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01 May, 2010

DVD Review: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS

Title: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS

Year of Release—Film: 1953

Year of Release—DVD: 2003

DVD Label: Warner Home Video




Ray Harryhausen is, to a generation of monster fans, the greatest Special Effects Animator of all. The protégé of Willis O’Brien, the genius who brought King Kong to life, Harryhausen had gotten his first feature job in 1949, as an assistant to O’Brien on MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. But this film was his big break, and he made the most of it.

The plot is simple, and works well, though the script falls apart somewhat in the details. A Rhedosaurus, entombed in arctic ice, is awakened by a nuclear test. Soon he is making his way to warmer climes, following the eastern coast of North America. Of course, this brings him into conflict with the U.S. Army and Navy, and better than average use is made of military surplus stock footage.
The Rhedosaurus’ attack on the lighthouse is a spectacular example of animation, and the climactic battle at Coney Island is one of the best monster scenes of the ‘50’s. It’s easy to understand why audiences were truly amazed at this Pre-GOJIRA rampage.

Though Harryhausen’s effects are not quite as polished in this film as they would be in later pictures, his talent shines through the occasional technical glitches, and it’s easy to overlook the few problems the movie has. While it’s not the best Giant Beast movie out there, it is a great one, and it’s often forgotten that Harryhausen did it a year before Toho released their King of all monsters onto an unsuspecting Tokyo.

One of the best distributors out there is Warner Home Video, and it seems that they put their best efforts into the older Genre releases. THEM, THE BLACK SCORPION, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS… all received treatments that are usually reserved for brand new blockbuster releases, or at least high-dollar collector’s editions. For this disc, they used as absolutely beautiful print of the film, cleaned it up nicely, subtitled it (always important to a slightly deaf Unimonster…) and packaged it nicely… even if in one of their annoying Snap cases.

WHV also loaded this disc down with special features, ones that will be of great interest to Harryhausen’s dedicated cadre of fans. The meat of the Special Feature section is contained in two documentaries, both featuring Harryhausen himself.

The first, THE RHEDOSAURUS AND THE ROLLER-COASTER: THE MAKING OF THE BEAST, is Harryhausen simply describing what went into the making of the film, primarily of course from his perspective. It’s a fascinating look at the process of creating a 1950’s B-Movie, from someone who was instrumental in the genre. While there is none of the behind-the-scene footage you’d see in a documentary of this type done today, his words aptly illustrate the goings-on.

The second, and far more heartwarming, of the documentaries is AN UNFATHOMABLE FRIENDSHIP: RAY HARRYHAUSEN AND RAY BRADBURY. This is just an open conversation between two life-long friends, who were lucky enough to do something they loved for a living. Taped in front of a gathering of fans and friends at the Warner Bros. lot, they discuss not only the film that gave them both their first real break, but the friendship that had begun years before that, and continues to this day.
The only other Special Feature is a Theatrical Trailer gallery, but it’s interesting, consisting of trailers for four of Harryhausen’s films, including BEAST… Though I’m sure it’s main purpose is to sell other Harryhausen films in WHV’s DVD catalog, it’s nonetheless entertaining.

I won’t lie to you; I’m a huge Harryhausen fan, and it would be difficult for me to be objective about this disc even if it weren’t this well done. Fortunately, that isn’t an issue… it is a superb DVD release, and I feel no guilt in saying that all “giant monster” fans, as well as anyone who considers themselves fans of Ray Harryhausen, should own this one. The list price is $19.95, damn reasonable for what you get, though I’ve seen it cheaper. I’d have paid that for the two documentaries on the disc or for the movie alone, without Special Features.

As always, it comes down to how big a fan of this genre of Horror or Science-Fiction you are, and how much you want a particular film. Speaking personally, Giant Dinosaurs, Insects and Reptiles are just about as good as it gets, and Ray Harryhausen’s creations rule that roost. The only way I can imagine it being better is to be watching it under the stars, girlfriend beside me, through the windshield of a ’54 Buick… maybe one with Nash seats.




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