Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

You’ll see it tear a city apart!

A prehistoric monster is thawed out of its frozen state by atomic testing in the Arctic and then proceeds to go on a destructive rampage in New York.

 

The first of the wave of 1950s ‘atomic monster’ movies which featured radiated monsters going on destructive rampages throughout various cities across the world, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a landmark film in the genre. Marshalling the paranoia about atomic weapons that had festered itself in society since the end of the Second World War, the film goes about setting up a series of tropes which would become the norm by the end of the decade.

Thinking about the rest of this genre, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms would have just been another generic 50s B-movie if it weren’t for the superb stop-motion effects by the maestro of modelling, Ray Harryhausen. The film plods along quite slowly and follows the usual structure to the letter: a few small incidents and reports about a monster; scientists sent in to investigate; monster reveals itself; army is called in to try and stop it; scientists struggle to come up with alternative as monster arrives in populated areas; monster caused chaos; leading to the final confrontation between science and nature.

It seems to take ages to go anywhere but at least the monster is revealed almost straight away so there’s no partial reveal or slow burn. There’s too much padding and character development and the scenes of characters discussing and arguing about the monster are drawn out for way longer than they need be. After all, we’ve come to see the giant monster on the poster, not hear about how Scientist A is falling in love with Scientist B. The whole thing didn’t cost too much money to make and Harryhausen’s techniques were notorious for taking a while to finish (not his fault, just the way stop-motion worked) so the film needs to pad itself out as much as it can without showing anything expensive.

But back to the special effects since they are what this film is more famous for than anything else. This was Harryhausen’s first solo film so he’s a little rusty here but the monster is one of his most memorable (and he would base the dragon from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad upon the model he made here). He conjures up some fantastic images of the monster, particularly a great silhouetted shot of the creature as it destroys a lighthouse. The monster’s rampage through New York in the finale and then the final showdown inside an amusement park are sterling work. Black and white really gives the creature a film noir vibe and use of lighting and shadow inside the park at the end is a real testament to the genius that was Harryhausen. The scene where it attacks the rollercoaster still looks great to this day.

Like the other 50s monster movies, the cast matters little to the eventual outcome as the scientists are old actors, the males are square-jawed heroes, the females are there to fall in love with the hero and give us a tepid romantic sub-plot, and the military guys are there to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the standard make-up of characters that would become the staple of this genre for years to come. Here, main actor Paul Hubschmid is a Swiss actor speaking English so his delivery is garbled at the best of times. Keep watching out for a young Lee Van Cleef as an army sharpshooter.

Director Eugène Lourié would visit the giant monster movie well a few more times in later years, bringing the world Gorgo and The Giant Behemoth, virtually the same film as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only set in England. But this is his best work.

 

The special effects are the sole reason why The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has become such a ground-breaking film. Still, it’ classic monster movie making at its 50s finest and Harryhausen would go on to bigger and better things in the field of special effects.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

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