Predating the more famous Godzilla by a year and being a major influence on that movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a 1953 creature feature that is home to a series of firsts. It was the first movie in history to feature a monster awakened by a nuclear blast and also contains Ray Harryhausen’s first solo special effects work. It spawned a plethora of imitations and ushered the dawn of a golden age for monster movies.
The plot sets a pattern which will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen a creature feature before. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, a team of scientists and military personnel are carrying out a nuclear test. While out collecting samples soon after, physicist Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is shocked to eye a giant beast, lurking in the icy gloom. Back in New York City no one believes the young scientist but when strange tales come down the Atlantic seaboard towards Gotham, others begin to treat Nesbitt’s claims seriously. Unfortunately they’re too late and the beast makes devastating landfall in the city itself.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a film which has aged. At the time of its release, its effects and ideas were revolutionary but that was over sixty years ago. Now, some of the imagery is actually quite funny and the acting, using predominantly lesser known actors, is wooden. Despite this, one is still able to appreciate the technical and creative effort that went into producing the movie. The monster is unrecognisable in comparison to any genuine creature with Harryhausen taking what he liked from various pre-existing designs. The head is reminiscent of a Tyrannosaurus but it has long, thick front legs which double as arms. Early incarnations of the beast also had flames which shot from its nostrils. Although left on the design room floor, a similar idea was picked up by the makers of Godzilla.
Harryhausen used a complex and ingenious method to create the illusion that the monster was in amongst the people and building of New York City. By running a small projection of footage that had already been shot behind his models and then placing matte footage over the top, he was able to sandwich his creations, seemingly into the middle of the teeming city. Making the creature pick up model cars and tear through model buildings only adds to what must have been a realistic image at the time. The movie’s finale is set at Coney Island (though shot in L.A) and sees the prehistoric predator caged inside a roller-coaster. A large replica coaster was built for the film and the effect is still impressive to this day.
The picture was billed as featuring ‘A cast of thousands’ and this might be true but there are only a few main players. The vast majority of the ‘thousands’ are seen briefly, running away from the titular beast. Paul Christian battles through some cheesy dialogue to impress. He plays the strong, smart scientist which would become popular on screen in the 1950s. His character is occasionally unbelievable, becoming a polymath capable of commanding troops, scaling roller coasters and toppling monsters but he is only part of a long tradition of similar characters. Paula Raymond plays the female lead, a not quite scientist (being a woman in the 1950s) who is instead the assistant to a real scientist. The chemistry between the two leads helps to drive the human element of the movie although the actress rarely stands out.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a bit like a museum exhibit. It’s the Model T which shows the skeletal ideas behind today’s road cars, the by-plane which predates our jets. Like both of the above, it’s heavily flawed but it’s also the start of something exciting. The movie isn’t overly entertaining and looks a bit shoddy but the central idea is a strong one while the special effects continue to inspire film makers after over six decades.
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