The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

In honor of the enjoyable experience that was the 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters (at least, I thought it was enjoyable), it seems appropriate for this Throwback Thursday to post an American Kaiju (AmeriKaiju?) triple feature of reviews originally written for Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities.

These reviews are part of a series of posts I categorized as Ethan’s Film Journal, with each meant to be a relatively short and quick catalogue of my thoughts surrounding a film I had recently watched. I’ll probably keep using that format going forward, and will likely apply it to video games, books, and music as I see fit.

In terms of the films I picked for today’s #TBT, I definitely have some additional observations and will share them at the end of the original entry. Oh, and if you care about spoilers for a movie that’s over sixty-five years old, you might want to skip this review. Without further ado…

Originally posted 01/29/2018

Summary: When an atomic bomb test at the Arctic Circle releases a frozen Rhedosaurus from the ice, it’s up to physicist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) and assistant paleontologist Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) to stop the prehistoric creature from running amok in Manhattan.  Hilarity ensues.

Thoughts: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms finds its basis in a Ray Bradbury short story entitled “The Fog Horn,” which is about a prehistoric creature, possibly the last of its kind, coming up from its resting place beneath the waves to respond to what it thinks is a mating call from another of its kind on shore.  What the creature doesn’t realize is that the “mating call” is actually a fog horn from a lighthouse–and so when the keepers turn off the fog horn, the creature misunderstands the silence as unrequited love and destroys the lighthouse in anger.

This film expands quite a bit on that premise.  While there is a scene where the Rhedosaurus emerges from the sea to destroy a lighthouse, the sequence lasts maybe three or four minutes, and contains no attempt to rationalize the creature’s actions as a response to “unrequited love.”  What we get overall is a fairly solid 1950s sci-fi movie; really, a sort of American kaiju film (kaiju being Japanese slang used to denote a movie with a giant monster).

Though the main cast is pretty standard for a 1950s atomic sci-fi film–that is, a noble male lead, a plucky female assistant love interest, a doddering-yet-brilliant older scientist who gets killed/eaten/absorbed midway through the film (here, played by Cecil Kellaway, who some may remember from the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice)–and the acting is competent enough (if average by all accounts), the real triumph of the film is Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion special effects work.  Using an intricate wire puppet, Harryhausen imbues the Rhedosaurus seamlessly with life and personality.  The creature becomes another cast member, certainly the most important cast member, and without Harryhausen’s mastery, the whole thing would be much less special.

There’s actually quite a bit more information to cover, and the behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating.  I’ll have to return to this title later in an extended article or two.

Conclusion: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is an enjoyable American atomic giant monster film that is notable due to the amazing work of Ray Harryhausen.  It is sometimes cited as a partial inspiration for Toho’s Godzilla (which would be released a year later), and it’s easy to see why–there’s something appealing about a prehistoric creature awakening after millennia of slumber due to man’s obsession with atomic weapons and tearing our modern cities asunder.  At the very least, it makes for great cinema.  Give this one a try if you like atomic age horrors or giant monster/kaiju films.

So, the first thing I wanted to add is that in the year and a half since originally posting this, I’ve spoken with a few other giant monster fans and have come to realize thanks to them that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick is really more a loose remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms than it is a Godzilla film. Not only is the movie set in New York and the thrust of the film is aggressively human-centric, but the iguana-like ‘Zilla (Toho’s official name for the creature post-Godzilla: Final Wars) is more Rhedosaurus than atomic fire-monster in that the creature has no atomic breath, leaps and runs instead of lumbers and plods, and is easily dispatched using traditional (or, at least, somewhat realistic) military means.

The other thing I wanted to mention is how clever and engaging the last half happens to be. Once the creature makes landfall, the military has a bitch of a time keeping it from rampaging through New York. When they are finally able to force it back into the sea for a short time, they discover that in wounding the creature with a bazooka, they’ve unleashed a deadly contagion that’s infecting the populace. Unable to spill anymore of the Rhedosaurus’s blood for fear of creating a more serious outbreak, our heroes have to figure out another way to stop the prehistoric monster. This twist raises the stakes in an unexpected and refreshing way, and makes the finale–set at Coney Island and featuring a young Lee Van Cleef as military sharpshooter Corporal Stone–all the more satisfying.

– Randall Malus, 06/20/2019

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