Saturday, June 27, 2009

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

... aka: Dinosaur in New York
... aka: Monster from Beneath the Sea
... aka: Panic in New York

Directed by:
Eugène Lourié

A hydrogen bomb blast in the arctic has unleashed a giant, aquatic "prehistoric beast" (aka Rhedosaurus) and it's about to do some major damage! Swiss Scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is the only living human to actually encounter the monster while working on "Operation Experiment" in the arctic and ends up with a broken leg after it knocks him into a ravine. He's rushed back to a New York City hospital where doctors there label his recollections of the beast as "traumatic hallucinations." After reading about a sea monster sinking a ship in St. Pierre, Nova Scotia, Tom sneaks out of the hospital and seeks help from paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), who initially doubts Tom's theory about the monster being able to survive for 100 millions in a block of ice before becoming unfrozen. Elson's assistant - scientist Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) - decides to kick things into motion when she has Tom and one of the survivors of a boat attack both pick out pictures of the beast they saw. That, along with various other sightings and attacks, all leading down the East Coast headed toward the United States, is enough proof to get Elson to enlist other scientists and military men, the latter lead by army colonel Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey) on a sea expedition to locate the dino. Their attempts prove futile and they're unable to stop the beast before it emerges in New York harbor and then goes on a rampage.

The dino tears apart a lighthouse, breaks up a shark vs. octopus fight (by eating both of them) and consumes a diving bell with one of the principal characters on board. But the really great stuff comes when he crashes into the Big Apple, starts stomping on everything, eats a policeman, picks up a car in its mouth and then drops it, buries people under a pile of rubble after crashing through a brick building and destroys a roller coaster, not to mention causing screaming people to stampede over a blind man! It's also revealed that the monster has toxic blood that can kill humans on contact. After the monster's first sweep, a newspaper headline says "180 known dead; 1500 injured. Damage estimated at 300,000,000." And then the stupid military, like they always do, have to come in and spoil all our fun by shooting a bazooka at it, trying to electrocute it and finally having marksman Lee Van Cleef shoot a radioactive isotope missile into its wound.

This is clearly one of the very best '50s monster flicks and obviously a big inspiration for the obscenely popular Japanese Godzilla series that started just one year later, as well as numerous other films made across the globe during the later part of the decade. The movie's chief drawing card, of course, are the spectacular Ray Harryhausen special effects, which are outstanding for their time and still hold up surprisingly well today. Hell, give me Ray's charming stop-motion monsters any day of the week over the cartoonish CGI of today. At least his fx have some personality to them.

On a meager budget of just 200,000 dollars, this went on to gross over 5 million, making it one of the biggest box office successes of its year. Director Lourié (who also co-scripted from a Ray Bradbury story) was a "jack of all trades" in the entertainment industry, serving as a production designer / art director on numerous features, and also dabbling in other production areas. He'd direct several other films; The Colossus of New York (1958), The Giant Behemoth (1959) and Gorgo (1961), all of which were about giant monsters or beings. Lead actor Christian (real name Paul Hubschmid) apparently became "the first Swiss film star" back in the late 1930s and had a very successful career in Germany, though he's virtually unknown here in America except for this film.

The cast also includes many familiar faces from 50s sci-fi/horror, including Donald Woods (13 Ghosts), Steve Brodie (Donovan's Brain), Ross Elliott (Tarantula), King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as a psychiatrist and an uncredited James Best, who'd go on to star in THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and play "Rosco P. Coltrane" on The Dukes of Hazard. Merv Griffin provides the voice of a radio announcer and Vera Miles appears in the trailer but not in the actual film itself.


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