Saturday, 7 May 2011

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)

Country: USA

Monster from Beneath the Sea

It Came from Beneath the Sea marked the first occasion that producer Charles H. Schneer and visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen collaborated. The two filmmakers would establish a partnership that would survive throughout the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s finally coming to rest with Clash of the Titans (1981). This alone provides the movie with historical importance, even if the content was highly derivative and presented in a somewhat staid and lifeless fashion. Harryhausen’s art was still very much in its infancy at this point, the animated effects he provided for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) marked him out as a rare and special talent, and here he gets an opportunity too expand his scope with the creation of a giant Octopus. The earlier film is an important reference point because Beneath the Sea is virtually a carbon copy, and adds very little to what was presented in 20,000 Fathoms. It also lacks the charm and dynamism of the earlier picture and a comparison between the two sees Beneath the Sea come off significantly worse. It is possible the film was also influenced by the success of Gojira (1954), itself hugely indebted to 20,000 Fathoms, but important for continuing to prove their was an eager market for giant radioactive creatures from the ocean depths.

Perhaps the most notable talents behind the picture at the time were the writers George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith. The former contributed the story for Them! (1954), adapted Conquest of Space (1955) and wrote screenplays for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), War of the Colossal Beast (1958) and Earth vs. The Spider (1958). The latter contributing screenplays for The River’s Edge (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958). It has to be said that this movie isn’t their finest hour. A major weakness is the infrequency with which see the Octopus in the first hour. The screenplay saves it all for up for the last fifteen minutes, this wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the proliferation of static scenes in offices and laboratories. The first hour is marked by a lot of talk, and a remarkable lack of urgency on the part of the US Navy and the Pentagon officials who are far happier taking positions of scepticism rather than action. The film opens with a gushing celebration of nuclear driven technology as it shows off the latest naval innovation of atomic submarines. If we didn’t get this by the use of patriotic library footage, the inane and irritating narration that plagues the film informs us of the magnitude of such scientific endeavour. But this is a film paranoid about the effects of radiation and pretty soon the submarine’s commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) is facing an unknown radioactive threat that only goes too emphasis the limitations of modern technology.

It turns out of course that the military are to blame with their pesky H-bomb tests. The contempt shown for the animal kingdom in these type of films is only matched by their crassness, and by default I always find myself cheering the mutated marauders. In this case the oceanic intruder is impressively conveyed. This is one of Harryhausen’s most successful creations of the 1950’s and it is shown off too excellent effect when it entwines itself around San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. It has to be said though that the benighted beast enacts a rather limp revenge against mankind. It succeeds in terrorising the coast of California, but its efforts to punish the city dwellers are ineffectual and pretty soon it has been driven back to the sea by the blazing scourge of the flamethrower. The screams of agony from the mutant as the flames lick at its tentacles is one of the most memorable scenes in the film. The body count is disappointingly low and the carnage minimal, a lacklustre display which would have had Godzilla hanging his head in embarrassed shame.

The movie in fact seems far more interested in a petty and perfunctory romantic subplot featuring Pete Matthews, Prof Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue), and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis). A pathetic kind of love triangle develops between the three, who find plenty of time to indulge in trivialities while tankers are being destroyed by a radioactive monster. The proto-feminism of Professor Joyce gives Faith Domergue something to get her teeth into, and she emerges as a reasonably well rounded character battling the prevailing sexism of the day. That doesn’t stop her falling for the rugged charms or the crisp white naval uniform of Matthews though. Matthews himself is a no-nonsense kind of guy who spends most of the film squinting and smoking, but it is good to see Kenneth Tobey take the lead for once. Ultimately however the characters are unengaging and it becomes patently obvious that the romantic subplot has been entirely invented for the purposes of padding out a very thin and insubstantial narrative. Although the film essays a paranoid view of the pitfalls of atomic power, it is the atomic submarine which eventually saves the day. This offers the typically contradictory view of the majority of these mutated monster movies. What begins as a potentially subversive and radical statement about the abuses of nuclear power concludes conservatively, and celebrates the efficiency of the power, a power that caused the problem in the first place.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. "What begins as a potentially subversive and radical statement about the abuses of nuclear power concludes conservatively, and celebrates the efficiency of the power, a power that caused the problem in the first place."

    I think that is the beauty part, or at least the beautiful conundrum, of atomic age sci fi: The runaway advances of science (rogue science) are mysterious as the power of God - even sometimes come as the very hand of God (as in Them!). This rampant power (often atomic) is terrifying, impossible to trust, man-destroying. Yet ultimately science (rational science in the hands of good men) is the only salvation. The “good scientists” in many of these films are more dreamy, star-gazing poets that hard men of research (whose megalomania threatens to destroy the earth). Prime examples: Richard Carlson in It Came From Outer Space.

    I’ve gassed on too long. I think better of this film than you do, but I love to see it reviewed! Great job.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Mykal :-)

    I can't add to your wonderful descrption of atom age sci-fi and the inherent contradictions therein. Those films that feature 'star-gazing poets' often emerge as pacifist in nature. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is a an excellent example, exploring as it does a group of aliens who unintentionally find themselves trapped on Earth and having to react to the actions of mankind.

    I enjoyed IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (there are very few films from this era I do not enjoy), but the fact that it doesn't even attempt to differentiate itself from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is a drawback. I'd have been much more sympathetic if it had made an even cursory attempt to offer other things. However, what it does have, is probably my favourite Harryhausen creation of the 1950's.

  3. "the fact that it doesn't even attempt to differentiate itself from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is a drawback."

    Well, there is that ;)

    Keep up the great work. I Look forward to your next entry.

  4. I hate it when the film doesnt show the monster, it's usually a sign that the film didnt have the budget to pull off what it should have pulled off. But I'd watch this one simply because of Harryhausen's involvement, he's a true hero of the genre and I've always enjoyed his work, specially in those Sinbad movies, and Jason and the Argonauts. Now those were movies that had monsters in them through and through, no time for bullshit love triangles in those!

  5. Interesting side note (if you don't mind, Shaun) - Harryhausen himself has said on numerous occasions he always hated it, for whatever reason, when a film didn't show the monster!

  6. @ Franco - I'm with you on showing the monsters buddy. I admire films that aim for subtlety and have a sparing attitude to delivering their shocks and monsters...but at least give us a little glimpse. Even if the visual effects or make up is terrible, I salute films that have the guts to give it a go. Harryhausen is most certainly a hero on these pages.

    @ Mykal - I dont mind at all, always glad of your contribution. I admire Harryhausen a lot, he never cheated the audience.

  7. Not a favorite of mine, but I do enjoy the film. I especially like the opening credits sequence and the assault on SF at the end is a highlight. Also interesting that Harryhausen only had time to animate a five tentacled octopi as opposed to an eight armed one. Great write up as always, Shaun.

  8. This is incredibly tedious in places Brian. Far too much hanging about in non-descript laboratories, and far too many encounteres with sceptial authority figures. In other words this is a heavily padded film, even though it only runs for 75 minutes.


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