Friday, July 26, 2019

In Memoriam :: Have Sword Will Travel: Rutger Hauer Can't See a Thing and That's A-OK in Phillip Noyce's Blind Fury (1989)

Best friends since bootcamp, American soldiers Nick Parker and Frank Deveraux survived their tour of duty in Vietnam and were only one day away from being mustered out when the firebase they were stationed at comes under another attack. Sent out to destroy the enemy mortar position, Parker and Deveraux are suckered into a trap, are quickly overwhelmed, and, in what is portrayed as an act of cowardice, Deveraux runs away under heavy fire, ignoring his wounded friend’s desperate calls for help, which ends when a phosphorus shell detonates right in front of him.

Listed as M.I.A. and later presumed dead, Parker (Hauer) actually survived the blast but lost his eyesight. He was saved and eventually adopted by a village of friendlies, who nursed him back to health. And while his blindness proved permanent, a village elder spends the next twenty years training Parker to acutely hone his other senses to overcompensate for this handicap, turning him into a formidable martial arts expert and master swordsman.

Then, the movie proper begins when Parker returns to the States to look up his friend, Deveraux -- motives unclear. And while he finds his old buddy’s home in south Florida, turns out Deveraux isn’t there. No, Deveraux (O’Quinn) is currently in Reno, Nevada, being dangled by the ankle from the roof of a high-rise casino by the muscle of Claude MacCready (Willingham) in an effort to strong-arm the chemist into cooking crystal meth for him. Thus, all Parker finds in Florida is Deveraux’s ex-wife, Lynn (Foster), and estranged son, Billy (Call).

But Lynn barely has time to get Parker up to speed on her current family situation before another visitor shows up: MacReady’s chief henchman, Slag (Cobb), posing as a detective with two corrupt local cops, saying they need to take Billy into "protective" custody; all part of a ruse to use the kid as leverage to get Deveraux to cooperate. Parker easily smells through this deception, and then all hell breaks loose when Slag decides to stop being subtle and starts shooting.

But in a startling display of efficiency and prowess, Parker dispatches the two cops with the sword hidden in his walking stick and wounds Slag, who promises next time this would-be-hero won’t see him coming (-- well, duh), warning no sword ever stopped a bullet (-- hard to fire that bullet with your hand cut off, just ask one of those cops), before tossing himself out the window and escaping. Alas, Lynn was mortally wounded during this melee. But with her dying words, she gets a promise from Parker to protect Billy until he’s safely returned to his father. And so, our blind swordsman, with his reluctant, pain-in-the-ass charge in tow, begins a harrowing cross-country journey to save both the man who left him for dead all those years ago and his son, with Slag and a rotating band of comically location-specific and very disposable goon squads right on their ass the whole way...

Kan Shimozawa first published The Tale of Zatoichi in 1948. It’s been called a frustratingly slight story for such a cultural milestone in its native Japan. As one online reviewer of the novella recalled, the tale has "lots of subtext and context but not much actual text" and the character of Zatoichi is, himself, basically a footnote in his own origin story. He’s barely sketched out, but the essential nuts and bolts were there: he’s blind; he's a master swordsman, which he keeps hidden inside his walking stick; and he's an extremely skilled fighter given his handicap. He’s an unassuming wanderer, a masseuse by trade, with no real allegiances; he’s also an inveterate gambler and a ladies man, but adheres to his own personal code of honor, which leans him toward chaotic good.

But this was apparently enough for Daiei Studios, who decided to adapt the story into a movie in 1962, where Shimozawa's vagueness was a boon as it allowed them a lot of freedom to flesh out this template considerably with the help of lead actor, Shintaro Katsu, who brought humor -- bordering on slapstick in some cases, and a sense of sentimentality to the character, wandering from town to town, defending the helpless and righting wrongs through a series of incredibly staged fight scenes. And there were subtle shifts in the character from movie to movie, too, with Katsu always providing an anchor.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) was such a huge hit it garnered an immediate sequel, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962), and then went on to spawn 24 more sequels between 1963 and 1973, transitioning to color about five films in, two to three installments released a year every year, all of them starring Katsu, who is so ah-mazing in the baker’s dozen I’ve managed to see. And Katsu nor Daiei were through with the character yet, as Zatoichi made the leap to television in 1974 after the release of Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), lasting for exactly 100 episodes before it was cancelled in 1979.

Now, I haven’t seen any of the TV episodes but I absolutely loved the films with nary a dud in the bunch that I encountered. And I probably would’ve gotten them all watched, too, if Criterion hadn’t made the ill-advised jump from Hulu to Filmstruck, but that’s another rant for another day. And I wasn’t alone in those feelings for this series and the character either as the character developed quite the cult following all over the world in the passing decades since its debut, including actor Tim Matheson.

Matheson began as a child actor in the 1960s -- Divorce American Style (1967), Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968), who also lent his distinctive voice to several Hanna-Barbera cartoons -- Jonny Quest (1964-1965) and Space Ghost (1966). In the 1970s, Matheson successfully transitioned to adult roles both on TV and in the movies -- most notably as Eric "Otter" Stratton in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). When the 1980s rolled around, Matheson decided to expand his horizons a bit and take a shot at producing a picture. Around 1982, he was introduced to producer Daniel Grodnik -- Without Warning (1980), Terror Train (1980), by mutual friend, screenwriter Charles Robert Carner -- of Gymkata (1985) infamy. The two hit it off and Grodnik promised to take the actor under his wing and show him the plumbing of producing if he had a property that was worth their time.

Seizing the opportunity, with a desire to do an American remake of Zatoichi, maybe even start a franchise, Matheson screened Zatoichi Challenged (1967) for Grodnik, the 17th installment, written by Ryozo Kasahara and directed by Kenji Misumi, who directed three other Zatoichi features and would later go on to helm the equally impressive Lone Wolf and Cub film adaptations, starting with Sword of Vengeance (1972). In Zatoichi Challenged, our blind hero comes across a terminally ill woman and her young son, who requests Zatoichi take the boy to his father in a nearby town. Things get complicated from there, and the film ends in a dazzling sword fight in the clean white snow, which makes for a nice contrast with all the spilled blood. (The literal translation of the Japanese title is "Blood-spurting road.")

Loving the idea, Grodnik and Matheson then embarked on a seven year odyssey to get Blind Fury (1989) made, which went through two directors, three studios, and at least eleven drafts of the screenplay before Carner finally found the temperature and Phillip Noyce settled into the director’s chair, which allowed the co-producers to strike a deal with Tri-Star Pictures. The film scored a major coup by landing Rutger Hauer for the Zatoichi surrogate, Nick Parker, who brings a spider-like physicality to the role and a sparkling sense of humor. Hauer also had good chemistry with his young co-star, which makes the character of Billy, as played by Brandon Call, who scores about a 6.5 on the annoying child actor Richter Scale, a lot more palpable as they hop on a bus and his own hero’s journey begins.

At a rest stop somewhere in backwater Kansas is where Parker finally breaks it to Billy about his mother’s death. (He had been mercifully unconscious during the whole ordeal.) Angry and distraught over this, Billy runs away and hides in a cornfield, where he runs right into Slag. But after taking out a group of bumbling bumpkins that Slag hired to kill him, rather ruthlessly, Parker engineers a rescue that is only marred by the villain escaping again.

Upon reaching Reno, they find Deveraux’s new girlfriend, Annie Winchester (Blount), whose allegiance is in question when she baits a trap that gets Parker and Billy captured by two more of Slag’s goons, Lyle and Tector (Cassavetes, Overton), only to later help them escape in a fairly hilarious car chase that finds Parker behind the wheel. And with Annie’s help, Parker successfully raids MacCready’s casino and liberates his old friend rather deftly. 

Alas, while this was going on, MacReady and Slag pulled an end run on Parker and they now have Billy and Annie as hostages, but promises not to harm them if Deveraux brings the drugs he absconded with to a secluded mountain-top ski-resort for an exchange.

On the lonely trolley ride up the mountain, Parker and Deveraux make peace over what happened back in Vietnam as the purpose to Parker’s whole trip was to let his old friend know all was forgiven, and if he felt any guilt over this to just let it go like he has. But this admission might’ve come too late as MacReady has no intention of turning over the hostages. In fact, he has a massive ambush waiting for the two men when they arrive. And if that doesn’t work -- and it hasn’t really worked yet, tired of all the trouble Parker has been causing him lately, this vile villain has a special surprise in store for the blind swordsman.

Hauer would later note that Blind Fury was one of the most difficult roles of his career due to the two-punch combo of playing a blind man and the extensive swordplay and fight choreography demands. He trained for a month on how to move and react with Lynn Manning, who lost his sight in a gun accident in the late 1970s but went on to become a judo master, telling the actor “I don’t get confused by what I see.” For the sword training, they brought in Shô Kosugi -- Enter the Ninja (1981), Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985), who shows up in the film as that promised surprise hired by the bad guy. And every morning for the seven week shoot, Hauer was up at 4:30am for training before the cameras rolled.

And this training pays off well in the movie as Parker blitzes through wave after wave of bad guys for the climax; with a little help from Deveraux after it appeared he’d turned chicken again. Which, of course, leads to the ultimate showdown, where Parker must fight the hired ninja assassin, Slag, and an electrified hot tub. As to who wins, well, on top of the audience being the real winner, I will add that The Phantom Menace (1999) so ripped off Slag's demise from this thing.

All told, Katsu did it better, and did it better for almost twenty years, taking a brief hiatus to tackle the Hanzo the Razor trilogy, which is equally amazing. But there's nothing wrong with second place in that derby, which is why Blind Fury is my all-time favorite Rutger Hauer movie -- beating out Split Second (1992) by the length of Parker’s cane sword. Favorite, mind you. Not his best. Blade Runner (1982) might’ve been in the running but I’ve seen so many damned versions of that dad-blasted thing I can’t remember which one was the good one.

Aided and abetted by an outstanding supporting cast with the always welcome Terry O'Quinn, Noble Willingham, Lisa Blount, and Randall Cobb, it’s Hauer who really makes this movie go. You buy Parker’s blindness. And you believe it when he’s tuning in his other senses. And you definitely buy into his preternatural fighting ability. And I also love his gallows and deadpan sense of humor about his handicap and the dire situations he always finds himself in. (“I hope he’s nice. Seems like everybody is trying to kill me today.”) His introductory fight with a couple of bar hooligans is straight out of a Three Stooges short, and I love the little quirk when he skips over all the pet poop he encounters, or the time he mistook an alligator for a dog.

And the film ends with him walking away from the Deverauxs, mission accomplished, off to find more wrongs to right like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive (1963-1967) or David Banner in the old Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) TV series. And, yes, Zatoichi. I would’ve loved to have seen Hauer in a few more Nick Parker adventures, and a sequel was planned but never materialized due to middling box office returns. And that makes me both mad and sad. I remember seeing Blind Fury at least a half-dozen times at the old Imperial 3 back in 1989. So, I did my part, dammit. And where the hell were you guys?!

Rutger Hauer

Blind Fury (1989) Interscope Communications :: TriStar Pictures / EP: Robert W. Cort, David Madden / P: Daniel Grodnik, Tim Matheson / AP: Charles Robert Carner, Dennis Stuart Murphy / D: Phillip Noyce / W: Charles Robert Carner, Ryôzô Kasahara (movie) / C: Don Burgess / E: David A. Simmons / M: J. Peter Robinson / S: Rutger Hauer, Terry O'Quinn, Brandon Call, Lisa Blount, Noble Willingham, Randall 'Tex' Cobb, Nick Cassavetes, Rick Overton, Shô Kosugi, Meg Foster

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Origin of the Species :: Digging Into the Creature Feature Fossil Record With Eugène Lourié's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

With a hearty cry of Stock Footage HO!, our landmark feature begins with the soon to be prerequisite and over-abundance of nonsensical stock-military footage, complete with an equally nonsensical and incredibly redundant narrator tying it all together, who clues us in to just what in the hell it is we're actually looking at. And thanks to Mr. Redundant, we find out we're somewhere around the Arctic Circle on X-Day, and about 59-minutes away from H-Hour -- that's less than an hour the narrator adds. (Like I said, redundant.) Now, all those X's and H's are military speak for a top-secret operation: the detonation of a nuclear device -- for strictly scientific purposes, and it's about to go boom.

As the clock winds down, Col. Jack Evans (Tobey) and a couple of observers from the Department of Atomic Energy -- Professors Tom Nesbitt (Christian) and George Ritchie (Elliot) -- anxiously wait out the final seconds. (And since the movie never addresses Christian's French accent, I won't either.) When the device at last detonates without a hitch (-- unless you count all the fallout, but, hey, yeah, ya know), one of the radar operators monitoring the blast swore he saw a large contact on his screen; but it's long gone before any of the brass can see it and is quickly written off as a glitch. (Sharp eyes will spot James Best as one of the supporting technicians.)

Donning their parkas, Nesbitt and Ritchie head out into the cold to check radiation levels. They make it to the first checkpoint okay, but with a blizzard fast approaching the men decide to split-up to cover more ground before the weather forces them to head back. And as conditions deteriorate, Ritchie believes the blinding snow might be playing tricks on him. That, or he just saw a 150-foot long dinosaur tromping along a glacier (-- that aforementioned big blip on the radar screen, I’m thinking). Then, somehow, this massive beast manages to circle around and sneak up behind our scientist and scares him, causing him to fall into a deep crevice. His leg broken, Ritchie shoots off a flare, which brings Nesbitt to the rescue.

Unable to move Ritchie by himself, Nesbitt solemnly promises to return with the cavalry. But before he can even leave, the monster reappears and triggers an avalanche, burying them under a ton of snow and ice; Ritchie a little more critically than Nesbitt, who manages to fire off another flare before succumbing to shock. When he's found and hauled back to the base, Nesbitt is in such bad shape the chief medic implores they must get him to a real hospital or he probably won't make it. Meantime, slipping in and out of consciousness, a delirious Nesbitt raves about seeing something. Something about a giant monster. A giant monster that's coming for us all...

Seminal is such a great word that's thrown around a lot when talking about film, but I wonder if people realize the root of the word comes from semen; ya know -- sperm, seed, source of life and all that. Thus, when relating it to film, we're talking about the originators of the species: films that spawned sequels, imitators, and countless copycats. And The Beast from 20000 Fathoms (1953) definitely fits that bill, and in a lot more ways than you’d think.

Inspired by the box-office receipts from the 1952 re-release of King Kong (1933), when producer Jack Dietz began developing a project tentatively named The Monster from Under the Sea for his Mutual Films, the production's biggest obstacle was Dietz wasn't sure how to realize the film's monster: should they use a man in a suit, or glue a dorsal fin and some horns on an alligator? The answer came from a fledgling stop-motion animator, who had gotten wind of the project and really needed the work by the name of Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen -- who really wasn't Ray Harryhausen, the father of Dynamation, quite yet when he first contacted Dietz, gave the producer the hard sell, showing him his work on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and some conceptual designs for a proposed project called Evolution. In his autobiography, An Animated Life, Harryhausen admits he wasn't sure he could accomplish all that he had promised Dietz, but his enthusiasm and low cost estimates (-- and I'm positive that was the clincher --) got him the job.

Also, one of the biggest misconceptions about this monster movie is it was based solely on a Ray Bradbury short story: a tale where a dinosaur from the deep mistakes a sounding foghorn for a mating call, gets horny, investigates, and dry humps a lighthouse, which was first published in the June 23, 1951, edition of The Saturday Evening Post several years earlier as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. (Later changed to The Foghorn.) But that's not quite true. Originally, Dietz's story was about a creature called the Minotaur -- which had no relation to the mythical man-bull other than its name. Defrosted by an atomic blast, the monster would then run amok and eventually destroy the Statue of Liberty before being refrozen by some specialized freeze-jets mounted on several circling helicopters.

Now, depending on which story you believe, either Bradbury was interested in what his old friend Harryhausen was working on and, after reading the script to see if he could punch it up a little, noticed the similarity between his story and a scene in the film where the Minotaur destroys a lighthouse, or Dietz found the article and wanted to incorporate it and the dinosaur into his film. He also liked the Post's title of the story. Regardless of which version is true, the film was already in production and, not wanting any legal hassles, Dietz quickly offered to buy the rights to the story and the title for $2,000. Luckily, Bradbury agreed. Five screenwriters and several punch-ups later, the film started to resemble what we eventually wound up seeing, including Harryhausen's suggestion that the climax should take place in an amusement park.

With the script finally set, while first time director Eugène Lourié, a production designer and FX man himself, and the rest of the production crew went to work on the live-action elements, all Harryhausen had to do now was deliver on what he'd promised Dietz. Designing the creature as an amalgamation of several dinosaurs, he doesn't claim, or denies credit for coining it a Rhedosaurus. Being that the first two letters are R and H one has to wonder, though. Then, after Dietz delivered the promised stop-motion camera and equipment from RKO that the animator had used while apprenticing with Willis O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young, Harryhausen got to work setting up his new studio.

Building the Beast out of a metal armature, cotton, and sponge rubber, he then covered it in a latex skin modeled from an alligator's hide. When it was ready for the camera, he then started tinkering around with a few innovative ideas on how to combine the live action elements with his animations. But! We haven’t quite reached that part of the film yet as Nesbitt is flown to a hospital in New York, where he slowly recovers. But as his health improves, the doctors have to bring in a psychiatric consult when the patient refuses to believe the monster he saw was nothing but a delusion.

When Col. Evans stops for a visit, Nesbitt demands to know what his superiors intend to do about the monster. Well, turns out that little tidbit was left out of the official report, says Evans. Seems he led the investigation himself but couldn't find any tracks or traces of the thing the scientist described. Still, Nesbitt blames the lack of evidence on the obscuring blizzard but his psychiatrist assures him that in times of great trauma, the mind can play tricks on people and all he really saw was a hallucination caused by the blinding snow and wind.

Meanwhile, Nesbitt's "delusional hallucination" attacks and sinks a ship near Baffin Bay. And with more and more news reports of sea serpent sightings -- along with another sunken freighter, Nesbitt decides to try and convince Dr. Thurgood Elson (Kellaway), the Dean of Paleontology at NYU, that his monster is real and what’s responsible for all these maritime disasters. However, being a scientist, it should be noted Nesbitt wants to mount an expedition to capture and study the beast -- not kill it, and wants Elson to lead it. Conjecturing what he’d seen must’ve been a reanimated dinosaur, somehow frozen a million years ago and then defrosted by their atomic experiment, Nesbitt lays it all out for Elson. But the professor doesn't believe him either; and besides, nothing could survive in the ice that long.

Finding a more sympathetic ear with Elson's assistant, Lee Hunter (Raymond), she brings up the perfectly preserved mastodons recently found in Siberia. Elson doesn't discount this, but rightfully points out those frozen specimens were also quite dead. Defeated and dejected, Nesbitt returns to work but he immediately perks up when Hunter stops by to see him. Seems she believes his story, or at least believes it should be investigated further; and for now, she wants Nesbitt to come over to her place to try and identify the creature by looking through her dinosaur sketches. (Well that's an odd come on pitch...) He agrees, but several hundred or so pictures later Nesbitt still hasn't found his monster. However, it's not a total loss as the seeds of a budding romance between these two are planted over small talk, coffee, and sandwiches. But as these love buds start to sprout, the process is suddenly brought to a screeching halt: Nesbitt has finally spotted his monster!

Needing further corroboration, Nesbitt tries to contact the few survivors of the two shipwrecks. The first refuses to talk, but the second (Pennick), happy that somebody doesn't think he's crazy, agrees to help. Hoping this will finally be the proof he needs, Nesbitt brings the sailor to New York, where Elson and Hunter are waiting with several sketches, including the one Nesbitt identified earlier. When the old salt picks the same one, Elson identifies the sketch as a Rhedosaurus: a dinosaur from the Mesozoic Age, whose fossils were only found in the deep canyons at the bottom of Hudson Bay, some 150 miles from New York City.

With all this mounting evidence, Elson finally comes into the fold; and though the military may not heed Nesbitt's warnings, they'd damn well better listen to his! But convincing Col. Evans proves an even harder sell. Not wanting to be accused of bucking for a Section-8, he at least promises to use his contacts in the Coast Guard to keep them all up to date on any "strange happenings" in the area. And as an audience, do you think the Rhedosaurus surfacing and destroying a lighthouse counts? You bet it does.

Now with the Coast Guard on full alert, Elson wants the use of a Navy diving bell to explore those canyons of Hudson Bay. Seems he’s convinced by the trail of destruction the beast is instinctively heading home. And if he’s right, Elson feels they can devise a way to capture and study this prized specimen. And if that proves unfeasible, well, the military can always just blow the damned thing up. Thus and so, Elson goes down in the diving bell, over Hunter’s protests, to take a look for himself. Incredulously, with all of that area to cover, luck is apparently on their side as on the very next try they spot the beast as it swallows some stock-footage whole (-- this stock-footage being a shark and an octopus in a not too friendly wrestling match). Radioing the surface vessel, Elson tells Hunter the beast is, indeed, a Rhedosaurus, and the old fudd is barely able to contain his excitement while describing it; in fact, Elson is so enthralled he doesn't notice the dinosaur is rapidly closing in on them -- with it's mouth wide open!

Up above, Elson's broadcast is cut short; and when the order is given to haul him up, the winches engage but all they reel in is a severed cable. However, there is little time to mourn Elson's death (-- but at least he died for his beloved science, Nesbitt consoles a distraught Hunter), because after his light snack the beast decides to come ashore and take in the sights of New York City.

And while it rampages through the streets, causing pedestrian stampedes, the beast quickly becomes an insurance adjuster's worst nightmare as it stomps cars and knocks over buildings.

But then the beast makes one critical mistake: it messes with New York's finest by first biting the head of a patrolmen and then consuming him (-- a nice morbid piece of animation as the officer goes down kicking and screaming. Harryhausen always was one for gruesome little details like that). This quickly brings out the riot squad, armed with shotguns (-- including the officer-who-just-got-ate's twin brother. Oops).

When these local authorities prove ineffective, and as the hospitals fill up with the injured, the National Guard is called in and lower Manhattan is soon reduced to a no-man's land -- barricaded and cordoned off until some heavier artillery can be brought in. (So I'm guessing the capture and study plan is pretty much out the window.) Eventually, the beast is spotted but even 50mm shells can't penetrate it's thick hide. But once Nesbitt tells them to aim for the fleshy part of the neck a bazooka team scores a direct hit. (And shouldn't Hunter be the one pointing that out?) 

Wounded and bleeding, after the beast retreats into the darkened canyons of the city, Evans sends in several patrols to find and finish the beast off. But as the soldiers follow the blood trail, they start dropping like flies, succumbing to some mysterious malady. Word then comes from the hospital that the ancient beast has brought something else along with it from the Mesozoic age: a deadly virus, and exposure to it's blood could prove fatal.

With the risk of unleashing a new and deadly plague, blowing the beast to smithereens is now out of the question. That now aborted strategy doesn't matter anyway at this point because they can't seem to find it; and after a thorough search of the area, Evans confirms the creature must have made it back into the water. And while waiting for it to resurface, the film’s brain-trust mull over their now limited options. Evans wants to use flamethrowers, but Nesbitt nixes this due to the smoke particles that would spread the disease even further. No, the beast must be incinerated completely. And with that, Nesbitt finally has the answer: shoot a radioactive isotope into the beast; that'll not only fatally poison the creature, it should neutralize the virus and render it harmless. (SCIENCE!)

Word then comes saying the beast has finally resurfaced near Coney Island. (Well, the Pike in Long Beach subbing in for Coney Island.) Wounded and angry, the monster has managed to get itself corralled inside the amusement park's large roller coaster. Seizing the opportunity, Nesbitt loads the isotope into a rifle grenade (-- couldn't a more accurate applicator be found?), while Evans rounds up his best shot since they'll only have one chance. Then, after donning some radiation suits, Nesbitt and the sharpshooter move in, but, with all the wreckage, they can't get a clear shot from the ground and decide to take one of the roller coaster carts to higher ground.

And yes, that's Lee Van Cleef as the marxman, who joins his future co-star, Clint Eastwood, as the deliverer of fatal blows to giant movie monsters. For those of you uninitiated in such things, Eastwood would get his turn a few years later when he dropped a buttload of napalm on the giant arachnid in Tarantula (1955). Upon reaching the appropriate vantage point, the sharpshooter takes aim at the open wound in the creature's neck; his aim is true, and the grenade scores a bulls-eye. (With an M-1 rocket propelled grenade? On a moving target?! Damn, that guy is good.)

With their mission accomplished, our world-saving heroes return to back-slaps and hearty congratulations, but only one of them gets a hug from Hunter. Then, they all turn and watch as the beast goes into its death throes, hamming it up like his fellow animated Warner Bros.' brethren, until it finally falls silent and kee-roaks for good.

It took Harryhausen over five months and money out of his own pocket to finish his portion of The Beast from 20000 Fathoms. And though he'd underestimated his budget projection, the animator was compensated by picking up some valuable experience that would serve him well as he continued perfecting his stop-motion process in his later films.

Lourié delivered on his end, too, wringing everything he could out of the limited budget and Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger’s script. I especially liked the wild card element of the deadly virus, but one has to wonder if the malady was originally supposed to be caused by radiation emanating from the monster? That would be the case in Lourié's later film, The Giant Behemoth (1959).

And that's the one thing I've always enjoyed about all of Harryhausen's productions. And it's not really fair to call them just "his productions." His creatures are the selling point, but without something interesting or entertaining framing them his films wouldn't be remembered nearly as fondly as they are. The man was blessed with good producers, solid scripts, solid casts, and competent directors. And there was always one other important element that helped his films which is often overlooked: everyone I can think of had a fantastic musical score, including this one courtesy of David Buttolph when Max Steiner proved unavailable, replacing the one by Michel Michelet because the distributor felt it lacked the proper punch.

Dietz and co-producer (and former Bowery Boy) Hal Chester were both delighted with the end results, but were still concerned with the current landscape of motion pictures: Would audiences, who were growing accustomed to color and CinemaScope, be willing to watch an old black and white, standard-ratio format monster movie? And so, not wanting to take the financial risk of distribution himself, Dietz sold the picture, lock, stock, and Rhedosaurus to Warner Brothers for $450,000; meaning an instant profit on a film that was brought in for around $200,000.

Warners then spent an additional $200,000 to promote the film, including exploiting the medium that was currently killing movie theaters at the time by heavily advertising The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on TV. They also hedged their bet by tinting the film to give it a little color and declared it was shot in "Glorious Sepiatone." And when 500 prints, accentuated with some fantastic poster art and promotional materials hit the theaters, The Beast from 20000 Fathoms became the sleeper hit of 1953, grossing over $2.5 million in its initial run.

Now. As I mentioned earlier, Lourié also stuck with the giant monster motif and went on to direct The Giant Behemoth with effects overseen by Harryhausen's old mentor, Willis O'Brien, which I think is actually a better movie than Beast. Not necessarily the effects, mind you, but story wise. And later, he directed a non-animated monster movie, dressing up a guy in a monster suit to demolish London for Gorgo (1961). The monster and its juvenile offspring were destined to survive that production because Lourié’s daughter never let her father off the hook for killing the delightful monsters in his other two films.

Producer Dietz would try a monster movie again, too, with The Black Scorpion (1957), also with O'Brien -- although he didn't treat him nearly as good as he did Harryhausen, as half of that film's effects are unfinished matte shots. And Hal Chester would go on to ruin Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon (1957) for some folks by insisting they add in a shot of the monster instead of leaving it to the imagination as his director wanted. But it was the incredible financial turnaround of their first collaborative feature that officially kicked off the Atomic Age of monster movies in my opinion.

For soon after the Beast’s premiere, people were suddenly crawling out of the woodwork to produce these low-budget monster movies; and realize, mind you, the lower the budget and the less spent on the film, the bigger the profits when you added up the ticket sales, resulting in some real howlers that had nothing to do with film as an art form. And not only independent producers, or smaller production companies like American International or Allied Artists, but the big boys at Warners and Universal also took note and started producing their own creature features again, causing the 1950s to be overrun with rampaging atomic mutations, invading aliens, and creatures from black lagoons, where square-jawed heroes teamed up with old fuddy scientists and their buxom female assistants, who must first prove the creatures existence, follow their pattern, devise a way to fight it, and then call in the military to blow it to kingdom come before the ending credits -- or slight variations thereof.

And we can trace it all back to The Beast from 20000 Fathoms. The Thing from Another World (1951) may have come two years earlier, but this film is the rightful granddaddy of the sci-fi boom of the 1950s. And genre fans of everything from revered classics like THEM! (1954) and Gojia (1954) / Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956) to the delightfully inept, gonzoidal anti-classics like The Giant Claw (1957) and Beginning of the End (1957) owe this film and its creators a huge debt.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) Jack Dietz Productions :: Warner Bros. / P: Jack Dietz / AP: Hal E. Chester, Benard Burton / D: Eugène Lourié / W: Fred Freiberger, Robert Smith / C: Jack Russell / E: Bernard W. Burton / M: David Buttolph / S: Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Ken Tobey, Cecil Kellaway
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