One good thing about me going back and writing about these pre-blog movies is that I find myself re-watching some great movies. Take the movie I am watching today for example. I am always up for watching a Ray Harryhausen or Willis O’Brien movie so starting the day with one of those movies is a great way to start the day. I remember first seeing this movie years ago one Saturday during some channel’s monster movie marathon and thought it was great. I would then see clips of this movie show up in other movies or TV shows over the years and I would eventually buy this movie on DVD as part of a double feature set with Them!. So let’s have some fun with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
The plot: In the northern portions of the Arctic Circle, an atomic bomb test dubbed “Operation Experiment” takes place, and after the bomb goes off, a strange object is briefly detected on radar but it disappears off the screen before they can figure out what it was. Some time later, Professor Tom Nesbitt and George Ritchie head out to check one of the sensors, trying to make it quick as the radiation is still fairly high. After checking the first sensor, they split up to check out the other two in the area and George encounters a giant Rhedosaurus and as he reacts in shock, he falls down a crevice and injures his leg. George fires a shot from his pistol to signal for help and when Tom shows up to help him, he warns him about the creature. Tom, thinking he is delirious from pain, climbs back out to signal their drivers to help him rescue George when he spots the Rhedosaurus just before it knocks down part of the ice cliff, burying George and stunning Tom. Tom is able to fire a flare to signal for help and the drivers find him and take him back to base, where he is flown back to the states for treatment. As he is recovering, Tom tries to convince people he saw something but a psychiatrist thinks it is just survivors guilt over George’s death. When Colonel Jack Evans shows up, Tom asks him if he saw any proof of the creature but Jack tells him they searched the area but found no sign of anything. Meanwhile, off the coast of Nova Scotia, a fishing boat encounters the Rhedosaurus, which attacks and sinks the boat. The next day, Tom sees the story in the newspaper, where the sole survivor says that the boat was sunk by a sea serpent. Tom goes to the museum to see Prof. Thurgood Elson and try to convince him to search for the creature but Elson feels there isn’t enough proof that the creature exists. His assistant, Lee Hunter, offers her opinion, saying that Tom could be correct in his theory that the creature had been frozen in the ice and the atomic test somehow revived it, but Elson rejects the notion and tells Tom he can’t help him. As more reports of sea serpents make the news, Tom is checked out of the hospital and returns to work, only for Lee to show up and talk to him about the creature he saw. Lee convinces him to look at sketches of various prehistoric creatures and after going through several of them, finds a picture that closely resembles the creature he saw. Lee says that if they can get the captain of the fishing boat, Captain LeMay, to confirm he saw the same creature, then they can prove that it does exist. Tom calls LeMay, who refuses to talk about the creature, and when Tom heads up to Canada to find him, he learns that LeMay had gone on holiday for the month. Hearing that a second person, Jacob Bowman, had claimed to see the creature, Tom goes to see him and convinces Jacob to come back to New York to identify the monster he saw. When they get to the museum, Jacob goes through the sketches and points out the same sketch that Tom had, Elson finally believes Tom’s story. Tom contacts Evans to get him to help them locate the creature and he says that he can’t without more proof but promises to have a friend from the Coast Guard contact them if anything new is reported. That night, a lighthouse off the coast of Maine is destroyed by the Rhedosaurus. When Tom Lee get word of it, they meet with Elson, Jack, and his friend in the Navy, who tells him that aside from the lighthouse’s destruction, some wreckage was washed ashore off the coast of Massachusetts. Elson theorizes that the Rhedosaurus is following the Arctic current towards New York, where the only known fossils of the creature had been discovered and he decides to go down in a diving bell to see if he can locate the Rhedosaurus. As he is lowered down, Elson and the diver with him see the Rhedosaurus and Elson begins describing it to Lee as it approaches him but the Rhedosaurus ends up swallowing the diving bell. Some time later, Tom is comforting Lee over Elson’s death when the Rhedosaurus comes ashore on the dock and begin rampaging through the city. A police officer fires at it but as he is reloading, the creature grabs him in it’s jaws and swallows him. As more police officers attack the creature and try to drive it back into the ocean, the citizens of New York panic and attempt to hide in the city’s subway tunnels to avoid it. As the National Guard is brought in to help defend the city, they manage to corner it with a electrified barrier and Evans attempts to kill it with a heavy cannon and when that fails, he has some men use a bazooka on it. The bazooka manages to blow a hole in the creature’s throat and the Rhedosaurus cries out in pain and flees the area, leaving a trail of blood behind it. Evan sends a squad after it to find out where it went but as they follow the trail, they suddenly start becoming sick. The men are taken to the hospital, where the doctor tells Evans that the creatures blood contains a virulent pathogen that could cause even more fatalities. Evans says that blowing the Rhedosaurus up is no longer an option and suggests using flamethrowers but Tom says that the smoke could carry the disease just as easily. Tom suggest using a radioactive isotope and firing it into the wound, killing the creature from within so it doesn’t spread the disease. When the Rhedosaurus comes ashore and heads to an amusement park, where it appears to destroying the roller coaster track to build a nest. Tom has Evans get him an expert marksman and when Evans returns with Cpl. Stone, Tom hands him a grenade rifle and they head towards the creature. Stone is unable to shoot the Rhedosaurus from the ground due to the roller coaster tracks so they get in the car and ride up the track so he can get a better shot. Stone shoots the isotope into the Rhedosaurus’s neck and they manage to leave as the Rhedosaurus thrashes in pain, setting the track on fire as it does so. Tom and Stone safely make it back to the ground and Lee embraces Tom as the watch the Rhedosaurus finally succumb to the isotope and collapses to the ground.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was well received by the modern critics, holding a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, the critics mostly felt it to be one of the best examples of the early B-movie, while Ray Harryhausen’s effects made it especially memorable and enjoyable. Inspired by the re-release of King Kong (1933) in theaters, this movie is noteworthy for being the first live action movie to show a giant monster awakening/brought about by atomic bombs, predating the most famous monster, Godzilla, by about 16 months. The movie’s title came from an old Ray Bradbury short story, as he was asked to go over the script and commented that the scene where the Rhedosaurus destroyed the lighthouse was like a short story he wrote, so the producers bought the rights to the story and changed the title. The movie was a box office hit, earning $5 million off of a $210,000 budget and would make Ray Harryhausen a sought after name for stop-motion special effects.
This is a fantastic B-movie to watch that is still as entertaining now as it was the first time I saw it. The acting was pretty good, with my favorite definitely being Cecil Kellaway (Elson), as his excitement upon seeing the creature, as well as his humor while describing a fight between a shark and an octopus, made his character so compelling, even though he was only on screen for a short time. The story was pretty good and definitely set the tone for a lot of the B-movies to come during the 50’s. The special effects were fantastic and even though this was one of his earliest movies, it showed how much talent Harryhausen had and was definitely an indication of the skills he would hone. Definitely one of those must see sci-fi movies if not for the movie itself, then for it’s influence on the genre for decades to come.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5