Return with me now to 1953, when the giant monster movie genre was still in its infancy, the year that saw the release of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).
Prior to THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, the world had seen KING KONG (1933), filled with eye-popping special effects by Willis O’Brien, who would go on to make Kong’s quickie (and inferior) sequel SON OF KONG (1933) and later MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), the latter being significant because it introduced O’Brien’s young protegé, Ray Harryhausen, to the world.
Soon after MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, Harryhausen was ready to strike out on his own, and he would provide the special effects for today’s movie, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, released a full twenty years after KING KONG, and so for two decades, the giant monster movie lay dormant. That would change with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which pre-dated perhaps the most famous giant monster, Godzilla, by one year. Of course, once GODZILLA (1954) stomped onto the world, and Toho Studios opened up the door to their Kaiju universe, giant monsters would never look back.
But it’s quite possible that Toho’s incredible world of monsters may not have happened without the success and influence of Ray Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. And when I put Harryhausen’s name in front of the title, I realize he didn’t direct the movie— that job was handled by Eugene Lourie, who actually would go on to direct two other very significant giant monster movies, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured special effects by Willis O’Brien, and GORGO (1961)— but when you watch a movie with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, it’s his work that you remember, work that is always top-notch and phenomenal; in short, his name belongs in front of the movies he worked on.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury, who was good friends with Harryhausen.
The movie opens with atomic bomb tests being conducted in the Arctic. When two scientists visit the scene after the blast to conduct tests, they are shocked to see a giant prehistoric beast roaming through the snow, causing an avalanche which kills one of the scientists. This plot point, an atomic blast awaking a giant monster, which would become commonplace in the 1950s, was first introduced here in this movie, making THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS the first movie about a giant creature awakened by an atomic blast.
The surviving scientist, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) tries in vain to convince people that he saw a live dinosaur. Nesbitt eventually makes his way to Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), a prominent paleontologist, and his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) and tries to convince them as well, eventually producing enough evidence to get them on board. However, his contact in the military, Colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey) isn’t so easily convinced.
But when the beast— identified by Professor Elson as a rhedosaurus— attacks a lighthouse and eventually surfaces in the waters outside New York City, there’s no ignoring the situation. The beast is very real.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is not only historically significant in that it’s the first of the 1950s giant monster movies, but it’s also an outstanding movie, one of the best giant monster movies ever made.
And the conversation about BEAST begins and ends with the work of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen brought his “A” game to every movie that he worked on. His stop-motion special effects are always top-notch. A movie with inferior special effects by Ray Harryhausen does not exist. The major reason for this of course is Harryhausen’s talent, but another reason is the time he spent on each movie. Harryhausen never rushed his work, which is why, sadly, there weren’t more movies made with his stop-motion effects. It often took him years to work on one movie.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is no exception. It features superior special effects by Ray Harryhausen. It also features one of the scariest and most memorable scenes from any giant monster movie period— the lighthouse scene. Which comes as no surprise since this is the scene directly connected to Ray Bradbury’s short story, which was about a dinosaur attacking a lighthouse.
I first saw THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS on TV when I was probably eight years old or so, and the lighthouse scene gave me nightmares and stayed with me long afterwards. In this scene, there are two men in the closed-in confines of the lighthouse, and outside the protective walls, the beast emerges from the ocean, drawn by the light perhaps. The men inside hear a noise, and look up to see the enormous face of the creature peering through the glass. The beast then destroys the lighthouse before the men can escape, and as we learn later, eats them. It’s a terrifying scene.
It’s also perfectly shot by director Lourie and Harryhausen. The matting effect is near perfect, and without a DVD/Blu-ray to freeze fame, it would be very difficult for the naked eye in real-time to see where the real shots of the ocean and the matte shots of Harryhausen’s animation meet. The chilling black and white photography helps here, and the whole scene is so well done it’s nearly seamless. The lighthouse itself is also animated, as is the immediate island onto which the rhedosaurus climbs, but the surrounding ocean is not, as it’s the real thing.
There are a lot of other memorable scenes as well. The rhedosaurus’ first appearance in the snowy Arctic is also quite chilling, and the ending of the film, which takes place by the rollercoaster on Coney Island is also noteworthy.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also has an interesting cast. I could take or leave Paul Christian, whose real name was Paul Hubschmid, as lead hero Tom Nesbitt. Likewise, Paula Raymond is just OK as lead love interest Lee Hunter.
It’s the supporting cast that stands out in this one. Cecil Kellaway does a fine job as the amiable Professor Elson. Kellaway was a famous character actor with a ton of credits in a career that spanned from the 1930s through the 1970s, appearing in such movies as Disney’s THE SHAGGY DOG (1959) and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967). Kellaway also appeared in two Universal monster movies and was memorable in both of them. He played Inspector Sampson in the first Invisible Man sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940) in which he doggedly pursues Vincent Price’s Invisible Man, and he played the flamboyant magician Solvani in THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940).
Kenneth Tobey plays Colonel Jack Evans. Tobey of course played the lead hero Captain Patrick Hendry in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) and he would play the lead again in Ray Harryhausen’s IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), which tells the tale of a giant monstrous octopus. Tobey is excellent here in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS in a supporting role.
And yes, that’s Lee Van Cleef as Corporal Stone, the marksman given the daunting task of shooting the fatal radioactive isotope into the wound of the rhedosaurus.
Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger wrote the screenplay, based on the Bradbury short story. It’s a decent screenplay as it tells a solid story, contains realistic dialogue, and creates sympathetic characters.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS also features a compelling music score by David Buttolph.
So, the next time you’re enjoying a giant monster movie, especially one in the Godzilla/Toho/Kaiju universe, remember it might not have happened without the success of Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus, aka THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.