) he is finally able to convince his friend Colonel Jack Edwards (Tobey) he really did see a monster…and it followed him back to New York. (It was a coincidence via the gulf stream, folks. This isn’t Jaws: The Revenge.)
Why did I want to see it?: I need to stop ruining this in the intro or just drop this section. I’m a fan of 50s atomic monster movies and this was one of the early versions, with all the tropes you’d expect since this virtually started the concept. However, this one was already pretty famous for the scene where the monster, referred to as a “rhedosaurus” (a fake dinosaur that has yet to get a real dino named after him), eats a cop dumb enough to stand there and shoot his standard issue revolver at him. (He kind of deserved to get eaten by nature of the Darwin Award he earned.) I became even more interested in seeing it after learning Honda had saw the movie on a plane ride home to Japan from America and being inspired to make his own, even considering stop-motion before transferring over to the man-in-suit technique Japanese monster movies are famous for.
What did I think?: Well, all the cliches are here but this is one of the starting points so that’s not a surprise. Heroic scientist who is important to saving the day and is allowed into the danger zone? Check. Beautiful love interest who is also some kind of scientist, knows of hero scientist through his work somehow, and is smitten immediately? Check, though we don’t have her needing to warm up to him, which is a 50/50 shot in these movies. Nobody believes he saw a monster until it finally does some public damage and is too late? Check. Monster destroyed by other science stuff? Check. However, that’s kind of the charm of these movies by this point so I don’t mind it.
Christian/Hubschmid is our hero scientist and he fills out the role well given how little science he has to do. Atomic testing in the Arctic may not have cause the monster to mutate and it’s a germ the monster spreads that ends up killing the survivors of his attack (although I wonder why the one boat captain and the first mate of the other attack didn’t get sick, plus Tom himself), so the important science is paleontology. Tom’s contribution is being part of the test that freed the monster from the ice and spending half the movie trying to convince people he isn’t the victim of stress, then coming up with the magic radiation to solve the problem. (Radiation solves everything, kids. Just ask Radioactive Man.) At first I thought his associate, the one who saw the monster first, would be the hero scientist but he dies right after Tom sees it, so Tom gets to be the hero.
Raymond also does a good job as the love interest because she actually contributes. Lee knows Tom is a fellow scientist, just in a different field, so naturally he can’t be crazy or he’d be a mad scientist out for revenge or conquest. Apparently scientists only go crazy if they become evil in the 1950s. Because she believes in him and later falls for him she is part of the story. She’s the first one to proceed after even Tom is considering dropping the subject and her boss has even sought to question what Tom saw. It’s nice to see the love interest responsible for moving the plot along rather than just there for the hero to hug and kiss a lot.
The monster is done through stop-motion, but you knew that if you watched the trailer above or saw “Ray Harryhausen” mentioned in the intro. (Fun fact: spell check wants to remake his last name into Munchhausen and I wonder how he would have felt about that.) There is one scene where a hand puppet is used, but for the time the effect works pretty well. (Note I said “for the time”.) The only time it doesn’t work is oddly the scene from Bradbury’s story that inspired the movie as the silhouette of the rhedosaurus against the fake night sky and the lighthouse doesn’t match up to the surroundings. The effect of the lighthouse itself getting hugged to death is quite good and according to Svengoolie was done by attaching wires to the debris. Techniques were created for the movie as well to match up the rhedosaurus to the surroundings and the rest of them work much better. Again, for the time.
The story itself has become a bit paint by the numbers but since it’s an early version of that I can overlook it. The dialog suffers from the 1950s at points but everyone has their own way of responding to the situation and it’s believable enough. I did enjoy the movie, though the only reason it doesn’t hold up outside of the lack of color and the now-outdated stop-motion (everybody wants to use them fancy compiutor thingamagadgets nowadays) is that it set-up the old cliches that are commonplace in the atomic monster movies of the period. There isn’t a lot of high drama. Compare the hospital scenes where the doctors are treating the germ patients to something like the aftermath triage scene of Godzilla and the Japanese outing is clearly the superior incarnation but respect the origin point, kids.
Was it worth the wait?: For the history it was. The problem with the origin point is that you see the techniques and storybeats done better as storytelling evolves over time as well as the cliches of a genre that starts there. The movie’s not going to be for everybody but it would hurt to watch this being riffed out of malice rather than an honest love for the period. For the time this was a good movie. Compare to what came after and it may suffer. Come at it for what it is and it’s at least a history lesson of the giant monster/kaiju genre. I am glad I saw it and I did enjoy watching it but I wonder if I would have appreciated it more in my younger days than I can today. Still, it’s a must-see for Godzilla fans or anyone into the 50s atomic monster films, if only for historical significance.