DVD Review Of It Came From Beneath The Sea
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/8/09
I looked through one of my DVD sets, The Fantastic Films Of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Science Fiction Series, put out by Columbia Pictures, and plucked an old fave of mine to rewatch. The film was the 78 minute long black and white classic from 1955, called It Came From Beneath The Sea. While not one of the more hyped Harryhausen classics, it still is a good sci fi film, and a cut above the usual drive-in fare of that era. Plus, drum roll, it’s a film whose female star is Faith Domergue- goddess of Cold War sci fi flicks (This Island Earth, Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet).
The tale is rather pedestrian- H Bomb tests have irradiated a giant octopus, thus making its natural prey avoid him, for most fish (we are told in the film) can detect radiation. So, the behemoth rises from the depths of the Pacific to wreak havoc on passing ships, to prey on humans. Interestingly, the radiation is not the cause of the beast’s size (ala Them!), but the reason it needs to hunt new prey; an interesting twist on the atomic monster genre, where all sorts of insects, dinosaurs, and beasties grow in size or get non-native properties. This monster is simply displaced- a homeless cephalopod, a refugee from the Mindanao Deep. Charles Schneer produced this film, the first time he backed a Harryhausen film, and the better than average screenplay was penned by George Worthing Yates. Aside from the animal’s raison d’etre, the screenplay is notable for its early feminism, in showing Domergue’s character as a ‘new breed’ of woman, not just a love interest for the males to brawl over, and also because there are a few interesting scenes of ‘realism.’ I say ‘realism’ because, while the scenario is farfetched, the way the characters, especially the two male leads, Kenneth Tobey (from the 1951 sci fi classic The Thing From Another World) and Donald Curtis, act is very plausible. There is no superheroic machismo on display. Also, the film opens very stylishly, on board the new atomic submarine captained by Tobey’s character, U.S. Navy Commander Pete Matthews, with some real tension built up when a radar blip grows closer and closer, gets the sub in its grip, and they finally break free.
The sub heads back to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and, after a couple of weeks of testing, the two scientists that Matthews is overseeing, Lesley Joyce (Domergue) and John Carter (Curtis, with the arch-heroic name), determine the monster’s cephalopod nature. The Navy brass dismisses their claims until the survivors of a lost ship confirm the octopus’s reality. After attacks along the Oregon coast, the beast hits San Francisco, attacking and destroying a part of the Golden Gate Bridge (actually trying to flee the water that has been electrified by the Navy)- the icon that every film of this sort needed to see demolished, as well as part of the coast. Given it was 1955 and san Francisco, it would have been a hoot to see a few panicked Beatniks running along down the streets with the masses, bongos in tow, but alas. Pete and John get in the sub, and use a remote control torpedo they hope will explode the animal’s brain. It works, but the octopus grabs on to the sub and will not let go. Both of the men try to annoy the beast to get it to let go of the sub, which it does. It is then destroyed and the trio end up quickly summing up the end with sitcom-style humor and a surprising dearth of melodrama.
The film’s shots of the huge tentacles emerging from the deep are impressive, although the rear projection shots, including some Hawaiian scenes, often are poorly visually matched to the studio sets, as are some of the water scenes filmed with models. The scalability of water has yet to be resolved in films. But, overall, Columbia did a quality transfer to the disk, for the print is relatively clean. Henry Freulich was the cinematographer, and did a serviceable job- especially in integrating some stock military footage from the Korean War, as did Mischa Bakeleinikoff with the musical score. The film was shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and was directed by Robert Gordon, but Harryhausen’s monster is the main attraction, even if, technically, it was a sextopus (with only six tentacles, not eight), because two less legs meant less expenses. The DVD had the extra features almost all the films in the set do, the brief This Is Dynamation documentary, and the hour long profile of Harryhausen, called The Harryhausen Chronicles, narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and featuring Ray Bradbury, Harryhausen’s old pal. There are also a few theatrical trailers for other releases: 20 Million Miles To Earth, Mysterious Island, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
One other aspect of the film that is worth noting is the narration, which, often in such films, borders on the inane, with stentorian hyperbole. This film’s narration is more straightforward, like a reporter might give, although, at times, it does veer into that crescendo of ‘SCIENCE!’, as if that pursuit were almighty. Dig this bit from the opening (whoa, a little Beatnik slip):
For centuries the mind of Man has learned comparative little of the mysteries of the heavens above- or the seas below. Since the coming of the atomic age, Man’s knowledge has so increased that an upheaval of nature would not be beyond his belief.
On the downside there is the superfluous and forced love triangle aspect; especially glaring when Pete and Lesley go ‘fishing’ while waiting for the arrival of the Navy on an Oregon beach, and frolic romantically in swimsuits. Never are they harmed, but, of course, a disbelieving local sheriff’s deputy ends up killed by the octopus. That said, however, overall, It Came From Beneath The Sea is an enjoyable romp into the past, and at well less than an hour and a half, a good, light film to watch before tucking oneself in at night, as long as one has not just come home from an excursion to Red Lobster. Sorry, I could not resist.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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