Friday, February 13, 2015

The Giant Behemoth (1959) [Friday Fakeosaurus February]

I've previously addressed the career woes of both Eugene Lourie and Willis O'Brien on this site, but this is the only chance I'll get to address both in the same film. Though, honestly, I'm not certain if either of them considered this movie a low point in their respective careers I feel pretty secure in guessing that they did.

For Lourie, it was the second time he was asked to direct a film about a giant sea monster rampaging through a famous city. For O'Brien, it was basically being asked to copy the work of his protege, Ray Harryhausen, for a tiny fraction of the production budget that Harryhausen had. Hell, O'Brien actually let an assistant do most of the animation.

The film, like Gorgo would two years later, also feels like a bit of a bitter response piece to the success of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956. Even though much of the film's anti-nuclear message was toned down when Raymond Burr was awakwardly inserted into it so Americans could have a white face to relate to, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! still clearly had the core message about how the reckless use of nuclear weapons could bite humanity in the ass by creating monsters. Yet, while there would be no Godzilla without Lourie's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Lourie's earlier film only used nuclear weapons as a plot device to set the dinosaur loose on the world--and, in fact radiation ends up saving the day.

Meanwhile, this film is almost as stridently anti-nuclear weapons as Godzilla. The monster, like Godzilla, is a fictional dinosaur that was driven out of its ocean habitat by radiation, is intensely radioactive, and is able to discharge that radiation as a weapon. Curiously, though, radiation still saves the day--which is rather at odds with the rest of the film's message! We'll discuss that more later on, but any way you slice it there's zero question that the film would have turned out as it did without Godzilla, and already you can feel a certain bitterness on Lourie's part that this is the case.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean that this bitterness brings the film down.

After the first inevitable quote from the Bible to clue in heathens like myself as to where "Behemoth" comes from, we open with American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) delivering a speech to a convention of scientsts in London. In a nice touch, we're informed of who the hell we're listening to by the camera focusing on someone in Karnes' audience circling his name on the program with a pencil. Karnes is explaining that the danger of all the nuclear tests and dumping of nuclear waste in the ocean is setting off "a biological chain reaction." The radiation is being absorbed at the bottom of the food chain and then becoming more and more concentrated in each progressive predator that feeds on contaminated organisms. Therefore, Karnes reasons, we will soon begin to see a consequence of this contamination that affects humanity as a whole.

Karnes has no way of guessing what form that consequence will take, of course, but I'm sure he never would have imagined what it turns out to be. And it's a shame that he didn't guess it would first appear in Cornwall. A fisherman by the name of Tom Trevethan (Henry Vidon) has just sent his adult daughter Jean (Leigh Madison) on her way while he tarries on the beach before hitting the local pub. He won't be making it to the pub, however, because he sees something rise out of the sea. Something that glows with a blinding intensity...

So when Jean discovers that her father never made it to the pub, her boyfriend John (John Turner) accompanies her to the beach to search for her father--and they find him, barely alive and covered in horrible burns. Just before he dies the old man says that something rose from the sea and, with his last breath, intones, "Behemoth."

Cut to his funeral, where apparently the minister overseeing it decided to take the man's last word as a suggestion for what Biblical passage to quote. John and Jean then go walking past the beach where her father died--and are suddenly struck by the sight of hundreds of dead fish littering the beach. John also notices a strange, pulsating white blob. Apparently they don't get horror movies in Cornwall, because John just casually sticks his bare hand up against the thing and is promptly burned.

The massive fish kill, but oddly not the death of a fisherman under mysterious circumstances about the same time, is big enough to reach the national media. Naturally, Karnes sees the news report as he is preparing to leave for America and decides he needs to stay in Great Britain after all. He contacts Prof. James Bickford (Andre Morell) at the British scientific society that hosted his earlier speech. Bickford is not surprised at all and also helpfully fills Karnes in on the mysterious death of Mr. Trevethan. Naturally, Karnes is eager to join Bickford's trip to Cornwall to investigate.

In Cornwall, the two get a rather chilly welcome from the locals--not due to some superstition, but because they're frustrated at the fact that the government has been seemingly unconcerned about their predicament. It's been weeks since anyone caught a fish. Karnes asks if anyone saw anything unusual, and one fisherman reports that he saw a glowing cloud under the water, like an electrical storm rolling in towards a city. When Karnes asks if the coud was moving, the mnan laughs and explains he was too busy fleeing to notice. John then volunteers to take the men to talk to the local doctor abut Trevethan's death.

The doctor is no help, as he writes the burns that killed Trevethan off as a jellyfish sting combined with a strong allergic reaction to kelp--or something like that. Luckily, John is on hand and Karnes recognizes the burns John suffered as matching those of Hiroshima survivors. Karens and Bickford have John and Jean take them to the beach to find evidence of the blob that burned his hand, but it's long gone and there's no trace of radiation. Jean relays her father's last word, "Behemoth," along with an explanation of what exactly a Behemoth is for those of us who don't know the Bible all that well--and that gets Karnes thinking.

And now it's time for what is honestly the most rewarding part of The Giant Behemoth: Karnes sets to work doin' Science!

Actual science, no less. (Which, um, will cease to be the movie's forte after this) Specimens of fish are brought in from the waters near Cornwall and along the English coast. A particular emphasis is placed on bottom feeders like flounder. Each fish is placed on a photographic slate: if the fish's radiation content is normal, the film will be blank--but anywhere the radiation concentrates, like the bones, will show up like an X-Ray photograph. It doesn't take long before one of the slides comes up with a smattering of spots on it. In turning out the lights to determine if there was a leak in the darkroom, Karnes and his assistants discover a strange glowing--coming from a foreign object in a fish's stomach. A fish whose plate comes out with every bone in its body showing clear as can be.

I'm not kidding, that actual science sequence is hugely rewarding.

The foreign object is determined to be some sort of digestive lining from an unknown animal. After Karnes goes out in a boat in the are where the fish was caught with a geiger counter and an amazingly brave captain, he briefly catches sight of something through his bincoluars. Whatever it is, it has a long neck that resembles the traditional image of a sea serpent and it's radioactive. It's also too fast for the boat to catch. Though, given Karnes is next called to the wreck of a freighter that collided with some unkown object and was torn to pieces, he may want to count himself lucky.

"Tell Werner Herzog to leave me alone!"
Well, that clinches it. Karnes is convinced that the fish kill, the death of the fisherman, and the wreck of the ferry were all caused by some as yet unknown marine animal that has been poisoned by feeding on contaminated prey, driven from its natural habitat as a result, and also running wild from the pain of radiation sickness. Of course, Karnes' hypothesis is right in aspects but one--the creature isn't actually unknown.

See, the Behemoth is amphibious, and it comes ashore at a farm. The father and teenage son who are alerted to its presence by their dog's panicked barking get to discover that the barely glimpsed creature responds to being shot at by discharging a massively fatal dose of radiation that turns anyone in the affected region into a really obvious painting. Helpfully, it also leaves behind a clear footprint, as long as a police car. A footprint that, to Karnes and Pickford suggests something very much like a dinosaur.

Therefore, they turn to Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowran), a paleontologist, for assistance. Sampson is a very kooky fellow, but he knows his stuff and identifies the print as belonging to a member of the "Paleosaurus" family, and a specimen around 150-200 feet long at that. Sampson is eager to go to the site of the fossil--until Karnes and Pickford explain that the print was left by a living animal. Sampson is both delighted by the fact that his long suspicion that dinosaurs weren't truly extinct was correct and saddened by the news that the creature is radioactive, which he correctly surmises means it will need to be killed.

"Of course, you know it's electric," he comments, meaning that the creature functions similarly to an electric eel. I'm relatively sure he couldn't know this from fossil evidence, but Karnes thinks that would explain how the creature has been killing--by using that tremendous electric charge to discharge its radiation. (Like I said, actual science has taken its leave again) Then Sampson shows them a drawing of a Paleosaurus that raises a lot of questions for me because it shows a creature of roughly the same proportions as the Rhedosaurus from Lourie's earlier film. It might be concept art since the effects wouldn't thave been finished yet, except Sampson describes Paleosaurus as having a long, graceful neck. The creature in the drawing doesn't match that description at all, and this drawing will be recreated again after the creature shows itself to witnesses who survive.

Pictured: A long, graceful neck.
Sampson agrees to help in trying to find and eliminate the beast. So when the English military commander refuses to close off the Thames over "an overgrown crocodile" because he is sure they can detect the Behemoth with their advanced radar and stop it, Sampson is among the crew of a helicopter tasked with trying to spot the creature from the air. Well, the helicopter spots the creature's glowing outline--a truly risible effect where a cartoon silhouette of the creature is super-imposed onto obvious miniature shots of water--but the radar can't detect it. Naturally, the helicopter gets too close and the Behemoth uses its radiation attack to ensure that the radar can't detect the helicopter, either.

Man, if you're a paleontologist in a Eugene Lourie film, you're probably gonna die before the end credits.

The fact that radar can't detect this incredibly deadly creature would, you'd assume, convince the government to close the Thames to boat traffic until further notice. Well, either it doesn't or they're slow on their feet because we next see a crowded ferry crossing the Thames--and it is promptly attacked and sunk by the Behemoth. This is a very dark sequence, much like the ones we'd see in Gorgo, except the corpses with radiation burns and the pathos-inspiring child's doll are all undercut by how laughable the effects are. The miniatures are obvious, but the trouble is with the prop head representing the beast. It's well-sculpted, but it's stiff and inexpressive. Worst of all, it's screwed to a board. I know this because whoever was in charge of shoving it at the model ferry couldn't keep the board out of shot.

"Look! The beast has an obvious weakness!"
Well, that gets the Thames good and closed. But it puts the military in an odd position because, as Karnes and Pickford point out, the creature can't be killed by artillery or bombs because that would spread horrifying amounts of radiation all over London. Karnes suggests that the creature is already dying from the radiation poisoning it has received. He posits that a radium-tipped torpedo launched from a miniature submarine might introduce enough additional radiation to speed up the process, and kill the beast faster and without risk of contamination to the whole city.

Of course, modifying that torpedo is going to take some time, and the Behemoth has decided to come ashore and take a leisurely stroll through London. And naturally it responds to all the screaming crowds and the occasional soldier shooting at it by projecting its radiation and turning more people into paintings. So every minute that torpedo isn't ready, the more of London is condemned to agonizing death.

"How do I get to Big Ben? Hello? Anyone?"
The special effects improve from here, obviously, since Willis O'Brien is at least supervising. However, there are a lot of recycled shots and aside from knocking down a crane, stepping on a car (which is one of the bits repeated), and knocking over a brick wall, the Behemoth doesn't really do a lot on its initial rampage. We later see it roaming at night, where it destroys some high tension towers after running into their wires and being enraged by the electrocution. (Beyond the obvious similarity to Godzilla, would electrical wires even bother an electric creature?)

From there it's an admittedly cool sequence of the creature lit by spotlights amongst famous landmarks, before it makes its way onto a bridge--and then it grabs a car in its mouth that two observers were stupid enough to hide in and chucks it into the river. Its celebration smashes the bridge and dumps it into the water, so that the final showdown can begin...

"This is the Tower of Murder. It's...it's where I hang out."
When I essentially said in my review of Gorgo that The Giant Behemoth was the worst of Eugene Lourie's trilogy of giant sea monster films, I didn't mean that it's a bad film. It just isn't as good as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and it isn't quite as entertaining as Gorgo. However, that doesn't mean it is without merit.

From a purely comedic perspective, the effects in the film's ferry attack are gold. That said, there are a lot of genuinely quite good effects amongst the howlers. And, while the quality of the actual stop motion models may vary wildly from shot-to-shot, the Behemoth is a pretty well-designed monster--if a bit generic.

Incidentally, there actually are at least a few species of prehistoric animals called "Paleosaurus," as it is an incredibly unimaginative name and fossil hunters in the late 19th and early 20th Century were always trying to be the first to name something. However, given the only one that was an actual dinosaur and not a variety of crocodilian looks nothing like the Behemoth, it's still 100% a Fakeosaurus.

What's genuinely rewarding about the film is something I already emphasized earlier: the actual use of science. Even amongst the overly talky science fiction films of the 1950s, there are too few that actually include this much true science. That might sound dull, but it's actually among the most enjoyable parts of the film. Especially since, when you get right down to it, the Behemoth is a bit of an unimpressive monster.

Oh, sure, in the scenes it's not represented by a heinous prop the creature is very well rendered, as I said earlier. But as I also said, the creature is very generic in a way that the Rhedosaurus, Godzilla, and Gorgo aren't. This creature is basically a fanged sauropod--and Willis O'Brien had already unleashed a Brontosaurus on London in 1925's The Lost World, in a manner somewhat more satisfying than this.

Add to that the fact that its rampages don't seem any different from the Rhedosaurus' attack on New York (other than an obvious decrease in the quality of stop-motion and composite shots used), its radiation attack is a less dynamic version of Godzilla's famous radioactive flame breath, and its demise is a somewhat more exciting retread of the killing of the giant octopus in It Came From Beneath The Sea--and you have a very familiar monster that brings virtually nothing new to the table. We've seen this all before and, usually, better. The poor Behemoth doesn't even have its own roar--it just uses the same roar as the carnivorous Brontosaurus from King Kong. (And you'll ote that a lot of the screams of its victims are lifted from King Kong as well, courtesy the various dying sailors) Given that a distinctive roar is one of the best shortcuts to give a monster a sense of personality, it's a real disservice to the creature's sense of character.

Despite all that, the film is definitely entertaining. As long as you don't go into it expecting a lost classic, you're bound to have a good time.

And it's worth noting that, in other markets, this film is titled Behemoth, The Sea Monster. I can only asssume, in typical Hollywood fashion, it was assumed that the size of a Behemoth needed to be emphasized in order for audiences to get that it was a giant monster. Or else they just wanted to make it clear this was no ordinary, garden variety Behemoth.

"Am I really a 'Giant' Behemoth? I mean, what's a normal size for a Behemoth? LOOK I'M SENSITIVE ABOUT MY FIGURE"

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