The Bigger & Badder Halloween Top 13 #12: The Beast from 20000 Fathoms (1953)

Nukes, man. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times; you can't hug with nuclear arms. Hmm, maybe I didn't say that, but I should have because it’s pretty cheesy and clever at the same time. After the world witnessed the awesome force of a nuclear blast at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the awe inspiring power lead right into the nuclear panic age of the 1950’s, and with it came the giant creatures. Today, I'm getting a chance to talk about the first such film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. While it doesn't have the distinction of being the first giant monster movie, that distinction goes to 1931’s The Lost World which saw a dinosaur menacing London in the film’s climax; it does herald the first of the nuclear age monsters. Inspired by the success of the 1952 re-release of 1933’s King Kong, the producers turned to Ray Harryhausen, a protégé of Willis O’Brian, the man behind the world’s most famous giant ape, to bring to the screen an extremely loose adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” first published in 1951 by the Saturday Evening Post. Join me as we travel from the frigid Arctic Circle to the bustling streets of Manhattan with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms!

Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid) is a scientist working with a team to deploy a nuclear test in the chilly confines of the artic. When the bomb goes off, it causes a beast to be released, but since only Tom sees the monster, no one believes him when he gets back to the states. After reports of a dinosaur crashing sea vessels emerges, Tom seeks the assistance of  Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), a renowned paleontologist, and his assistant the plucky Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond.) With their help, he discovers the beast to be a reanimated Rhedosaurus reenergized by the nuclear blast. As the monster continues down the Eastern seaboard, Nesbitt tries to convince the military of the oncoming danger, but to no avail. The monster soon arrives in Manhattan, and the only chance they have to take the devastating dinosaur out is one special radioactive isotope from sharpshooter Corporal Stone’s (Lee Van Clef) gun, but when that misses the monster sets its sights on Coney Island and the destruction had only begun.

The Rhedosaurus emerges from the ice like nothing that anyone has seen since the age of dinosaurs. No wait, that’s not accurate. It emerges like nothing anyone has ever seen. With a mish-mash of parts taken from a number of different dinos, Harryhausen created a whole new monster for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and, if cinematic legend is to believed, the ’Rh’ at the beginning of the name was a nod to Ray’s own initials. That’s not to say that for the time the monster didn't look real. In fact, in some ways, the split matte, in camera method that Harryhausen used is more effective than, say, the middling CGI on display in yesterday’s film, Anaconda. Some portions of the monster’s mayhem are simply stunning despite their age. The Coney Island sequence at the film’s climax is particularly well done, and I would put it up against any of Harryhausen’s best work.

The monster is the star here because the stars, well, they're not so good. While Swiss born actor Paul Hubschmid strikes the figure of a dashing young hero as Tom, his wildly variable accent (I assume he was trying to tame it at times.) makes for some uneven moments. Paula Raymond makes cute as the assistant that believes Tom’s story, but she never rises above a stock character. The only really enjoyable performance comes from Cecil Kellaway. The veteran actor, who had appeared in such classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Invisible Man Returns, turns in an amusing and entertaining turn as the paleontologist. More interesting are the many cameo roles from then unknown actors. As I mentioned in the synopsis, tough guy actor Lee Van Cleef shows up as the sharpshooter, and he hangs around a bit before and after his big moment. In the film’s very first scene, two notable actors are present. The first line of the film is spoken by Alvin Greenman, famous for playing the kind hearted janitor in Miracle on 34th Street, and he speaks to none other than James Best, the future sheriff of Hazard County.

I don't know what else I can say about Ray Harryhausen that hasn't already been said. From his work mentoring Willis O’Brian to his mythical creatures in Clash of the Titans to everything in between, Harryhausen is probably one of the biggest influences on film over the years. Without him, the blockbuster special effects picture might not be what it is (take that as a good or bad thing), and surely he inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of people to get into the world of special effects. Despite Ray’s name looming large over the film, it was actually directed by Ukrainian born Eugene Lourie. Interestingly, while he has countless art department credits, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was his first directorial effort, and his last was 1961’s Gorgo, another giant monster movie. In fact, during his career, he kept largely directing titles such as The Colossus of New York, The Giant Behemoth, and an episode of the TV show World of Giants. Working with John L. Russell, who would be the cinematographer on Psycho and many other films, and Harryhausen, Lourie fashions a film that never rises above its star monster and does not hinder it either.

While The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is hindered by the very era it was made in, it still makes for an interesting watch even in this day and age when we base so much of a film’s success on the actors involved in it. What is continually interesting about the film is how it reflects thoughts and ideas about the dangers of nuclear power. Not only did people really buy into the “fact” the nukes could possibly bring back dinosaurs, the monster’s ravaging of The Big Apple is surely a corollary to the fear of utter destruction at the hands of an uncontrollable enemy a.k.a a bomb. While Godzilla perhaps makes this case more pointedly thanks to Japan’s own personal experience with nukes, surely a number of people left the theater with thoughts of the bomb on their mind. Nuclear power was a great mystery, and unlike today when we are all armchair physicists, there was real fear that pervaded society from this time until the mid 1980’s, when the Cold War ended, that a nuclear battle was imminent at any moment. While it may lack the effects of modern creature features, the symbolic resonance of other films, and a cast which I can't give more than a passable grade to, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a film which should be seen because of its importance in film and cultural history. Well, that wraps it up for today, but there are 11 more titles where these came from so tune in tomorrow and every day this month at 9 PM EST for another entry as the massive, massive Bigger & Badder Halloween Top 13 rolls on, but don't forget to keep scrolling down to see today's submitted giany monster list.

Bugg Rating

The beast is in the public domain, and so you can watch this little gem right here thanks to Internet Archive.

If you're in the horror community and you don't know John Cozzoli, then get over to Zombos' Closet and start getting to know him. Apart from being a veritable encyclopedia of classic horror, John is also the head honcho and driving force of The League of Tana Tea Drinker, a coalition of the best horror writers the interwebs have to offer (even a certain ever lovin blue eye'd Bugg.), and, if you ask me, he's an all around swell guy. So make sure to check him out right after you check out his picks for the best giant monster movies around. Take it away, John.

King Kong
The Blob
The Giant Claw
Attack of the Crab Monsters
Attack of the Giant Leeches
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Editor's Note: Lookie! This was today's film!)

Between yesterday's list and today's I'm starting to see a few titles pop up over and over. Will they pop up on the LBL as the B&B H13 continues? Well, stay tuned to find out tomorrow and every day all the way up to Halloween!


  1. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 21, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    Ray Harryhausen is, quite simply, "GOD" ! ! !.

  2. i can't believe you gave a harryhausen film a 2 and a half out of four...all his films are classics. it should've gotten a three at least.

  3. Jervaise. I bet you would do an 18 year old version of Ray.

    Anonymous.You seem to be splitting hairs over half a bug. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was an important movie, but not a really well written one. While Ray held up his end of the deal and provided effects that still stand up, the director made a movie that seems dated and stale. If Ray had directed, perhaps it would have been different, but I call them as I see them.

    Also, why is it that only negative commenters remain anonymous? Come out of the shadows folks. Discussion is cool, and if we disagree that's fine


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