Thursday, 29 October 2015

Film Studies: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Figure 1: The film's theatrical poster. Which appears
to present the beast as much larger than it was in
the film (Bourne, 2011).
  The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a 1953 monster film about a prehistoric dinosaur that is thawed out of the arctic ice and proceeds to terrorise the North American coast. The film is one of the signature projects by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.

  The first thing that signifies Beast as a B-movie aside from the rather action-word heavy and emotionally charged messages on the poster to the right, is that the film was made on a meagre $210,000 (around $1.85 million in today's money (, 2015)). The monster, as a stop-motion creation, tended to change size depending on the scene. During a rampage tohugh New York its height to the top of the head appeared to alternate between 3 and 4 floors. In one scene the monster picks up a car with a guy in it and the camera cuts to a man in a stationary car being horribly shaken. In an earlier scene when the monster eats a fighting shark and octopus, it does so by engulfing them in its mouth by moving away from the audience as its mouth surrounds the two fighting animals. Somewhat giving away that the two sets of creatures were made up of two reels of film.

  The film's story, while gripping, does have its corny points. Dr Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) gets a good look at the monster but is so amazed at it that he refuses to have his diving bell raised even as the beast opens its mouth and subsequently eats the diving bell. When the monster attacks New York City in the climax, the first person to actually fight back does so with a police-issue revolver. Which quite expectedly does absolutely nothing and the poor cop gets eaten.
Figure 2: The beast tears down its first building, in homage to the story that
inspired it. (Bourne, 2011)
  The film itself was inspired by a short story of the same name by pulp science fiction author Ray Bradbury (of Farenheit 451 fame), which involved a sea monster attacking a lighthouse (Lauer, Suduiko, 2012), a scene that exists within the film. While the short story has the beast destroying the tower out of anger for being tricked, the monster in the film appears to destroy the tower as a random act of destruction.
Figure 3: The Redosaurus knocks down a building in New York. (Deniz, 2011)
  As I said the film is not a bad B movie. The budget was low enough that Ray Harryhausen had to do all the animation work himself (Harryhausen, 2013) and despite this the animation was considered revolutionary for its time and holds up rather well. The dialogue, while it does have a few off moments, is fairly believable - part of the skepticism of the idea of this monster being alive is that there had beenno evidence for anything surviving being flash-frozen - and the method of downing the monster is rather intelligent. There is a plot element that explains why the monster cannot be killed with conventional methods and the solution avoids a cliche of some monster films where science is bad. The film does go some way to explain monster's mindset and attack patterns, with the chain of attacks creating a believable indicator that it is travelling down the American East Coast.

Figure 4: Considering the film's budget, I'd forgive the production team if
these cars were in fact toys.
  The dinosaur's plausability also holds up compared with both predecessors and contemporaries despite its fictional nature. At the time of filming there was thought to be little distinction between a dinosaur and a reptile, and the thought at the time was that like crocodiles or snakes, dinosaurs were cold-blooded. However recent research has suggested that dinosaurs may in fact have been warm-blooded (Viegas, 2015), which makes the monster's activeness in the arctic and in Canadian coastal waters plausable.

  The film has held up well enough that the Rhedosaurus (the monster dinosaur in the film) inspired the monster movie genre and is seen as either the father or the cousin to Gojira, quite possibly one of the most famous movie monsters in history.


Image References


  1. I enjoyed your review Mark...The only thing I would add is bit of analysis centered a round the 'stock' characters in the film. Is there a scientist, male hero, female character (girlfriend), military general etc.

    1. Whoops. Yeah there are a few stock characters like that. I did mention the stock scientist and how his love for the creature (being a paleontologist) got him eaten. This exploration might have helped understand the quality of the dialogue.