The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 (and early 2019) with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.

So brace yourself, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Director: Eugène Lourié
Starring:  Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey

Clearly inspired in many ways by 1933’s King Kong (which had been a hit all over again with its 1952 re-release), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was the first in a new breed of monster movies.

A giant creature stomping about New York was now a nightmare of the atom age, a direct result of a nuclear bomb explosion and a warning of the potential for science to have catastrophic effects.

It’s also a film about a giant creature stomping about New York.

Featuring the legendary Ray Harryhausen’s first visual effects work in the big chair and loosely based on Ray Bradbury’s short story The Fog Horn, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms marks the birth of the kind of creature feature that would dominate the ‘50s and beyond.

Physicist Thomas Nesbit is the only survivor of Operation Experiment, a nuclear bomb testing mission near the Arctic Circle that accidentally awakens and releases a 200-foot Rhesosaurus that had been suspended in ice for millions of years. Despite his description of the creature that wiped out his party, nobody will believe his wild story.

The behemoth begins marauding its way down the East Coast of North America, sinking a fishing boat off the Grand Banks, destroying another near Marquette, Canada, and destroying a lighthouse in Maine before doing the same to buildings in Massachusetts.

After witnesses identify the animal as a previously-thought extinct Rhedosarus, Nesbitt finds allies in paleontologist Thurgood Elson and his assistant Lee Hunter, who theorize that it may be headed towards the Hudson River, where the first fossils of the species were found.

Elson’s theory proves to be the death of him though, as the beast eats him while inside a diving bell at the bottom of the river, before going on the rampage in Manhattan. Worse, an attempt to destroy it only releases a prehistoric contagion on the streets, increasing the body count. Can anything stop The Beast From
20,000 Fathoms?

It’s no wonder a scant eight years after America dropped the atom bomb, the idea was still fresh in people’s minds as nightmare fuel. As much as it ended World War 2, science was now capable of unleashing terrors previously unimaginable, but there’s a nice symmetry to the first example of this most modern of horrors being a prehistoric monster.

There was no such thing as a Rhedosarus obviously, with the first letters of its name a nod to its creator Ray Harryhausen and for his first solo foray into stop motion, it’s an absolute masterpiece. It looks great from the off, a holy terror being unleashed on the arctic before causing havoc at more remote locations like the middle of the ocean and the iconic lighthouse attack, but it’s when it’s in the middle of the bustling metropolis of NYC that Harryhausen’s genius really begins to shine.

Blending his model with real and familiar cityscapes and locations, while allowing it to interact with the people and buildings around it, he makes this Rhedosarus a real, believable threat. Let’s be honest, the entire film hinges on him pulling that off, so it’s a good job he hit the ground running.

There’s more to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms than its titular monster though, as it’s ensemble cast tick all the boxes, while again establishing what would become a bit of a formula for these kind of films. You have Kenneth Tobey reprising his no-nonsense military man figure from The Thing From Another World, Paul Christian and Cecil Kellaway as the scientists-as-heroes and Paula Raymond’s smart, capable female.

That conflict between science and the military would rear its head again and again over the coming years with varying results.

This time, science redeems itself from the initial folly of unleashing the beast with an isotope missile fired by a crack military sharpshooter who only has one shot at it. Fortunately it’s a young Lee Van Cleef and one shot is all he needs. Job done.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms would go on to inspire not just American cinema for years to come, but across the world, with a certain fire-breathing behemoth laying waste to Tokyo for the first of many times only a year later.

This is where it all began though and it’s every bit as enthralling now as it was 65 years ago.

Rating: 4/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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