The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War may have been what kept people on edge during the 50s and 60s, with people building fallout shelters in their backyards, but without it, we wouldn’t have had so many fun atomic-fueled monster movies. One of the earliest examples of this would be the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, where atomic testing in the Artic frees a prehistoric menace from the ice; but then a mere two years later, Harryhausen was at it again with the testing of a hydrogen bomb once again pissing off a giant creature. Where did the creature come from this time, you ask? The answer to that is, It Came from Beneath the Sea.
The movie opens with the testing of a new nuclear-powered submarine which has its maneuvers interrupted by a massive sonar contact, a contact that starts pursuing the sub, and it’s up to Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey ) to save his crew from this mysterious foe. Once the submarine is able to escape the grip of this unknown force, which caused some damage to the sub’s diving planes, they return to Pearl Harbour to discover a surprisingly large chunk of tissue jammed into the mechanism. A co-ed team of marine biologists, Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue ) and John Carter (Donald Curtis ) of Harvard University are called in to identify the tissue, but the United States Navy isn’t all that thrilled that after four weeks of testing, the conclusion they come up with is that the tissue is that of a giant octopus.
What is interesting about It Came from Beneath the Sea is that unlike the giant ants in Them, the radiation from the atomic testing isn’t directly blamed for the existence of a giant octopus but that of the hydrogen bomb, which has made the already giant creature radioactive. This results in its natural food supply being driven away (other fish being able to sense the radiation and flee), thus forcing the octopus to leave its natural habitat deep within the Philippine Trench to look for a new source of food.
After their findings are ignored, Joyce and Carter were to be released from duty — a duty they were basically conscripted by the Navy to perform — and to return to their regular scheduled academic lives. Unfortunately, a few more nautical mishaps occur which has the Navy thinking that they may have been a trifle too hasty in dismissing the findings of the two eggheads.
The very feel of It Came from Beneath the Sea is that of a documentary, with narration and exposition doing its best to make the idea of a giant octopus seem like a credible threat, but another more insidious threat that rears its ugly head in this film would be the rampant male chauvinism. The character of Commander Pete Mathews is most definitely a product of the times — he wouldn’t survive ten minutes in the “Me Too” movement era — but strangely enough, the screenplay has him facing off against a quite modern woman. Professor Lesley Joyce is not your typical damsel in distress as she is a capable and career-driven woman, and it’s her work that leads to defeating the monster. She is a woman of science, independent of the men around her, and yet this film has her falling in love with a guy who sees nothing wrong with dragging a woman onto the dance floor and kissing her against her will. Worse is the fact that after two minutes of said dancing and lip mashing, he assumes that she is going to cancel her planned scientific excursion to Egypt with Carter so that she can settle down with him and start knitting baby booties. When he is shot down, he has the nerve to turn to Carter and offer this wonderful bon mot, “Do you mind if I make a mental comment upon the nature of women?”
Luckily for us, this budding romance is put on hold when that tramp steamer is sunk by our hero, the giant octopus, and the trio are then sent to investigate various other possible instances of cephalopod attacks. What follows is your standard B-movie monster formula, with our leads running about gathering information, newscasters reporting on the ever-increasing threat, and lots of stock footage of the military doing military type stuff, but through all that, I’m still left with the big question, “Why is Commander Pete Mathews involved at all with any of this?” Sure, he was the first person to encounter the creature, but after filing his initial report, that should have been the end of it, yet for some reason, he’s given the job of babysitting Joyce and Carter while they try and figure out what attacked his sub. This is not the kind of position you’d think a commander of a nuclear submarine would be saddled with. All they needed was some ensign to answer the phone and say, “They haven’t figured it out yet,” but instead, the United States Navy has Commander Pete Mathews sitting on his ass for bloody four weeks, doing nothing except hitting on Joyce. I could see his character being brought in at the end when they needed a submarine to shoot the octopus, but his inclusion in the bulk of this film ranges from the awkward to cringe-inducing. Thank God the giant octopus finally goes on a decent rampage and we can forget about good ol’ Pete for a while.
Of course, it’s this monstrous rampage that audiences have paid their two bits to see, and Ray Harryhausen doesn’t disappoint — love triangles and sexism were just there to pad the run-time between monster appearances — and when the beast rises out of the depths, we get some spectacular examples of Harryhausen’s trademark Dynamation technique. It was a viewing of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that inspired producer Charles Schneer to call Ray Harryhausen with the idea of a giant octopus pulling down the Golden Gate Bridge — which started a partnership that lasted twenty-six years — and the film doesn’t stint on that premise; we definitely get to see this massive sea monster wrap its massive arms around this now iconic landmark.
Production Note: City officials refused the production access to the bridge for filming because they feared a movie featuring a giant octopus tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge would cause the public to lose faith in the bridge’s stability. This did not stop Harryhausen and friends as they proceeded to take background plates by shooting out of the back of a bakery truck which they drove back and forth across the bridge.
An obvious stumbling block when dealing with a title creature that resides in the sea is in figuring out its threat level, because though a sea monster is an awesome menace, it does cause one to wonder, “How can it be a threat to anything other than people on boats?” It Came from Beneath the Sea tackles this problem by utilizing the beast’s immensely long arms as it reaches out of the sea to snag its prey, whether they be inside a building or fleeing uselessly down a city street. Seeing the giant octopus tear down the Embarcadero and break into the Ferry Building gave viewers some of the best “Monsters Unleashed” moments in cinema history, and it was the proceeding sixty minutes of newsreel-type seriousness that really helped sell the ludicrousness of the last act.
It Came from Beneath the Sea was capably directed by Robert Gordon, a man known mostly for his television work, and he handles the actors well and manages to create the proper amount of tension, but it is the special effects work that labels this a “Ray Harryhausen Film,” and as in the case of most of his films, the actual directors themselves are mostly forgotten. It Came from Beneath the Sea may not be the best monster movie out there, but one must admit that stop-motion animation by Harryhausen makes this a film that fans of the genre must see.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
It Came from Beneath the Sea is one of the great B movies of the 50s and cemented Ray Harryhausen as the king of stop-motion animation, the sexism of the hero may put off modern viewers but when the monster makes his appearance that will most likely be forgotten.