Written by: George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith
Directed by: Robert Gordon
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThe mind of man had thought of everything - except that which was beyond his comprehension!"
Ray Harryhausen never directed a feature film, but you know a ďRay Harryhausen movieĒ when you see one. Forgive the obvious sentiment when I say thereís a certain magic to each of them that brought them to life; to watch a Harryhausen film is to watch a magician at work with powers so singularly awesome as to be nigh transcendent. Arguably the best example of this can be found in It Came from Beneath the Sea, Haryhausenís follow-up to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a film that practically birthed an entire genre. I like to think that the effects master returned to this territory to reclaim it from the hordes of imitators that Beast had spawned by 1955, and, while the film as a whole is not a resounding success in that respect, Harryhausenís work is again unparalleled.
A standard issue atomic age monster movie, It Came from Beneath the Sea begins in a nuclear refuge, as an American submarine on patrol begins to experience strange phenomena. Something unfathomably large attacks the vessel before itís able to free itself with some sample tissue from the beast. After a duo of scientists (Faith Domergue and Donald Curtis) experiment on the sample, they hypothesize that itís part of a giant, radioactive octopus. Such a suggestion is laughable to their military counterparts, but further disturbances and disappearances eventually confirm that the prehistoric beast has been summoned from the depths to wreak havoc on the modern world.
Technically, journeyman director Robert Gordon (who eventually found consistent work in TV) is the director of It Came from Beneath the Sea, but it took Harryhausen to make this rote material sing. Much of it would have been already familiar just two years removed from The Giant Behemoth, particularly its square-jawed, naval hero (Kenneth Tobey), its breezy, B-movie jauntiness, and its nuclear paranoia (of course the beast has been awakened by nearby bomb testing). There are even hiccups in this already predictable formula in the form of a graceless voiceover narration and a hugely expository front-end that features the lead trio toiling away in a laboratory (which, admittedly, is still sort of fun, retroactively speakingóIím a sucker for whirring and whizzing gizmos that signal a time of gaudy, imaginative sci-fi set design).
But for all its familiarity and flaws, It Came from Beneath the Sea stands as a magnificent accomplishment in pure cinema. Itís a film that not only exhibits the mediumís possibilities at the time but also its continuing appeal. Sometimes, we go to the movies for pure, sheer spectacle, and nobody delivered that more earnestly than Harryhausen. In this case, his work thrives due to a more theatrical flair, as one of Gordonís most noteworthy decisions is to shroud the effects in mystery. We donít get a good glimpse of the giant octopus for quite some time; like any good carnival showman, Gordon knows what his biggest attraction is, so he keeps the curtain down for as long as possible. While this does result in an overly talky and obvious approach (of course the military guys end up looking like dumb curmudgeons), it also ensures that the film earns its eventual awe. Showing a monster early and often is easy, but it takes a feel for storytelling and the dramatic to make one seem like a genuinely big deal.
When Gordon finally unleashes his main draw, itís spectacular stuff, with the creatureís reveal being a mini master-class in sequencing. Itís the sort of scene that seems obvious or even innateófirst, a giant tentacle pokes out of the water near a boat and instills horror in its crew, which complies with the obligatory mouth agape reaction shots. As the creature slowly reveals itself to audiences, thereís a sense of controlled chaos as Gordon cuts between Harryhausenís effects work and the crew attempting to flee the boat before closing with a staggering money shot that sees the beast engulf the vessel and swallow it into the sea. Giant monster appearances donít get much better, but It Came from Beneath the Sea escalates wonderfully, with Harryhausen outpacing himself at every turn. The climax finds the creature making landfall and laying waste to San Francisco as its tentacles slither into every possible crevice.
Our eyes and brain knows that itís miniatures at work, but our hearts feel a sense of wonder nonetheless. In most horror movies, hiding the monster would contribute to a creeping sense of terror; in this case, it only adds to the amazement at the accomplishment. Despite the approach, the climax never feels like a guy essentially poking around in an overgrown sandbox; thereís an incredible believability and seamlessness to Harryhausenís work. The necessary use of background plates is sometimes obvious, but this isnít one of those cases where youíre condescendingly patting the work on its head for being ďgood for its time.Ē Instead, itís still magical over fifty years later. Harryhausen would move on to more fantastical stuff as his career progressed, and this effort looks like a bit an afterthought in his canon since itís sandwiched between the groundbreaking Beast and the wildly imaginative Earth vs. the Flying Saucers; however, it seems appropriate that this, Beast, and Mighty Joe Young would serve as an overture for his career, as all three take the real and make them unreal by blowing them up into mythic proportions.
It Came from Beneath the Seaís monster might be among the most impersonal and indistinct in the Bradbury canon, but itís no less impressive in its detail and weight. Its tactile qualities speak to an unconscious desire for things that actually exist. Unfortunately, a modern context almost begs a comparison to modern, computer-driven effects that donít instill the same sort of wonder for whatever reason. I canít pretend to have an answer for that. I can say that I still adore the handcrafted quality to Harryhausenís stop-motion animation, even if a legion of computer animators likely put in more hours towards their work these days. Engaging in such a debate is ancillary here, especially since those artists are the successors in this field; without visionaries like Harryhausen, effects in any form wouldnít be the same.
A myriad artists have followed his lead to create entire worlds, but one wonders if the future holds another Harryhausen. Itís here that I think we find another unconscious desire for authorship that helps us to value practical effects. As a culture, weíve shifted towards a need to identify our fountains of genius during the past eight centuries or so. It didnít take long for film critics to rush and champion the auteur, so it follows, then, that we even search for them in the minutiae of moviemaking. As special effects evolved, so too did the visibility of the men behind the curtain. Harryhausenís predecessor and mentor Willis H. OíBrien provided an early example that paved the way for others whose names have become synonymous with the craft: Jack Pierce, Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet, Tom Savini, Rick Baker, etc. Who are their equals in the field of CGI? Itís hard to say given the anonymous, corporate nature of the business now, where companies like ILM and WETA have replaced the singular artists; whether itís fair or not (it probably isnít, especially since effects have always been a collaborative effort), this represents a fundamental difference in our perception of the two eras.
To put it mildly, Iíve digressed, but itís difficult to imagine that any effects artist will ever make a bigger case for auteur status than Ray Harryhausen. It Came from Beneath the Sea may not be the strongest evidence at first glance, especially since it seems like an inferior retread of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and its ilk. Upon closer inspection, though, itís actually quite strong evidenceóin any other personís hands, the film might have become generic, derivative enterprises. In Harryhausenís hands, it became a display of effects artistryóor, perhaps wizardry. Valuing effects and spectacle for their own sake is generally frowned upon, and itís not like It Came From Beneath the Sea doesnít have other things going for it (Domergue is especially lovely as the plucky, refreshingly progressive as Lesley Joyce); however, to deny that as a valid approach is short-sighted and misses the pure joy begat by Harryhausen, whose imaginative spark was so strong that it molded something awe-inspiring out of the ashes of a pulpy, imitative monster movie concept. How could anyone frown upon something so wonderful? Buy it!
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