Beast From 20,000 Fathoms Review

Before I review this particular disc, I want to talk in general terms about a man who I think is one of the few genuine legends of Hollywood and almost a a one-man industry.

For people of my generation, the name of Ray Harryhausen probably conjures up memories of family outings to the cinema to watch Sinbad or Jason fighting a variety of beautifully animated, if increasingly unlikely, monsters. In an age before computer graphics took over the special effects field, Harryhausen was a god, both to the people he worked with and to the students who eventually became his successors. His style of stop-motion animation was painstaking and often tedious work, causing long delays between films, but the love and artistry he brought to the task was evident in the finished product. Although the effects rarely lose a slightly jerky quality, due to the inherent limitations of the medium, they have a wonderfully larger than life and fantastic quality which is exactly what the films – so often brought down to earth by bad writing and unimaginative direction – so badly need.

Stop-motion animation, in which a figure with flexible body parts is shot then moved and adjusted slightly before being shot again, in order to give the illusion of continuous movement, was developed in the early years of the century. Willis O’Brien used the method in his 1925 version of The Lost World and, subsequently, made it famous in the endlessly influential and hugely entertaining monster movie King Kong. The fact that, 70 years on, Kong still seems to be a living, breathing creature with genuine emotions and feelings is the biggest compliment one can pay to any special effects designer and it’s clear that it was King Kong - and, before it, The Lost World - that gave Harryhausen the spark of enthusiasm to go on and become the leading figure in the field of stop-motion.

Harryhausen’s Hollywood career began in 1946 when he worked with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young and this gave him the experience he needed to move onto working on his own in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. That film was a huge success and led to Ray’s involvement in several other successful movies such as Twenty Million Miles To Earth. However, it was his meeting with Hollywood producer Charles M. Schneer that gave him a consistent showcase for his talents. Schneer and Harryhausen produced a series of films which are fondly remembered, even though most of them aren’t particularly good. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was a huge success but, oddly, his most consistently good film Jason and the Argonauts was a relative failure and it sent Harryhausen into a bit of a dry period. His best known work of the late sixties is Hammer’s very silly One Million Years BC and even that is better remembered for Raquel Welch in a loincloth than for the dinosaurs. The main problem, and one which never seemed to be solved, is that the films are usually made by directors with little imagination and are almost always burdened with appalling scripts. Even the best of the films are episodic and lack the kind of flights of dramatic fancy which might make them into something really memorable.

During the 1970s, Harryhausen found himself in less demand than had been the case a decade earlier. Fantasy films had been marginalised at the box office and the cost of making a film with Harryhausen’s style of animation was become prohibitive. Some low-budget films used the technique - Flesh Gordon for example – but without the elegant finish that Ray brought to the task. He was involved in two films, both produced by Charles M.Schneer - The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. The former is the best film of the Sinbad series thanks to a decent script by Brian Clements and pacy direction from Gordon Hessler. It also has a good villain in a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker. Admittedly, Sinbad himself is a waste of space – John Philip Law isn’t much of an improvement on Kerwin Matthews – and Caroline Munroe might as well be in a coma for all the impact she makes, but the excellent monsters make up for this. There is a particularly fine scene where the figurehead on Sinbad’s ship comes to life, steals a map and swims away. The latter, which came out exactly at the wrong time, when Star Wars had broken new ground in effects, is a mess which seems to go on forever and has a very weak cast. Sam Wanamaker’s direction is somnolent, allowing expository scenes to drag on, and the script is laughably banal. Even Harryhausen’s monsters seem a little bit bored and it is surely a sign of desperation that he returns, for a key set-piece, to the sword-wielding skeletons of Jason And The Argonauts. The film flopped badly in cinemas and it looked like Harryhausen might be yesterday’s man.

Ray, however, had one more movie left in him and, in terms of his effects work, it is his best. His swan-song, Clash Of The Titans, made on a generous budget for MGM, is packed with great monster moments, from the winged horse Pegasus to the brilliantly animated Medusa, and culminates with the splendidly grumpy Kraken causing havoc. On the debit side, the film is too long and the script is usually clunky but the cast – give or take the romantic leads – is great and Laurence Olivier rises to the occasion with a deliciously venal take on Zeus.

The influence of Ray Harryhausen on the development of special effects is incalculable. I don’t mean in terms of the stop-motion animation he perfected, great as that is. I mean that he influenced and inspired virtually all of the major special effects artists who now dominate commercial cinema. That’s pretty impressive for a guy who – up to Titans - laboured on his own in a small workshop.


The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms isn’t a particularly good film but it does have one claim to significance as the first movie to employ Ray Harryhausen as sole visual effects artist. Loosely based on a short story by Ray Bradbury, it’s a standard monster movie of the 1950s and, in many respects, looks like a template for most of the ones which followed.

As one would expect in 1953 – the year that Stalin died but still in the midst of the Cold War – the film begins with atomic experimentation. An atomic bomb is exploded in the Arctic Circle – Operation Experiment (which shows a certain lack of imagination – on what is charmingly known as ‘X’ day. That would really baffle any passing KGB spies, as would the identification of the time of explosion as ‘H’ hour. The scientific team – “The men are ready... the equipment is ready” – are alarmed to discover that the bomb has disturbed the sleep of a huge dinosaur – a Rhedosaurus – which has been encased in ice for millions of years. One of the men dies, the other lives to tell the tale but, as you would expect, no-one believes him. It’s only when the monster begins destroying boats and snacking on a lighthouse that the authorities begin to take things seriously. Soon, the Rhedosaurus is rampaging through New York and it seems that nothing can be done to stop it.

“Everytime we explode one of these things, I feel as if we’re writing the first chapters of a new Genesis!” says one of the scientists, which captures the mood of the times pretty well. Despite knowing the dangers of atomic weapons, scientists just couldn’t resist trying them out, with pretty devastating effects in the long term. The film preaches the virtues of caution – are there things man wasn’t meant to discover – but still presents the scientists as unimpeachably brave warriors for a new enlightenment. The poor old dinosaur, which after all didn’t ask to be woken up, is the best character in the film but still ends up being portrayed as a rampaging demon that has to be destroyed before it brings ‘civilisation’ to its knees.

Nothing much happens to stop us rooting for the Rhedosaurus throughout the film. The scientists are a dull lot, with the exception of Cecil Kellaway who plays the cuddly old professor who ends up as a quick snack when he goes down in a diving bell to take a closer look at the monster. Paul Christian and Paula Raymond are the romantic leads, although their romance doesn’t get anything more than tepid, and they are about as interesting as a speck of house dust. Kenneth Tobey – the lead in the rather better The Thing From Another World - turns up as a military type. Needless to say, the soldiers are just as pure as the scientists in their motives. Since one could argue that one of the key causes of the Cold War was an alliance between the military – in the form of the appalling but fascinating General Groves – and scientists – in the form of Oppenheimer – to create a weapon of mass destruction, this confidence in their ability to bring order to chaos seems more than a little naive. But this was 1953 and such liberal doubts would have been considered crypto-Communism. Some of the best monster and SF movies of the era get away with considerably more complexity by being beautifully subtle – Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a key example in that you can’t tell whether it’s about Red-baiting or a cynical satire on McCarthyism and social conformity (although given Siegel’s leftist political leanings, I tend to suspect the latter).

But the dinosaur is a thing of beauty. Ray Harryhausen’s genius is to make us believe that the creature exists and to give it enough character to make it sympathetic. All the things that the monster does simply make us love it more, especially when it gobbles up a trigger-happy New York cop, and its good taste in rampaging into the dreadfully vulgar Coney Island can hardly be understated. The stop-motion animation is superb, some of Harryhausen’s best, and the direction of the scene where the monster destroys a lighthouse, shot in silhouette, is masterly. Indeed, this is the only time that director Eugene Lourie suggests any particular talent beyond basic competence. It’s hard to believe that Lourie found a certain repute for his work as Jean Renoir’s art director.

One of the things which links all of Harryhausen’s work is the generally low quality of the scripts. They plod along in a vaguely interesting way but the dialogue is usually awful and characterisation is generally non-existent. This particularly applies to the heroes who are usually mediocre actors who presumably came cheap – Kerwin Matthews, John Philip Law, Harry Hamlin, Patrick Wayne – and who don’t engage our sympathies for one moment. Unspeakable dialogue piles up in struggling heaps – “I have a deep and abiding respect for the work of scientists, or I wouldn’t have become one myself” or “I make coffee strong enough to enter the Olympics” – and the attempts to evoke some kind of scientific realism are laughable. At one point, a scientist refers to the Loch Lomond monster and at another, we are informed that two people cannot share the same hallucination.

As a template for the monster movie genre, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms has most of the requisite ingredients. A big, scary monster; heroes from the world of science and the military; a cuddly old Professor; a woman who is allowed to be clever but not too clever; a big scene where the monster goes mad amidst an urban landscape; some vaguely scientific rationale for the monster’s existence; disbelieving authorities who only come around to the truth when it’s too late. It has to be said that this film, although it may be a real trendsetter, is pretty poor stuff for much of its running time, especially in comparison with a real classic of the genre such as Gordon Douglas’ elegant and suspenseful Them. But it gains points for the last twenty minutes when the monster destroys most of New York, and for a really silly scene towards the end which involves our hero, Lee Van Cleef and a rollercoaster. Hundreds of people are killed during the film but the only death we really care about it that of the Rhedosaurus. There’s some kind of moral there.

The Disc

If you’re a fan of monster movies then you may well want to pick this one up. It’s not a particularly impressive disc but it’s fairly good and at least Warners have made an attempt to include some interesting bonus materials.

Warners have become justifiably noted for their stunning transfers of films from the 1940s and 1950s. Sadly, this isn’t one of their triumphs. The film looks pretty good but not great. It’s presented in the original fullscreen aspect ratio and in gleaming black and white. The picture is reasonably sharp and quite well detailed but there is a considerable amount of minor print damage with scratches occurring throughout the film. Some artefacting is visible as well and the film has a slightly grainy appearance throughout. However, this transfer is a vast improvement on the horribly muddy print used for TV showings.

The soundtrack is in the original mono and is absolutely fine. Not much to say about it really. The dialogue is always clear and the sound effects have a reasonable punch to them.

There are three main extras. The first is a very brief (6 minute) featurette about the making of the film which consists of clips and extracts from an interview with Harryhausen. This is surprisingly uninformative with no real detail on Harryhausen’s stop-motion work. The second featurette lasts about 15 minutes and is a conversation between Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury about their lifelong friendship and their collaboration on this film. This is pleasant but, again, it’s very superficial and leaves you wanting to hear more about the films and less of the self-congratulation and mutual backslapping. The third extra is a collection of 4 trailers from fantasy films; The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Black Scorpion, The Valley of Gwangi, Clash of the Titans. There's also a hidden feature, accessible from the extra features page, which is nice but nothing to lose sleep over.

There are English subtitles included for the film and the two featurettes. The film is divided into 25 chapter stops.

If you’re a fan of monster movies then you may well want to pick this one up. It’s not a particularly impressive disc but it’s fairly good and at least Warners have made an attempt to include some interesting bonus materials.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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