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The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

by on 2011/10/09

“This is such a strange feeling. I feel I am leaving a world of untold tomorrows for a world of countless yesterdays.”

* * *

The Two Rays — author Bradbury and effects legend Harryhausen — found their paths crossing onscreen in the feature adaptation of the short story “The Fog Horn”. The resulting Beast from 20,000 Fathoms proved a landmark in ushering in uncountable “atomic monster” movies in the years and decades to come.

(I also noticed it included a character on the brink of his retirement, and a scientific effort to capture the title beast for our “benefit”.)

“Operation Experiment” is a weapon test eight weeks in the making. Near the Arctic pole north of Baffin Bay, radar operators catch a glimpse of something in the wake of the detonation. Explorers are sent to “Post Eighteen” to survey the area. There they spy a prehistoric monster in the blizzard, a hundred million year old predator defrosted by their who’s-the-real-monster-now atomic meddling.

Nobody believes the reports, branding them traumatic hallucinations, even with corroboration by other Canadian witnesses over the coming weeks. With the help of Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway of 1946’s Postman Always Rings Twice), scientists Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) and Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) track the “hallucination” moving south.

Dubbed a Rhedosaurus — appropriately pronounced “Ray-da-saurus” — it wrecks a path through Nova Scotia, Maine, Massachusetts, on a collision course with New York. Worse still, if its destructiveness were not enough, it carries a Paleolithic blood plague to incapacitate its opponents.

Sounds pretty exciting, and it is but, despite an eighty minute running time, it gets a bit drawn out. The Arctic scenes, identifying possible dinosaurs, diving, and tracking sequences . . . all feel over-padded, as if an Outer Limits episode had been drafted into cinematic duty.

In some ways it strikes me as ambitious, in others a certain cheapness rears its head. Conceptually it’s grand, with natural forces commanded and combatted, an international scope and scale, a variety of locations, sprawling crowds of extras, and massive pyrotechnic battles.

On the other hand — and I should go easy here — the effects undercut things somewhat. No doubt Ray Harryhausen was doing great work at the time. It’s not his fault the technology aged so poorly. However, today’s audiences won’t avoid noticing the models, stop motion, and rear-projection. Visibly blurred edges demarcate the fore- and background layers. Rarely are both regions in comparable focus.

Those limitations must have been apparent to him too, for Harryhausen does reasonably well in trying to compensate for them. He usually chooses to blur out the backgrounds, keeping foreground elements sharp. Seams are covered with explosions, lights, and sparks of electricity.

What is less well mitigated — though hardly an effects issue — is the moderate use of stock footage. Deployed sparingly, it nearly escapes notice except for its completely different grain. It appears in the Arctic exteriors, military deployments, diving, and undersea battle scenes. I was reminded of an Ed Wood production, and of a certain shark vs octopus video.

Further supporting my farcical comparisons, I found the narration excessively grave, the creature rather comical and — my personal “favourite” — an explorer who plummets, screaming reverberantly to a depth of, at best, ten feet.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the experience overall. Given the resources at their disposal, the filmmakers seem to have reached for the skies, even if their grasp was more at the height of a dino maquette. Against all the followers in its wake, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms holds up, as fun in our day as it was pioneering in its own.

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Rated G

79 minutes

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