Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: Ray Harryhausen Q&A

I attended the American Cinematheque's double bill screening of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and SHE (1934) at the Aero Theatre last night. It was a treat to see the two old movies on the big screen again, but it was a really big treat to hear the question-and-answer session before the films started.

Special effects expert Ray Harryhausen and author Ray Bradbury were scheduled to appear, but Bradbury was a no-show: his health has been declining in recent years; he had been at a book signing across the street from the theater earlier, and apparently was too tired to attende the films. In his stead was Forrest J (no period) Ackerman. the former editor of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine.

The pairing of films was a slightly odd one, but there was a connection between them. SHE was produced by Merian C. Cooper, the man behind KING KONG, which was the film that inspired Ray Harryhausen's interest in special effects, which eventually led to his work on BEAST. Cooper's KONG was also instrumental in the lives of Bradbury and Ackerman, who all met and became friends because of it.

Unfortunately, the discussion before the film was slightly disappointing, in that the interviewer's opening question centered not on the two films being screened but on KING KONG. Harryhausen and Ackerman spoke on that topic for awhile. Ackerman told a probably apocraphal tale of how he and KING KONG saved a young man's life: Back in the days before home video made movies instantly available at all times, "Famous Monsters" ran a two-part "fictionalization" of KONG'S plot, accompanied by photos. According to Ackerman, a reader wrote to tell him that he was in a suicidal mood, literally planning to kill himself, until he opened that month's issue and read the first half of the piece. When he came to the "To Be Continued..." he put off killing himself until the next issue, by which time his suicidal mood had passed.

Toward the end, Harryhausen finally turned the conversation around to BEAST. He recalled working for KONG's effects supervisor Willis O'Brien on the 1948 follow-up MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and lamented that the studio foisted all their extra overhead expenses onto that film. Consequently, the budget on paper wound up nearly twice what was actually spent on the film, and Hollywood grew frightened that the stop-motion special effects process employed by O'Brien was too expensive.

"The phone stopped ringing," said Harryhausen of Hollywood's offers to O'Brien, "and I had to strike out on my own."

Harryhausen was offered his first solo opportunity to supervise special effects on BEAST, which he took in spite of the low-budget because he wanted the film to get made. Like O'Brien, Harryhausen used stop-motion to bring the titular character (a dinosaur revived from his frozen hibernation by an H-bomb) to life, but instead of creating a KONG-like fantasy world with the use of glass paintings and miniatures, Harryhausen kept the budget down by relying on "plate photography" of actuall locations. (In other words, footage of New York streets, etc., was shot and then projected behind the table-top miniature where Harryhausen animated the armature puppet of the Beast, one frame at a time.)

The result was the archetypal sci-fi monster flick of the 1950s, which inspired a slew of imitators, including the original Japanese GOJIRA (retitled GODZILLA, KING OF MONSTERS in the U.S.) and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (which, ironically, featured special effects by Harryhausen's one-time mentor, O'Brien).

Of course, BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is derivative of KING KONG and, more particularly, O'Brien's 1925 silent effort THE LOST WORLD, which also featured a pre-historic dinosaur let loose on a modern city. But those films had been more or less fantasies. BEAST, with its use of the H-Bomb, had a modern science-fiction edge, coming at a time when audiences really did fear the Bomb, which had the potential, for the first time in recorded history, to bring about the end of recorded history. Thus, the BEAST becomes a walking metaphor for real fears, a sort of fantasy mirror into which audiences can gaze at something to horrible to contemplate directly. The effect is somewhat muted by the fact that the film ultiamtely assures us that radiation is okay (a radioactive isotope is used to kill the beast); nevertheless, BEAST is the template from which many subsequent films were fashioned (including Sony's misnamed 1998 effort GODZILLA, which far more resembles this film).

BEAST is available on DVD; if you're a monster-movie fan who hasn't seen it, you really should check it out. By the standards of its era, it's actually quite good, with a solid cast, a decent story, and even some clever dialogue and characterization. Sadly, the viewing experience at home wont' be half so exciting as seeing it on the big screen. Thanks, American Cinemathque!