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Kaiju Classics - The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) Review

Updated on June 19, 2013

In an era where most all special effects are handled almost exclusively with computers, sometimes it's easy to take for granted what lengths it took to bring fabulous worlds and bizarre creatures to life decades ago. Intricate sets had to be built which may only see a few minutes of screen time, and countless days were spent building models or suits to create aliens, monsters, and the like.

One of the most successful, and yet most time consuming, of these processes was known as stop-motion animation, which involved taking a subject (be it a person, a drawing, or a model) and making very small movements with it while filming each movement frame at a time. When the film is then run, the effect of movement by the subject is then simulated.

This technique, though first appearing in the 1890's, became popular in the 1930s with the movie "King Kong", helped to launch the monster movie craze of the 1950s and 1960s with the 1953 Warner Bros. movie "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms".

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Trailer

The Backstory

In 1951, famed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury created the short story "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", which told of a prehistoric sea monster that visits and eventually destroys a lighthouse, mistaking its foghorn for a call of another member of its species and growing angry when it wouldn't respond to its calls. At this same time, a movie was in production by Warner Bros. Studios under the name "Monster from Beneath the Sea", and the producers of the film, Hal E. Chester and Jack Deitz, contacted Bradbury to see if he could re-work the screenplay so as to connect him to the project and bank on his name.

Bradbury brought up his short story and the similarities between the two works, and Chester and Deitz bought up the rights to the story and changed the name of the film to "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms". Bradbury, in turn, changed the name of the original story to "The Fog Horn" to avoid any legal issues.

The monster was brought to life by famed effects creator, and one of Bradbury's closest friends, Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen, who would go on to create the stop-motion effects for such films as "The 7th Voyage of Sindbad", "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers", and "Clash of the Titans", made his solo debut in this film, having previously worked alongside stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien in the 1949 movie "Mighty Joe Young". For this movie, he devised a new technique to allow for interaction with live-action and animated scenes that allowed for smoother integrating of the effects than previously employed methods. Live-action footage was taken and split into foreground and background images, matting out the background and foreground at different points in filming, then merging the two.

The monster's design underwent several attribute and ability changes during pre-production, ranging from a beaked creature to one with a shell enclosing its head, to further convey its marine origins, before a design of a large, reptilian monster was conceived. Though it was scrapped early on due to the film's budget, original plans for the creature included it being able to breath radioactive fire. The film's movie posters retained elements of this ability, showing the monster venting steam from its nostrils.

The Cast of Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Prof. Tom Nesbitt - Paul Christian

Lee Hunter - Paula Raymond

Col. Jack Evans - Kenneth Tobey

Dr. Thurgood Elson - Cecil Kellaway

George Ritchie - Ross Elliot

Corporal Jason Stone - Lee Van Cleef

Plot Summary

In the Arctic circle, plans are underway for "Project Experiment", a remote nuclear bomb test. Soon after the bomb's explosion, radar control for the expedition contact military liaison Col. Jack Evans and report to him that they're detecting an anomaly on radar, though before Evans and Dr. Jack Nesbitt reach them, the anomaly manages to disappear. Later in the day, Nesbitt and Evans begin talking about the atomic testing that's been going in in recent years, and that despite the advances in scientific understanding that they're achieving through them, tampering with the unknown is potentially dangerous.

The Rhedosaurus appears.
The Rhedosaurus appears.

Nesbitt and his research colleague, George Ritchie, head out to Lookout Post #16 to gather more information, but are forced to go on foot after the road way is blocked by chunks of ice thrown clear from the explosion. Nesbitt and Ritchie separate to go off and check posts #17 and #18, but along the way, George notices a large form quickly dart behind a large mountain of ice. Going off to pursue it, the scientist comes across a wide fissure in the ice, but before he's able to cross over it, a large shadow accompanied by a low roar falls upon him. He turns, only to see a giant, reptilian-like creature advancing towards him, causing him to fall backwards into the fissure, breaking his leg.

Ritchie is able to fire off a pistol which manages to get Nesbitt's attention, who finds him in the fissure and climbs down to him. George is insistent that he leaves though due to the monster that he saw, but Nesbitt, thinking he's just delirious from the pain, climbs back out to go get help. However, he sees the monster soon after climbing out, watching as it knocked loose an ice shelf that sealed the fissure shut, killing George. Nesbitt, overcome by the loss of his friend and the increasingly harsh cold of an oncoming blizzard, fires off his flare gun before collapsing.

He is later found and brought back to the research station, where the on-site doctor insists that Evans get him to a hospital in the United States. Being rushed to Hartley Hospital in New York City, doctors conclude that he hallucinated the giant monster as a result of seeing George get killed. Evans arrives to tell Nesbitt that he gave his report of the events in Washington, but didn't tell them about the "monster" that he saw, saying that he couldn't find any evidence of its existence when he traveled out to Post #18.

That night, a fishing boat was destroyed by the creature, leading to reports of sea serpents being spotted along the Grand Banks in the next day's newspapers. Nesbitt, seeing the article, quickly leaves the hospital to go see Professor Thurgood Elson, a paleontologist, in hopes that he could send out an expedition to look for the monster. Nesbitt surmises that 100 million years ago, the waters of the Arctic turned to ice, and that a creature in that water was frozen, until the bomb managed to set it free. Elson, while sympathetic, dismisses the possibility of a creature being able to survive that long, even when his assistant, Lee Hunter, brings up an incident involving frozen mastadons in Siberia.

Later, Lee meets Nesbitt at his office and professes her interest in his story, bringing along sketches of all known prehistoric creatures in hopes he may recognize one of them. After going through hundreds of photos, the two find one that nearly matches the creature Nesbitt saw, and he contacts the captain of a second boat destroyed by a "sea serpent" in order to have him verify it. The captain is unwilling to face more ridicule and refuses to see Nesbitt, who travels to St. Pierre, Canada, in order to contact the only other known individual to have seen it. The two return to New York to see Prof. Elson and manage to identify the creature as a "Rhedosaurus", convincing the paleontologist of its existence.

The Rhedosaurus attacks a lighthouse.
The Rhedosaurus attacks a lighthouse.

That night, the Rhedosaurus makes landfall along the Atlantic coast, attacking and destroying a lighthouse in the process. News of the attack reaches Col. Evans, who informs Nesbitt and Elson of it and similar attacks along the Massachusetts coast. Elson realizes that the creature has been following the water currents from the Arctic south towards New York City, where the only known fossil remains of its species had been found. Evans suggests mining the canyons in the waters off New York to destroy the creature, but Elson, feeling that killing it would be a tremendous loss to science, proposes capturing it alive, and plans to take a diving bell into the waters to try to locate it.

The next day, Elson leads an expedition out into the waters off New York, taking the diving bell down himself. Unfortunately, soon after the descent is made, the Rhedosaurus appears and attacks the diving bell, swallowing it whole and killing Prof. Elson. News of Elson's death and the creature's attack quickly hit the newspapers, and Evans is placed in charge of military operations to prepare for the creature's arrival.

The Rhedosaurus arrives in New York!
The Rhedosaurus arrives in New York!

The wait for the creature's next appearance is brief, as it soon makes its way to land and begins terrorizing New York City, effortlessly destroying any vehicles and devouring any people that happen to be in its way. A police precinct is sent out to stop it, but their weapons do little more than irritate the Rhedosaurus as it continues on its rampage, prompting the National Guard to be called in. A number of victims of the monster being brought into the hospitals are showing signs of some sort of infection, and one of the doctors fear that the creature itself might be responsible.

That night, the National Guard, having spotted the Rhedosaurus, are able to injure it with bazooka fire along its neck, causing it to leave a blood trail along the ground as it ran away. As the soldiers followed along, they began to grow weak and fatigured, with many collapsing to the ground. Evans is informed that the creature is a carrier of a deadly, virulent disease, and that using any sort of attack on the creature that would send pieces of it airborne would prove catastrophic. As the Rhedosaurus makes its way to Coney Island, Nesbitt exclaims that the only way to kill it and prevent the spread of the disease would be to use a radioactive isotope fired into its neck wound.

As the military gather around Coney Island, a special projectile made out of the radioactive isotope is delivered, and Nesbitt and Corporal Stone, the best sharpshooter Col. Evans has, climb to the top of a rollercoaster for the best vantage point. Stone's shot hits its mark, and the isotope quickly begins to take effect. Escaping down the side of the rollercoaster, which has caught on fire from the monster's frantic thrashing, Nesbitt and Stone reach Lee, Evans, and the others, and watch on as the Rhedosaurus lets out one last roar before collapsing to the ground, dead.

The Rhedosaurus meets its end.
The Rhedosaurus meets its end.

The Effects and Music

There's a reason that Ray Harryhausen is considered a master at stop-motion animation, and this movie demonstrates why he holds that title. The Rhedosaurus model, in most every shot it appears in, moves very smooth and natural, with subtle motions very reminiscent of living creatures. There were only a few scenes involving close up of the monster's face that I didn't care for, as a filter to seemingly simulate a water effect is used in front of it. The effect works alright the first time it's used, which is when it is seen by the crew of the first fishing ship, because the monster is seen outside of a ship window with heavy waves crashing along the side. The second time though is at the lighthouse, where there's no sign of any rain or other sources of water to explain water on the windows, but the distortion filter was still there, leading me to believe that it was simply a recycled scene rather than one filmed specifically for it.

The music, composed by Dave Buttolph, is an amazing score for the time, with each piece helping to properly convey the emotion of the scenes they accompany. The music swells during the scenes that the Rhedosaurus first appears in the Arctic as well as when it first rises from the ocean off New York, and maintains a frantic, ominous tone during its rampage on the city.

Final Thoughts

This is one of my favorite movies of the monster movie genre, and one of my favorite movies of all time. The plot is straightforward, but it doesn't suffer from the tropes of most other movies of the time that would have dropped it to "B-movie" status.

I found the characters to be very likeable and believable, as each actor was very convincing in the role they were in, without feeling too forced. Cecil Kellaway in particular was a very convincing performance as Professor Thurgood Elson, because you could sympathize with him as he made his plans for taking a vacation, and then his excitement when finally seeing the Rhedosaurus, conveying what he saw even up to the moment of his death. Paul Christian, as Tom Nesbitt, was a bit more subdued, but still managed to convey his obsession with trying to prove of the monster's existence.

The Rhedosaurus itself, while simple, is a very effective monster, and I enjoy the simple monsters more than anything. It's just a creature from millions of years ago brought to the modern age and forced to deal with man. When you think about it, this backstory doesn't only describe many of the other giant monster movies to follow it, but more modern movies like Jurassic Park and Cloverfield.

Though it certainly isn't the first movie of its kind, it is one of the best, and its impact as both a masterpiece of special effects and as an influence for monster movies cannot be emphasized enough. It helped to set the stage for well over a decade of homages and imitators, but I would put this on a pedestal right up there with Godzilla and King Kong as the most important movies of this genre. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough.

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    • Vlorsutes profile image
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      Vlorsutes 4 years ago from Ohio

      I agree, I was just saying that I didn't find that the optically distorted close-up worked in the second situation we see it in. It works well enough the first time we see it, which is when it's being viewed by the fishing boat amidst high-splashing waves, but the second time, at the lighthouse, it just doesn't work.

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      deadlyspawner 4 years ago

      I don't think the two optically distorted close-ups of the "Rhedosaurus" that you cite were of the animation model at all. They appear to be of a puppet head made to resemble the model, and shot "live action."