This week, the motion picture industry lost one of its most influential figures. Special effects artist Ray Harryhausen passed away in London at the age of 92. Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation techniques are the stuff of legends, from the ape in Mighty Joe Young (which won an Oscar for best visual effects) to the medusa in Clash of the Titans. Although he is mainly known for his contributions to adventure films like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, his creations lent themselves equally well to science fiction and monster movies, and 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea is a classic example of his unmistakable work.
It Came from Beneath the Sea starts aboard an atomic submarine off the coast of Northern California. Using the ship’s sonar, Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey from The Thing from Another World) discovers that something huge is following the ship. When scanned with geiger counters, the mystery mass is determined to be radioactive. It catches the sub and disables it, and it is only freed when Mathews sends divers out to investigate. The divers find huge chunks of flesh stuck in the propellers. Once the sub gets back to port, the flesh is turned over to a pair of marine biologists, Doctor Lesley Joyce (Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet’s Faith Domergue) and Doctor John Carter (Donald Curtis from Spellbound), who determine that the tissue is from a giant octopus that has been contaminated by hydrogen bomb testing and, because of its radioactivity, can no longer hunt its regular prey of fish. When a fishing boat is later attacked by the octopus, the Navy realizes that the doctors are right; they have a mutant man-eating octopus on their hands. The octopus heads closer and closer to shore, and Mathews and the scientists have to find a way to destroy it before it pulverizes the city of San Francisco.
Directed by Robert Gordon (Tarzan and the Jungle Boy) and written by George Worthing Yates (Them!, King Kong vs. Godzilla) and Hal Smith (The Defiant Ones), It Came from Beneath the Sea is a typical giant monster movie from the fifties. The film features a familiar animal (an octopus) mutated into a horrific beast that wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting city (San Francisco) and destroys an identifiable landmark (the Golden Gate Bridge) in the process. It’s a stereotypical formula, but one that works; It Came from Beneath the Sea is a top-notch monster movie.
It Came from Beneath the Sea is one of several monster movies in the fifties that made a thinly-veiled statement about atomic energy. Japan used a similar theme the year before the film was released in the legendary Godzilla. Both Godzilla and It Came from Beneath the Sea found inspiration in 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which also includes top-notch visual effects by Ray Harryhausen). All three films feature monsters that are either created or awakened by atomic testing, making them ominous warnings against the use of nuclear power. The atomic monster film would end up being one of the blueprints for the modern creature-feature.
The biggest reason for the enduring charm of It Came from the Sea is Ray Harryhausen’s monster. Instead of using a rubber-suited man for a monster, like Godzilla, Harryhausen utilized his painstaking stop-motion methodology to bring the octopus to life. Harryhausen used miniature scale models and shot the segments frame-by-frame, then inserted the actors into the scenes by way of rear-projection. While time consuming, the effect is much more fun to watch and makes for a more fluid monster. Although the effects are used sporadically, with the first visual trickery not appearing until over a third of the way through the film, they are nonetheless effective. The best reason to watch It Came from Beneath the Sea is the octopus, and Ray Harryhausen’s trademark animation is unmistakable.
The creative special effects are aided by the talented cast. All three of the core cast members are B-movie veterans, with Kenneth Tobey and Donald Curtis even having dealt with Harryhausen’s monsters before in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, respectively. Faith Domergue had already appeared in Cult of the Cobra and This Island Earth, and was well on her way to minor scream-queen stardom in The House of Seven Corpses and So Evil, My Sister. All three know their way around a sci-fi set, and their experience helps sell the creature to the audience. Even when the script alludes to an unnecessary love triangle between the three, the actors keep their focus on Harryhausen’s octopus, the real star of It Came from Beneath the Sea.
Ray Harryhausen’s animation was an influence on filmmakers everywhere, from blockbuster giants like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to cult gurus like Charles Band and the Brothers Quay. What is now done with computers, Harryhausen did with models and his hands. And he did it better.