GORE IN THE STORE
INTERVIEWS FILM BLU-RAY DVD & BOOK REVIEWS
Directed by Eugene Lourie. Starring Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey, Donald Woods, Steve Brodie, Lee Van Cleef. USA 1953 Certificate : PG 80 mins
Released on Blu-Ray (With DVD & Digital Copy) by Warner Bros as part of “HMV Premium Collection” on February 26th, 2018
Here’s a movie that has a lot to answer for. It established Ray Harryhausen as the stop-motion monster maestro, becoming the Willis O’Brien of the baby boomer generation via a cycle of beloved creature features and adventure movies that themselves influenced a generation of filmmakers. It also, of course, instigated the 1950’s cycle of monster movies inflected with the A-Bomb paranoia of post-war Planet Earth : if Howard Hawks’ earlier, intense THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD reminded us that we need to fear contemporary scientists and invaders from other planets equally, this exploited the universal terror of nuclear annihilation, as summed up by an early dialogue exchange between two scientists discussing the latest A-Bomb they have tested: “Everytime one of these things goes off, I feel like we’re writing the first chapter in a new Genesis” “Let’s hope it’s not the last chapter…”
These Atomic tests are in the Arctic rather than THE THING’s Antarctic, though that film’s leading man, 50’s monster movie stalwart Kenneth Tobey, takes a supporting role as a Colonel, and the explosions wake a 100-million-year-old dinosaur (rather than Hawks’ extra-terrestrial carrot) that has been preserved in the ice and, reflecting BEAST’s taut structure, is up and roaming in plain sight by the ten minute mark. The early documentary-style voiceover narration places us firmly in the sombre context of the era, though what follows is a fast-paced, eager to please genre picture that understandably caught on with 1953 audiences, earning seventh place in the year’s highest grossing movies in the U.S. (beating WAR OF THE WORLDS but a couple of notches below Warner’s 3-D horror spectacular HOUSE OF WAX).
Prominent Nuclear physicist Paul Christian is injured in an early encounter with the Rhedosaurus that sees his friend eaten; he is hospitalised in New York City, where his eye witness accounts of the monstrous culprit are likened to sightings of flying saucers and sea serpents by an assortment of unsympathetic, poo-pooing authority figures, including his own shrink. Even though the only other viable living witness is a comedy Frenchman, Christian manages to convince a young female palaeontologist (Paula Raymond) of the monster’s existence in modern times merely by pointing out a picture of it from her range of dino-drawings. (By the same means, he also persuades initially dismissive veteran palaeontologist Cecil Kellaway to stake his reputation on it before he’s munched inside a diving bell). En-route to the Big Apple, the creature chews on a fishing boat near Nova Scotia and rips apart a lighthouse off the coast of Maine.
The nocturnal lighthouse attack – with the monster in silhouette – offers an evocative distillation of the short story from which BEAST originated. The memorably eerie and bleak tale was “The Fog Horn”, written by Harryhausen’s life-long friend, Ray Bradbury and published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1951. It chronicles the recurring visits of a sea monster to a lighthouse, attracted to it by the foghorn it mistakes for the sounds of a species similar to itself. The monstrous sketch that accompanied the story’s initial publication was a prominent influence on the design of the cinematic BEAST.
Eugene Lourie, making his directorial debut, nailed the art of making an efficient monster movie (he went on to oversee BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER and the mighty GORGO), punctuating the pithy build up with regular monster attacks and even some stock underwater footage of a fight between an octopus and a shark! The dialogue offers witty commentary on the fragility of the post-WWII world, with our hero checking with his nurse what’s happening in the news, to which she responds with a jokey “Oh just death and politics…The comic pages are the only thing that makes sense anymore…”
When the beast arrives in Manhattan to squash cars and destroy Wall Street, the movie has fun depicting one of NYPD’s stoic finest impotently firing bullets at the Beast before meeting his doom while, in a nasty touch, an oblivious blind man is trampled in the ensuing panic. Newspaper headlines displayed on screen highlight the kind of catastrophic damage usually underplayed by films with city-destroying mayhem (180 known dead, 1500 injured, $300,000,000 worth of damage), and the bravura finale at Coney Island amusement park features a young Lee Van Cleef as one of the Beast-defeaters.
It’s fair to say that this 65-year-old movie, often acknowledged as a key influence on 1954’s GODZILLA among many others, has aged far better than infinitely more expensive and hi-tech monster movies that you have already forgotten about from two years ago.
Extras - This handsome slip-cased release for HMV’s “Premium Collection” contains a quartet of art cards and a DVD and Digital copy of the movie. The extra features are all carried over from Warner’s original 2003 DVD release, but they are well worth a look. In a six-minute piece, Harryhausen talks of the modest origins of his first solo movie project, and his desire to offer movie monsters the kind of glamorous showcase usually reserved for human stars. He also notes with amusement how his monstrous models would be reused in subsequent movies, and his affection for all his beasts is best reflected by the line “I always make my monsters die like a tenor in an opera”.
The 16 minute “An Unfathomable Friendship” is a very funny and poignant informal on-stage chat with Harryhausen and Bradbury at Warner Bros studios in 2003, 50 years after BEAST’s release. They tell lovely tales of watching the 1933 KING KONG together for 15 cents, and although Bradbury is wonderfully warm in his interaction with his old friend, his no-bullshit views on Hollywood shine through. The moment in which these vastly talented gentlemen reflect on their enduring friendship in the twilight of their lives is extraordinarily touching: “How wonderful we grew old together but we never grew up…” All of us monster kids could not wish for anything more.
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