Friday, February 27, 2015

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) [Friday Fakeosaurus February]


 
I tried not to pigeonhole myself into it, but ultimately, when talking about fake species of cinematic dinosaurs, you really can't not discuss the one that basically started it all. Of course, that's not all it started. Without The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms we wouldn't have Godzilla. It's also the movie that first gave Ray Harryhausen control over its special effects, so without it who knows if we would ever have gotten his subsequent technical masterpieces like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and The Argonauts? Hell, its influence has been so long-lasting that it was unofficially remade in 1998!

Of course, influential doesn't actually always equal "good." Luckily, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, despite its very 50s attitudes and some rather goofy decisions, is still a pretty good movie on its own.

It was also the film that basically locked Eugene Lourie into the role of "director of giant sea monster movies." I am contractually obligated to mention that every time I bring up Lourie.

We open in the Arctic Circle, as a bunch of military stock footage gets ready for something that the standard Omniscient Narrator We Will Never Hear From Again (William Woodson) explains is codenamed "Operation Experiment." That's...that's not a code name. That's just a description. The goal of Operation Experiment is to test a nuclear bomb in the Arctic and see what happens. I guess they got tired of poisoning the South Pacific. The use of stock footage is actually pretty well managed here, as they never use any shots that obviously came from Pacific tests as the bomb goes off and the arctic ice breaks apart.

Physicist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is overseeing the project with military liaison Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey!). The two almost jokingly discuss the possibility consequences of all these atomic tests with another scientist, George Ritchie (Ross Elliott). Col. Evans is called away when a radar operator reports seeing an anomaly in the testing area. However, whatever it was has vanished from the screen by the time Evans gets there. The operators write it off as something tossed in front of the antenna by the blast, even though it showed up way too many times for that to make sense.

Ahead of an unexpected blizzard, a jeep takes Nesbitt and Ritchie out to take readings from monitoring stations outside the blast radius. The two separate to take readings faster, as their radiation badges are reading close to unsafe levels. Ritchie promptly runs afoul of a giant reptilian creature and, while it doesn't even seem to notice him, his terror at the sight of it causes him to fall into a pit and break his leg.
"Ha! It's cold outside. That proves global warming is a hoaOH MY GOD!"
Ritchie fires his revolver (?) and gets Nesbitt's attention--which the two guys in the jeep fail to notice--and when Nesbitt arrives to check on his injured companion, Ritchie warns him that there's a "prehistoric monster" running around out there. That's something I always loved about this film: Ritchie immediately knows what he saw was a freaking dinosaur and says so. even the film's imitators didn't always get this right.

Of course, this doesn't help Ritchie. When Nesbitt climbs out of the pit to go get help, the dinosaur returns and causes an avalanche that buries Ritchie and nearly kills Nesbitt, too. Luckily, Nesbitt was given a Very pistol and the two yahoos in the jeep see his flare and get him out as the blizzard rolls in. Nesbitt comes back to base, unconscious and babbling warnings about "the monster", and with a bad case of exposure to the elements. The base doctor recommends he be sent to a hospital in the States--instead of the much closer Canada, for some reason. Yeah, suck it socialized medicine!

Nesbitt is sent all the way to New York, as it happens. To his dismay, nobody believes his story. Evans didn't even mention it in the report--which, um, you'd think he'd have to at least touch on--because there was no evidence of any animal in that area after the fact. Medical professionals and psychiatrists tell Nesbitt it was a hallucination brought on by seeing the death of his friend. Now, I'm not a mental health professional, but I don't think PTSD usually triggers hallucinations of dinosaurs. I think most PTSD sufferers might actually prefer that--at least if you're suddenly seeing a T-Rex charging towards you, you'd know you were having an episode.

Well, Nesbitt's hallucination helpfully sinks the fishing ketch Fortune off the coast of Canada, and the survivor reports that his boat was sunk by a sea serpent. When Nesbitt sees the report in a paper, he goes to a nearby university to visit paleontologist Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) to try and gain an ally. Dr. Elson is just as skeptical as anyone, suggesting that it's impossible for a creature to have survived for 100 million years even frozen in ice. (No, I have no idea where they arrived at the figure of 100 million years, since that would put the creature in the middle of the Cretaceous period instead of the end) However, Elson's assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) is much more sympathetic to his cause.

The fact she's shooting bedroom eyes at Nesbitt--which is he is horribly unconvincing at trying to return--might have something to do with it, but thankfully we're not given the feeling that's her only reason. Still, she tracks Nesbitt down at his office with a second report of a fishing boat sunk off of Marquette, Canada. Nesbitt heard about it earlier on the radio--during an amusing bit where the DJ relays the survivor's story and then leaves off with, "He really oughta stop smoking that stuff, and try Virginia Golds, because..." before Nesbitt shuts the radio off--but he's resigned himself to the reality that no one will ever believe him. Hunter disagrees, and she suggests they look over drawings of all known prehistoric animals. If Nesbitt can identify one and a survivor of the creature's attacks can identify the same one, it would prove that they're not crazy.

The scene of Nesbitt looking at drawings of prehistoric creatures has been imitated more than once, and thanks to cursory knowledge of dinosaurs and DVD quality, the scene is unintentionally hilarious. Hunter has Nesbitt take a break for coffee and sandwiches, saying they "haven't even reached the Cretaceous yet" despite the prominent featuring of Charles R. Knight's iconic artwork of a Tyrannosaurus, plus at least one duckbill dinosaur and Struthiomimus. Then, DVD clarity allows us to see through the back of the pictures when Nesbitt finds a series of images that get closer and closer to the creature he saw--and it's just alternating between the same two drawings of Knight's T-Rex and his Allosaurus!
"That's the one, officer!"
The creature in question will later be identified as a Rhedosaurus. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, so let's assume the scientist who discovered it was named Rhed.

Nesbitt has no luck with convincing the survivor of the most recent "sea serpent" attack, but the survivor of the first comes with Nesbitt to see Dr. Elson. When the survivor identifies the Rhedosaurus independently, Elson is convinced. He vouches for Nesbitt to Col. Evans and Evans even looks into strange occurrences that might coincide with their "monster."

[As an aside, I always liked how the film never actually gives an explanation for the Rhedosaur's survival. Yes, the H-bomb clearly brought it back somehow, but that's it]

The kind of strange incidents Evans uncovers include one that actually comes from the Ray Bradbury short story that the credits claim the film was "Suggested by", when we see the Rhedosaurus destroy a lighthouse. In the short story this is apparently because the fog horn from the lighthouse makes the dinosaur think the lighthouse is another of his own kind. In the movie, the Rhedosaurus just seemingly finds the lighthouse annoying.

"You think you're so great, with your bright light and your loud horn!"
All the reports of destruction follow a clear path down the North Atlantic seaboard of North America. Elson thinks he knows why. The only known specimens of Rhedosaurus were found in the Hudson Undersea Canyon, and the creature may be returning there like a salmon returning to the river from which it spawned. Though unlike what you might think, this doesn't mean Elson suspects the creature is looking to nest--maybe it could be searching for a mate, but Elson never outright suggests that.

Elson suggests searching the Cayon via diving bell, and in fact volunteers to go down in the bell along with its operator. The fact that Elson constantly reassures everyone that no harm will come to him and has been referring every chance he gets to his upcoming, well-earned extended holiday should be ringing your alarm bells harder than a hero cop's partner with a pregnant wife who's three days away from retirement. Sure enough, Elson finds the Rhedosaurus--after a rather tasteless bit where we watch stock footage of an octopus and shark (a dogfish, I think) fighting in what is clearly a tank. We don't find out who wins because the Rhedosaurus eats them in a rather silly effect. (One that suggests the octopus and shark were many times their actual size) Elson is too busy gushing to Hunter about how cool the Rhedosaurus is to order the bell raised, even as its gaping jaws loom closer and closer...

Yep, exit Elson. Honestly, I'm pretty sure he was okay going out that way, though. I mean I bet Robert Bakker's last thoughts as he was devoured by a pack of Deinonychus would be about how cool it was.

Hunter and Nesbitt get a brief mourning scene, but the movie then cuts to what we really came here for. The Rhedosaurus comes ashore in a fish market district and then proceeds to rampage through the streets of New York City as panicked mobs flee ahead of it. We get a our best looks at the Rhedosaurus here and it's always struck me as looking like a giant, fanged tuatara.

"So where's this Big Apple that I keep hearing about? I'm starving!"
One police officer tries to shoot the beast with a revolver. It doesn't end well for him. A squad of officers with riot shotguns have rather more success--except their attack just causes the creature to smash its way through a building to get away, crushing fleeing bystanders under bricks in the process. Ultimately the creature "disappears" after smashing a subway entrance, in a shot that suggests that either the Rhedosaurus has telekinesis or the technicians responsible for collapsing the set blew their cue--the Rhedosaurus in the rear-projected footage only charges at the set after it collapses.
 
The hospitals tending to the sick begin noticing alarming symptoms among their patients that don't match any known disease. It gets worse from there. Under Evans, Hunter, and Nesbitt's watchful eyes it's determined that a simple artillery shell can't get through the Rhedosaur's eight inch thick skull. (Nobody tries to shoot the creature through the eye, naturally, even though in a creature with forward-facing eyes that'd almost certainly get you a sure brain hit) Evans orders a bazooka squad to attack the creature. One bazooka rocket manages to wound the creature under the throat, whereupon it retreats to the river. The soldiers following the blood drops left by the creature--on foot (?!) because sending infantry after a 100-foot wounded and aggressive dinosaur is a good idea--begin to collapse, overtaken by the same bizarre disease.
 
The Rhedosaurus is a giant plague rat, carrying a long-extinct pathogen that modern humanity has no immunity to. Killing it with guns, bombs, or flamethrowers might mean spreading the infectious disease even further. However, Nesbitt has an idea: firing a radioactive isotope into the creature's wound. The radiation would destroy all the infected tissue and remove the risk of inection.
 
Except there's only one radioactive isotope available, and if they miss there's no chance. Good thing one of Evans' men is a young Lee Van Cleef! So clearly it's time for a fiery showdown at Coney Island...
 
"I didn't start the fire!"
It's not hard to see how Godzilla took inspiration from this film. Sure, the H-bomb that unleashes the Rhedosaurus is basically a MacGuffin, unlike how Godzilla is a walking avatar of the bomb itself. The Rhedosaurus isn't even radioactive! However, the two are both amphibious dinosaurs with fangs and pointy ears--and both rather dragon-like in aspect.
 
However, Godzilla was far from the only "imitator." Giant monsters created by radiation would be repatedly unleashed on the movie-going public after this film.
 
The film itself has aged pretty well, overall. Aside from a few moments of 50s sexism--like Nesbitt thinking it's funny that Hunter would be a paleontologist because she's a beautiful woman--it treats Hunter with quite a lot of respect. There's many parts that obviously only work as a product of their time, but not nearly as painfully as a lot of movies from, say, the 1990s.
 
And the effects still hold up, of course. There's some questionable composite shots, of course, but the Rhedosaurus is definitely one of the best of Harryhausen's creations. The creature always feels alive and moves like an actual animal. The stop-motion is incredibly smooth with almost no jerky frames to remind you that you're watching a puppet being moved a single frame at a time. Hell, the prop head used for two non-animation close-ups is actually pretty decent as well. The only obvious misstep is a few frames where the Rhedosaurus flicks out a forked, monitor lizard-like tongue--even though we've seen in close-ups that its tongue is not forked.
 
It's true that the film doesn't deliver on the kind of massive city destruction of Godzilla or Gorgo, it certainly delivers more than The Giant Behemoth. Not to mention, at the time of its release the film's only real competition in that arena was King Kong. The Rhedosaurus does a lot of damage when you compare it to the great ape. Hell, it does a pretty good amount of damage even when you compare it to a less-than-great lizard.
 
If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. If nothing else, at 79 minutes it doesn't ever wear out its welcome. Besides, I always think it's important to see the roots of a genre or subgenre--especially when the root is as good or better than the films it spawned.
 
Oh, sure, people buy 'em when they're little and cute. Then they flush 'em down the toilet and this happens.
 


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