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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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.