The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms

Before the 1950s, giant monsters seldom wandered near the relative safety of our neighborhoods and backyards.  The dinosaurs and behemoths that Verne, Wells, and Burroughs envisioned were usually hidden away in lost worlds and other faraway places.  The same applied to movies.  King Kong’s Skull Island was in uncharted waters “way west of Sumatra,” and even by the late 1940s, Mighty Joe Young and the prehistoric creatures of Unknown Island were at least an ocean away from us. 

But in 1952, when the financially-successful re-release of King Kong proved that monster movies could be popular with post-war audiences, the changing times had affected our relationships with these larger-than-life creatures.  With the fear of atomic war hanging over us in a politically-unstable world, movie monsters -- while being purely economic creations -- reflected our feelings that we lived in a very unsafe world.  No longer would we have to journey to mythical lands to encounter beasts from our worst nightmares.  Now they would be coming to our cities, towns, and right up to our very doorsteps.

When a small production company called Mutual Films decided to make Monster From Beneath The Sea, a low-budget movie about a 100-million-year-old dinosaur unleashed by an atomic blast, the filmmakers were fortunate enough to hire Ray Harryhausen, a stop-motion magician capable of bringing the rampaging beast to life at a very low price.  The minuscule budget meant that the exquisitely fanciful glass paintings of King Kong and Mighty Joe Young would have to be replaced with a less-expensive way of integrating the animated beast with its surroundings.  Harryhausen not only solved these technical/budgetary problems, but he also ended up with a realism more suitable to the times.  While King Kong and Mighty Joe Young were fairy tales, this new film took itself seriously, and the effects mirrored that.  When people would leave the theaters, they would be fairly convinced they had just watched a real dinosaur running amok in Manhattan.

While The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms did not invent all the plot points soon to become clichés in monster movies, it was the first to amalgamate so many of them into one package.  First comes a few isolated sightings of a monster, which has somehow been brought to life by atomic testing.  The protagonist, often one of the first to witness the beast, is put in charge of destroying the adversary, even though his expertise is in other areas, and eventually the invader visits a more populated area and causes massive destruction.  Then our hero either invents or has to operate a new-fangled, untested scientific weapon.  The creature is ultimately destroyed at some well-known landmark, and we are left wondering what other outsized terrors will be unleashed by future atomic blasts.

Thanks to a story that was fresh in 1953, Harryhausen’s stunning effects work, and artistic direction by Eugene Lourie, producer Jack Dietz realized he had a major piece of entertainment on his hands done on an absurdly-small budget.  He therefore had little trouble selling the movie to Warner Brothers, a studio shrewd enough to recognize its money-making potential.  The title was changed to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the name of a poetic Ray Bradbury short story it had little in common with, and Warners launched one of the first massive television ad campaigns for a motion picture.  This media saturation, coupled with the high quality of the film itself, resulted in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms being one of the big hits of 1953, as well as the father of all giant monster movies that would follow in the decade.

To learn about The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ influential music score by David Buttolph, click HERE.


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