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It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It_Came_From_Beneath_The_Sea_posterAfter the unexpected success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, Ray Harryhausen teamed up with producer Charles Schneer for the 1955 It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant radioactive octopus that storms San Francisco.

The film opens with a brief discussion (via narrator) of the brand new 55 million dollar nuclear submarine. Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are out on maneuvers not far from Pearl Harbor, when an unidentified object catches hold of their sub. They are able to break free, but a bit of the object is jammed in their dive planes and they are obliged to bring in some scientists – Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Professor Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue) – to investigate.

The scientists conclude that the object is a giant octopus that has rise from its customary habitation deep in the sea due to a lack of food. The octopus is radioactive – caused by the testing of the hydrogen bomb – and the radiation drives away its food. Now, it is aggressively hungry and indiscriminately attacking ships, people, and fish. Eventually, the octopus ends up in San Francisco, where it decides that the Golden Gate Bridge (built in 1937) is a good target.

In many ways, It Came From Beneath the Sea looks like an even cheaper film than The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. With an even smaller budget, there are a lot of rear projection shots and stock footage (not to mention a slightly puzzling romantic subplot). In addition, the octopus doesn’t seem to have the same emotional resonance as the Rhedosaurs of the previous year, possibly because it’s harder to see its face and since what we tend chiefly to notice are the tentacles.

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It’s a Kraken!

But there is something irresistible about watching that giant octopus attack San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Or even a ship (even if it is a model of a ship). That scene so reminded me of the scene where the Kraken in Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest attacks the pirate ship (just like Harryhausen’s skeletons reminded me of the skeletons in the first Pirates of the Caribbean – in fact, there seems to be a lot of similarities between those pirate movies and the fantasy films of Harryhausen). The more classic movies I see, the more vivid it becomes to me how much films are inspired by the films that came before.

Because Harryhausen and Schneer were on such a tight budget, they were obliged to omit two legs from the octopus, so it is actually a six legged octopus instead of eight, though I confess I would not have realized it unless I had read it. They do an admiral job keeping that fact from being obvious.

The subplot involving Commander Matthews, Dr. Carter and Professor Joyce is, to say the least, unique. Mathews (played by Kenneth Tobey, who shows up as a military man in a number of 1950s sci-fi movies) is a bit of a chauvinist, a “man’s man” who is very attracted to Professor Joyce and they flirt while she’s investigating the octopus. She, on the other hand, has a warm professional relationship with Dr. Carter and the two of them respect each other’s scientific knowledge and abilities. I couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be a love triangle or not. Dr. Carter certainly doesn’t seem jealous that Joyce is attracted to Mathews. But Mathews is always trying to “protect” Joyce and Carter’s trying to explain that the “new women” want to be treated as the equal of men. By the end, Mathews suggest she quit her job and marry him, but she’s not interested.

It’s like the film was playing around with the idea that there is an incompatibility between physical attraction (Mathews and Joyce) and intellectual attraction (Joyce and Carter), and that as an academic woman you can’t have both.

Taking out the Golden Gate

Taking out the Golden Gate Bridge

It Came From Beneath the Sea is also significant for being the first film that Harryhausen would make with Charles Schneer. It was an important partnership that would provide Harryhausen the support and financial backing he needed to be able to bring his visions to life, something that Harryhausen’s idol, Willis O’Brien, always lacked. Apart from King Kong, Willis O’Brien was never given free reign. But with the support of Charles Schneer, Harryhausen was able to create some of his best work for films like The 7th Voyage of SinbadMysterious Island, and Jason and the Argonauts.

Another thing that interested me about It Came From Beneath the Sea was the repeated attention drawn to the nuclear submarine as the new, up-to-date, shiny machine that was so efficient that at the beginning of the film the crew complain that it practically runs itself. This was indeed very new. The first nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus – was launched in 1954, just one year before the release of the movie. It was also the first submarine to navigate through the Arctic (though not punch through the ice at the North Pole – that wasn’t until 1959).

It is fascinating how the film reflects the issues of the day. The concern over the possible negative effects of the use of atomic bombs, but at the same time the super-efficient new nuclear submarine also saves the day. Not to mention the quirky exploration of women’s new roles in the workplace. But the real reason to watch the film is Ray Harryhausen’s giant octopus!

This is my second contribution to The Ray Harryhausen Blogathon, hosted by Wolffian Classics Movie Digest. Please click here for more posts celebrating Harryhausen!

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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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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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The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

downloadBefore I watched King Kong I was not familiar with stop-motion animation or with its creator, Willis O’Brien, nor with the man who was most influenced by Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen. However, after watching King Kong, despite initially being unimpressed, the more I learned about the process of making stop motion animation the less cheesy the film seemed and the more extraordinary. It looked incredible and creative and I was in awe of the pathos and feeling they could generate from a mere puppet and the way he interacted with the live characters. So as a natural next step from King Kong, I watched Mighty Joe Young, where Ray Harryhausen worked with Willis O’Brien on the stop motion animation. And then to The 7th Voyage of Sinabd, where Harryhausen not only created the monsters, but also produced the film.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a hodge-podge of story elements from Greek poetry (The Odyssey), One Thousand and One Nights, monster movies like King Kong and Godzilla and even, if I stretch a point, fairy tales.

Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is taking his fiance, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), to his home in Baghdad, where their marriage will cement an alliance between Baghdad and her land in Persia. However, they make a pit stop at Colossa, where they encounter an angry cyclops and a magician named Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). They escape from the angry cyclops and bring along the magician, though he loses his magic lamp in the process.

an angry cyclops

an angry cyclops

He begs Sinbad to go back so he can recover the lamp, and even offers a large reward, but Sinbad refuses and returns to Baghdad to prepare for his wedding. The continued refusal of the Caliph of Baghdad to send Sokurah back to Colossa with a ship and crew pushes him to desperate measures. He shrinks the princess to roughly the size of Thumbalina and tells Sinbad that only at Colossa are there the necessary ingredients for him to make a potion to bring the princess back to original size.

They set out with a murderous crew (because criminals are the only ones brave enough to risk their lives, since they have nothing to lose) with Sinbad carrying his beloved in a small, cushioned box. He must face mutiny, more cyclops, Roc birds (whose egg shells they must steal a piece of for Sokurah’s potion), starvation, more treachery from the crew and Sokurah, a dragon, and a skeleton that comes to life and wields a sword.

The original story of Sinbad is first found in a later edition of the One Thousand and One Nights and is not considered part of the original collection of stories. There are seven voyages of Sinbad, many of which do not have much in common with the movie, though the Roc birds apparently show up in the 5th Voyage.

What the movie really made me think of was the Odyssey, which is cited as one possible influence on the original Sinbad stories. There are screaming demons that drive people mad and force them to dash their ships against the rocks. To prevent himself from going mad, Sinbad stuffs wax in his ears (think Sirens). The cyclops captures the crew and almost eats them and then gets blinded. And even, for good measure, there are bits of Aladdin (another story added later to the One Thousand and One Nights tales), with a genie in a lamp and Sokurah making a pretty convincing Jaffar-like figure. You could even see shades of Pinocchio, with the genie being only a child who just wants to be free and to be a boy and not a genie. Maybe I’m stretching for that one a bit.

imagesAnd then there are the monsters. The cyclops, of course. There is also the unforgettable cobra lady, created when Sokurah transforms Parisa’s handmaiden into a part cobra, part lady who does a dance. The Roc birds. The sword-fighting skeleton Sinbad must battle (the skeleton was a big hit with audiences, which I can understand. How exciting is that? Long before Pirates of the Caribbean). But my personal favorite is the dragon who guards Sokurah’s castle.

One of the things that made King Kong so great was the poignancy of the monster himself. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad doesn’t have quite that level of emotional connection for the monsters. They are there mostly for the coolness factor – and they are cool. However, I like to think that a little of that King Kong pathos makes it into the dragon. He’s chained to the wall of the entrance and he looks so pathetic there, you can’t help but feel what a sad existence he must lead. And then, when he escapes and after he fights a cyclops (and wins!) he is pierced with several arrows and instead of just dropping dead, the movie actually pauses to watch him die in an extended scene.

Of course, the reason I was able to feel such a deep connection for a briefly appearing monster is that none of the actors command much sympathy. The acting can best be described as…well, just sort of there. Kerwin Mathews is suitably heroic, but not particularly expressive or interesting. Parisa is unrelentingly perky. Sokurah is not that expressive, either, though gets by with a general aura of menace. But one does not watch the movie for the acting.

images (1)It’s a fun film, an adventure/fantasy, and there are not enough of those around. It’s the kind of film I would have liked even more if I had first seen it as a child, but you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it. And the music is fantastic, scored by Bernard Herrmann. Next up, I think, will be Jason and the Argonauts. My understanding is that instead of one skeleton, there is an army of them, and that it contains yet another score by Bernard Herrmann. One can’t have too much of that!

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2015 in Movies

 

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