Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (Eugène Lourié, 1953)  Ray Bradbury is associated—and credited in the film—but he didn't really write it, so much as inspire it—his short story "The Fog Horn" had just been published, and the producers had wanted him to do the screenplay, and a deal was struck, where the story's screen-rights were bought, and Bradbury feted in the posters.

Other than that, the story's an original—and it was truly original back in 1952, when it was produced—about atomic testing unthawing a prehistoric creature from the ice, which swims down the coast of North America, and decides to chew on The Big Apple—"Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to be squished there."  Yeah, yeah, there have been dozens of variations on the theme from dozens of countries of origin, but this one was the first, and hewed very close to the "Atomic dangers" theme that the movie used as a metaphor for the unnatural terror of The Bomb.

Atomic testing above the Arctic Circle, leads one of the scientists, Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian), a "nuclear physicist from New York"* to literally stumble upon a prehistoric lizard (designed, sculpted and animated by the brilliant Ray Harryhausen).  When he's found, babbling about "b-b-b-big lizard!" he's laughed off by the Army (represented by Kenneth Tobey, who would take on The Thing years later) and the scientific community, including Dr. Thurgood Ellston (a bubbly Cecil Kellaway, quite different from his malevolent warlock in I Married a Witch).  Only after a witness to a boat attack further down the North Atlantic Coast, corroborates the phylum of the critter do the pipe-smokers take an interest.  Vindicated, Nesbitt takes an interest in Ellston's lovely assistant (Paula Raymond), who sports wide lapels and even broader gestures—"Très  dramatique!" Nesbitt must think. 

Ellston concludes that the Beast must be making its way down the coast, given the flotsam and jetsam (and a distinct lack of witnesses) heading for the States.  Anticipating the Beast's arrival, he volunteers to take a diving bell to make observations, but, just before he can make measurements of the Creature's incisors, he becomes a victim of them.

Nuts.  We need another expert.

But, before they can find one diving-bell-size (and with the proper insurance), the big hurking lizard takes matters into his own claws, lurches out of the Hudson, up on the dock, scattering the local Union,** and taking a tour of Wall Street, squishing the more gutsy members of the NYPD (or the dumb ones not collecting their protection money) and any stray investment bankers (Oh, where was a Rhedosaurus during the Bush Administration?).  The Army manages to give the beast a bazooka tracheotomy, but (damn it!) turns out the thing bleeds toxic blood and all the front-line combatants start dropping in their tracks.

Okay.  Plan "B."

Good thing we have a French physicist in the cast, who decides that if he can get an Army sharp-shooter ("I've got a plan!  Let the Americans do it!") with a grenade launcher and toss some fissionable material into the grenade, they can fire it into the open neck-wound and microwave the thing from the inside  (Sounds safe to me!).  And just because its blundered into Coney Island and is trapped inside the giant flammable roller-coaster near high-intensity electrical lines, it seems like the perfect time to take one of the cars to the highest part of the coaster.

It's like anything; it's never easy.

Man, it's silly.  But it isn't pretentious—all the atomic speechifying is done at the beginning, saving the ending for roaring, roller-coasters and roasting rhedosaurs.  "The End" comes up so fast you don't have time to wonder if there's a garbage-strike on so they can pick the thing up on Tuesday.  And Harryhausen's stop-motion work is still amazing even in this age of CGI manipulation—it still amazes that he's got the dinosaur surrounded by roller-coaster at the same time he's combined it with live action footage—where does "it" stop and the film begin?  I know I'm "old school," but, man, I buy this  Harryhausen labor of love (done one frame at a time) over the most complexly rendered computer kerfluffle.  I'll take 20,000 Fathoms over 20,000 pixels any day.

Lighthouse Envy—The image inspired by Ray Bradbury's story

*Although judging from his accent, apparently New York has a "French Quarter."

** The incident isn't referenced in On the Waterfront.

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