This scene (pictured above) from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), terrified me as a child. Even though I wasn’t yet around to view it on a movie theatre’s big screen (I was born in 1954), the small screen of our television set sufficed while my imagination did the rest. The lurking menace in the night that approaches its unsuspecting victims and destroys them, which is what happens here, was peculiarly subliminal; at least, that’s how I fancied it at the time. There was worse to come, but somehow there was something about this brief and incidental moment in the film which stood out as if it had more to say. Indeed it did; because this was the first of two scenes (the final one, a Coney Island roller-coaster) connecting the film to its source.
In 1951, the Saturday Evening Post published a short story titled The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, written by the brilliant Ray Bradbury. Sometime earlier, observing the ruins of a Los Angeles-area roller-coaster, the writer was impressed by its resemblance to a dinosaur and was inspired to write a dinosaur story. The short story is centered around a sea serpent that emerges from the ocean around a lighthouse, attracted by the eerily vibrating sound of its fog horn. Meanwhile, a film with the working title Monster From Beneath the Sea was in production at Warner Brothers. Hoping to cash in on Bradbury’s reputation, the producers bought the rights to his story: Bradbury changed the title of his piece to The , while the film was retitled The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
Almost anyone who grew up amid the Cold War tensions and contentions of the 50s and 60s, experienced a host of doomsday science fiction films in which nature (regardless of being extant or extinct) is turned against human civilization. Rollicking creatures which included giant ants, giant crabs, giant spiders and, naturally, giant dinosaurs all had there Saturday matinee moments of fun-filled destruction before being zapped in the final reel.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms revolves around the sole witness to the violent resurrection of a buried-in-the-ice dinosaur (affectionately known as “Beast”), thawed-out during an atomic test in the North Pole. Left in a state of shock, he’s flown in a whirl of cinematic dissolves to a NYC hospital (of all places) where he continues to shock everyone with his intriguing but incredible story. Meanwhile, Manhattan just happens to be “hot” on the Beast’s itinerary and while the scientist tries to convince everyone that an angry dinosaur is on the loose, he’s cruising down the waterways leading to New York. We’re made to understand that the NYC area is the Beast’s old stomping grounds (or spawning grounds) and, perhaps feeling nostalgic, he’s dropping in on the old neighborhood.
Our scientist ultimately convinces a renowned paleontologist that the Beast truly exists; unfortunately, said paleontologist becomes even more convinced, later during an investigation, when he and his bathysphere are devoured by the Beast after encountering him deep below the sea. The Beast finally arrives in New York at the Fulton Fish Market (certainly their Catch of the Millennium) and, not one to stand on ceremony, begins to destroy everyone and everything in sight. It’s obvious that the Beast doesn’t love New York and is quite disappointed with the new look it acquired during the latter stages of his 80 million year hibernation.
Of course, by this time, most people (even New Yorkers) believe that something unusual is occurring, as the Beast rampages his way up Wall Street, puts the bite on a policeman, demolishes a building or two here, crashes through the wall of another building there, and ends up in Coney Island (at least, a Hollywood version of it), featuring a cardboard roller-coaster where he becomes holed up for his final stand.
It’s determined that the atomic blast which resurrected the Beast is also leading to its re-interment: he’s dying as a result of radiation poisoning that is also affecting everyone that comes near him. A quickly found radioactive isotope is quickly shot into the Beast which accelerates his “afterlife” (?!?) and he dies in a blaze of Ray Harryhausen-styled, stop-motion pathos.
As with most films of this genre, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms does as follows: teach a harsh lesson that conventional weapons are ineffective against gigantically unconventional invaders; provide a venue for weak acting and a tired script, outweighed (in this case) by great special effects; have a deus ex machina-like weapon (or gimmick) that saves the day amidst the rubble; and, lastly and charmingly, allow a pair of B actors to find romance. Having said that, I loved it…in both my past and present forms, as kid and adult.
(Let me add that Paula Raymond, the film’s co-star, brought out the beast in me. Even when I was 6 or 7, when it came to women, my fantasies would go on the rampage.)
On the other hand, Bradbury’s The Fog Horn is a minor masterpiece of subliminal and metaphorical depth. The story seems to pose the question: “If energy is endless and transcends our temporal moments in time and space, could life itself follow this transcendentalism?” Whereas the The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is pseudo-science fiction designed for entertainment, The Fog Horn is pure science fiction designed for the intellect. Gone are the like of the North Pole, romantic interludes, New York City, stop-motion photography, radioactive isotopes and cardboard roller-coasters, etc. These are replaced by a solitary lighthouse and a lighthouse keeper who had seen the serpent (as the dinosaur is termed here) the year before. He calculates when it will return and invites a friend to witness its reappearance.
The serpent believes he hears a creature like itself in the sound of the adjacent fog horn; a love call, in fact, calling to him through the eons. He’s attracted to it three times: first, out of curiosity; then, out of love; finally, out of hate when the horn is turned off and, believing that he’s been rejected, destroys the lighthouse. The story is beautifully written, with several underlying meanings that have virtually nothing to do with with the film.
In much the same way the Ray Bradbury association happily launched the film, the film helped to make this little story deservedly famous and renowned for many of us amidst the celluloid afternoons of B movies. Perhaps a call to Baby Boomers everywhere to read the fine print between and beyond the giant and lovable monsters of the silver screen.
For more on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms: eccentric-cinema.com/cult_movies
Read The Fog Horn here
- Ray Bradbury’s fan letter to Robert A Heinlein (jeredhiggins.wordpress.com)
- 10 Essential Books Featuring Dinosaurs in Science Fiction (tor.com)
- 8 Essential Dinosaur Movies (tor.com)