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It Came From Beneath the Sea

After using nuclear blasts to awaken the lizard-like "rhedosaurus" and then sending it out to stomp Manhattan in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen continued the Atomic Age formula that he helped create with 1955's It Came From Beneath the Sea.

This time, an "atom powered" submarine, commanded by genre favorite Kenneth Tobey, is attacked by a giant octopus, which is forced to hunt at the top of the food chain because of our Pacific Ocean H-bomb testing. Faith Domergue plays the marine biologist who, in spite of being a dame and a real looker, has the brains to figure out what's up while simultaneously falling under the manly spell of the square-jawed submariner. (She played a nearly identical role that same year in This Island Earth.) When tentacles with suckers the size of manhole covers scoop people off an Oregon coast beach, it's determined that the souped-up cephalopod is bound for San Francisco. Showcasing Harryhausen's trademark model animation, the movie's classic set-pieces occur when the enraged creature pulls apart the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ferry Building, reaches up to thwack a helicopter from the sky, and writhes its tentacles through Market Street and the Embarcadero as the military opens up with flame-throwers. Unlike later Harryhausen creations, the pissed-off 'pus isn't given any personality other than being a Giant Rampaging Thing, but it looks great until Tobey's atomic torpedo kicks off the Bay Area calamari trade.

The spectacle of Harryhausen's work aside, It Came From Beneath the Sea displays all the weaknesses of cheapie postwar creature features. The budget was so small that the octopus has only six tentacles. Robert Gordon directed in the flavorless, stilted style of an army hygiene film, complete with stern narration. The first half of its 78 minutes is molasses slow, though often rescued by dialogue and acting that are laughably bad (a strange bit of banter involving a stethoscope makes for an unintentionally funny scene). Of course, in perspective it's all a fun kind of bad and any Cahiers du Cinéma critique dissolves on contact. It Came From Beneath the Sea is cheese worthy of a loving and nostalgic fondue. This time-capsule's hamfisted romance is straight-up Rat Pack era, when Tobey's leering, no-sense-of-personal-space, casually soused hero wasn't intended to look smarmy; and Domergue (a Howard Hughes "discovery") may be a brainy New Woman, but she's also a pushover in a push-out bra who screams on cue and seems all set to trade in her college degree for dish-pan hands.

None of which knocks It Came From Beneath the Sea off fans' lists of favorites. After all, this is the movie that teamed up Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer, who together went on to give us almost a dozen minor classics such as Jason and the Argonauts. Co-screenwriter Hal Smith was also one of Hollywood's most prolific cartoon voice talents and enjoyed TV fame playing comic-drunk Otis on The Andy Griffith Show.

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Part of Columbia TriStar's "Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection," this DVD release of It Came From Beneath the Sea offers a clean, vivid black-and-white image that finally restores the original 1.85:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio. The transfer is sometimes too sharp for the visual effects' own good (moments of rear-projection and old stock footage particularly stand out). The audio is remarkably good given the source material, arriving strong and clear in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural.

The chief supplement, available on every disc in the series, is "The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles." This terrific hour-long 1997 documentary by Richard Shickel, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, features Harryhausen himself — along with lifelong pal Ray Bradbury, George Lucas, and others — in a tribute to the master's life, work, inspirations, and ongoing influence.

Also here are "This is Dynamation" (a short made in '58 to rah-rah the effects technique), plus It Came's theatrical trailer and trailers for 20 Million Miles to Earth, Mysterious Island, and Close Encounters. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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