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Jurassic Park (1993)
A Review 23 Years in the Making...
The 1993 Jurassic Park was (and still is) one of the high water marks in Steven Spielberg's pantheon of blockbuster movies. Based on the bestselling Michael Crichton novel of the same name, the story of a theme park where genetically engineered dinosaurs are bred to be the main attractions provided the dinosaur movie genre, and the study of dinosaurs in general a huge PR boost. Turning on its head the by then clichéd plot-lines of people finding a "lost world" or time traveling to the Mesozoic, the ingenious idea of genetically creating the animals neatly allowed the creatures to "exist" in a contemporary setting, while the logic of using the dinosaurs for financial gain also providing a practical reason for their presence.
While the movie differs significantly from the book, which primarily explored the scientific and moral implications of using genetics to resurrect extinct species-the dinosaurs representing the plot device of an out of control technology, the movie instead wisely focused more on the dinosaurs themselves. Clearly realizing that the visuals of Jurassic Park would be the dominating reason film-goers would want to see the film, much of the more "techy" aspects of the book were jettisoned. The book's lengthy discussions about the moral implications of whether companies have the right to patent living creatures created artificially were limited to a couple of scenes where Ian Malcolm (played with typical quirkiness by Jeff Goldblum) rebuked John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) for his lack of humility in utilizing genetic engineering to create the denizens of his park.
While I generally don't like to compare films or film technologies from different eras, I am going to make an exception with Jurassic Park, primarily because it was one of the biggest films to lead the charge towards CGI. Industrial Light and Magic had broken ground with some amazing CGI; first with the now almost-forgotten Young Sherlock Holmes, then their "fluid" creations in the Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but Jurassic Park was likely the first to use fully rendered and textured CGI for a feature film. This was a major breakthrough, however the actual amount of CGI used in the film was limited to about four minutes-the remainder consisting of Stan Winston animatronics and in a few cases (such as the Velociraptor attacking Muldoon the gamekeeper) actors in suits. After twenty three years, and a deluge of CGI effects, some of the images have lost their luster, while others have stood up to the test of time. Having watched the film again recently, the initial shot of the T.rex snapping the fencing wires and striding between the Jeeps in the storm still has the power to suspend disbelief for this viewer. Obviously, the box office revenues for this film proved the merits of CGI, but considering that ILM had all but perfected computer aided stop-motion animation (their process labeled go-motion) it was a watershed moment when Spielberg made the decision to eschew go-motion for fully digital dinosaurs, and potentially a risky one. Since the visuals were originally conceived to be completed in go-motion, the switch to CGI required that the computer animators take months learning to realistically portray animals that veteran go-motion animator Phil Tippet had spent many years honing to near-perfection. Fortunately, Tippet was still kept on the crew which aided the transition from go-motion to CGI for the visual effects team.
Jurassic Park marks another transition of sorts, and a more personal one from Spielberg's perspective. Jurassic Park was one of the last films from the director that still echoed his earlier style of fast paced adventure, danger and inclusion of children to draw in juvenile audiences as well as adults. While the Color Purple was an exception from his usual reputation as a director of summer blockbusters, it was his other 1993 release Schindler's List that seems to be the dividing point between Spielberg the box office giant and Spielberg the artist. He still occasionally embraces the more imaginative aspects of movie-making, but Jurassic Park marked one of the last times he approached a fantasy/science fiction subject without a darker subtext lying beneath the story he was telling on screen.
Of course Jurassic Park was also enhanced by having John Williams compose one of his most memorable scores; the main theme becoming as familiar as Star Wars, and included in every one of Jurassic Park's sequels, including the recent Jurassic World. Williams's long time collaboration with Spielberg is probably one of the better examples of two diverse talents working together to create a product that is a visual and audio treat for the senses in a consistent fashion.
Overall, I think Jurassic Park is certainly a good film; having seen it in first release it had several "WOW" moments for me on the big screen (and as a die-hard fan of stop/go motion animation that means a LOT) My only real criticism is that because the CGI footage was sparse, the cuts between CGI and Winston's animatronics stood out to me even back in 1993, even though the matching up of the animatronics to the CGI was generally good. I won't critique the live actor's performances too in-depth; they were adequate for their time, and in particular Ariana Richard's character of Lex as a tween hacker was a relief over the book's portrayal of Lex as the whining obnoxious little sister of Tim. With the passing of twenty three years since the film's release it now has some dated aspects, not the least of which is due to what it inspired - a resurgence in dinosaur studies. What was state of the art knowledge in 1993 has become as outdated as the go-motion process due to new findings that continue to challenge scientific thinking about dinosaurs. Jurassic Park is still compelling entertainment and one of the most important footnotes in the history of movie visual effects.
You'll Find Out (1940)
The Evolution of Comedy/Horror
I've heard of this movie, but this morning (like 4AM) I had a bout of insomnia and happened to catch this on TCM for the first time. I found it entertaining, though the mix of Kay Kyser (and his band's) comedy bits combined with the spooky co-starring of Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi unsettling. Like oil and vinegar, they're next to impossible to mix and come out well, but at least the three played their parts straight and kept most of THEIR dignity (although Lugosi outfitted in tuxedo and turban was a hoot!)
Actually, there was a FOURTH figure from the golden age of Hollywood horror hiding among the many props in the spooky mansion. If you look among the various items displayed in the underground passage that Kyser stumbles upon in his search, in the room with the glowing masks, he briefly touchs a small model triceratops- one of King Kong's dinosaurs that did not make it to the final cut of that film! Makes sense since Kong and this film were both made by RKO.
Overall, it's a decent film, but I think Abbott and Costello pulled it off better- kudo's though to the acting of Peter Lorre, who's great at being creepy without having to actually BE a monster, as Karloff and Lugosi did to jump-start their respective careers.
The Son of Kong (1933)
King Kong Lite!
King Kong is the benchmark against which all the monster films for the past 70 years have been measured. Some- like Gorgo, and the Godzilla series, have certainly exceeded Kong in terms of mayhem and carnage, while others, like the Jurassic Park franchise have used the latest CGI technology to, (technically at least) surpass the painstakingly crafted models brought to animated life by Willis O'Brien. However, Kong himself has defied the ages.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for The Son of Kong. This film has been much-maligned, and some of the criticism is justified. Still, The Son of Kong is an entertaining, if not magnificent film. Son has the distinction of being the first monster movie sequel: probably, ironically, this is the reason it could not live up to its predecessor. Since the plot has already been discussed at length in other comments, I won't rehash it here.
Considering the phenomenal financial success of King Kong it seems incredible RKO did not allocate a bigger budget for The Son of Kong. In this day of multiple movie franchises, the opposite is often true: each sequel gets a bigger and bigger budget (though in most cases an inferior script). In 1933 however, despite King Kong's huge profits, RKO was still floundering, and the front office considered Kong's success a fluke. They weren't willing to invest more money for a bigger sequel; instead they believed the first film's popularity would 'sell' it, no matter what the quality. Thus, only about half of King Kong's budget was allotted for the sequel. To make matters worse, only about eight months was allowed for its production! Under such circumstances, the Son of Kong was virtually sabotaged from the start. Even so, the film had elements of style and technical polish that salvaged it from being a total loss. The Son of Kong can be considered a legitimate (if not auspicious) heir to his mighty father.
What I find interesting is that the film was promoted back when first released as a 'serio comic phantasy' though little of it was intentionally funny. Robert Armstrong (once again as Carl Denham) was allowed a wider range of emotion, and had some humor imbued in his character, even allowing the formerly hard-boiled Denham to 'crack up and go sappy' for the dark haired Hilda (played by Helen Mack). Likewise, Frank Reicher (as Captain Englehorn again) and Victor Wong (Charlie the cook) got a lighter treatment than the original film, but for the most part the actors played it 'straight.' Likewise with the prehistoric denizens of Skull Island- the Styracosaurus was a definite, if brief, menace, as were the cave bear, the quadruped dinosaur that enters the treasure cave, and the sea monster. In fact the only real comedian was little Kong himself- and sadly, that's the part that jars me the most. In a film that looked as carefully crafted as the original, complete with impressive glass paintings, miniature jungle sets, and even improved compositing, the almost cartoonish style in which Kong Jr. was animated undermines what could have been. Willis O'Brien, who'd labored so hard on King Kong, had reservations over the sequel and script, and supposedly did not contribute that much to the overall picture. Also, tragedy struck during production when Obie's estranged wife shot and killed their two sons, then attempted suicide. It's small wonder Obie had little enthusiasm for the Son of Kong, and for the rest of his life he was reluctant to discuss the film. Instead, it was Obie's assistant Buzz Gibson who completed much of the stop motion. It's possible both Obie and Gibson animated different scenes with Kong Jr., for the ape's animation is smoother in some sequences (for instance, when Denham bandages Kong's over-sized middle finger) than in others, possibly due to Obie's ability to handle more 'subtle' gesture and performance.
Max Steiner, King Kong's composer, created an original (if not quite as memorable) score for the Son of Kong, although during the climatic submersion of Skull Island, much of King Kong's score was inserted, probably due once again to budgetary restrictions. One interesting note about the score; whether it was intentional on Steiner's part or not, he derived a three-note motif for the conniving, cowardly Helstrom (portrayed by John Marston) that is an exact reversal of the famous three-note theme for King Kong. Musically, this unconsciously underscores the fact that indeed, Helstrom is Kong's opposite: while Kong was ferocious, fearless and yet chivalrous and tender with Fay Wray, Helstrom is full of human failings. As the bad guy of the picture, Helstrom isn't a larger than life villain; just an inept drunk who konks his drinking companion with a bottle of booze, killing the man unintentionally. He lies, incites mutiny, and finally tries to abscond with the castaways' only means of escaping the doomed island. He basically represents someone nearly all viewers may have known at one time or another. In other words, Helstrom is a loser.
Overall, the Son of Kong is something of a missed opportunity. There is much of King Kong carried over into this film, due largely to most of the first film's crew (from director Ernest B Schoedsack on down) having worked on this sequel. Considering what little budget and time was allotted, it's a wonder what sumptuous and engaging visuals they were able to deliver. On the other hand, had Willis O'Brien's personal fortunes been kinder, perhaps little Kong would have been given a little more dignity. Next time you decide to view King Kong, try to follow it up with his nearly-forgotten offspring. You may not be as awed, but as sequels go, it's a fine way to spend an hour and some minutes. As a moderately-scaled adventure, and as a footnote to an enduring classic, it's worth taking that extra journey back to Skull Island.
The Foundations for King Kong
For the millions out there who may be unfamiliar with Creation, this was to have been the first dinosaur movie of the sound era. An extremely ambitious undertaking, the production was helmed by the people who produced the 1925 silent classic The Lost World- director Harry Hoyt and master of stop motion animator Willis O'Brien. As envisioned by director Hoyt, Creation would basically have been a sound retelling of the Lost World scenario: a group of survivors from a yacht and Chilean submarine find themselves in an extinct volcano where prehistoric animals have survived. Stranded, the human castaways fight for survival and are ultimately rescued before the island is swept away in a volcanic cataclysm.
About a year of pre-production work went into Creation, but ultimately the film was dropped, due largely to the mounting financial troubles at RKO. Creation had already run up costs in excess of $100,000 (during the Depression- today the equivalent expense would probably be well in excess of several million dollars). While a great deal of preproduction work was finished, only two known sequences were completed. One was a high-speed filming of the volcano rising from the ocean during a storm; the other (the only footage that appears to have survived) is a stop-motion animation sequence involving a mother triceratops and two youngsters, animated by O'Brien. In this polished effects scene, the babies engage in a playful tug-of-war with a stick, until the mother nudges them apart. One of the youngsters wanders away, trekking through a very atmospheric jungle, where it has the misfortune to encounter the main villain of the story, a survivor of the shipwreck named Hallet (played by Ralfe Harrold, the only live actor to participate). Hallet shoots the poor little dino in the eye, killing it. Hearing the cries of her dying baby, Mother triceratops charges, goring the man to death. Viewing this surviving footage, it is clear O'Brien had vastly refined the quality of his work since The Lost World.
O'Brien had been steadily improving the quality of his animation, which in the Lost World varied considerably. The dinosaurs (in particular the babies) are very lifelike in their movements, and OBie managed to instill a personality in the creatures that made them both appealing and compelling to watch. Another major improvement was the use of multiple glass paintings, rendered by gifted studio artists Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe which gave a startling illusion of depth to the jungle vistas. Much of the visual inspiration for these exotic settings was from the work of Victorian artist Gustave Dore. However, it was the huge advancement in the Dunning traveling matte system in the years since The Lost World that made this sequence truly exceptional. Unlike the Lost World, which relied primarily upon static in-camera mattes to place live action into the miniature settings, the Dunning system could insert live action without blocking off a portion of the frame, allowing the live action to be inserted directly in front of the miniature settings. This ancestor of today's green screen digital compositing was put to much use in the early 1930's, but in Creation the process was all but perfected. Ralfe Harrold was inserted into scenes in a virtually flawless manner; the composite results are markedly better than even the work in King Kong- done two years later.
It's too bad the film was never completed; however, had it not been for Creation, King Kong as we know it today would probably not have been possible. Due to O'Brien's flawless work on Creation, producer Merian Cooper determined stop-motion animation (combined with multiple glass paintings, improved traveling matte and rear projection process work) could bring his proposed adventure epic King Kong to the screen. Had Creation been completed, it probably would have been a fascinating spectacle. However due to it's rather uninspired plot line (Hoyt was successful with The Lost World, but his sense of drama and direction was hardly in league with Merian Cooper's) and like so much of today's overused CGI eye-candy films, it would have remembered for its use of effects, but little else. Kong, on the other hand, quickly became a cultural icon; one which has survived for over 70 years in spite of time, improvements in film technology, and innumerable knock offs and imitations. If you have an interest in the history of stop motion animation, I recommend trying to see this brief glimpse of what became the artistic foundation for King Kong. Fortunately, the surviving footage can still be seen as a special feature on the Most Dangerous Game LD released from the Roan Collection about 10 years ago. I don't know if it exists anywhere on DVD as yet, but we can all keep our fingers crossed that when King Kong is finally released in the US on DVD, someone will have had the foresight to include the Creation footage among the special features. It's definitely worth a look.
King Kong (1933)
They'll have to think up a lot of new adjectives...
There's little new I can probably add here, judging by the amount of comments, but here goes. King Kong is still one of the greatest fantasy films. It has inspired generations of filmmakers, writers, and other artists, all of whom have been awed and thrilled by the level of craftsmanship involved in its creation. The film haunted my nightmares as a child; there was something absolutely frightening about Kong's glaring eyes looming in the windows of the wrecked elevated train. Thanks to television and repeated showings every Thanksgiving for years (thanks WOR) I became smitten with this film. Nearly 30 years later- post the 1976 remake, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, etc, I still sit down every few months to watch Kong. EVERY time, I see something new. The detail they put into this film is phenomenal, considering it was released long before television or VCRs could give viewers a chance to watch it enough to notice the more subtle details. Volumes have been written about this movie's production, but one effect still has me puzzled. When Kong is in his cave, just before he sets Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in a small opening in the rocks, the head of the elasmosaurus can be seen surfacing and submerging in the pool behind him. If it was done in stop motion, it's the smoothest work in the film; even the pool's water actually appears to ripple around the head.
Willis O'Brien is the man primarily credited with bringing King Kong to the screen, but in truth, Kong was the brainchild of Merian Cooper, a truly larger-than-life film producer, on whom the character of Carl Denham was modeled. Cooper had been a fighter pilot in World War I, a POW after he was shot down behind enemy lines, and- with his partner Ernest Schoedsack- had traveled to the wilds of Asia and Africa to film documentaries. Cooper imagined King Kong as the logical extension of his true life exploits; exaggerated but a recognizable caricature of his experiences. Originally he had wanted a real gorilla to portray Kong, and even wanted to have it fight a Komodo dragon! (Call the Humane Society!) We can all be grateful he encountered Willis O'Brien (who was working on his own dinosaur film- Creation) and decided to produce Kong and the monsters of Skull Island using stop-motion. I doubt anyone in 1933 could have tolerated the spectacle of a live gorilla in real combat with a Komodo dragon. I suspect the film would have either been banned outright or been little more than a grisly footnote in motion picture history. The idea was Cooper's, but the majesty and spectacle of the film belong to O'Brien. The miniature jungle settings created by O'Brien's crew with multiple glass paintings created an otherworldly quality to Skull Island that could not be duplicated by shooting on location- as Cooper had originally envisioned.
To be sure, the film is very much a product of a simpler time. However, if the acting in Kong is compared to its early 1930's contemporaries in the horror/fantasy genre, it holds up quite well. Cooper and Schoedsack understood the necessity of establishing the characters before Kong's entrance, but kept dialog to a minimum. The story is told visually, with camera-work furthering plot points that may have seemed didactic otherwise. The film is carried by not only its visual imagery, but by one of the first feature length music scores. This was an innovation that put King Kong ahead its sound contemporaries, which relied quite heavily on the spoken word and direction alone. There is a ten minute sequence in the center of the film- after the death of the tyrannosaurus until the escape of Ann and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) from Kong's lair- that is told entirely with visuals, music, and sound effects. It is in large part due to the score that much of Kong's emotional impact is conveyed, particularly in its finale atop the Empire State Building. Steiner was able to suggest Kong's emotional state, assisting O'Brien in providing empathy to a creature who in reality was only an 18 inch high puppet.
It is a mistake to compare Kong technically or artistically with films from later decades. Consider the cultural context in which King Kong was produced. America was in the darkest days of the Depression. World War II was seven years away, and nobody outside of a few physicists knew what 'atomic bomb' meant. Kong truly was the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' just as the Empire State Building was at the time considered the greatest technological marvel. As Cooper envisioned it, Kong was an adventure escapist film, offering Depression-Era audiences something that at the time would be considered the 'ultimate in adventure.' Whether or not Peter Jackson's proposed remake of Kong can maintain these qualities of showmanship and adventure is a matter of wait and see: to today's audiences Kong no longer represents something 'all powerful' or able to 'lick the world' as Carl Denham described him back in 1933. Even setting the remake in 1933 will have its difficulties, since the film will then be a period piece rather than a contemporary story, as both the original film and the 1976 remake were, and audience involvement may be more limited.
Like Star Wars, King Kong was a made for the movies myth, not based directly on any previous source other than Cooper and O'Brien's imagination. It spawned one of the first monster movie sequels, one remake, (so far) and countless imitations, parodies, and merchandise. Among fantasy films, only the Wizard of Oz can rival King Kong for the sheer longevity of popularity, but while Oz provided escapist entertainment, it did so in a lighter fashion. Kong provided escapism but of a more disturbing and haunting kind.
Here's to ya, Obie, and Coop!
Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.
The Lost World (1925)
The Grandaddy of All Giant Monster Movies
***WARNING SOME SPOILERS*** This is the one that started it all, before King Kong, Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, Jurassic Park, etc. Nearly eighty years ago, this ambitious silent film was unleashed on an astonished public, the story adapted from the famous novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although there had been silent short subjects featuring prehistoric animals before, The Lost World was the first full-length feature to introduce the concept of such outsized monsters invading a major metropolis. Today, such a plot seems terribly cliched, but it's unfair to judge The Lost World by modern standards- technically or artistically. In fact, if imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, this original version of the Lost World should be blushing from the attention!
Willis O'Brien (who had produced many short animated subjects previously) was the primary resource behind Lost World: without his expertise and participation, the movie would likely never have been completed, or even considered. The film's producers rightly figured audiences would want to see the film primarily for the prehistoric animals, so the human cast took a supporting role. O'Brien and his crew went above and beyond Doyle's story, populating the Lost World with seemingly dozens of creatures, (only a few are mentioned in the novel). The inclusion of more dinosaurs allowed the film to feature them as the primary menaces, instead of the novel's plot of tribal warfare between natives and ape-men. Except for stuntman Bull Montana as the villainous missing link inexplicably traveling in conjunction with a chimpanzee, this portion of the novel was excluded from the film.
The film varies somewhat from Doyle's novel: a group of intrepid explorers accompany the volatile Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) to a plateau in the jungles of South America. Beery's Challenger is probably the most interesting character in the film. He's a man driven by his convictions and unwilling to back down on his arguments. In several ways, he can be seen as a precursor to King Kong's Carl Denham. Lewis Stone as Sir John Roxton provides the only real subtlety of character, an older man in love with the sole woman of the expedition, Paula White (Bessie Love). Roxton sees his chances for romance fade as Paula falls for Ed Malone (Lloyd Hughes) a younger man who hopes to make his career as a journalist on the expedition. Roxton first conveys dismay at the budding romance, then resignation as he chivalrously bows out of this romantic triangle. It's an unexpected touch of subtlety in a film that is geared towards drama and conflict.
Inevitably- because of this emphasis on the special effects- this romantic subplot seems intrusive. If only the film could have sustained such human interaction, or managed to evoke some compassion in audiences. Sadly, though the effects themselves are quite startling, the pacing and direction of The Lost World are merely serviceable. O'Brien and his crew worked wonders to create the dinosaurs and volcano eruption, but the technical wizardry is let down by the workmanlike, unimaginative direction of Harry Hoyt, who seems completely disconnected to the possibilities inherent in such a plot. Unlike King Kong, which wisely built up suspense and tension when introducing the prehistoric denizens of Skull Island, the dinosaurs in Lost World appear abruptly and without context. The brontosaurus, for instance, is first seen grazing sedately through a simple cut away from the live action, and is not shown in scale with the players until later, almost as an afterthought. The Allosaurus that stalks into the nighttime camp, contrarily, is well handled. With its eyes eerily reflecting the glow of the campfire like a jungle cat's, the dinosaur advances from the darkness towards the explorers. Even here, however, the suspense is dissipated by the fact we've already seen the Allosaurus (or another like it) attacking first a Trachodon, then a Triceratops, so its appearance in the camp is less of a shock. (Its attack, as well, is too brief).
As for the effects themselves, it is obvious that there were many technical bugs that O'Brien worked to improve upon during production: the results are mixed. Sometimes the animation of the monsters is smooth, (most notably with the Brontosaurus running amok in London) but in earlier scenes it is obvious much of the stop motion was shot using two or even three frame exposures between moving the models. This gives the animation an uneven look, and it's odd that these more primitive scenes survived into the final version. It's also strange that a Brontosaurus was selected to be loose in the finale, especially since this sequence wasn't included in the novel. Unlike Kong, the dinosaur doesn't have much motivation other than lumber through the streets. Even the collapse of Tower Bridge seems anticlimactic rather than a spectacle highlight. People are injured, but the dinosaur provides little intentional menace. Had the filmmakers substituted a flesh-eating Allosaurus as the captive that broke loose (as shown in the posters for the film!) it would have provided far more of a threat. (Hmmm, sounds a lot like ANOTHER `Lost World made 72 years later!)
The Lost World has recently been re-released on DVD in a beautifully restored (and much extended) print, culled from several sources. Most of this restored footage is of the human drama, but there are a few significant dinosaur scenes, as well. There is more footage of the dinosaur stampede, and it appears some of the existing animation was replaced by a different `take' of the same scene featured in earlier releases. On the whole, The Lost World is one of the more interesting silent films-- mostly because one can see some of the seeds of King Kong being sown here, seven years before. This version of the Lost World, while perhaps not a true classic like King Kong, nonetheless has its moments. If you're curious about the birth and development of stop-motion, or see what inspired the more recent Jurassic Park films, I'd recommend visiting this Lost World again.
Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959)
Behold Thou, the last stop-motion of Willis O'Brien!
***WARNING SOME SPOILERS*** The Giant Behemoth was one of the last giant monster-on-the-loose films of the 1950's, a decade that saw all manner of creatures born of the two biggest scientific issues of the decade- space exploration and nuclear weapons. Behemoth fell into the second category, a genre started with the excellent Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and elaborated upon with Godzilla and Them! However, by the time Behemoth rolled before the cameras, the concept of atomically created monsters had already worn thin. Nevertheless, this is one of the better films of its type; a real gem made on a budget so tiny that it wouldn't even cover the cost of a current feature's end credit listings!
Credit for the film's cult reputation must go to the men behind the Behemoth. Although Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Louis DeWitt are first billed in the effects credits, it was King Kong's Willis O'Brien and his assistant Pete Peterson, that brought the Behemoth to life. Their Paleosaurus- though in some ways reminiscent of the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms-is nonetheless a unique creation, with its long neck and legs giving it a stature that makes it tower over most of its surroundings. The skin of the model is finely detailed, with hundreds of minute scales, while the back has a single row of serrated plates, a very realistic model in spite of the movie's low-budget pedigree. The animation, mostly created by Peterson while in a wheelchair due to his advanced multiple sclerosis, is superb; Peterson had learned well from master craftsman O'Brien, and ensured the dinosaur's movements would seem natural, even giving it something of a personality.
Despite Peterson and O'Brien's expertise, the film does have some technical flaws (the stiff, live-action prop head that rams the ferryboat is regrettable) but effective stop-motion scenes counterbalance these missteps. In an atmospheric night scene reminiscent of Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the Behemoth, in silhouette, wanders into some power lines, reacting first with shock, then anger as it attacks the high-tension towers. In the first stop-motion scene of the monster rising from the Thames, the Behemoth strides towards the camera, attacks some dockside cranes, and continues forward, eventually passing over the camera- a trademark of O'Brien's visual style. Sadly, this was also the last film that highlighted his stop-motion work. This makes the movie significant for historians, and a must for buffs.
Another aspect of Behemoth that makes it compare favorably to most of its contemporaries at the time was the direction by Eugene Lourie, and the elegant, understated performances. Lourie (who had previously directed Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) attempted to repeat that success with Behemoth, this time not only directing, but screenwriting as well. However, budgetary restrictions forced Lourie to keep the monster off-screen for a longer time. Instead of shots of the monster actually attacking ships and structures (as Ray Harryhausen had done in Beast) Lourie substituted after-the-fact sequences (such as a beached steamship). Not until the creature has actually entered London is the viewer allowed a good look at it. However, it's to Lourie's credit that he eschewed the non-essential romantic subplot typical of most 50's B-movies. As the film was an Anglo-American production, he made the story into an English mystery of sorts, similar to the Dr. Quartermass films. We know from the start that something radioactive is killing fish and men off the coast of England, but it's up to the lead characters to solve the riddle of the source of the radioactivity.
In the opening of the film, an American biologist, Steven Karnes (played by Gene Evans) is lecturing a group of scientists about the dangers of not only nuclear weapons testing, but the disposal of radioactive wastes- a warning still timely 45 years later! Evans plays his role straight and understated- he's the hero, yet doesn't let his character exceed what would be expected of a scientist investigating an unusual phenomenon. Likewise, his British counterpart, Prof. Bickford (Andre Morrell) also plays low-key. Evans even allows Karnes to undergo a subtle change in his behavior. In the beginning of the movie, Karnes's blunt, direct (American) attitude puts off the reserved Bickford and other English authorities. Eventually, Karnes begins to adopt a more diplomatic manner, ultimately suggesting rather than demanding that a torpedo be the ideal means of destroying the Behemoth. By treating the film as a detective thriller, Lourie managed to keep it moving, involving the cast in various bits of business that hold the audience even when the animal does not appear. Once the Behemoth surfaces, however, the film exchanges mystery for spectacle, even if on a smaller scale than Beast or Gorgo, Lourie's 3rd (and most spectacular) monster on the loose epic.
The only real letdown (other than the prop head) is the demise of the creature. Unlike Beast, with its spectacular finale- as the monster reared up before a burning roller coaster and finally expired- (a nice Harryhausen touch) the Behemoth is simply struck and blown up by the torpedo. Instead of a stop-motion shot of the monster dead or mortally wounded, the unrealistic prop head briefly rises for a final time before plunging into the depths of an obvious studio tank. O'Brien and Peterson probably didn't have time to film the creature's destruction in a more dramatic fashion, although they were certainly capable of wringing pathos out of their creations. The musical score, by Edwin Ashley, while not as bold as David Buttloph's for Beast, still provides both low key tension during non-monster sequences and dramatic enhancement during the monster's rampage. Ashley's work here was likely influenced by passages from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; it has a primitive, visceral power. Those who like their dinosaur thrills high tech (CGI) may find Behemoth dated, but for those who admire old-fashioned craftsmanship, and for fans of this unique genre, I recommend taking a look at this minor classic.
Low Budget, Big Surprise!
***WARNING SOME SPOILERS*** The original Lost World and King Kong introduced movie audiences to outsized creatures invading civilization, though only through the plot device of men capturing the animals in their native habitat and bringing 'em back alive. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was different, as it was the first one about an outsized visitor that came-a-tromping of its own free will, motivated by instinct to return to its ancient habitat, tied in with the then new concept of the creature being awakened by a nuclear explosion.
I'm probably in the minority, but this is my favorite Ray Harryhausen movie. Yes, Jason and the Argonauts had the incredible skeleton swordfight. Clash of the Titans the atmospheric Medusa sequence. Twenty Million Miles to Earth and 7th Voyage of Sinbad had his most original (and with the Ymir of Twenty Million his most sympathetic) creations. Even Valley of Gwangi inspired me to a livelong love of dinosaurs, but I've enjoyed watching Beast more than any of Ray's other films. It didn't really occur to me why until recently, but after seeing the film again (thank you DVD) I figured it out.
Working on a film with a budget less than half that of King Kong made 20 years earlier, for his first solo feature Harryhausen did an admirable job. However, unlike nearly all of Harryhausen's later films (where the budgets, though still small, gradually increased over time) he was hired by the producers to animate the stop-motion Rhedosaurus working in collaboration with director Eugene Lourie on an almost equal basis, while in all of his later films it was Harryhausen who exerted most of the creative control. Fortunately, Lourie's creative input gave much of the live action scenes a dark, film noir look, while Harryhausen's fictional dinosaur likewise is underlit through most of its early appearances. Another aspect of Beast that I like is that much of the film took place in Manhattan, my own old stomping grounds. I think I can identify with the film better for that reason, as opposed to Harryhausen's more mythological fantasies where the locales are exotic. It was really a shock when I went down to Coney Island a few years ago and saw the weed-entangled remains of the roller coaster where the finale was supposed to have taken place. (It has since been torn down-by that other monster, land development!- though the actual shooting location for the roller coaster was in CA)
I also liked the originality of the script. Though based in part upon Ray Bradbury's short story, and is now considered trite, it was the inspiration for not only Harryhausen's next feature, It Came From Beneath the Sea, but also the giant ants in Them! and the host of 50's atomic horrors that followed. Even the mighty Godzilla and his rubber-suited buddies from Japan used Beast for inspiration.
The score by David Buttloph I consider the best of all of Harryhausen's B/W features (if you think I'm exaggerating, compare it to the stock Columbia score used in It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers!) Buttloph's powerful score definitely added a bigger budget feel to the film, especially in the fiery finale at the roller coaster. To a lesser extent, the acting, particularly by Cecil Kellaway as the likable Dr. Ellson and Kenneth Tobey as the cynical yet stalwart Colonel Evans provide interesting moments between the monster's appearances, and their characterizations are as rounded as one can get for a Harryhausen film.
As for the Rhedosaurus, from the moment it first appears in the blizzard to its demise on the beaches of Coney Island, one has a real sense of awe of the monster. Its attack upon the lighthouse is one of the most effective stop-motion sequences ever filmed. Harryhausen, taking a cue from Lourie, has his model rise from the surf in silhouette, not only providing a nice atmosphere of menace, but also as a practical way to hide some technical flaws in the Dynamation process he was developing at the time. Once the beast has come ashore in Manhattan, Harryhausen's lighting of his model blends nicely with the prefilmed background footage Lourie had shot on location in New York. Along with the deep rumbling roar of the monster, Buttloph's score adds a real dimension of primal menace and power to the animated model, and unlike Tri-Star's Godzilla, this monster is seen as a real threat, not an inconvenience. As an added twist, the Rhedosaur is revealed to be a carrier of an ancient disease, fatal to humans, yet another reason the creature has to be destroyed. And yes, who can forget the NY cop who ends up as a little blue snack? To quote Dr. Ellson, 'It'd require quite an appetite, don't you think?'
The bottom line-Beast is one of the best of 50's science fiction, and definitely worth a look at least once if you're a fan of sci-fi and fantasy films.