The Legend of Harryhausen’s Beast

PrintE-mail Written by Tom Roberts

 

It’s the dead of night. All you hear is the cold wind whistling around the lighthouse, and ocean waves crashing against the rocks. Then an unearthly call. The horrendous cry of a giant beast from seventy million years ago. The lighthouse shakes as the beast pulls itself from the swelling water and uses all of its strength to bring the structure down around you. And then all is darkness. This is a scene from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). It was based on an idea by famed sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and animated by the legend Ray Harryhausen.

With the release of Wrath Of The Titans, there will undoubtedly be a great storm of opinions on how the film could never live up to Harryhausen’s works, and how he was so far ahead of his time. With this in mind, perhaps a look at the very first full-length feature that he worked on is in order? It is worth noting that the film was of course written by Bradbury and directed by Eugene Lourie, who went on to make various other monster features, but Harryhausen produced all of the effects work himself, without even an assistant!

If you’ve not seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the story is thus; An American team of scientists test an atomic weapon in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. This wakes a dinosaur (the fictional Rhedosaurus), who has a massive hangover and heads straight for Manhattan to find his breakfast. A simple plot, but built around this are some fantastic set-pieces and some sub-plots which have more to them than the simple premise sets up. Indeed, the themes have been repeated all the way through to the biggest and most recent Hollywood monster films Cloverfield, Godzilla and Monsters. It’s also worth noting that this is probably the first film to use the ‘woken by an atomic bomb’ device that became so standard for monster films forever more.

There is a dialogue throughout the film about whether the Rhedosaurus should be captured ‘for science’ or killed. An interesting notion, and one that builds our sympathy for this poor lost creature. The conflict between science and the military is fascinating, and still relevant today. The moral ambiguity of our lead hero Tom Nesbitt being one of the scientists working on the atomic test however, is surely different being seen through modern eyes, as is the ultimate use of this technology to destroy the creature. The struggle by standard military forces to combat these monsters is of course a major theme in all such films - if only because the monster would otherwise be killed very quickly.

The use of New York as an iconic location was pioneered by King Kong (1933). Indeed, with all features on monster films, it’s impossible not to trace an awful lot back to Kong. With The Beast, however, there are certain shots which have then been echoed - the Rhedosaurus climbing out of the river, and walking the streets in broad daylight are all almost shot-for-shot used in 1998’s Godzilla. There’s even a point at which he crashes through a building, again used almost exactly the same way in Godzilla.

Following one intense fight with some military forces, the poor Rhedosaurus is injured and bleeding. The trail of blood that he leaves soon begins to affect anyone in the area, causing soldiers to collapse at their posts. This is an interesting plot development, as it limits the methods that can be used to kill the beast. What is most interesting, however, is that it illustrates just how alien the creature is, and how different his natural habitat was to ours now. This was revisited in JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield, where there is a great deal of danger from the ugly little parasites that the monster brings to New York with it. In the even more recent Monsters this is taken further with our own world slowly being changed to suit that of the alien life. Most visibly, this is explored in The Mist, where humans clearly fare less well in an alien environment than the aliens can in ours. This could be a symbol of our own frailty, or a sign of ex-Imperial Western culture’s fear of being ‘colonised’ or simply an exaggeration of our fear of the unknown. Whichever you may think, it started with King Kong but was refined in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

We must also look at the pioneering effects work. As mentioned earlier, Harryhausen didn’t use assistants, so every frame of stop-motion was his. The outcome of this is that the Rhedosaurus has a full personality, and is so much more than a simple monster. It was with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms that Harryhausen perfected the use of rear projection and matting to be able to integrate the stop-motion and live action elements to an entirely new standard. This is shown to its fullest potential with the scenes of the Rhedosaurus rampaging around New York, with the City in the background and terrified people running in the foreground. Through the use of filtered glass and carefully controlled lighting, he managed to merge the different shots almost seamlessly. A tight special effects budget, largely relying on one man? Step forward Gareth Edwards and Monsters. Have things moved on at all?

Far from being a simple ‘B-movie’ monster film, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms set the template for every monster film to come, and managed in a short 80 minute duration to explore various themes that have remained pertinent in films all the way through to Cloverfield and Monsters. It will be interesting to see whether Gareth Edwards’ new Godzilla will continue with the same template set out by Harryhausen, Bradbury and their Rhedosaurus nearly sixty years ago.

***

Wrath of the Titans opens March 30th and is reviewed HERE.


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