Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: terror lumbers into town in the form of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
The Beast From 20,000 FathomsDirector: Eugene Lourie
Cast: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey
US release date: 1953-06-13
Alternate title: Jurassic Park—the Early Years
The best monster-on-the-loose movie of the 1950s, and one of the best ever.
Terrific early sequences featuring boat and lighthouse.
Lots of monster screen time and a visually stunning finale.
Mandatory weak romance.
SYNOPSIS: Nuclear tests have sent the earth out of its orbit—no, wait, that's a different movie. Nuclear tests have unleashed a swarm of giant killer ants—no, wait, sorry. Here it is: nuclear tests up in the Arctic have roused a dinosaur from its suspended animation (that's "sleep" to you and me, kids) and sent it swimming and waddling down the Canadian coast in search of its old breeding grounds in America's northeast. After its amorous advances toward a Canadian fishing vessel and a Maine lighthouse go unheeded, the scaly critter grows annoyed and sets about laying waste to everything in sight. Meanwhile, intrepid scientist Dr Tom Nesbitt, who first spotted the thing up at the North Pole, has identified the creature as a rhedosaur (from Latin saur = "lizard" and rhedo = "this audience will believe anything"). Dr. Nesbitt confers with elderly Dr. Elson—you can tell he's a scientist by his pipe—who suspects that the rhedosaur might soon come ashore in search of a mate.
Well, what better place to shop for singles than downtown Manhattan? Speaking of mates, Dr. Elson's colleague, the lovely Lee Hunter, has an experiment of her own in mind with Dr. Tom. But before you can say "sex in the city," the big green lizard has clambered ashore and is running amok through the boulevards and byways of the big apple. (Okay, the movie's in black and white, so who knows what color the thing is. I always pictured it as a nice forest green, with some rusty stripes along its neck and a pale yellow underbelly. See "party game.") Master animator Ray Harryhausen is generous in his animation of the monster—it gets plenty of screen time, and the meshing of live-acting and animation is seamlessly done. Mixed in with the rampaging chaos are deftly-handled scenes of tension and suspense, so it isn't all just bing-bang-boom. There's also radioactive blood to make the soldiers sick, a nice little commentary on the nuclear weaponry tested at the start of the movie.
Eventually our dinosaur buddy gets bored with the scene—Manhattan, while fun, isn't for everybody—and decides to hightail it for a livelier venue. And what better place to while away a summer afternoon than Coney Island? They've got so many attractions: bumper cars, cotton candy, the boardwalk. And of course, the roller coaster.
Can anyone explain: Why this creature, which was frozen solid in an iceberg, is called a beast "from 20,000 fathoms"? It's a land creature, not a squid. Sure, it goes swimming in the ocean. So do I, sometimes—but I'm not, like, "the Dave from 20,000 fathoms."
Moral of the story: Don't drop H-bombs on stuff. (A pretty good moral, that.)
What gets reduced to rubble: Lots! Starting with a buncha icebergs; a scientist; a fishing boat; a second boat (by report); a lighthouse and a couple lighthouse keepers; a farmer and various coastal buildings (by report); an octopus; a shark; a diving bell; a scientist and Navy crewman; large swathes of Manhattan; cars; pedestrians; one of New York's finest; some soldiers; a roller coaster; 20,000 fathoms' worth of beast.
Party game: Play "Colorize." Get some blank paper and one of those 64-color boxes of crayons. Everybody has to draw the rhedosaur in full color. Most creative rendition wins. Note: If the recent colorized releases of other Harryhausen films like 20 Million Miles to Earth are any indication, this game may soon become obsolete. Play while you can!
Did you know? The rhedosaur's rampage though New York would be cited by Japanese director Ishiro Honda as one of the inspirations leading to 1954's Gojira—or Godzilla, as Americans know it. Countless subsequent films would use the trope as well, including Allison Hayes's rampage in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), the London-trashing antics of The Giant behemoth (1959), and Steven Speilberg's allosaurus-amok-in-San-Diego in The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997). It all started with 1933's King Kong, which Ray Harryhausen saw as a teenager, and took as his own inspiration.
Somehow their careers survived: Paul Christian aka Hubschmid (Nesbitt) would show up again in sci-fi thriller The Day the Sky Exploded (1957), while Paula Raymond (Hunter) would star alongside horror legend John Carradine in 1969's Blood of Dracula’s Castle. Cecil Kellaway (Elson)'s career spanned 45 years and included roles in the original version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1948) with Lana Turner, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) with Sidney Poitier and Kathering Hepburn. Kenneth Tobey (Colonel Evans) already starred in The Thing From Another World (1951) and would star in It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). A young Lee Van Cleef can be glimpsed in a brief role as Corporal Stone—blink and you'll miss it. Cleef would go on to bad-guy stardom in such films as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, High Noon and Escape from New York. Special-effects genius Ray Harryhausen, of course, is in a class of his own, and we'll be seeing plenty more of him throughout the decade (and beyond). His first full-length feature was 1949's Mighty Joe Young, about a large—but not Kong-sized—gorilla.
BOTTOM LINE: This movie and King Kong pretty much created the genre. A monster-movie classic, and—arguably—Harryhausen's greatest black-and-white triumph.