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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