Written in honor of the legendary stop-motion animator and special effects technician Ray Harryhausen, who passed away on 7 May, 2013, at the age of 92. With all my sincerest gratitude for the menagerie of fantastic and prehistoric animals given life by his hands, and the unimpeachable matinee-movie thrills that even now I get when revisiting his work.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms represents two exceptionally significant firsts: one, it is the very first movie about a gigantic monster revived and/or created by a nuclear explosion, kicking off a subgenre that would dominate science fiction and horror for the rest of the '50s to the exclusion of virtually everything else, in at least two continents (besides the seemingly innumerable "radiation caused X" movies in the States, Godzilla is an acknowledged descendant, and even Godzilla's famous roar is similar to the cries of pains screamed by the beast here); two, it's the first movie where the great Ray Harryhausen was given credit for complete control over all elements of a film's special effects (he'd been responsible for most of the animation of the title character in Mighty Joe Young, though he was only credited as assistant to Willis O'Brien, who designed the effects).
It's not a flawless classic - pretty damn hard to imagine a flawless nuclear monster movie, when you get right down to it - but it's no surprise, to watch it, that it would have generated that kind of enthusiasm in so many audiences and filmmakers. Clumsy in some very key ways at the script level, it's nevertheless an exemplary B-picture that never slows down after a somewhat flat and expository opening sequence, and manages to remain exciting even when its creature isn't on display (the true mark of a good monster movie). But of course, it's even better when that creature is tearing it up, a fictional Cretaceous quadruped predator called Rhedosaurus that showcases all its creators talents at making something both imaginative and lifelike; if I felt a little better at categorising it as a dinosaur, I'd not hesitate a second in calling it the best one in Harryhausen's bestiary.
The film is based, barely, on Ray Bradbury's mordant short story "The Fog Horn", where the title made any kind of sense at all; in this version, the rhedosaur is not found at the bottom of the sea (though, being amphibian, that's where it wants to get to), but frozen in the arctic ice. Best not to think too hard about the science going on, it gets in the way of the fun. In brief, there's a U.S. military installation testing atomic weaponry, and this manages to revive the long-dormant beast, who proceeds to take out a scientist sent to investigate a strange radar blip, while putting project leader Dr. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid, under the surname Christian) into the hospital and then the psych ward, after he starts babbling about the giant lizard in the ice.
In hardly any time at all, though, the best is out in the north Atlantic, sinking one ship after another, and after liberating himself from the hospital, Nesbitt begins to track down the creatures movements, with the help of paleontologists Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant, Dr. Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond). It very quickly becomes apparent that the creature is heading straight for New York en route to its ultimate destination in the undersea Hudson Canyon off the coast of New Jersey, and that it's going to cause all sorts of damage along the way; worst of all, the animal is carrying an ancient disease that could reach epidemic proportions in the blink of an eye if it's killed in any way that would tend to vaporise it or leaves toxic ashes.
Right there, that's good meat-and-potatoes monster movie goings-on, is what that is. And, of course, that's partially because the writers (Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger receive on-screen credit) were mostly inventing those goings-on right here with this picture. Ordinarily, the first examples of any given genre are very far from the best, but the movie gods smiled upon this Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, blessing it with unusually strong characters and a nice clean storyline that moves through all the beats that would in hardly any time become unwatchably stale (the pretty lady doctor and the manly lead fall in love; some manner of one-use-only superweapon is developed; the monster plays peekaboo until the two-thirds mark; a hubristic scientist wants to preserve the monster for research), but does so because they fit the story being told, and so they feel well-considered and fresh in a way that nothing of such advanced age possibly should.
Really, the only problem with the movie is its sometimes howlingly bad dialogue: the first words we hear are "This is Operation Experiment", and then a lengthy chat about how arctic stations work that sound like a bright but unimaginative eight-year-old riffing for five minutes; later on, the script descends into in the most obnoxiously florid, melodramatic passages that the action happily fails to replicate. Otherwise, it's smooth sailing. Director Eugène Lourié has no illusions about the movie he's making and treats it accordingly, making sure we get to the good parts as efficiently as possible and keeping the character moments in between reasonable enough that the movie hangs together when city blocks aren't being destroyed (it's easy to overstate this kind of thing, but the relationship between Nesbitt and Hunter is organic and progressive to a degree that you just don't see in '50s B-movies). Like all movies of this kind from this period, you can probably read into The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms the fear of imminent destruction, but the spectre of the Cold War isn't so pronounced that it gets in the way of being a fleet thriller: the destruction of New York is decidedly far from thorough, and there's not a scrap of hand-wringing about nuclear energy or anything. It's pure survival horror, with a punch of people we like being faced with an implacable, unstoppable force, and if that makes the film a bit shallower than a lot of the other classic monster pictures, it's also a huge part of the reason that it's so much better than all but a tiny number of the films it influenced. It lacks padding, the acting is good once you get past Hubschmid's out-of-place accent (the ebullient Kellaway in particular is absolutely wonderful: maybe the best example of a scientist who remembers that doing science is all kinds of fun from this generation of filmmaking).
And so we come back to the rhedosaur; for if the point here is ultimately to be a quick-footed monster movie, it needs a great beastie to seal the deal, and in the flush of youth, with a relatively decent amount of resources, Harryhausen's solo debut proves to be truly outstanding work; the only scene that resembles Bradbury's story in any way, where the animal knocks over a lighthouse, is gorgeously lit and emphatically violent, and it holds up against anything the man would make later on in his career. It's as fluid as stop-motion animation was going to be in '53; it moves exactly like an animal (there's a scene where, peppered with bullets and shells, it recoils irritably, exactly like a cat jerking back from an unwanted head pat - as ideal an example of Harryhausen's attention to detail and ability to instill personality in his creatures as you'll find); it is stitch together with the live-action pretty darn well, though maybe not effortlessly. The three-tiered climax, with humans on a rollercoaster, the rhedosaur attacking a model of the same structure, and flames burning up the background, shows its seams, but it's also so involving that you wouldn't necessarily notice them if you didn't want to. And this was all being done by one fussy, meticulous man, we must recall.
Speaking personally, I enjoy Harryhausen's fantasy creatures more than his more-or-less "realistic" ones, but even so, the rhedosaur is amazing.Without it, the movie is a fine bit of B-movie sizzle; with it, it's one of the all-time classics of a genre, and you couldn't ask for a stronger or prouder start to a legendary career.