john cribbs ~ 9/28/2010

On August 22, the 'Smoke started a series of articles in celebration of Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday. The Toronto Film Festival waylaid plans to publish the second half of the series, so we're picking it up where we left off one month earlier. Besides, it's still technically August on Mars, a planet Bradbury has written about on several occasions.* And really, is there a bad time to pay tribute to a writer as influential as Ray Bradbury? As long as it's autumn, a season important to the author and his work, we figure there's no harm in turning "Ray Bradbury Week" into "Ray Bradbury Week and a Few Months."

eugène lourié, 1953.

The genesis of Bradbury's story "The Fog Horn" makes for one of his most charming anecdotes: "One night when my wife and I were walking along the beach in Venice, California, where we lived in a thirty-dollar-a-month newlyweds' apartment, we came upon the bones of the Venice Pier and the struts, tracks and ties of the ancient roller-coaster collapsed on the sand and being eaten by the sea. 'What's that dinosaur doing lying here on the beach?' I said. My wife, very wisely, had no answer. The answer came the next night when, summoned from sleep by a voice calling, I rose up, listened, and heard the lonely voice of the Santa Monica fog horn blowing over and over and over again. Of course! I thought. The dinosaur heard that lighthouse fog horn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur arisen from the deep past, came swimming in for a loving confrontation, discovered it was only a fog horn, and died of a broken heart there on the shore." The story itself describes an attack on a lighthouse by the ancient creature who rises from the depths and the two terrified keepers who witness it; in the early 50's some Hollywood execs sent Bradbury the script that would become The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms** to see if he was interested in working on a rewrite. The writer noted a scene where the prehistoric sea monster in the script tears down a lighthouse and pointed out the interesting similarity to his story. The next day the execs, either to avoid a lawsuit or take advantage of Bradbury's name or both, purchased the rights to "The Fog Horn." The film was promoted as being "suggested" by Bradbury's story.

That's the entirety of the author's involvement, but the film itself turned out to be a breakthrough for Bradbury's longtime friend Ray Harryhausen. It was Harryhausen's first solo effort after working as Willis O'Brien's apprentice on Mighty Joe Young, and he more than deserves all the success the movie brought him for his inventive use of light and shadow on the animatronic model effects alone. The lighthouse scene that had been "borrowed" from Bradbury's story is particularly gorgeous, with the creature appearing seamlessly from the ocean in silhouette and approaching the structure as waves crash around the rock. The split foreground and background effect shots like the famous sequence of the stupid cop who gets eaten all look great, but when Harryhausen owns the entire frame it's just phenomenal. I don't know how I feel about the flimsy shark vs octopus scene that's clearly shot in a fish tank, but besides that the 60-year-old effects are still impressive.

The movie opens in the Arctic, with Kenneth Tobey leading a group of scientists and soldiers who accidentally release a deadly creature from the ice. Hm...am I watching the right movie? Four writers besides Bradbury received credit for the screenplay, with a fifth writer uncredited - none of them worked on The Thing from Another World but I guess one of them must have seen it. Luckily the comparisons are superficial and dissipate completely at the first appearance of the monster, who emerges from behind a glacier in a raging snowstorm; the sight of the behemoth alone causes one man to fall into a chasm, a great bit of stunt work that looks like it really hurts. After creating an avalanche that buries the poor sucker alive and leaving behind a shocked scientist nobody believes, the beast makes its way down the Arctic Current south toward New York City, sinking ships and toppling over lighthouses on the way down. Some scientists try to study it by lowering themselves in a diving bell, but the ravenous monster just swallows the whole thing (and apparently yanks it off the lines gracefully enough that passengers on the attached ship above don't even feel it, and aren't certain of their buddies' fate until reeling the bell back in. An obvious inspiration for the shark cage scene in Jaws).

The monster itself, determined by the humans to be a dinosaur called the Rhedosaurus, is a wonderful design. He's more akin to a giant lizard than Bradbury's Brontosaurus-like beast from the story, but to be fair how was anybody in 1953 going to bring this to the screen: "From the surface of the cold sea came a head, a large head, dark-colored, with immense eyes, and then a neck. And then - not a body  - but more neck and more! The head rose a full forty feet above the water on a slender and beautiful dark neck." Bradbury's descriptions of his creature's enormity are as vivid as those of his creature's loneliness, another concept difficult to communicate using a scale model. Instead Harryhausen focuses on capturing the beast's relentless urge to destroy, as seen in the screen-filling close-ups of the monster as it nears the next unfortunate set of victims. Interesting fact: the dinosaur drawings that the main character looks through to identify the creature are by the great Charles R. Knight, of whom Stephen Jay Gould once said, "Not since the Lord himself showed his stuff to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones had anyone shown such grace and skill in the reconstruction of animals from disarticulated skeletons. Charles R. Knight, the most celebrated of artists in the reanimation of fossils, painted all the canonical figures of dinosaurs that fire our fear and imagination to this day." Harryhausen was also influenced by Knight, once stating that "he put flesh on creatures that no human had ever seen."

All atomic creature features suffer from interminable downtime between monster attacks, but Beast in particular has too much human exposition: this guy has to convince this guy, who has to convince that guy who then has to convince his boss etc. It gets pretty tedious to sit through, especially when the beast attacks are so thrilling. That's not to say the screenplay is entirely void of Rhedosaurusless innovation: one great touch is that, in addition to the eating and the stomping, the monster brings further danger in the form of a prehistoric disease lethal to humans who come into contact with it (an idea lifted for Cloverfield fifty years later). As it moves closer to the exciting confrontation the actors get a little better, although Paul Christian's Swiss accent remains distracting from beginning to end.

The big climax has a great gimmick: since the only weapons powerful enough to kill the Rhedosaurus would also aerosolize a substantial quantity of its blood, spreading the deadly infection over miles of populated area, the humans have to come up with a way to blow it up from the inside. The solution: a custom-made nuclear "bullet" fired by sniper Lee Van Cleef while the monster's laying waste to Coney Island that will annihilate its insides but cause little debris of body pulp. After an awesome-looking electric fence scene, the monster is herded to the big roller coaster, an appropriate place for the film to end considering the torn down coaster that got Bradbury's mind working towards writing the original story. Van Cleef uses his pre-Dollars gun skills to down the creature, and it brings down the amusement park ride in a death roll of fire and ruin (no mention in the finale whether there's any plan to cut the beast open and see if the occupants of the diving bell are still alive in there).

As with most films he was involved with***, Harryhausen steals the show from whoever the director is, and pretty much secured work for himself for the next two decades by creating the Atomic Monster craze with Beast. It predated Godzilla by a year and Them! by two, becoming Hollywood's first Cold War science fiction film. As for "The Fog Horn," it ended up being the story that netted Bradbury the job writing Moby Dick: John Huston had read it and claimed that it evoked "the spirit of Melville."

One last thing. Chris and I were just discussing how people misinterpret the title of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as referencing a measurement of depth, whereas it's meant to be a measurement of distance: no point in the ocean is 20,000 leagues deep. The makers of this film obviously wanted to capitalize on Verne's novel by using the same number, and clearly this time "fathoms" - which is a measurement of depth not length - is supposed to indicate how far down the creature rose from. But it doesn't work here either. The deepest part of the ocean, called the Challenger Deep and located beneath the western Pacific Ocean in the southern end of the Mariana Trench several hundred kilometers southwest of Guam, is 36,200 feet deep, roughly 6,033 fathoms. So 20,000 fathoms would probably put you somewhere in the middle of the earth. But I guess the monster could have conceivably come from there, burrowing his way up from the earth's core. Who am I to challenge the science of science fiction?

Also 20,000 fathoms is not a measurement of time. If it was, then one fathom would have to be equal to 3,250 years. Just saying is all.

~ SEPTEMBER 28, 2010 ~
* That's not true, it's actually September 15th on Mars. I'm just reaching for excuses here.
** The title was originally Monster from the Sea; its eventual title was either taken from a publisher's alternate name for Bradbury's story or the story was re-published under the new title after the film's release, I'm not sure which.
*** What's with the new Blu-Ray set? Only four movies? Why not add Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver or this film? Even the regular dvd "Legendary" series had five films in each set. What a crock.