In some ways, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is the perfect 1950s creature feature. It’s not great, but it’s certainly not terrible, and it checks all the boxes:
- Military shenanigans? Yep.
- Atomic bomb? Indeed.
- Cheesy sets? Covered in snow, no less.
- Stop-motion monster? We wouldn’t be here talking if it didn’t.
Where the movie shines is in the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. Sure, his masterwork was much later, arguably the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts or Medusa in Clash of the Titans, and perhaps his greatest character animation was in 20 Million Miles to Earth, but the animation here is still breathtaking, particularly in the finale — which inexplicably takes place at a roller coaster. Yep. At a roller coaster. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
Just a couple more things I'd like to point out with this one. The first is that yes, Lee Hunter (played by Paula Raymond) is a woman and actually a paleontologist. She is Dr. Elson's assistant, but his research assistant, not his personal or executive assistant. Yes, she brings out the coffee when she and the hero, Nesbitt, are trying to identify the dinosaur from sketches of known extinct species, but she's really a scientist. She gets a small monologue about it, even. This is remarkable in a 1950s sci-fi film. There are always women present, but they're wives, or girlfriends, or helpless stowaways, or occasionally a reporter. And it's not a trivial matter that I bring this up. My daughter walked through the room while I was watching this and asked what was going on in the aforementioned dinosaur sketch scene, and what followed was something like this:
Me: That guy there saw a dinosaur and the paleontologist there is trying to help him figure out what kind.
My daughter: She's a paleontologist?
My daughter: Huh. I'm going to need to watch this one.
|"Did the monster look like this concept drawing our art director made?"|
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the TCM Greatest Classic Films collections. The version of this film that I have is part of a "Sci-Fi Adventures" set released under that banner. These collections, if you haven't seen them or have skipped past them in the stores, feature four classic films bundled together for about $20. I have this collection and a Cary Grant collection. There are many, many others — Astaire & Rogers, Musicals, Horror, Best Picture Winners, collections built around particular actors, etc. These are all good-quality transfers and discs with special features (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has three mini-documentaries about the film, Ray Harryhausen, and Willis O'Brien), and they're really a gem if you're into classic films.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for that sweet Ray Harryhausen animation; +1 for a female lead who's actually a scientist;
Pentalties: -1 for, let's say charitably, a "lack of self-awareness" regarding the knee-jerk decision to just straight-up try to kill something older than the human race
Cult Film Coefficient: 7/10. It's not the best 50s sci-fi movie you'll see, but it'll scratch the itch.
Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, Emmy-winning producer, no-good musician, and sometime animator.