08 May 2013

Harryhausen Flashback: It Came from Beneath the Sea

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Directed by Robert Gordon. Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Starring Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis.

With the recent death of one of the great forces for good in the history of movies, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, I wanted to review one of his films that I hadn’t gotten to yet on this site. Some people may wonder what I was thinking in choosing It Came from Beneath the Sea for this honor, instead of one of his more colorful outings like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or One Million Years B.C. Your confusion is understandable: this 1955 B&W giant octopus flick is arguably the worst film with Harryhausen’s name on it.

But I felt the urge to go back to the beginning of Harryhausen’s career and his original modest step into auteur status. This was the first true “Ray Harryhausen” movie; he had already worked on Mighty Joe Young with Willis O’Brien, and then went solo on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as the special effects director. But when Harryhausen teamed up with young producer Charles H. Schneer to put together a low-budget monster picture for Sam Katzman’s B-movie unit at Columbia, for the first time he had a level of creative control over the entire film. Harryhausen and Schneer would work together for the rest of their careers, with Harryhausen as the de facto director of their films even if some other journeyman’s name was on the credits. Quick, do you remember who directed Jason and the Argonauts? Of course you don’t. It’s a Ray Harryhausen film, not a Don Chaffey film.

Before we proceed into It Came from Beneath the Sea, allow me to define a term. Henceforth, when I mention an “octopus,” I am referring to the six-tentacled super-cephalopod that appears in this movie. The budget was so tight that Harryhausen could not afford the time to animate eight tentacles, so he reduced it to six and tried to use the mollusk’s body to block his biological trickery. If he called it a “sextopus,” the film might have gotten censored as smut in 1955. Therefore: “octopus.”

Our story opens cold with a grave narrator (the ubiquitous William Woodson) talking about science and weapons over stock footage. It must be the fifties! A text crawl after the credits repeats what the narrator has already said: mankind, beware your ignorance of the world’s marvels! (But your machines will eventually kill those marvels, so don’t sweat it too much.)

Hydrogen bombs have once again brought terror to humanity, or the part of it that lives in the United States: the awakening of a humungous octopus from the floor of the Pacific. The creature’s encounter with a Navy sub alerts the U.S. government, although at first they won’t act on the advice of the scientists who have identified the problem. But when the octopus sinks a tramp steamer and the survivors explain what they saw, the Navy gets serious about preparing to kill the creature when it nears the populated west coast of North America.
This sounds epic, but there are really only three characters in the story: submarine commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), and the two biologists assigned to the investigation, Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Dr. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue, who had an affair with Howard Hughes when she was a teen). Dr. Joyce is young and attractive, and Pete is a man in uniform, so they fall in love for a few seconds until Pete pulls out the chauvinism. Then, in an unrelated incident, the giant octopus attacks San Francisco and everyone in the audience forgets there were characters in this movie in the first place.

The live action scenes in It Came from Beneath the Sea are pretty painful. They’re wooden, like much of ‘50s SF films, but even worse than that implies. There’s none of the hardboiled zip of The Thing from Another World or Them! keeping up the pace, or the Shakespearean dramatics of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It also lacks the lunatic charm of the Z-budget weirdies like The Hideous Sun Demon, The Giant Claw, or an Ed Wood/Coleman Francis movie. This is the most middle-of-the-road, unexciting B-movie product you can imagine.

Although the movie clocks in at a slender seventy-eight minutes, the scenes between the principles feel like they last a half-hour each, filled with talk, talk, talk. The opening with the submarine is ten minutes of Navy men staring at dials and knobs and talking about action we never see. Once the plot switches to the lab-coated science babble, it starts turning truly unpleasant. Occasionally, the movie tosses out an unintentional thrill like watching Dr. Carter inflate a balloon to impress the Navy brass with his knowledge. Most of the time viewers have to slog through exchanges like this between Dr. Joyce and doom-voiced Reporter #3:
“Where did you say the monster came from?”

“From the Mindanao Deep in the Pacific.”

“Are there any more from—down there?”

“Probably.”

“How many?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do we do about them?”

“I don’t know that either.”

“If you don’t, then who does? Thank you.”
All these scenes are drearily cheap looking as well. Ray Harryhausen never worked on a film with a rich budget, but usually the director and the crew hid the poverty better. The Naval intelligence project assigned to uncover a mystery crucial to national security appears to be operating unsupervised with only three employees. In response to the biggest news story since the Korean War, the media outlets of the world send only seven of the most bored reporters to cover it. At least they all have on official “reporter fedoras” and serious “newspaper overcoats.”
Like Godzilla and the Rhedosaurus from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the octopus is supposed to be radioactive, but aside from a quick mention of this during the finale, nothing ever comes of it. The film just seems to forget about the idea after it fulfills its obligation to appear timely by bringing up radioactivity in the first place.

Donald Curtis as Dr. Carter and Faith Domergue as Dr. Joyce both deliver flatline performances. Tobey Keith as Pete Mathews shows them up constantly, and it’s not as if he’s ripping out the Laurence Olivier line reads. Keith at least has some presence and looks believably gruff and manly as a military officer; he’s the right type for this brand of B-picture, but needs more to work with to allow him to create anything memorable.

(I’d like to believe that screenwriter George Worthing Yates named Donald Curtis’s scientist character “John Carter” as a reference to Edgar Rice Burroughs. But that’s me just getting desperate. It is fun hearing lines like: “Operations to John Carter.”)

To sum up the “human drama” elements of It Came from Beneath the Sea: The blocking is flat, the sets crude and dull, the dialogue feels like placeholders, the directorial pace is horrendous, the acting subpar, and the narrator doing all the heavy-lifting for the plot starts to get hilarious. Have I mentioned stock footage? Yep, got plenty o’ that.

All right, let’s get to the damn octopus. Whatever else is wrong with the movie—and that’s nearly everything—the monster scenes are wonderful. They’re so clever and energetic they make the rest of the film look substantially worse. Harryhausen estimated that the total cost for all the visual effects-work in the film was $26,000. “…I was pressurized to cut costs wherever I could, and if we had gone any further, we might have ended up with a tripod on the screen. [Executive producer Sam] Katzman never really appreciated my cost-cutting attempts, a fact borne out when he once quipped that I charged $10,000 a tentacle. If only it had been true.” Even accounting for Harryhausen cutting down to six tentacles instead of eight, Katzman’s estimate is approximately $34,000 too high.
The octopus debuts in an attack on a tramp steamer en route to Honolulu. We get a good look at one of the large-scale tentacles built for close-up work, which Harryhausen operated using a screw device that slowly raised and unfurled them. A coating of glycerin created the effect of making the tentacles look wet. As impressive as these close-ups of the sucker-laced undersides are, the big “gasp” moment in the scene is the long shot of the octopus seizing the steamer and dragging it beneath the waves. Because water is difficult to animate, Harryhausen used a clever device to merge the miniatures into the plates of the ocean: optically adding an image of churning water where the models are supposed to meet the water. It’s a fine bit of sleight-of-hand that never draws attention to itself and lets viewers believe the octopus is creating a disturbance on the surface.

A long stretch between octopus attacks follows—no, not a romantic beach interlude!—but finally at [checks elapsed time on DVD player] 49:18 the cephalopod crushes a poor schlub walking on the beach, causing our heroes to immediately, bravely run away. Ten more minutes of patter passes with some stock footage of depth charges going off before we finally get into it: the octopus reaches San Francisco and attacks the Golden Gate Bridge, lugging itself up a strut, bursting its tentacles through the asphalt, and then ripping down the middle span.

The Golden Gate sequence is one of the famous icons of movie monster destruction, or any movie destruction of a global landmark. Because the city fathers were worried that commuters would not want to pay the toll to cross the bridge if they saw a giant octopus tearing it down, the filmmakers had to surreptitiously shoot their footage for the background plates. (And… seriously, City of San Francisco? My decision to use civil engineering is not negatively affected by whether I think a giant monster could crush it.)

Most films would rest content with the destruction of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World for a finale, but It Came from Beneath the Sea has a superior follow-up: the octopus surfaces at the Embarcadero and causes havoc among the civilians until army men equipped with flame throwers repel the mollusk back into the water where the submarine can finish it with a torpedo. This is where the movie lets loose: for that measly twenty-six large we get a glorious amount of demolition and death. A tentacle shoves through the arch to the Oakland Ferry, a model seamlessly integrated with fleeing civilians to the right of the frame. The snake-like pseudopods then wrap around the clock tower and tear it down, and other arms crush people and smash through windows. The flamethrower fight is the killer moment, and the best sequence Harryhausen had achieved up to that time. The tentacle acts like a fantasy dragon facing down another fire-breathing menace, recoiling in screeching pain as the “knights” confront it.

After this, the wrap-up almost had to be a letdown. Switching the, ahem, drama back to Dr. Carter and Pete Mathews, the two heroes have to put on scuba gear and leave a trapped submarine to deal the final blow to the monster. Except for a model of the giant eye of the octopus, there isn’t much to see here or get excited about; it’s got nothing on the similar underwater climax from Godzilla the previous year. (Since that classic had yet to get a release in the U.S. in any form, the filmmakers certainly knew nothing about the similarities between them.)
It Came from Beneath the Sea demonstrates what Ray Harryhausen could bring to a movie. Try to imagine this film with off-the-shelf effects using a rubber puppet or blown-up footage of a real octopus. It would be unwatchable. But thanks to the miracles of Harryhausen’s technical artistry and his dramatic understanding of what audiences would love to see from a giant octopus attacking San Francisco, the movie leaves viewers with lasting images that erase the bad memories of everything surrounding them. It’s worth seeing the seventy-eight minutes of It Came from Beneath the Sea just to experience soldiers armed with flamethrowers repulsing humungous octopus tentacles from the Embarcadero. That’s the magic power of great special effects.

Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer must have learned plenty about producing films from their experience here, because their next project together, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, is top grade B-movie science fiction and one of the classics of the decade. Short learning curve! And consider this: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a mere three years away.