A nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage is attacked by a mysterious object from the depths. A large chunk of rubbery tissue is pulled from one of the vessel’s propellers and examined by two marine biologists, who conclude that it came from an enormous octopus. The military dismiss their findings, until the creature begins sinking ships and making its way toward the west coast of the United States.
Well in 1950s America, a giant radioactive monster wouldn’t go anywhere else, would it? (Well, maybe except for Godzilla!) This was a decade dominated by ants, locusts, grasshoppers, spiders, scorpions and space monsters all growing to enormous size and attacking America. The nuclear monster era was here, in a time dominated by the very real threat and fear of atomic bombs being used by the Soviet Union. Capitalising on this fear and paranoia, cinema churned out a ridiculous number of varying quality B-movies during this decade, spanning the likes of Earth Vs The Spider, The Black Scorpion, Beginning of the End, Them! And The Deadly Mantis to name but a select few entries. Devastating attacks on mankind weren’t just confined to the land and air though and It Came From Beneath the Sea stands up in the corner of the sea monsters to make a name for itself.
Cult stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen had made his first solo effects feature film two years earlier with classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the earliest of the 1950s atomic monster B-movies. Seeing how popular these films had become, he jumped at the chance to make another one when approached by producer Charles H. Schneer. This was Harryhausen’s first collaboration with Schneer and it was to be the making of a fantastic partnership which would change the way cinema looked at special effects, with the two men pioneering work in classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts within the next ten years. Schneer was fully supportive of Harryhausen’s talents, often exceeding budgets in order for the maestro to finish his work to the best possible standards – you just wouldn’t get that level of trust in today’s film market.
With only one man producing the special effects, it was clear that the octopus wasn’t going to be on screen for a lot of the time and so other filler was needed to keep audiences hooked. Sadly, It Came From Beneath the Sea fails to engage the viewer when the monster isn’t around. There’s a really awkward romantic love triangle sub-plot between the main characters and it’s so tedious that you don’t care who gets who by the end. The usual military types spend plenty of the film bickering about the best course of action to prevent disaster from happening and there’s a team of scientists racing to find a way to stop the monster before it’s too late. I’m all for a bit of plot development but seeing the same faces standing around talking isn’t a great use of time. The addition of a news reporter-style narration to proceedings adds nothing to the film except a few extra minutes of running time and a cheap way to provide the exposition that the boring dialogue fails to get across.
When the scenes of destruction arrive, they are pretty good but are over far too quickly. The octopus only has six tentacles (an infamous fact down to Harryhausen not having time or money to animate eight) but this doesn’t stop it from doing some damage, taking out ships before arriving in San Francisco for a very famous attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s more action than the majority of the aforementioned giant monster movies provided but still seems somewhat lacking. Sadly the final confrontation with the octopus doesn’t deliver a knock-out blow when it needs to and the film ends on a rather a weak note.
Kenneth Tobey was a familiar sight in the 50s, starring in two of the decades greatest sci-fi films in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Thing From Another World and lends his usual gung-ho schtick to the military role he is required to play again. Co-star Donald Curtis also popped up in another Harryhausen film a few years later, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and portrays the same military role. You’d think that everyone back in the 50s was in the army with the way they get all of the main roles in these films! They’re both bland in parts that require nothing more of them but to regurgitate military mumbo jumbo to each other.
It Came From Beneath the Sea is never built up as one of Harryhausen’s best and there’s a good reason for that – it’s not. Whilst the animation is excellent, the excitement is lacking and there’s not enough action to keep the film from sinking. However, it was another learning curve for Harryhausen and another showcase to craft his art, which he would refine over the coming years.