(4/10) A giant radioactive octopus destroys San Francisco in Columbia’s stale rehash of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. This low-budget programmer is saved by a good leading cast and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation. George Worthing Yates writes a strong part for scream queen Faith Domergue, giving it a feminist slant. The hero from King Dinosaur, William Bryant, is back in a bit-part, but this time it is sci-fi stalwart Kenneth Tobey’s turn to ”bring the atom bomb”.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, USA). Directed by Robert Gordon. Written by George Worthing Yates, Harold Jacob Smith. Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis. Produced by Charles H. Schneer for Clover Productions.
IMDb rating: 5.9/10. Tomatometer: 67% Fresh. Metascore: N/A.
Radioactive deep-sea dangers menaced the world in the mid-fifties, and it all started with the Warner-distributed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), which in turn was inspired by the immensely successful re-release of King King (1933, review) in 1952. King Kong showed Hollywood that stop-motion animation was still as effective a way for creating giant monsters as it had been twenty years earlier. King Kong, or course, was animated by legendary Willis O’Brien, as was its inferior slapdash sequel Son of Kong (1933). A much worthier follow-up was made in 1949, Mighty Joe Young, which gave O’Brien his only Oscar, although most of the animation was done by his apprentice, a young man called Ray Harryhausen, who would hone his animating skills on George Pal’s Puppetoons replacement animation film series. When producer Jack Dietz had the idea to make a giant monster film about a radioactive dinosaur wreaking havoc in New York, the call went out to Ray Harryhausen to create the creature in the stop-motion technique, and that film’s huge success spawned the inferior rip-off It Came from Beneah the Sea.
The story of the film more or less replicates the one from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: strange accidents occur all over the seas of the world; fishing dwindles, ships disappear, psychologists are baffled by stories of giant sea monsters. A duo of scientists (Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis) are delivered a piece of tissue stuck to an atomic submarine commanded by Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), and after weeks of work they manage to suss out that it once belonged to a giant, radioactive octopus, which had previously tried to pull the sub under. The military brass (Ian Keith, Dean Maddox Jr., Chuck Grifftihs) are slow in convincing, but when they finally do, there follows an ”exciting” chase for the monster directed from a conference table and a sandy beach, as the octopus strikes off-screen. Finally, efter some more conference and romantic padding, we get to the climax, with Harryhausen’s beautiful stop-motion cephalopod attacking San Francisco, tearing down Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge. And could it be that the only thing that will stop a radioactive squid is a well-aimed nuclear torpedo, fired from the same sub that was attacked in the beginning of the movie?
Instead of an old scientist and his young female assistant, as in the earlier film, we get a rather bland love triangle between the two scientists and Tobey. It is clear that Curtis doesn’t stand a chance at wooing Domergue, but it is to the film’s credit that it’s not immediately clear that Tobey will succeed either. The script was written by George Worthing Yates, who had recently done the story draft for Warner’s follow-up to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the excellent giant ant film Them! (1954, review). That film was rather remarkable for its portrayal of a capable, head-strong female scientist, and the pattern repeats itself in It Came from Beneath the Sea.
While other scripts of the era sort of nibbled at the idea of women’s liberation, they often outright mocked it, as in Project Moon Base (1953, review) or ultimately made it clear that while it was possible for women to be both brainy and assertive, it wasn’t very suitable, and certainly not feminine. Often films portrayed female scientists as icy, calculating professionals who secretly yearned for the life of a stay-at-home-wife, kids and a white picket fence. Revenge of the Creature (1955, review) tried and failed to cater to feminism by having John Agar sort-of-but-not-really lamenting the fact that women ”have to” choose between a career and kids. Yates should be commended for not having his heroines contemplate the emptiness of their lives without children in the midst of a hunt for giant radioactive monsters. In Them!, the female scientist leads the charge into the ant nest, and in It Came from Beneath the Sea Domergue repeatedly gives Tobey a good scalding for leaving her out of the action. At one time she gives him a long lecture about how 1. he is making up her mind for her, 2. he underestimates her abilities because she is a woman, and 3. he ignores the fact the she would actually be of great help in a dangerous situation. And she’s even backed up in her feminist stance by her male colleague, who tells Tobey that there’s a ”new breed” of women, who feel that they are just as able and intelligent as men, ”and they’re right”.
George Worthing Yates had been rattling around Hollywood since the twenties, publishing short stories and novelettes, writing about a dozen screenplays for westerns and crime dramas, before hitting gold with Them! He did a draft for George Pal’s and Byron Haskin’s semi-flop Conquest of Space (1955, review), but not much more than a few basic ideas of his were used for the finished film. He soon became one of the most prolific science fiction screenwriters of the fifties, contributing to such films as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Flame Barrier (1958), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Space Master X-7 (1958), Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958).
The screenplay was also edited by Harold Jacob Smith, who would later go on to win an Oscar for his work with The Defiant Ones (1960).
Big monsters have, of course, been a favourite of storytellers since the dawn of man, from the dragons, giants and behemoths of myth and folklore to the kaiju and transformers of recent times. Monsters have always inhabited the sea, its depths as dark and mysterious as the skies above, and indeed as the strange, unexplored secrets of our own minds. Most mythologies have their own sea serpents or ocean spirits, from the Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology to the biblical Leviathan, the Snake of Midgard in Norse mythology, Finland’s Turisas, The Philippine’s Bakunawa, Yakumama of the Amazon River, Japanese Umibozu, the Babylonian goddess Tiamat or Makara of Hindu mythology. Nordic folklore described the giant octopus Kraken, no doubt inspiring Jules Verne to include the monster in his famous 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.P. Lovecraft to create his Cthulhu mythos in the twenties.
The first film to feature giant monsters was probably French pioneer Georges Méliès‘ 1907 adaptation of the Verne novel, which was again remade in 1916 in the US. Generally, however, movie monsters tended to stay on dry land due to the difficulties of filming underwater. This would all change in the fifties thanks to two factors. The first was the invention of scuba gear. Not only did it open completely new possibilities for underwater filming. It also contributed to a spike in public interest in the world under the surface of the oceans. The other factor was the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which inspired American studios to create giant monsters both above and below the seas, but also a Japanese producer called Tomoyuki Tanaka, who would go on to create one of the world’s most famous monsters from the deep: Godzilla. The first Godzilla film Gojira (review) was released in 1954, a year after The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It had little impact in the US, however, and was only given a very limited release, mainly in a few Japanese-language theatres in the country. It wasn’t until the Americanisation of the film in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters that the US got kaiju fever.
But the US already had a fever for watery beasts. After The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Universal re-animated their monster movie franchise with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review), followed up by Revenge of the Creature (1955, review) and finally The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). A young producer called Roger Corman made his motion picture debut with a cheap film called Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954, review), which was supposed to feature a giant radioactive amoeba, but in fact showed a radioactive octopus. For its live-action Christmas blockbuster of 1954, Disney chose to make their own adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (review), which featured an impressive mechanical squid fighting movie stars like Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason. The movie was over a year in the making, and no doubt inspired other studios and producers to take advantage of the ad campaigns and the hype around the film, which was one of the most expensive movies ever made at its release.
When The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms hit the theatres, the short-lived 3D craze was in full swing. Ray Harryhausen pitched his idea of a new film to Beast producer Jack Dietz: The Elementals – a movie concerning winged beasts attacking Rome. According to Mid-Century Cinema Dietz liked the idea, and Harryhausen made a short test clip, which is available on YouTube, but he wanted to make the film in 3D and colour. Harryhausen did some tests, but the two came to the conclusion that Harryhausen’s slow-moving stop motion technique combined with the added costs of 3D and colour would simply be too expensive. One should remember that even Beast was made on the relatively meagre budget of 210 000 dollars, which was basically pocket money for a big studio like Warner. So that project was scrapped.
However, it was a 33-year old producer called Charles Schneer, then working under Sam Katzman at the mid-level studio Columbia, who reached out to Harryhausen about a film depicting a giant octopus. What especially appealed to Harryhausen, he explained in an interview with Tim Burton, was that Schneer and Katzman promised him total artistic freedom in creating the special effects. On Mighty Joe Young he had, of course, worked under Willis O’Brien, and on Beast he collaborated with art director Eugène Lourie. The budget was even lower than that for Beast – 150 000 dollars – but Harryhausen agreed to make the effects on a budget of 26 000 dollars, and got very little in terms of actual salary.
The film was nominally produced by Clover Productions, but the finances primarily came from Katzman’s Columbia, and Katzman had final word on the production. However, the teaming up of Harryhausen and Schneer was a historic event, as the two quickly found common ground – they complemented each other, as Harryhausen stated. Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies writes that Schneer was a superb negotiator and marketer, whereas Harryhausen was a quiet, timid man. On the other hand, Schneer trusted Harryhausen’s artistic eye, and always gave him freedom to to do what he wanted. The pair went on to make nearly 20 films together, including Harryhausen’s most famous work on a number of films inspired by Greek mythology. The one regret one can harbour regarding the two men’s loyalty to each other is that fact that, disregarding Harryhausen’s work, none of these films are of any particularly high standard. Apart from the amazing animation, they are mostly rather mundane when it comes to writing, acting and direction. However, the two worked together on one more science fiction film for Columbia; Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and later one for Schneer’s own company, 20,000 Million Miles to Earth (1957), which contains Ymir, one of Harryhausen’s best creations. Harryhausen also did some work on Columbia’s The 27th Day (1957). He continued his sci-fi collaboration with Schneer on Mysterious Island (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
The bread and butter for Schneer and Harryhausen remained the Greek mythology films. While always a bit sketchy in the drama department, films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) pushed special effects forward, and Jason’s battle with the skeletons in the latter remains one of the most legendary special effects scenes in cinema history. But in 1977, with the release of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the old gods would soon be sidestepped by a heavily breathing villain in a black mask, and the minions of special effects creators rounded up for George Lucas’ Star Wars. Even when the Sinbad movie premiered in March, it was described as ”moth-eaten” and ”hammy”, and when Star Wars hit theatres in May, it was completely blown away. The Schneer-Harryhausen duo made a last effort in 1981 with Clash of the Titans, a retelling of the heroic story of Perseus, intended to cater to the Star Wars fans, complete with an R2-D2-like mechanical owl. The film was released to mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert calling it ”Harryhausen’s masterwork”, but with others complaining about the hammy or uninspired acting by the star-studded cast, and the sub-par bluescreen effects. While it did reasonably good business with a box-office earning of 41 millions (on a 15 million budget) in the US, it didn’t come close to the 200 millions of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the 100 millions of Superman II. It was outdone by Terry Gilliam’s quirky kiddie film Time Bandits and not one, but two Roger Moore films. Harryhausen read the signs. While his UFO:s for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers were state of the art in 1957, he couldn’t compete with the intergalactic cruisers of Star Wars, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). And compared to Scott’s xenomorph, his monsters definitely looked more charming and quaint than scary. Mechanical puppets, suits, make-up and other special effects were getting more and more sophisticated and no doubt he could hear the early rumblings of computer-generated effects in the background, although it would still take a decade for them to come into full effect. Even his old stop-motion technique had been invaded by computers, with Industrial Light and Magic coming up with their new go-motion technology for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Dragonslayer (1980), that removed the sharp, jerky images of traditional stop-motion. So he hung up his gloves and never looked back.
History lessons aside, let’s return to Ray Harryhausen’s first film at Columbia. As director Schneer and Katzaman chose actor-turned director Robert Gordon, whose main credit before this movie was the rather anonymous boxing movie The Joe Louis Story (1953), and who is perhaps best known today for the likewise anonymous Tarzan entry Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968). He spent most of his career in TV, directing shows like My Friend Flicka and The Texan.
The main cast was made up of a stronger than usual trio of actors for this kind of movie. Kenneth Tobey had experience as a sci-fi hero from the brilliant The Thing from Another World (1951, review), and also played a big supporting role as the military commander in charge of dispatching the beast from 20,000 fathoms back from whence it came. Although best remembered for his three science fiction roles in the fifties, Tobey was a prolific TV actor as well as Broadway veteran. He got a second coming as a film actor in the eighties, with small parts or cameos in films like The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987) and Gremlins 2 (1990). A whole new generation found The Thing from Another World in 1982 when John Carpenter made his remake, and Tobey found himself in cameos in sci-fi films like Strange Invaders (1983), Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992) and Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996). For more on his career, please see the review of The Thing from Another World.
Faith Domergue, on her part, was in Universal’s mid-budget movie This Island Earth (1955, review), a visually impressive and partly good, but ultimately bungled sci-fi cult classic. Along with the fantasy horror film Cult of the Cobra and the British sci-fi movie Timeslip (review), 1955 basically became her legacy, apart from a couple of low-budget horror movies in the seventies opposite John Carradine, and a rather fond remembrance among fifties western buffs for a few B-efforts. Domergue’s life and career would be the stock of movies if she would ever have opened up more about them before her death in 1999. Picked up by Warner as a teenager, she was bought out by eccentric millionaire and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes and placed under contract with RKO.
She had a brief affair with Hughes at 16, and he groomed her for stardom. However, her career crumbled during the long and trouble-ridden production of Vendetta, where she played the lead opposite an extremely difficult Preston Sturges, who was later fired, along with a long line of directors. Principal photography started in 1946, but the film wasn’t released until 1950, and in the meantime Domergue married, got pregnant, had a miscarriage, went off to South America with her husband and got pregnant again. The film’s budget reached 4 million dollars. In 1950, she also starred with Robert Mitchum in another highly publicised film, Where Danger Lives, and Howard Hughes allegedly poured five million dollars into a publicity campaign for Domergue. Both films flopped, Domergue had lost the spark for acting, and her career never quite recovered, although she did continue to act both in the US and in Europe, where she later moved with her second husband, up until 1976. Her encounter with Hughes is fictionalised in Martin Scorsese’s film The Aviator (2004), in a scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hughes receives her in an empty movie screening room, has her turn around, remove her lipstick and take off her shoes. She is played by Kelli Garner in the movie. In reality she met Hughes as a party at a yacht.
The movie scene closer resembles Kenneth Tobey’s encounter with Hughes. In Tom Weaver’s book Double Creature Feature Attack, Tobey recalls how he was called up by Hughes’ assistant at 2.30 one morning after he’d returned home from a night on the town, and was told Hughes wanted to see him. This was when he was being considered for the lead in RKO:s The Thing from Another World, and although drunk as a skunk, he didn’t dare refuse. So he took a cab out to Hughes’ office, where the mogul looked him up and down, said ”Okay”, and dismissed him.
The third wheel in the cast, as well as in the romantic triangle, is Donald Curtis, a reliable character actor who’d been around since the early forties without making a lot of noise for himself. He had a small role in Invisible Agent (1940, review), and played another ”second lead” in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. He is quoted as saying It Came from Beneath the Sea is his favourite film because it was the only movie in which he ”got the girl in the end”. Well, Mr. Curtis certainly has an interesting take on this matter, for while it is immediately clear that Domergue won’t leave her career to become a baby-machine for Tobey, there is even less to indicate that Curtis would ”get” her. Curtis is best known for being a new age nut, lecturing and writing books on ”religious science”, ”oriental healing”, etc. He left his acting career to become a minister in the late sixties.
All three actors come off well from the movie, and make what they can out of the material, which unfortunately isn’t Yates’ best work. In his screenwriting career, Them! stands as a solitary beacon of quality, while the rest of his screenplays are – if not bad, then at least unoriginal. Tobey made a career out of playing stalwart military characters, and that’s what he does here as well, but this time without the witty dialogue of Howard Hawks, that elevated his performance in The Thing from Another World. One critic once wrote that Faith Domergue’s acting talents don’t exceed her talents at looking sultry, and while this may be a bit too harsh, the truth is that she’s no Kate Hepburn. But with her clear feminist stance she does have the best material of the film, and she uses it well. Would it not be for the feminist angle, the whole romantic subplot would be almost unwatchable, and it really doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond padding, as the characters are never fleshed out enough during the film’s 1-hour-plus running time for us to actually star caring about them. We are especially indifferent to Tobey’s arrogant womaniser. In fact, we the audience are hoping that Curtis and Domergue would hook up. Curtis’ character seems like a nice guy, who actually explains the concept of equality to a dumb-struck Tobey at one point in the movie.
The problem with making a low-budget film in which the main attraction is stop-motion animation is that stop-motion animation was the most expensive special effect in the fifties, simply because it took so long to create, during which time someone had to be paid to create it. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms required 7 months of animation, and It Came from Beneath the Sea probably required close to half a year as well. Despite this, there isn’t nearly enough of the octopus in the film to carry the story alone, so Yates had to write a whole lot of padding – padding that not only emulated too much of Beast, but that is also uninspired and completely pointless. It’s certainly not as tepid as some of the stuff in real low-budget turds, but neither good or original enough to elevate it above standard programmer fare.
Another problem with the script is one that is often found in these kind of films: the audience knows exactly what’s going on, and most of the movie consists of some main character trying to convince the rest of the cast about what the audience is already aware of. This is not to say that this sort of plot can’t work, but it requires strong character work and people that the audience actually gives a damn about. To the film’s credit, it holds off showing the octopus for about one third of the movie. It starts off strong with a claustrophobic scene inside the submarine – filmed in an actual submarine, the 1945-built PCU CUBERA, according to the US Submarine Force Museum, to be specific. The movie builds good tension, as a strange shape appears on radar, and then grabs the submarine, leaving the crew baffled as to what had attacked them. But already Gordon’s inadequacies as a director come into focus. While he should be commended for filming with hand-held cameras in the cramped sub, giving the movie a realistic feel, he does little to enhance the claustrophobic feel or terror through lighting, visuals or sound. While the sound effects of the sub are cool, much more could have been made of the undersea environment and the strange hold on the vessel, and the lighting is bright, flat and uninspired. The actors, however, were thrilled to shoot the sequence, as they were actually submerged in the U-boat.
We then move into a lab, where we meet Domergue and Curtis, trying to find out what the audience knows is an octopus. Not because the film has shown it, but because it was the film’s sole selling point, and everyone in the theatre went there because they knew there was a giant octopus in the film. Then the movie finally shows the thing, as it drags a fishing vessel under, in a very impressive scene. Now the audience has seen the beast, but the next half hour of the movie is conspicuously octopus-lacking.
When the film’s finale kicks in, and the octopus starts tearing down San Francisco, the movie makes up for any lack in excitement. The image of the tentacled beast demolishing the Golden Gate Bridge is just as iconic as the filmmakers had hoped it would be. According to Kenneth Tobey, the crew had planned nine days of principal photography in Frisco, of which some of it was actually filmed in the naval docking yard and its surroundings, and he tells Tom Weaver that the person who played his executive officer was in fact the actual commander of the submarine. But the authorities of San Francisco took affront to the idea of a film depicting the destruction of the city, and denied Columbia the right to shoot the Golden Gate and Fisherman’s Wharf. Naturally, part of it was always going to be miniatures, but the film did need some real shots of these places, for wide establishing shots and and rear projection. In some cases Harryhausen and Gordon could use old stock footage, but Harryhausen, himself trained as a cameraman under the guidance of Ted Geisel and Frank Capra during WWII, also resorted to guerrilla tactics, and filmed the locations in secret from the back of a phoney bread truck.
The octopus itself is beautifully designed and articulated, and the animation is surprisingly smooth for such a low-budget production, although Harryhausen was never able to completely get rid of the jerky motions produced by the stop-motion technique. Even though other animators experimented with different blurring techniques like vaselensing or moving the table, Harryhausen didn’t use them, partly because of the vast amount of animation he had to do on his films – it would simply have been too time-consuming. To save time, Harryhausen famously gave the octopus six instead of eight arms, counting on the audience not to notice if he kept the thing partially submerged. ”And I figured Mickey Mouse has four fingers, so my octopus could have six arms”, he tells Tim Burton. Harryhausen jokingly called it a sixtapus, and Bill Warren names it a ”sexapus” (which I hope is a typo), while its actual scientific name would have been hexapus. In addition to the full octopus model, Harryhausen also made a lone tentacle for easier manipulation and close-ups, as well as a big head with a detailed eye for the last scene where divers swim past the beast. While the animation is always good when Harryhausen is concerned, some of the visual and optical effects are less so. Harryhausen often opted for rear-projection rather than bluescreen, probably for efficiency, and some of the projected images are way too faded to fit in with the live-action. And where he uses bluescreen, or split-screen, the actors are badly directed. The scene of Curtis ”wobbling” when a tentacle breaches the bridge in front of him is famously tacky. On the other hand, the scenes of soldiers driving away tentacles on the loose with flame-throwers are extremely well done.
Because of all the post-production, It Came from Beneath the Sea was released after Faith Domergue’s other films made in the spring of 1955, Santa Fe Passage and Cult of the Cobra, although it was filmed prior to them. She tells Paul Parla that she enjoyed working on the movie, as she liked that her character was a strong woman with lots of scientific dialogue. She thought it was ”a good little film”, although doesn’t seem to have been very impressed with Robert Gordon, calling him ”a nice man”, although ”old-fashioned”. And it is certainly true that Gordon doesn’t do much in terms of cinematography to elevate the film beyond its script. The visuals are just as flat and two-dimensional as the writing, and most of it is filmed in rather boring medium shots, with a few cut-aways and close-ups thrown in for good measure. It’s a competently crafted film, but lacks any sense of art or imagination as far as live-action is concerned. As usual in these films, there’s too many conference room scenes, lab scenes and even beach scenes and restaurant scenes where the characters just stand around doing exposition.
In his interview for Tom Weaver, Kenneth Tobey looks back on his career with lots of laughs, and a sincere feeling of gratitude. He acknowledges that he wasn’t always the best actor on the lot, and seems to have been grateful for all the roles he got: ”I’ve loved being an actor – that’s what I do, that’s what I enjoy doing. /…/ I’ve been in it for fifty-three years or something close to that and I’ve enjoyed … most of it. /…/ I feel I’ve had a career. Maybe not a great career, but what the hell. I won’t retire. I’ll just be found one morning, dead, with one shoe on and one shoe off. And with a script clutched in my hand!” But in fact Tobey did retire in 1997, at 80 years old, and died five years later after a lengthy illness.
If Tobey had any regrets from It Came from Beneath the Sea, it would be his romantic scene with Faith Domergue on a beach, which for penny-pinching purposes was created at a studio back lot, where Columbia simply dumped a truckload of sand and used rear-projection. First of all, being heavier than Domergue, he kept sinking through the sand to the studio floor, which made him seem shorter than his romantic co-star, which he of course wasn’t having: ”I’d keep scraping the sand together at the beginning of the scene, packing it as hard as I could, and I’d begin the scene looking over her head. But, by God, I’d sink down through that sand during that scene, and she looked like she was two feet taller than I was! I couldn’t lick it, I just had to swallow my pride and look short.”
And to make matters worse, the pair’s only real love scene, to be filmed on the beach set, was cut short by studio chief Sam Katzman. The shoot was dragging, and Katzman came storming onto set, asking Gordon how much he had left to film there. Gordon said they only had three pages, but Katzman tore out those three, which just so happened to be the love scene, and asked Gordon: ”Now how much have you got left to shoot?”. ”Now we don’t have anything left”, answered Gordon. ”Goood!”, repied Katzman, according to Tobey; ”There went my whole love scene!”
Just as with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea rode on the fears of nuclear radiation. Like the Rhedosaurus of the previous film, the octopus has also been prompted from its depths through nuclear testing in the Pacific. The movie goes into a detailed and rather unnecessary explanation, stating that its normal food, fish, have ”their own natural Geiger sensors”, which make them flee the now radioactive octopus long before it can catch them, and that is why the beast is now on the hunt for new sources of nutrition, namely humans. Otherwise the giant creature is described as a perfectly normal, if rather big, specimen of cephalopod. The notion of radioactive mutations weren’t all that well understood at the time, and screenwriters probably felt that the concept would be too difficult for viewers to wrap their heads around. Apart from Them!, no films at the time had yet dealt with mutated monsters – even Godzilla was explained as having soaked up radioactivity rather than been mutated by it. Of course screenwriter Yates was familiar with the concept, as he had written it into Them! It Came from Beneath the Sea cleverly avoids any deeper ruminations about nuclear power or the atom bomb, perhaps in order not to appear political, and simply exploits the theme for entertainment purposes, as would many films of the fifties.
The movie, despite its fantastic premise, is actually one of the more scientifically sound sci-fi pictures of the era. There are of course a number of inaccuracies. The movie depicts an octopus, and octopi actually seldom grow larger than 3 meters in length. It is the squid that can reach lengths of up to 14 meters or around 45 feet. But this artistic license can perhaps be permitted the filmmakers – there’s still much we don’t know about the zoology of the depths of the oceans, and even less was known in the fifties – who knows what monstrous octopi may be lurking down there? However, it is probably safe to assume that none grow as large as the one depicted in the film, which looks closer to 100 feet. But within these parameters the movie stays reasonably true to actual science, which does lend it a certain air of realism. While fish don’t have Geiger sensors, many species do have sensors that pick up electrical fluctuations. The idea that an octopus could survive large amounts of radiation isn’t that far fetched. We do know, for example, that certain insects are highly resilient to radiation, and in the fifties there was probably very little knowledge about how crustaceans or cephalopods reacted to radioactivity. While squids are rather helpless out of water, octopi can actually live for up to an hour on dry land, depending on the species, so if there really was such an thing as a 100 foot octopus, it might well take a stroll through San Francisco if there was food to be had.
Among the supporting cast one could single out Harry Lauter, in the role of a sceptical deputy. Lauter had small roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), Creature with the Atom Brain (review), The Werewolf (1956), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Satan Bug (1965), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), and even played second lead in Superbeast (1972). In a walk-on part as helicopter pilot we see William Bryant, who played the lead in King Dinosaur (1955, review). There’s also Roy Engel, a western bit-part actor who appeared in a number of science fiction pictures as well.
The music is serviceable without being especially memorable. Some of it was newly written by Columbia veteran Mischa Bakaleinikoff, and for some parts he used canned stock music. Harry Freulich’s cinematography is capable but flat, static and uninteresting. Freulich’s top credit on IMDb is the live-action TV series Dennis the Menace, which should say enough about Freulich’s talents. Art director Paul Palmentola also created the painted-on brick wall for Bela Lugosi’s Columbia effort The Devil Bat (1940, review).
The movie opened to little fanfare in July 1955 and apparently received mixed reviews. Los Angeles Times called the octopus a ”first-rate villain”, and gave the actors the thumbs up, but complained about the technical exposition, which made the film as a whole ”rather boring”. Clyde Gilmour of the Lethbridge Herald in Canada gave the film a good bashing, complaining that the special effects weren’t up the the level of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Wellsville Daily Reporter of New York, however, praised the depiction of the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Reviews didn’t concern Sam Katzman much, though, as he was counting dollars, not stars. And just as he had hoped, the movie was a financial success, as it teamed up with the less marketed Creature with the Atom Brain as a double-bill. The movie raked in 1.7 million dollars in the US, making back the shooting budget eleven times over.
Later reviewers have also had mixed feelings about the movie. Most tend to agree with Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Movie Musings, who feels that the scenes that don’t involve the octopus are ”singularly dull”. Richard Scheib of Moria gives the film 2 out of 5 stars, and writes that the film is ”told in a stolid, flat style that seems more like an Army training documentary than a dramatic film”. Jesper Sjöberg of Swedish Dead Moon Night praises Harryhausen’s effects, but complains that there’s too little octopus action, and wishes the film would have more shots of he whole monster, rather than just writhing tentacles. Damyen Taimans of the French genre movie authority Cinemafantastique gives the movie 2 out of 5 stars, but states that Harryhausen’s special effects conjure up a satisfying finale that saves the film from its obviously cheap screenplay. Despite its flaws, the film holds a decent 67% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
I tend to concur with most reviewers, however, I’d like to add something regarding Harryhausen’s work on the film. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the effects, other than the rather disappointing ending, which looks very “miniaturey”, the giant octopus has never held the same place in the canon of Harryhausen as, for example the Rhedosaurus, Ymir, the Cyclops, Medusa or even his UFO:s. This partly has to do with budget restraints, but also the fact that what made Harryhausen’s creature so unique was the personality he gave them, something he learned from Willis O’Brien. Although often scary and even evil, his monsters always had a human element, which made the viewer identify with them. But an octopus is so far removed from the human form, even compared to a dinosaur, that it is very difficult to give it any human characteristics, unless you want to turn it into a comic book character. This turns the octopus into a very one-dimensional threat, a danger to be dealt with, very much like an earthquake or a wildfire, and the script also does very little to augment this notion. Thus, while technically brilliant, the film robs Harryhausen’s animation of some of its magic.
All in all the film is, I’d say, one of the better sci-fi cheapos of the fifties. While not blessed with a big budget, at least it had some sort of budget, as opposed to the films that AIP churned out during the decade. The talky scenes are a bit pointless, but the good actors help to keep some interest in the proceedings up, and I must give credit to the strong female portrait of the movie. Harryhausen effects are always a guarantee for some quality, but this time not even they can really save this film. A fun watch for friends of B movies, but a casual viewer might do just as well to watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms instead. That’s a better version of this film. There is a colourised version of It Came from Beneath the Sea available, that is actually quite good, if you’re into that kind of thing, although I prefer the black and white version, as the colourisation tends to take away from some of the menace of the octopus.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, USA). Directed by Robert Gordon. Written by George Worthing Yates, Harold Jacob Smith. Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith, Dean Maddox Jr., Chuck Griffiths, Harry Lauter, Richard W. Peterson, William Bryant. Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff. Cinematography: Harry Freulich. Editing: Jerome Thoms. Art direction: Paul Palmentola. Sound: J.S. Westmoreland. Special effects: Jack Erickson, Ray Harryhausen. Visual effects: Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Charles H. Schneer for Clover Productions.