Judge John Floyd would most definitely not like to be under the sea in this octopus' garden!
"A primordial monster from the ageless depths engulfs the screen in a tidal wave of terror!"
For a monster movie fan with a paralyzing fear of the ocean's unseen horrors, could there be a more breathtaking or terrifying image than a giant octopus rising from the surf to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge? Though the rest of the film can't quite match that iconic scene's thrills, It Came From Beneath the Sea is a triumph of low-budget, sci-fi spectacle.
Facts of the Case
A nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage is attacked by a mysterious object from the depths. A large chunk of rubbery tissue is pulled from one of the vessel's propellers and examined by two of the world's foremost marine biologists, who conclude that it came from an enormous octopus. Military officials dismiss their findings, until the creature begins sinking ships and making its way toward the west coast of the United States.
A childhood spent in front of the television watching radioactive dinosaurs and giant squids and killer sharks eat anyone foolish enough to go near the ocean can make one just a little afraid of the water. Learning an important lesson from the likes of Captain Nemo and Chief Martin Brody, I decided early in life that my chances of being devoured by a bloodthirsty sea monster were dramatically reduced by staying well clear of any large body of hydrogen oxide. Of course, as I grew older and (slightly) more mature, I came to realize that movies are just movies, and more people get killed slipping on soap in the shower every year than meet their demise in the jaws of a monstrous oceanic predator. Nonetheless, you're not likely to convince this Judge to dive for treasure off the Great Barrier Reef or test drive a deep-sea minisub in this lifetime. The mere thought of staring into a cold, unblinking eyeball as slimy tendrils snake around my flailing limbs has me looking over my shoulder even now, as I sit at my landlocked computer desk in the middle of Ohio.
I spent many years gazing with fascination and fear at stills from It Came From Beneath the Sea in magazines like Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland. I can't prove this, but I'm fairly certain one of the first words I learned to say as an infant was "Harryhausen," so any film with special effects by the western world's undisputed master of monsters was a must-see for me. Moreover, the octopus has always represented the absolute pinnacle of natural terror in my mind. It lives at the bottom of the ocean and feeds on whatever it can catch. It has exceptionally keen eyesight. It is the world's most intelligent invertebrate and is capable of problem-solving behavior like opening doors and dismantling traps. It can change its skin color and texture to blend into its surroundings. It can compress its body to fit through tiny openings and into very confined spaces. Some octopi can detach their own limbs when attacked, and most expel a thick, black ink when excited or in danger. It has eight tentacles and a beak, for crying out loud! One can only conclude that, at some point, God deliberately set out to make a monster, and the octopus was the result.
Unfortunately, It Came From Beneath the Sea never seemed to play on television during my formative years. I finally saw it on home video as an adult, finding it to be something of a mixed bag. Ray Harryhausen's visual effects were, of course, amazing, but the movie was a bit slow-paced, and the climactic battle with the titular "it" didn't quite live up to the excitement of the beast's earlier attacks. Still, I could not deny the lasting power of those moments when an octopus the size of a battleship reared up from the murky deep and unleashed fury on ships and buildings and helpless crowds of screaming, panic-stricken people. Watching this two-disc special edition of It Came From Beneath the Sea, I can truthfully say that those sequences remain just as thrilling as I imagined them to be when I saw them in still form as a child.
Though the first of the three films he worked on for Columbia Pictures in the 1950s (the other two being Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth), this is the second release in the studio's Harryhausen DVD collection. Presented in both its original black and white form and a "Chromachoice" color version, the film looks better than it ever has on home video. The colorization process still has a few bugs that need to be worked out (primarily in the area of skin tones), but the hues are a bit more natural and less distracting than in the altered print of 20 Million Miles to Earth. In particular, the octopus has a dark hide that blends better with the colors around it than the rather bright green Ymir in that earlier release. As in 20 Million Miles, establishing shots and other bits not involving living things look almost exactly like the Technicolor films of the period. That said, the black and white print is still the more effective and frightening version.
As noted, the movie itself is uneven. When the octopus isn't attacking, the audience is left with a clunky romantic triangle and a lot of mostly superfluous dialogue to keep them occupied. Female lead Faith Domergue is quite sexy and glamorous as marine biologist Leslie Joyce, particularly in the scene in which she must sweet talk a tight-lipped sailor into admitting that he saw a sea monster. Kenneth Tobey is the suitably stalwart, macho Commander Pete Matthews, but he's forced to play the role of male chauvinist to reinforce Joyce's competence. This proto-feminist angle isn't handled well at all, our heroine defending her ability in one scene but screaming hysterically at the first sight of the monster in the next. By the final act, Domergue's character is reduced to being an ineffectual bystander while her male compatriots do all the heavy lifting. Donald Curtis is fairly bland as the chief rival for Miss Joyce's romantic attention, Professor John Carter.
Movies like this always require a lot of expository rambling by the principles to make up for the budget-mandated limits on monster screen time. A few of these scenes (like the one in which Professor Joyce relates the tale of a similar beast attacking Denmark) are quite good, but most come across as what they are: padding and contrivance. In particular, a lengthy conversation between Domergue and Curtis over a radio has that clumsy, "We didn't know how else to work this stuff in" feel and brings the film to a dead stop. The documentary-style presentation does alleviate some of the awkwardness of the talky narrative, but younger viewers will still have a difficult time remaining in front of the television set when the slimy antagonist isn't on the warpath.
In the end, though, the octopus' rampage is more than exciting enough to make up for any budgetary or artistic deficiencies. When the creature's massive tentacles rise a hundred feet out of the water and ensnare a passing ship or demolish buildings in San Francisco's Embarcadero, kids of all ages will be riveted to the screen. Even with all the advances in special effects technology since the movie's release more than a half century ago, Harryhausen's beast remains a formidable and spectacular creation, a terrible monstrosity that fully lives up to the hyperbole of the film's grandiose ad campaign.
As with 20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition, the extras on this disc are excellent. Two of the featurettes here originally appeared on that disc: "Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Movie Music's Unsung Hero" and "Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen." New material includes a lively commentary track with Harryhausen and three of his collaborators, a featurette about the promotional materials, four photo/artwork galleries, yet another interview with the legendary special effects maestro, and a sneak peak at the upcoming comic book sequel, "It Came From Beneath the Sea—Again!" There are also numerous audio options, including a 5.1 Surround track and the film's original mono track. If monster movie fans ever fully forgive Sony for their in-name-only version of Godzilla, it will be because of respectful DVD releases like this one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only things missing on this disc are the original theatrical trailers for Harryhausen's three films for Columbia. Instead, we get trailers from two recent DVD releases, Dragon Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Edition.
It Came From Beneath the Sea isn't a perfect movie, but it's still fantastic escapist fun, and this two-disc DVD is a great way to revisit it.
The only thing Sony is guilty of here is making me look twice before sitting
down in the bathtub. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Ray Harryhausen, Randall William Cook, John Bruno, and Arnold Kunert
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