Ray Harryhausen Retrospective: It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

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Background: After The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms became a sleeper hit, Ray Harryhausen proposed an original idea to producer Jack Dietz for a follow-up. His story treatment, entitled The Elementalsinvolved a race of winged creatures invading Paris and roosting in the Eiffel Tower. (You can see a preliminary test, “starring” Harryhausen himself, on youtube.) While Deitz supported the project, he insisted that it be made in then-popular 3D and had Harryhausen experiment with 3D stop-motion animation. After a few tests, the two men mutually agreed that such a process would be far too expensive and time-consuming; The Elementals never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, Columbia producer Charles H. Schneer had seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and recognized major commercial potential in the burgeoning giant monster genre. Inspired by Harryhausen’s dinosaur, Schneer hired the man himself to work on another high-concept creature feature, this one featuring a gigantic octopus on a rampage through the Bay Area. Eager to work on another feature film, the animator began pre-production, crafting the creature models and observing octopi at local aquariums to get ideas. Famously, budget constraints meant that the octopus could only have six tentacles; the ever-thrifty Harryhausen would later transform them into dinosaur tails. Working from a script by Them! (1954) writer George Worthing Yates, director Robert Gordon finished principal photography in two to three weeks (Harryhausen’s visual effects work took upwards of seven months) by rarely using more than one take.

By the time It Came From Beneath the Sea premiered in July 1955, Harryhausen-esque creatures had become a regular part of the moviegoing experience: 1954 saw the release of Them! and Godzilla and Harryhausen’s second film came out in the same year as Tarantula and Godzilla Raids Again. (Although it might seem a bit campy today, giant monsters provided a perfect, if literal, metaphor for Cold War-era fears.) Released on a double bill with the incredibly-titled Creature With the Atom BrainIt Came From Beneath the Sea grossed more than ten times its $150,000 budget. Just as importantly, the film marked the beginning of a partnership, as Schneer would produce eleven more films for Harryhausen.

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Plot Introduction: While on its maiden voyage, a state-of-the-art nuclear sub collides with an unknown, highly radioactive object in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The vessel’s captain, Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), investigates the incident, recruiting marine biologists John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) to analyze a piece of organic tissue found on the submarine’s exterior. The marine biologists discover that undersea nuclear testing has completely disrupted the Pacific ecosystem, causing giant octopi to leave their deep-sea trenches in search of food. After a superfluous romantic subplot between Joyce and Mathews, the Octopus finally arrives at San Franciso, climbing up the Golden Gate Bridge and attacking the Embarcadero. After soldiers push the creature back into the water with flamethrowers, Mathews and Carter destroy it with a radioactive torpedo.

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My Thoughts: In his autobiography, Ray Harryhausen makes it clear that he thinks of his stop-motions creations as creatures, not monsters, and that he tried to give every one of them a sense of pathos. Of all the diverse creatures in his vast bestiary, the giant octopus comes closest to a monster: as a one-dimensional killing machine, it’s certainly not a tragic figure like the Rhedosaurus. I can think of two major reasons why this is. First, he didn’t come up with the idea, didn’t design the character (besides cutting off two of the tentacles), and didn’t have a fantastic short story by his lifelong friend to base its personality on. The personal touch that makes so many of Harryhausen’s creations memorable just isn’t there.

Second, octopi are so far removed from human beings that they become truly hard to relate to. Harryhausen’s best work always involves bringing creatures that have a major presence in our imagination – creatures from myth, the distant past, or other worlds – to life. (What kid goes through a phase where they’re fascinated with mollusks?) With one or two exceptions, real-life animals were never his forte. In It Came From Beneath the Sea, the special effects shot invariably focus on the tentacles, which prevent us from making eye contact and add one more barrier to any kind of emotional investment. I know that the creature is so wantonly destructive because it’s a metaphor for the bomb, but the bomb is impossible to sympathize with.

The unsympathetic octopus, however, is fascinating to look at. Apart from an underwhelming finale, where it truly does look like a rubber model holding onto a toy submarine, Harryhausen does very good work on a shoestring budget. The clear highlights are the creature’s attacks on the Oakland ferry and the Embarcadero. Harryhausen, who animated the tentacles as if they had eyes, has them crush humans, smash through windows, tear down buildings, and generally terrorize the Bay Area. Building on his previous experience, he mattes everything together very well: it’s very hard to tell where the Golden Gate Bridge ends and the miniature model begins.

Unfortunately, the stop-motion effects don’t appear as often as they should. The first hour of this 79-minute film has about two minutes of octopus screentime, which is simply unacceptable for a Harryhausen flick. While Harryhausen built his career around using very limited resources in creative ways, this might be the one time where the low budget got the better of him. As you probably surmised from the plot summary, this is almost a beat-for-beat remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms with a few of the details changed. The combination of budget constraints and slavish devotion to its predecessor means that It Came From Beneath the Sea does pretty much everything worse than Harryhausen’s first film. Besides the creature, which is a clear downgrade, the human story has also taken a turn for the worse: as perfunctory as the characters were in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, having a proto-Fox Mulder as the protagonist is a decent hook.

The hero of It Came From Beneath the Sea, however, is a completely generic naval officer. Kenneth Tobey (who had a supporting role in Harryhausen’s debut) plays it woodenly and adds nothing to a badly underwritten character. However, I can’t really blame him or the other cast members because of the rushed production and the directors refusal to shoot multiple takes unless someone flubbed their line. Good performances simply don’t come from those conditions. Because of this, the romance that takes up much of the film’s screen time is completely uninteresting.

The only live-action scene that works is the opening where the submarine crew first encounters the octopus. Shot in an actual submarine, the sequence’s claustrophobic visuals, editing, and sound design come together to create a tense atmosphere. While watching the rest of the movie, I could help but play armchair writer and think about how this would be a much better direction for the film: instead of having Harryhausen copy his previous work, he should have worked on making the underwater scenes convincing and It Came from Beneath the Sea should have been about subs hunting giant octopi in the Pacific.

I’ve been harsh on this film, but that’s because I have a great love for Ray Harryhausen and things beyond his control really hampered him here. Fortunately, his celebrated career was only getting started.

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