Saturday, November 28, 2020


The mystery of the briny deep, and the potential monsters and other horrors that may lurk fathoms down in the pitch dark of the ocean bottom, has provided as strong a fascination and allure for some as what the endless void of outer space has for others. With so much of our world still hidden beneath the sea, it naturally lends itself to tales of fantasy and the unknown. Jules Verne most famously took readers on a thrilling journey Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870, an adventure that included a tense confrontation with a giant monster squid which attacks the Nautilus submarine. When Disney adapted Verne’s novel in a lavish 1954 production, the climactic battle with the squid provided one of the most exciting and iconic moments in the studio’s history. The success of the film showed that oversized cephalopods could provide plenty of onscreen thrills and chills, and no better film amply demonstrates this than It Came from Beneath the Sea, which was released in July of 1955, little more than six months after Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Directed by Robert Gordon, who began his career as a child actor in the 1920s before moving behind the camera in the late-forties, the modern miracle of atomic energy is once again the cause of the problem in It Came from Beneath the Sea. While the gigantic octopus that is the IT of the film’s title has existed for countless years deep down inside the Philippine Trench, the atomic bomb tests conducted on the Marshall Islands has forced the monster to surface, since the radiation it has absorbed has driven off its natural food supply. It first makes its presence known when it takes a fancy to a new $55 million nuclear submarine, captained by Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), which is out on manoeuvres in the Pacific. While the boat and crew survive the encounter, Mathews and his men are at a loss as to what had attacked them, the only clue being a large piece of rubbery tissue found jammed in one of the sub’s diving planes.

Returning to Pearl Harbor, Mathews enlists the help of a co-ed team of marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and John Carter (Donald Curtis), to identify the mysterious tissue. Naturally, the military bigwigs scoff at the pair’s deduction that the tissue came from a giant octopus, but they soon sing a different tune when fishing boats start going missing and near-catatonic survivors talk of a giant sea monster attacking them. As romance starts to quickly bloom between Mathews and the young female professor, the beast makes its way underwater towards San Francisco where, further irritated by electronic nets put up across the bay to try and stop it, it spectacularly destroys parts of the Golden Gate Bridge and the busy port area, its enormous tentacles stretching out across the surrounding streets to spread the horror inland. The only chance at destroying the monster is to try and drive it back underwater and then use the nuclear submarine to launch a special jet-propelled torpedo at it, which will embed itself in the octopus’s brain before being detonated by remote control from a safe distance. Not as easy a task as it sounds!

The title of It Came from Beneath the Sea was, quite obviously, inspired by It Came from Outer Space (1953), Jack Arnold’s classic 3D science fiction adventure that Universal had released. While Columbia didn’t mind swiping the title from their rival studio, they stopped short of filming their movie in 3D, a fad whose initial wave of popularity was already on the way out by 1955. Besides which, Columbia already had their own powerful “gimmick” in store for audiences, which was of course the incredible stop-motion special effects provided by Ray Harryhausen, for whom It Came from Beneath the Sea is essentially a showcase.

While Willis O’Brien is rightfully considered the pioneer of stop-motion animation, a technique he displayed with cinema-changing brilliance in King Kong (1933), it was Ray Harryhausen who picked up the torch and took it to the pinnacle. After working with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young (1949), which won an Oscar for its visual effects, Columbia eyed Harryhausen after seeing his impressive work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), his first solo film credit. It was at Columbia that Harryhausen first started to work with producer Charles H. Schneer, a fruitful partnership that would begin with It Came from Beneath the Sea and continue right up to Clash of the Titans (1981), Harryhausen’s final feature. “Dynamation” was the name which Harryhausen gave to his own brand of stop-motion work, which involved placing his miniature models between two separate live-action plates, giving a more convincing sense of depth to the scene, and more interaction between the human characters and the animated miniatures.

Naturally, it is Harryhausen’s work which provides the bulk of the excitement in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Budgetary constraints imposed upon the movie by Sam Katzman, head of Columbia’s B picture unit, meant that Harryhausen was only able to construct a six-tentacled model octopus for the special effects scenes, though honestly, in all the excitement who’s counting? As usual, Harryhausen is able to imbue his creation with a distinct personality, not just with his fine craftmanship for building the miniature models and sets, but the way in which painstakingly brought them to life with his intricate stop-motion techniques. Even if it is just the octopus’ bulbous head expanding and contracting, or a little flip of the tip of one of its tentacles, or even just the stare of its cold black eyes, it all combines to give the creature an individualism that makes it not only more charming and engaging, but infinitely more threatening as well. Priding himself on detail, Harryhausen made sure to research and study the look and behaviour of octopuses during pre-production, in order to give his model as much realism as he could. While the narrative pace for It Came from Beneath the Sea may be sluggish during its first two acts, the film more than makes up for it whenever Harryhausen’s magic is on screen. The partial destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the octopus tries to drag itself up out of the water by wrapping its tentacles around one of the bridge towers, is virtually worth the price of admission alone, and the follow-up attack on the port is just as memorable.

Plot-wise, one curious theme which the screenplay by Hal Smith and George Worthing Yates tackles is that of female empowerment and independence, a topic that was still kept fairly hush at the time, gaining much more strength and mainstream traction a decade later, when the counterculture started to really take hold. Of course, the topic is not tackled with any subtlety here, and comes in the form of Pete Mathews and his old-world views of women as the weaker sex who need protecting and should give up their careers as soon as they meet a man. After merely one dance and a quick kiss, Mathews gets angry when Lesley doesn’t cancel her plans to accompany John Carter on a research expedition due to leave the following day. “Do you mind if I make a mental comment on the nature of women?”, he asks of Lesley and Carter before storming off from the dining table in a huff.

Putting Mathews’ views down to the male-dominated environment he spends most of his time in, the more sensitive and worldly Carter tries to put him straight, when he sees that he is clearly struggling to get Lesley on his side:

“You don’t see many women in the navy. There’s a whole new breed who feel they’re just as smart, just as courageous, as men. And they are. They don’t like to be over protected, they don’t like to have their initiative taken away from them.”

Of course, it takes a while to be convinced, but Mathews finally drags his views into the 20th Century at the end of the movie, when Lesley takes the initiative and leans across the dinner table to plant one on his lips. “Say doctor, you know, you are right about this new breed of woman”, Mathews tells Carter coyly as the screen fades to black.

According to Bill Warren in his seminal Keep Watching the Skies, Volume 1: 1950-1957 (McFarland, 1982), there had been a further romantic sequence planned between Pete and Lesley, which would have fleshed out their burgeoning relationship a little more, but the scene was scrapped by Katzman during production, to ensure filming did not go overschedule. There is a nice moment in the film where Pete and Lesley are enjoying a dip in the ocean at night, sharing a steamy kiss before being interrupted by the arrival of Carter. It’s a scene that has a nice film noir quality to it, and provides a pleasing change from the rather staid human interplay throughout the rest of the film.

Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue are likeable in their respective roles, though genuine chemistry between them is sadly lacking. Tobey was more enjoyable to watch in The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, he seems to just cruise along here, though the ruddy, rugged redheaded always makes for an interesting screen presence. Likewise, Domergue isn’t as interesting here as she was in her other fifties’ genre features, Cult of the Cobra (1955) and This Island Earth (1955), the later one of the big science-fiction adventure films of the day.

Much of the live-action scenes in It Came from Beneath the Sea were filmed at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, with director Gordon also shooting aboard real submarines with a handheld camera, a decision that was primarily financial as it saved the costs of having to build sets, but it also inadvertently helps capture a more genuine and palpable sense of claustrophobia. Other famous San Francisco landmarks like the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building are used along with the Golden Gate Bridge to provide maximum impact during the destruction sequences.

The opening title sequence for the movie is quite moody and effective, set over a footage of a rough and stormy night sea, the title and main credits scrolling up the screen from out of the choppy waves, giving a good atmospheric portent of the horror to come. The credits are followed by a text scroll that gives us the usual warnings about atomic power and the upheaval of nature, while the narration by William Woodson comes across as overly portentous (“For the first time in their lives, three people met”, we are told when Mathews, Lesley and Carter hook up in the Navy’s research lab). Prolific Russian composer Mischa Bakakeinikoff contributes a fairly typical fifties monster movie score, which is serviceable though not quite as effective as his follow-up work for Harryhausen on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957). Bakakeinikoff also provided the score for another infamous fifties giant monster movie, The Giant Claw (1957). 

In the US, It Came from Beneath the Sea was originally released as the top-half of a double-bill with Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), another Columbia production, directed by Edward L. Cahn. The film was a decent financial success for the studio, grossing $1.7 million in the US, certainly a good return for a $150,000 production budget. The success of the film allowed Harryhausen and Schneer to continue with their partnership, their next project being the magnificent Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Some stop-motion footage of the octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea was also used in “The Village of Guilt” episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which aired during the show’s first season in 1964.

Copyright John Harrison 2020