Oh to be a child in the ‘50s; Saturday matinees, boxed popcorn and cheap soda, flung in the air as the latest nuclear tinged monster loomed over the screen, impartial in its destruction of the masses. That feeling of wonder and awe is definitely present in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), a fairly pro forma Atomic blast heightened immeasurably by the effects magic of Ray Harryhausen.
Released stateside in July as the top half of a double bill with Creature with the Atom Brain by Columbia Pictures, It Came pulled in close to $2 million against a $150,000 budget, and critics were dismissive except for Harryhausen’s wizardry. I can understand the under evaluation, although I think there’s a little more besides the show stopping effects that helps It Came work.
But first, a radioactive retelling: Naval Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey – The Thing from Another World) is taking the Navy’s atomic submarine for a training mission along the Pacific Coast when something huge – neither boat nor known sea creature – attacks the vessel. Quick maneuvering releases the sub, and a little chunk of the attackers’ flesh is left behind, allowing scientific analysis. Enter Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue – This Island Earth) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis – Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), two scientists who can science with the best of them – tubes, beakers, microscopes, you name it – who come to the conclusion that the creature that attacked the sub is in fact a giant octopus and is probably still at large.
Naturally, the Navy brass laugh off such a wild assertion – that is, until a Japanese sub is taken down; soon everyone is preparing for an attack on the Bay Area, specifically San Francisco. Can the Navy and our intrepid team of science folk stop It before it destroys mankind, or at least Alameda?
The plot of It Came from Beneath the Sea is standard issue, government approved for films of this era: nuclear testing, disruption, destruction, solution. But it adds a couple of wrinkles that set it above the staid plot (even for ’55). The film uses solemn narration throughout, which while not giving it a documentary feel exactly, solidifies that director Robert Gordon (Black Zoo) was intent on keeping things as serious as possible, so that when the mayhem hits in the third act it plays better – and he was right.
The main criticism of the film is everything that occurs between that mayhem, which is given over to research, dressing downs from the higher ups, and a love triangle between the three leads. Patience is a virtue however, and really, so many of this ilk have the exact same problem; what is done in the interim isn’t as important as how it’s done.
It Came may not excel in this regard, but it’s certainly far from the worst; it helps to have engaging performers like Tobey and Domergue commanding the screen and it’s a delight to see sidebar vet Tobey in a leading role. Domergue was unknown to me before this viewing, and I think I’ll dig deeper into her filmography; above and beyond her breathtaking visage she shows a strength and resolve that’s impossible to dismiss. Professor Joyce doesn’t stand for too much bullshit. (Not including the FDA required amount for ‘50s sci-fi heroines, of course.) Curtis as the third wheel on cupid’s bicycle doesn’t fair as well, straddled as he is with lumpy exposition and a cuck’s heart as he lets Tobey steamroll right over him for the affections of the professor. Oh well. The better man won, anyway.
The true hero of It Came from Beneath the Sea however wears no stripes or lab coats; instead splashing large along the Pacific coast in search of man-sized snacks and property to damage, our six (!) limbed octopus is a true wonder in every sense of the word.
That’s right, Harryhausen’s budget was cut by the producers and he had to sacrifice two arms to the movie gods, but in no way does it sway the eyes from taking in the glory of his stop motion animation, of which I’ve been enamored since I was a wee one. My Saturday matinees were filled with mythical creatures brought to life by Harryhausen in such films as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (’77), fantastical tales ripe with Minotaurs, Cyclops, and sabre rattling skeletons; that those images will forever be emblazoned in my mind is a testament to the power of film.
His particular brand of alchemy holds its power in the imperfection of the movements; there’s something slightly askew with each step, a pause that breathes life into each creation. The only difference between his octopus here and his later work is that at the end of the day, it’s still an octopus. Yet it still retains that magic due to those same signature steps that every one of his darlings inhabits.
As does a film like It Came from Beneath the Sea. Imagine being that little kid in ’55 coming across a Harryhausen creature for the first time, a big screen kiss to last for life in the imagination and the heart. The same holds true for that kid in the ‘70s, and anyone who feels the wellspring of pretend coursing through their veins today will always have Mr. Harryhausen as long as images continue to dance and flicker.
It Came from Beneath the Sea is available on Blu-ray as part of a Ray Harryhausen Creature Double Feature with 20 Million Miles to Earth from Mill Creek Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: MURDER MANSION (1972)