Kaiju denotes those Japanese films in which a giant monster, played by a guy in a rubber suit, stomps model cities. However, the term has been applied to any giant monster flick, from King Kong to Cloverfield and, in fact, an American movie birthed the genre. No, not Kong, though he appeared back in 1933, nor Japan's Big G himself, though Kaiju takes that 1954 film as its official starting point. In fact, a 1953 film with effects by Ray Harryhausen set the pattern that would be followed by most giant monster films that followed, and its success directly inspired the somewhat weightier Gojira.
Director: Eugène Lourié1
Writers: Ray Bradbury, Fred Freiberger et al.
Effects by Ray Harryhausen
Paul Hubschmid as Tom Nesbitt
Paula Raymond as Lee Hunter
Cecil Kellaway as Thurgood Elson
Kenneth Toby as Col. Jack Evans
Donald Woods as Capt. Phil Jackson
The film was already in the works when The Saturday Evening Post published Bradbury’s story, "The Beast from 20000 Fathoms," later retitled "The Fog Horn." It's a simpler, more elegant story than the film and focuses on an isolated encounter between lighthouse keepers and a monster from the prehistoric past. Sources disagree on how many of the story’s elements were borrowed, but the final film bears Bradbury's title and his name as one of the authors.
In the movie, a monstrous dinosaur stomps into 1953 New York. What more do you need to know?
All right, then. The beast is a rhedosaurus, a creature concocted by the filmmakers, a scary-looking carnivore larger than any known to science. The arctic ice somehow preserved it; atomic testing wakes it up. The bomb functions more as a plot device than a source of commentary. To the degree that this film concerns the atom, it is not with the anguish of Gojira but more a sense of "what have we wrought?" Ultimately, the bomb allows us to have a monster for the movie. Like its successors—- Godzilla, Gorgo, and the Cloverfield Creature—- the rhedosaurus can thrive beneath the water and on land.2
As the creature makes its way to New York, the genre's conventions emerge:
- Human action awakens the beast
- Sporadic reports of a monster meet with skepticism
- Representatives of science and the military investigate
- Everyone speaks in expository dialogue
- A gratuitous romance blossoms
- After doing isolated mischief, the creature assaults a major city
- People scream and flee in terror
- Early attempts to beat the beast fail
- Science and the Human Spirit prove an unbeatable combination.
Harryhausen's animated model work was state of the art then and it still looks pretty good, though contemporary audiences will certainly be aware that the rhedosaurus is a model. The night shots work best. Some of the back projection is, however, laughable, and likely didn’t look too impressive in '53.
The rhedosaurus, however, proves a better actor than the humans, who give competent but wooden performances.
The plot, too, must be taken with a grain of salt. Some very intelligent people take evidence that might, at best, make them curious, to be proof of the beast's existence. The military loses track of the beast, which must be at least 100 feet long, in NYC. The film's scientists get facts wrong at regular intervals. Don't make too much of these things. Don't think too hard about how the dinosaur survived in ice, why a university paleontologist has instant access to military sites, or whence the creature came, given that the ocean at its deepest reaches 6033 fathoms.
In the end, The Beast from 20000 Fathoms is influential 50s pop-SF and better-made than most monster flicks of its day. It may not be a great film, but it's a fun movie.
1. Eugène Lourié had earlier been art director for the anti-marijuana flick, Wild Weed, which perhaps explains why this film contains a surprising, seemingly anachronistic reference to "smoking that stuff," said disparagingly of those who report the monster earlier in the film.
2.The rhedosaurus reappears in a less-celebrated movie, Planet of the Dinosaurs (1978).