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The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

downloadMy brother was reminding me that in the 1950s, the Arctic (Ocean) was kind of like the last frontier on earth. It had been visited, but was not well known and it was during the 1950s that nuclear submarines were engaged in mapping the arctic, floating both among and under the ice floes. It was not until the late 1950s that a submarine was able to push through the ice and, in the words of my brother, take a selfie on the North Pole. It was like the closing of a frontier. After the arctic, there was really nothing else to do but take the exploration in films to space and out-right fantasy. No more going to islands and discovering King Kong or the Arctic and finding prehistoric monsters or even aliens.

But this might be why the Arctic features in a few 1950s sci and fantasy films, most prominently in The Thing From Another World and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms begins with a test of a nuclear bomb in the Arctic, which releases a prehistoric monster that had been frozen in the ice for millions of years. A specialist in radioactive isotopes, Dr. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) sees the monster, but no one will believe him. He contacts the respected paleontologist, Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), but he finds the idea of a frozen dinosaur come to life incredible. Only his assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) believes Tom. Together, Tom and Lee track down several fisherman who claim to have lost their boats when attacked by a giant monster.

Eventually, the evidence mounts up so that not only Dr. Elson, but also Tom’s military friend, Col. Evans (Kenneth Tobey) believe him and they try to locate the monster (which they call a Rhedosauros, a fictional dinosaur), except that the monster has other ideas and invades New York City a la Godzilla.

Interestingly, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released over a year before the Japanese classic Godzilla and served as an inspiration. There are many similarities: the connection between atomic weapons and monsters, the way it attacks boats, the way it comes ashore to destroy a whole city. Ray Harryahusen’s Rhedosaurus probably looks better than the original Godzilla, which is really a man in a suit. However, the Japanese film gave their monster a much deeper significance. Godzilla is not just a rampaging dinosaur, but a direct product and representation of the atomic bomb and it’s deadly effects and trauma.

The-Beast-from-20-000-Fathoms-images-e6efcd1b-fdec-44e1-b9c8-efc46c46273However, despite the lack of an especially deep meaning, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is still a fun movie. It’s not a long movie, only 80 minutes, and incredibly was made for little more than $200,000. It’s a testament to creativity on a shoestring, a creativity that influenced films from Godzilla to Them! and beyond.

The idea came from a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Fog Horn,” which featured an attack by a giant monster on a light house (a scene which makes it into the film). Ray Harryhausen – who had previously worked with Willis O’Brien on Might Joe Young – was for the first time able to work alone. He said they could only afford one model of the Rhedosaurus, unlike King Kong, where there were multiple models – you can even track the changes through the film. Ultimately, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus looks to me like a cross between a T-Rex and a Komodo Dragon.

The director, Eugene Lourie apparently used to tease Harryhausen that he made his monsters die like a tenor in an opera. This made me laugh when I heard it because it’s so true. The pathos Ray Harryhausen manages to wring out of the death of a rampaging creature is impressive. He did the same thing at the end of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, pausing for a truly operatic end for a dragon that really wasn’t in the story that much, but managed to convey more emotion that the entire cast put together.

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Cecil Kellaway, Paul Raymond, Paul Christian

In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Rhedosaurus goes out amidst a burning roller-coaster on Coney Island, taken out by a radioactive isotope. He gets all the drama, while the people are along for the ride, though Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson is quite good. I am always happy to see him in a film and the character even makes jokes about leprechauns, which I thought was ironic since Cecil Kellaway had played a leprechaun in a movie only a few years before. Another familiar face is Kenneth Tobey as Colonel Evans. He makes a crack about flying saucers, another irony, since he helped discover one in the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World.

The film grossed over $5 Million, an impressive return for a film made for only $200,000. But the creative returns were even more impressive, inspiring Godzilla and Them!, but also launching Ray Harryhausen as solo creator and unique genius.

This post was written as part of the Ray Harryhausen Blogathon. My thanks to Wolffian Classics Movies Digest for hosting! Click here for more posts about Harryhausen’s work.

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Posted by on July 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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Frankenstein vs. God?

There’s a joke I once heard as a child (paraphrased by me):

The earth had reached a state of perfection where scientists had solved all their problems: war, famine and hunger, global warming, disease – life was now perfect and ideal. So they sent a delegation of scientists to see God and tell him that they no longer required his services. “We can do anything you can do,” they told him. God listened to them politely.

“Name something,” they said. “Name anything and we’ll show you we can do it as well as you.”

“Why don’t you create life,” God said.

“Oh, that’s easy!” one scientist said and bent down to grab a handful of dust. God stopped them.

“Wait a moment,” God said, “Get your own dust!”

UntitledBut in all seriousness, as much as Frankenstein movies warn about trespassing on the realm of God (and if you think about it, Frankenstein’s not even in the ballpark), I never found they made a very convincing case. The pertinent message ends up being more about scientific ethics and the nature of humanity. Though, admittedly, Frankenstein does have a colossal god complex.

But if the movies had really been about trespassing on the realm of God, there shouldn’t have been any careless accidents (like using the wrong brain?). There should have been divine retribution (the proverbial zapped by lightning). Either that or it simply shouldn’t have been possible to create life. Interestingly enough, in the 2015 Victor Frankenstein, that is exactly what happens. Victor Frankenstein creates a being that breathes, but it has no soul and Frankenstein concludes that what he has created is not really life – just a carcass with a heart pumping (or hearts, in this case).

But in the Frankenstein films, an unspoken question is asked – what makes someone alive?

In the original 1931 Frankenstein and the 1957 Hammer Studio The Curse of Frankenstein, they do succeed in creating a living human being. Both “monsters,” played by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, have damaged brains (caused by careless or bickering scientists and their assistants), but they feel pain, suffering, longing, confusion. But the fact that both “monsters” have damaged brains is something of a side-issue in the films. It wouldn’t have mattered if both of them had been fully functioning, thinking adult creations. Their very appearance and the way in which Frankenstein treats them would have caused problems.

In the original Frankenstein, Colin Clive plays an obsessed scientist – not so much evil as totally consumed by what he is doing. In the 1957 version, Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein is an out-and-out psychopath (like Beauty and the Beast, he’s the real monster in the story). But what they both have in common is a casual attitude towards their creation. In fact, that is part of the problem. They think of the “monster” as their creation – something to experiment upon, study and destroy in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable if their creations were animals. They talk of creating life, but they don’t treat them as life.

this image perfectly illustrates Frankenstein's attitude to his creation

this image pretty much sums up Frankenstein’s attitude to his creation

Actually, it makes me think, of all things, of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” Because Henry Higgins thinks he’s created Eliza Doolittle, the perfect lady, he thinks he can control her and treats her as though she had no feelings. Except in the end she asserts her independence and waltzes out. But she has options in life that aren’t exactly available to Frankenstein’s monster.

So, if they’re not really trying to create life, what are they trying to do? Science for self-aggrandizement and fame – like a Greek hero who wants to be remembered after he has died? To exercise control and power? The thrill of discovery and the challenge? Maybe all these reasons and more? Perhaps they (or at least Colin Clive’s Frankenstein) even once wanted to do good.

But the Frankensteins’ treatment of their creations tends to be little better than their treatment of other people (especially in the case of Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein), who are the little people in their personal drama. Oddly enough, the creation of life ends up resulting in the isolation of the creator (I had to get the theme of loneliness in there somehow!) and a lack of sympathy for those already alive. In Frankenstein, creating life ends up a kind of nihilism.

This is my contribution to the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by myself and Silver Screenings. Follow the links for the rest of the entries: Day 1 was devoted to Good Scientists, Day 2 went to the Mad ones, and Today comprises the Lonely ones.Scientist Blogathon Banners

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Bride of Frankenstein

200px-Brideoffrankposter1935 – Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Clive Collin, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Una O’Connor – Directed by James Whale – Screenplay by William Hurlbut, adapted from the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I feel this requires some explanation. I am not, even with the most generous definition, a horror fan. The closest I’ve ever come to the genre is Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. However, I am a fan of Elsa Lanchester and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to see at least one classic horror film, on the understanding that a 1935 horror film was not the same as a 2014 horror film.

And it’s certainly not like anything I’ve ever seen before. It wasn’t scary or horrifying – though I probably would have been scared as a child. It has been described as campy, as possessing sly humor; one commentator from a documentary on the DVD called the performances operatic, which is to say, grand, sweeping, expressing heightened and stylized emotions. It is atmospheric and I will admit that it is startling the poignancy and feeling Karloff gets out of his character.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to the unexpectedly massive hit in 1931 of Frankenstein that made Boris Karloff such a great star. He was billed in The Bride of Frankenstein not as Boris Karloff, but simply as Karloff.

The film begins with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley in a castle in Italy, where there is a fearsome story blowing outside. Lord Byron is gushing about how marvelously horrible Mary’s book was – which is also a nice opportunity for some flashbacks to what happened in the original 1931 Frankenstein movie. Looking rather evil herself, Mary says that the story is not finished.

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Elsa Lanchester, looking like she’s having rather evil thoughts

The scene shifts to just after the big fire that ended the first movie, which supposedly killed the monster (and Dr. Frankenstein apparently fell off a windmill to his death). The villagers are all standing around the charred remains of the mill and exulting that the monster is dead…except that he’s not (and neither is Frankenstein).

Right off the bat we meet Una O’Connor, who does a marvelous turn as a slightly hysterical and somewhat bloodthirsty maid to Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth. When the monster drags himself out of the burning wreckage, he kills two peasants, but when he runs into Una O’Connor her reaction is so oddball funny that he just stands there as if even he doesn’t know quite what to make of it.

Soon, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, unforgettable in his role) arrives at Dr. Frankenstein’s door, with suitably creepy music. He’s the kind of character that gives eccentrics a bad name. He wants Frankenstein to return to the quest to create life. Pretorius has succeeded in making very small (several inches tall) humans with good brains, while Frankenstein has succeeded in making full sized human without good brains.

Frankenstein says no, but Pretorius has the monster kidnap his fiance, forcing Frankenstein to collaborate with him in trying to create a woman for the monster, who just wants a friend and is getting rather tired of having people react to him in abject fear and horror.

There is a very famous scene where the monster meets a blind hermit who is longing for a friend as much as the monster is and he teaches him how to speak a little (unlike in the book, in the first movie the monster does not speak). However, when several other people come upon the hermit and the monster, they try to kill the monster and take the hermit away for his own safety, so they think. It is after this that the monster runs into Pretorius, who promises him a friend.

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Elsa Lanchester as the intended bride of the monster – actually looking less evil than Mary Shelley

I was amazed at how seriously this movies is taken by commentators and critics: the lighting, symbolism, acting, even the makeup. It is what I would consider iconic.It is rather well done, one of those rare sequels that is supposed to surpass the original. The theme is otherness. The monster is other, outside of everyone else and to a certain extent so is Dr. Pretorius and Frankenstein. It’s about loneliness, mad ambition and the desire to create just as God did. The religious symbolism is thick, which some people think makes the monster a Christ figure, but most people agree that since the monster is man made, the symbolism is more ironic.

On a less philosophic level, the music near the end, when Pretorius and Frankenstein are about to bring the bride to life using the energy of the thunder storm is quite something and the electronic dissonance created by all their equipment gives the music a very contemporary, heavy metal kind of sound.

I would like to know what a cosmic diffuser is, though. It appears to be something Frankenstein uses to diffuse energy into the dead body, but it sounds more like the brand name of a hair dryer.

Spoiler! In the end, the irony is that even the bride who is created does not care for the monster. She is confused and not aware that she is supposed to be a monster created for the other monster and she reacts with fear. The monster, who all along has felt he should never have existed, kills himself and Pretorius – who he recognizes as rather evil – and the bride, but allows Frankenstein and his fiance to escape.

There is some debate about what time period this movie is actually supposed to set in. The book was published in 1823. The film is a blend of the early 1800s with the contemporary 1930s. Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth looks very 1930s, with her clothes and hair. There is even a telephone device invented by Pretorius. But the village looks like the early 1800s. According to the director, it was his intention to create a world that encompassed both times.

200px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)In the credits for the original Frankenstein in 1931, there was a cast list with the corresponding characters they played. At the bottom, it just read “Monster – ?” Since everyone now knew who played the monster in the sequel, the film was advertised as Karloff the Uncanny (also billed that way in the 1932 The Mummy) returning as Frankenstein’s monster. However, the bride was kept a mystery. It read “monster’s bride -?” She was, of course, played by Elsa Lanchester, who also played Mary Shelley in the prologue to the film. I was a little surprised at how a short a time the bride is actually in the film, but she certainly makes a splash.

I can see why people speak about the make-up artist Jack Pierce. One usually doesn’t hear much about make-up artists. He had as much to do with the look of the film and creation of the characters as the cinematographer or director or composer.

Turner Classic Movie has many essays on the film, which contain more analysis of the meaning of the film and trivia about the making of it and those people involved.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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