Direction: Eugene Lourie
Screenplay: Louis Morheim and Fred Freiberger; suggested by a Ray Bradbury short story
Special Effects: Ray Harryhausen and Willis Cook
Producer: Jack Dietz, Hal E. Chester, and Bernard W. Burton
Today, suitmation and stop-motion animation share something in common – they are both considered passé by a generation weaned on mega-budget action movies and opulent CGI spectacles.
Baby-boomers may still appreciate stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, but you have to wonder how his work will be regarded in thirty or forty years when many of us are gone or residing in arranged care facilities. At that time, probably the only young people who will care about Harryhausen are film historians and a clawful of die-hard monster movie buffs.
But such is the nature of time -- and "progress."
Those of us who saw The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on TV during the sixties, seventies, or early eighties will never forget the experience. Some today criticize the movie as being too slow, too obvious, too naive. But every sixties kid remembers the thrill of seeing the huge rhedosaurus rear its head in New York harbor while panicked dockhands fled for their lives.
The beast's various set pieces are all classics ingrained in every Monster Kid's memory -- the rhedosaurus stalking down NYC streets as terrified citizens run for cover; picking up one hapless (and none too bright) city policeman by the head before scarfing him down; shaking a car; squashing a car; breaking through a building to escape the police's heavy caliber rifle fire. Then there are the great moody night scenes during which the beast tangles with electric lines and bazooka fire, its resultant blood causing national guard troops to fall like stricken trees.
The rhedosaurus was the first in a long line of American monsters-on-the-loose who, for one reason or another, couldn't simply be militarily dispatched. The beast's blood was rife with disease-producing bacteria, bacteria toxic to humans, so it couldn't simply be blown apart or even immolated. Hence, it takes a radioactive isotope fired from a marksman's rifle into the beast's wounded throat to fell the creature.
The means of killing the beast – a radioactive isotope -- dovetails with the means that brought it to life – a nuclear bomb. This gives the story a touch of irony and poetic justice. But in truth, most kids sympathized with the monster and didn't want it to die. Not because they liked seeing people get killed, but because the monster was so cool – huge and strong and powerful, in short, everything that most kids weren't but longed to be in a world run by towering adults.
Is the storyline fantastic and far-fetched? Of course. The odds of a dinosaur surviving alive for millions of years while frozen in suspended animation, then released from its slumber by a nuclear test, are more than astronomical. Then it survives the extreme cold of the Arctic -- how? -- long enough to make way for its spawning grounds in New York. Also, since there were no humans alive when the dinosaurs lived, how likely is it that dino germs would have any affect whatsoever on human beings? Still, the film does employ the "one fantastic element only" theory of fantasy scripting, i.e., ground everything in reality but the one fantastic conceit.
But all of that is really beside the point. This film is chiefly about Ray Harryhausen's movie magic. The master gives the rhedosaurus a genuine personality, albeit a fairly cranky one, and its movements are often feline, not unlike those of a house cat. For example, after it flattens a car, it scoots it with its foot as a cat might.
In addition, it's great to see Kenneth Tobey back in action again, albeit in a more reduced capacity than his role in 1951's The Thing from Another World. Tobey deserved to stay a leading man in fifties SFantasies, but for some reason, didn't. Here, he's in top form.
As well as enshrining Harryhausen magic, the film glances on the realm of open possibilities present in the fifties. During the first half of the movie, scientist Cecil Kellaway asks a military officer how he can be so sure there aren't flying saucers. This line epitomizes the sense of wonder and the unknown distilled in the better 1950's SFantasies. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms sparkles with several "wonder moments," courtesy of both its fifties monster milieu and Harryhausen's brilliant model animation effects.
Maybe no one will remember this movie fifty years from today as the remnants of a dying breed (Monster Kids) are breathing their last. But for now, this quintessential "monster movie" still gives me a warm glow. How about you?