Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

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Background: In my life, I’ve had the honor of meeting two late science fiction legends, special effects master Ray Harryhausen and visionary writer Ray Bradbury. The two Rays shared a lifelong friendship, bonding in their late teens over a mutual love of dinosaurs. (When Harryhausen finally received a lifetime achievement Oscar, Bradbury presented it to him.) On a DVD special feature, the two old men sit down and reminisce about the old days when they drove around L.A. to see screenings of King Kong (1933) and spent hours discussing space travel. Professionally, however, their paths only crossed once, on this 1953 monster movie.

After a decade spent making short films and apprenticing under King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen accepted an offer to work on a low-budget feature film. (Producers Hal Chester and Jack Dietz were so tight with money that Harryhausen had to pay for many expenses out of pocket.) Although he needed the job, he voiced his problems with the script treatment – then called “Monster From Under the Sea” – and suggested improvements. Because the production was so small, Harryhausen essentially created the visual effects by himself, designing a fictitious dinosaur called a “Rhedosaur” and developing ways to matte it into live-action footage.

Meanwhile, Ray Bradbury had a prehistoric experience of his own. While walking along Venice Beach, the author saw the ruins of an abandoned roller coaster and imaged them to be the skeleton of a dinosaur that died of loneliness. Inspired, he wrote a short story about a fog horn that awakens a dinosaur from a millennia-long slumber at the bottom of the sea; the dinosaur believes the sound to be another of its kind. The creature then discovers that the lighthouse is not a member of its species and destroys it. Bradbury sold the story to the Saturday Evening Post.

After its publication, Chester and Dietz bought the rights to Bradbury’s story, using its title – the short story is now known as “The Foghorn” to avoid confusion – and adapting it into one of the film’s best scenes. Helmed by veteran French art director Eugène Lourié, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms grossed five million dollars on a $210,000 budget and established Harryhausen’s creatures as a box office draw.

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Plot Introduction: A top-secret nuclear test in the Arctic Circle frees a dinosaur from the icy prison that held it for millions of years. When nuclear physicist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) encounters the creature, it buries his friend in an avalanche and seemingly disappears; authorities dismiss Nesbitt’s dinosaur sighting as a “traumatic hallucination” and place him in a psychiatric institution. Anxious to prove his sanity, Nesbitt enlists paleontologists Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) to help him investigate reports of sea monsters. He is eventually vindicated when the Rhedosaurus lands on Manhattan Island and rampages through the city. Because it has radioactive blood, the military cannot kill the creature with normal weapons: any break in its scaly skin would cause an outbreak of disease. The humans finally stop the Rhedosaurus’s reign of terror at Coney Island, where a sniper shoots it with a radioactive isotope that causes its body to break down.

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My Thoughts: To be perfectly honest, the beginning of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms feels like something you’d see on Mystery Science Theater 3000: stentorian ’50s narration over military stock footage, questionable science, cheesy rear projection. Mike and the robots would have had a lot of fun mocking a secret project called “Operation Experiment.” Although the film gets much better, it’s important to remember that Ray Harryhausen spent the early part of his career in the same b-movie world as Roger Corman. (They really should have collaborated – I’m sure Vincent Price would have loved to play opposite a Harryhausen creature.)

The film improves immediately after the bomb explodes, as our protagonist goes out onto the ice to investigate a (beastly) radar anomaly. The production never went close to the Arctic, but the combination of sets and actually well-composited backdrops works much better than it has any right to. I was reminded of Han Solo searching Hoth’s frozen wastes for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. (Lucas is a huge Harryhausen fan, after all.) When the beast first appears in the middle of a blizzard, it’s a legitimately atmospheric sequence.

I’ve gotten into The X-Files lately, and this film’s main character is a lot like a ’50s version of Fox Mulder: a traumatic, paranormal experience causes him to become obsessed with cryptids and travel hundreds of miles to hear sailors tell tales of sea serpents. Authority figures mock Nesbitt – who compares himself to Galileo – with jokes about leprechauns and the Loch Ness monster. In one very X-Files scene, Nesbitt tries to identify the creature he saw by looking at many, many sketches of prehistoric animals. Although his accent slips in and out, Swiss actor (the script infers that people don’t believe him because he is foreign) Paul Christian gives a decent performance, as does Paula Raymond as the obligatory love interest. The most entertaining cast member, however, is Cecil Kellaway, an actor who I’ve previously discussed in my review of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Kellaway’s paleontology professor is so cartoonish that Nesbitt meets him next to a reassembled Brontosaurus skeleton.

Despite budget constraints, first-time director Lourié does a solid job. (Maybe he learned a thing or two about directing from his collaborations with Jean Renoir.) In his autobiography, Harryhausen recalls that he and Lourié worked very well together; he also praises the Frenchman for designing sets that look like the cost much more than they actually did. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms began a second career for Lourié, as he spent the next decade directing three more monster movies.

Of course, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus far outshadows any of its human costars; It’s remarkable that one man using very simple technology could have accomplished all of it. While the rear projection is obvious in a few shots, he mostly finds a way to seamlessly integrate his creature into the live-action footage. Even at this early stage in his career, Harryhausen’s work on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms contains some of his best setpieces: the Rhedosaurus demolishes Bradbury’s lighthouse, rocks a ship back and forth on the water, crashes through a New York building, swipes at power lines, and dies in agony surrounded by a burning roller coaster. (In his book, Harryhausen mentions his belief that “every creature should die on or near a landmark.”)

Drawing from his friend’s short story, Harryhausen gives the dinosaur a real characterization. As the world’s biggest King Kong fan, he would return again and again to the idea of his creatures as victims of a world that does not understand them. The Rhedosaurus, after all, is only trying to return to its own stomping grounds, which happen to have been paved over and covered with skyscrapers. “The Foghorn” is all about the dinosaur’s loneliness, and Harryhausen breathes such life so much life into it that the viewer truly gets emotionally involved. Besides being a spectacular showcase of visual effects, the creature’s death at Coney Island is a truly dramatic (and even tragic) moment. In the past, I’ve praised filmmakers for getting good performances out of actors; I’m covering Harryhausen because he gets good performances out of rubber models.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is both one of the most entertaining 1950’s b-movies and one of the most influential. Science fiction always taps into its zeitgeist’s fears; Harryhausen’s atomically-revived dinosaur resonated with a post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki world, inspiring Godzilla (1954) and a whole subgenre of giant monster movies. Eight years later, director Eugène Lourié helmed Gorgo (1961), a film that can be best described as “Godzilla in London.” (if you enjoy watching guys in rubber suits destroy model cities, Gorgo is one of the better films in that genre.) From the start, Harryhausen’s work had an impact on other filmmakers, as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is a pioneering summer blockbuster.

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