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Thursday, May 22, 2008

It Came From Beneath the Sea

While not especially well known, It Came... (ICFBS) is a classic example of '50s sci-fi. It's a solid example of the radiated monster sub-genre. What helps ICFBS rise above mere B-movie status are its stars and its effects. Kenneth Toby (The Thing from Another World '51 and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms '53) is already a regular sci-fi movie hero. Faith Domergue (When Worlds Collide '51 and This Island Earth '55) is equally established as a sci-fi leading lady. Donald Curtis is also no stranger to sci-fi. It's Ray Harryhousen, however, who dominates. His stop-motion animation is the heart of this movie.

Quick Plot Synopsis
While on a shakedown cruise of a new atomic submarine, some mysterious shape, larger than any whale, grabs the sub and won't let go. The sub eventually breaks free, but a mass of mysterious flesh remains in the aft dive plane. When analyzed back in Hawaii, the flesh is that of a giant radioactive octopus. The navy scoffs at the idea, but reports of a freighter sunk by a 'monster' and other mysterious happenings along America's Pacific northwest, convince everyone that the monster is real. The scientists (Domergue and Curtis) theorize that the depths of the ocean might have always contained such huge beasts, but H-bomb testing in the Pacific irradiated this one in such a way that its prey (fish) always know it's coming, and flee. Hungry, the beast comes to the surface and finds people on ships a suitable substitute. The authorities use mines and submarine nets to protect the city of San Francisco, but the creature isn't stopped by explosives. They try a electrified grid under the Golden Gate bridge, but this only enrages the beast to attack and destroy the bridge. From there, the beast heads for the waterfront and does some damage there too. Soldiers with flame throwers force it back into the sea. There, a special torpedo has been loaded aboard the atomic sub. It must be lodged into a vulnerable area of the beast, then exploded remotely. With some dramatic setbacks, this ultimately works. The beast is gone. The world is safe, for now. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Harryhousen's animation is great. It really lifts this otherwise pedestrian movie out of the dull B-movie pack. It's also amusing to see how much of a plot retread ICFBS is. It's basic entertainment, following familiar paths rather than breaking new ground.

Cold War Angle
ICFBS falls into the familiar cautionary tale sub-genre. Atomic testing turned the beast against humanity. In this, it's akin to Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Godzilla. On a slightly more symbolic level, the beast is like Godzilla, a living metaphor for nuclear energy. We unleashed it, and now it preys on mankind. True to the Cold War mindset, it is the military with atomic powered weapons that play the role of America's savior. This is the mindset that kept the Cold War alive.

Hexapus -- it is often noted that Harryhousen's "octopus" had only six arms. This was due to a budget cutback, but really isn't noticeable. There are few times you could ever tell.

Feminist Message -- one blatant "message" within ICFBS is promotion of the "new woman." Domergue plays this personification of the brilliant, strong-willed, brave new woman. The old stereotype isn't quite dead yet, though. When she sees Curtis on the bridge being attacked by the beast, she screams like a girl. Toby pushes her into the restraining arms of a policemen while HE dashes out to save Curtis. Despite this, ICFBS does try to advance the strong-woman role.

Ray Greatness -- ICFBS is a great showcase for the animation talent of Ray Harryhousen. His artistic eye made his stop-motion monsters feel more alive than most stop-animators' work. Watch for the subtle moves the creature makes. They're not strictly necessary for the shot, but they do suggest a creature who doesn't simply exist for the shot.

Plot Redux -- The plot of ICFBS will seem familiar. It's nearly the same one as in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ('53). It's also very similar to the premise for the original Godzilla. Then there is the very-B Monster from the Ocean Floor ('54) which also featured a tentacled beast terrorizing the coast. It's interesting to note that Ihiro Honda first imagined his atomic-spawned beast as a giant octopus, but thought it too obtuse and opted for a dinosaur instead.

Tedious Triangle -- A typical Hollywood love triangle consumes much of ICFBS's runtime. Commander Mathews (Toby) falls for lady scientist Joyce (Domergue), who feels loyal to genius scientist Carter (Curtis). Triangles seem to abound in sci-fi. There was a love triangle in Godzilla and a loose one in Monster from the Ocean Floor. Or, the triangles of the three Creature from the Black Lagoon movies. Most of the time, the romance thread in ICFBS seems contrived and competes with the sci-fi monster story, rather than advancing it.

B Heritage -- Despite the big name stars and top notch animator, ICFBS is a classic B movie. There is frequent narrator voice-over to tell you the story instead of the movie telling it. There is much use of military footage.

Bottom line? ICFBS is definitely worth the watch, if only to see Harryhousen's work. It's a B movie, but it's a good B movie. It does little to advance any sci-fi notions. Instead, it's a rehash of earlier ideas.


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Nightowl said...

Thanks Anon,
I had noticed that my earlier posts had less depth than later ones. Guess I had to get up to speed. I've toyed with re-writing the earlier ones. I may do this, but just keeping up with the upcoming films tends to keep me busy.


Unknown said...

Howdie Film Buffs,

Ray Harryhausen strikes again.

The story is simple but strong.

The acting is fine.

Kenneth Tobey plays a strong leading role, as in "The Thing From Another World."

Faith Domergue is, Faith Domergue - what more needs to be said (she was also great in "This Island Earth" and "Cult of the Cobra).

Donald Curtis is a great backup character as in "Earth Verses The Flying Saucers" and in an episode of Science Fiction Theatre.

The special effects are excellent.

As a side note. I met Ray Harryhausen at a movie premier (I believe it was the "Black Hole") at the Disney Theater. What a regular guy - and incredibly modest.

That's it for now,