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The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

What's more emblematic of sci-fi cinema from the 1950s than a monster awakened or gigantized (or both) by atomic radiation? What had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 subtly rewired our collective subconscious, so although we wanted to believe that a peaceful, prosperous future would arrive on the wings of Super-Science, throughout the "duck and cover" era our creeping unease turned movie screens into popcorn-scented Rorschach tests. Mutant ants towered over the American Southwest in Them! ('54), radiated crustaceans snacked on humans in Attack of the Crab Monsters ('57), and let's not forget that A-bomb blasts first got Godzilla all cranky in '56. Cultural historians who scrutinize such things trace origins back to 1953, when Manhattan got walloped but good after an Arctic nuclear test rudely awoke The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. This enjoyable "B" oldie is noteworthy not just for establishing a template for the Atomic Age Behemoth flicks that followed. Its giant dinosaur was the first solo project of upcoming stop-motion talent Ray Harryhausen, a protégé of Willis O'Brien of King Kong fame. For the first time, Beast allowed Harryhausen complete special-effects control of a feature-length film.

Inspired by "The Fog Horn," a Saturday Evening Post story by Harryhausen's lifelong friend Ray Bradbury, Beast owes at least as much to King Kong and The Lost World. It opens in the white Arctic wastes, where a nuclear bomb test rouses a "rhedosaurus," an immense dinosaur suspended in the ice for a hundred million years. Driven by its primitive instincts, the giant reptile heads for its ancient breeding grounds — which are now occupied by New York City. The ensuing Wall Street rampage remains archetypal, with automobiles crushed beneath reptilian feet and policemen gobbled like Jell-O shots. After military bazookas only wound it, the stricken brute makes its climactic last stand at the Coney Island rollercoaster. There marksman Lee Van Cleef and scientist Paul Hubschmid (billed as Paul Christian) aim for the soft spot with a grenade spiked with radioactive isotopes. (A well-timed all-consuming conflagration helps too.) Every great monster movie needs a kindly professor, and that service is ably provided by Cecil Kellaway, the only standout among the cast until he's swallowed whole in his bathysphere. Genre fans will recognize The Thing From Another World's Kenneth Tobey as Col. Jack Evans. Lacking the personality of Kong or Harryhausen's later creations, the rhedosaurus is just a big dumb animal eliciting little sympathy from the audience. But it has been said that Harryhausen monsters die like operatic tenors, and it's a trend that began here.

Harryhausen and production designer-turned-director Eugene Lourie made Beast independently as a private project for $200,000. Warner Brothers then bought it for a song compared to the millions it raked in for the studio. Because Beast was one of 1953's biggest box-office successes, a new subgenre showcasing gigantic irradiated spiders, insects, reptiles, and Air Force lieutenant colonels was born. It also proved that quickly-made, inexpensive monster movies could be profitable even if all the stuff surrounding the special-effects scenes (e.g., the acting of purest knotty pine, a suspiciously stagebound "Arctic," the slow and tin-ear script) failed to rise to the level of Harryhausen's tabletop creations. After Beast, Harryhausen signed on to do it again for It Came From Beneath the Sea ('55), which substituted the rampaging rhedosaurus with an enormous radioactive octopus.

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The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is slow and stodgy today, and its relatively primitive visuals are impressive more for their seminal history than their technical polish. (That said, the twilight lighthouse scene and the Coney Island assault are still mighty cool.) The good news is that Warner Brothers' 50th Anniversary DVD edition has plenty to offer both Harryhausen fans and genre collectors. For starters, this old black-and-white catalogue item looks remarkably good. There's minor dirt and grain especially in the first reel, though once that clears up the whole thing is rather stunning. Definition, contrast, and grayscale look fine, not at all dupey. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is quite good given its age.

Two new featurettes are worth the sticker price by themselves. The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster (6:12) features Harryhausen discussing the movie's production history. Even better is Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship (16:50), which puts the two Rays on stage before a small audience at the Warner studio lot in Burbank. It was videotaped in June 2003, just days after Harryhausen received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. These beloved octogenarians have been friends since they were 18 when a love of dinosaurs cemented their bond. Bradbury had a stroke a few years ago, but he sure hasn't let it slow him down. Although in a wheelchair, he's such a gabby and enthusiastic speaker that we fear he's going to leap from his seat and break something. Sometimes Harryhausen gets a word in as they reminisce about their personal and professional history plus incidentals such as watching Fritz Lang make a marionette walk like Bette Davis. The love between these two men, who have affected uncountable childhoods, couldn't be more apparent.

The other bonus here is a collection of amusingly enthusiastic vintage trailers for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (spot actors Vera Miles and Paul Picerni, who don't appear in the movie itself), The Valley of Gwangi, The Black Scorpion, and Clash of the Titans.

There's an Easter egg too: On the features menu, highlight Hubschmid's collar and click for a short interview wherein Harryhausen discusses his models' armatures, comparing them to O'Brien's.

Also, love that original one-sheet poster art on the snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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