Friday, May 29, 2009

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It Came From Beneath the Sea is perfect viewing for a lazy saturday afternoon. One of those days where, nursing a massive hangover, you crawl out of bed only to collapse in front of the TV, in your lazy boy with a bowl of cap'n crunch, or whatever. One of those days. I'm not saying this is the kind of picture you should pass out to (at least, not without having seen it first). Let's say you watch a double feature. This should be the first movie. Passing out for the second (say, something like Reptilicus) is fine. I suppose you could watch something on the Sci-Fi network, or syfy as they go by now, but that wouldn't be the same. Those are the kind of pictures best enjoyed drunk and, right now, you're just not in the mood. So relax, sit back, recline, whatever, finish your cereal and enjoy a Ray Harryhausen masterpiece.

Well, actually this ain't exactly a Harryhausen masterpiece, I went a little overboard there. In case you don't recognize the name, Ray Harryhausen is a master of visual effects, stop motion style. He learned under Willis O'Brien (King Kong, The Lost World) and also was self-taught. It Came... was the first real movie to his credit, although he did some army promotional videos as well as a series of fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood", "The Three Little Pigs", "Hansel & Gretel" and other good shit like that. Unfortunately, the series didn't last very long since each episode took about seven years to make.

It Came From Beneath the Sea involves a giant octopus from beneath the depths of the pacific ocean. The picture's from the 50s so we can assume that radiation is involved. In this case, the radiation didn't exactly make the octopus giant (it was already giant), it just changed its eating habits. Now, instead of fish, it eats people. And submarines, and bridges, etc. Two scientists, and one sub commander who spends all but the opening on land, race against time to discover the nature of the beast and figure out a way to kill it before it eats California.

The octopus may only have about five minutes of screen time, but it's presence is felt throughout. In the beginning, it attacks a submarine, commanded by Kenneth Tobey (The Thing From Another World). It shows up as a pretty big fucking blip on sonar and creates some palpable tension as it closes in. Tobey, narrowly escapes, and ends up in San Francisco with the beautiful Dr. Joyce and her partner-in-science John Carter. I'm pretty sure a large part of the film's subtext is that Carter is gay. I could have missed this one entirely. I mean, he works closely with Dr. Joyce, they behave like husband and wife, she cares about him, etc. Then she's making out with Tobey, while Carter looks on seemingly uncaring, so I don't know what to believe. A strong case can be made that Carter is the hero of the picture so, if I read the subtext right, then that's pretty damned impressive. Also, did I mention they're in San Francisco?

The octopus attacks are few and far between but, when they come, they are damned impressive. When is stop motion coming back as a legitimate filmmaking tool? Has anyone noticed that CGI seems to be getting worse? Fuck man, let's bring it back. The only time we see it these days is from fringe filmmakers. I've gone on and on about it before and, at this point, it probably seems like I'm jacking off, but here's the difference. Both tools call attention to themselves, there's no question (although CGI can be used effectively and with subtlety, it rarely is). CGI, however, calls attention to itself for being fake. Like, that's a pretty cool cartoon sabretooth tiger. It almost looks real...and yet is completely weightless. Stop-motion on the other hand is actually real. There's substance there. Well, man, you don't need me to half ass explain this to you, you know. Just see the picture I guess. Anyway, one poor bastard gets squashed on a beach, tentacles come out of sewage drains spanking pedestrians like flap jacks and, in the film's greatest moment, the beast attacks the golden gate bridge (echoed later in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, where the beast attacks a lighthouse). It's probably some of the finest stop motion work I've seen. The beast sorta herky jerks it's way up the bridge. Woulda been strange if there had been a guy jumping off the bridge at that very moment, maybe land in the creatures maw. I guess that's a bit of a missed opportunity. Interestingly, Harryhausen wasn't put off by the miniscule budget. He even saved a few bucks by giving the octopus six tentacles instead of eight. It's impossible to tell since they, smartly, never show the entire thing at once.

Well, this isn't the best Harryhausen (I prefer Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans or even the aforementioned Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), but it's still enjoyable. Forgive my lack of detail. This is another review I've sat on for over a week. I started writing it last thursday, got tired, went to bed and forgot I even saw it for a while. If you're afraid of the black and white, you can supposedly watch a colorized version. Not sure why you'd do that, but they're both available, so no big deal. Robert Gordon directed this and did a fine job. This seems to be the only big movie on his filmography. After that he went into television, did some fine work there too it seems ("The Texan", an episode of "Maverick", etc). Seriously, if you're feeling like shit, hung over, dry heaving, etc, watch this picture and you probably won't be disappointed. If you're feeling really awful, afflicted with dry mouth and alcohol blindness, I recommend you skip this one and put in Peter Benchley's magna-epic, four hour monstrosity, The Beast. Both good pictures.

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