Format: DVD from Fossil Ridge Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.
The opening credits of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms claims that the film is based on, or suggested by a story by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury happens to be one of my favorite authors, and before the actual name of the story came up, my assumption was that the story in question would be “The Fog Horn,” a story I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid (and which was originally published under the name “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”). I was right, incidentally; that is the story that was used for the film. It’s a lovely, melancholic story about a lighthouse that is visited yearly by a giant sea creature whose call sounds exactly like the lighthouse’s fog horn. On the third year of the creature’s visit, the lighthouse keepers turn off the fog horn and, distraught, the creature attacks and destroys it.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is inspired by this story in the sense that there is a giant, prehistoric creature that attacks and destroys a lighthouse. Maybe 90 seconds of the film come from Bradbury’s story while the rest is pure 1950s B-movie science fiction creature feature. For someone who calls the original author “Saint Ray,” this is quite disappointing.
This is from an era where science is both the cause and the cure of many a movie issue. In this case, an atomic bomb test in the arctic (dubbed, seriously, “Operation Experiment”) releases a giant creature from the ice. This creature is a fiction 200-foot-long predator called a rhedosaurus that is soon moving south. Before it goes, it kills one of the researchers, but is spotted by a second, a man named Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian). Tom is convinced of what he saw, but of course everyone thinks he hallucinated it, since he was injured as the creature went past.
However, there are reports of giant sea monsters moving down the Canadian Atlantic coast, including the destruction of a lighthouse that is supposed to come from the Bradbury story. Nesbitt manages to find a couple of survivors who have been shamed about what they saw. Eventually, he convinces them that he doesn’t think they are crazy. And, because this is a movie from the 1950s, we need a love story. That’s going to happen between Tom and Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond), who is the assistant to paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway).
Eventually the creature moves into more populated areas—the theory being that it is moving to the area where the first specimen was unearthed, which happens to be in the Hudson River area (evidently, the climate is exactly the same after 100 million years). Humanity fights back, but when the creature is wounded, its blood unleashes a terrible plague, a prehistoric contagion that starts an epidemic, meaning that killing the creature could spread that contagion even further. If only there was a way that science could help, and if only it involved the use of radioactive isotopes just like Tom Nesbitt studies! And if it could also involve a young Lee Van Cleef using the weapon to kill the creature, even better!
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had such high hopes for humanity and our trust in science. It’s a little sad just how much we have disappointed the people from that generation. It’s also one of those movies where people don’t so much have a specialty, but are experts in Science!, which can be used to solve any problem. Sure, it might be scientific curiosity that causes the problem in the first place, but the proper use of knowledge and science eventually solves all of the problems that are thus created. It’s rather endearing in its naivety.
The movie itself honestly isn’t very good. The science is kind of dumb and the people aren’t that bright, either. Dr. Elson becomes convinced of the existence of the creature specifically because two people independently identify the same artist rendering of the creature that they claim to have seen—a reconstruction based on what would almost certainly be a partial skeleton, but absolutely sketched perfectly. To create tension, when a use for a particular isotope is determined (you knew that was coming), it turns out that they’ll have just one try—it’s the only isotope of its kind in the world. In addition to that, the whole “based on” narrative here is a bait and switch. This would have been a lot better if it really had been based on “The Fog Horn.”
The real star, of course, is the work of Ray Harryhausen, who did the creature effects. It’s rudimentary from where Harryhausen eventually got to, but for the time, it’s pretty great stop-motion work. The creature is why you watch, and this is a lot less entertaining when the creature is not on the screen.
So, ultimately, one Ray’s work should be celebrated here, and the other Ray got shafted.
Why to watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: Ray Harryhausen’s work is always worth seeing.
Why not to watch: “Based on,” my backside.