Judge Christopher Kulik is often referred to as "The Thing from Another Planet."
Our reviews of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (published November 12th, 2003), Them! (published September 19th, 2002), and World Without End (Blu-ray) (published January 27th, 2013) are also available.
"We may be witnesses to a biblical philosophy come true. And there shall
be destruction and darkness. And the beasts shall reign over the Earth!"
In 2009, TCM teamed up with Warner Bros. in packaging specially-themed classic movies for a reasonable price. The latest off the assembly line is Sci-Fi Adventures, and the quartet of features offered include The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, World Without End, and Satellite In The Sky. All have been released on DVD before, with the latter two appearing awhile back as a double bill. Sounds like a nice deal, but is this set really worth a purchase?
Facts of the Case
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953): One of the first Atomic Age "creature features," showcasing a monster wreaking havoc on civilization. In this case it's a Rhedosauras, a prehistoric dinosaur accidentally thawed from a block of ice while scientists are doing some atomic bomb testing in the Arctic Circle. A small group of paleontologists, led by Prof. Elson (Cecil Kellaway, Harvey), scramble to identify and prove the monster's existence as the Beast makes its way to New York City.
Them! (1954): In the New Mexico desert, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore, The Shawshank Redemption) is searching for a missing FBI agent. What he discovers is a series of baffling deaths, the victims having died from an acute amount of formic acid in their bodies. Peterson eventually joins forces with a Fed (James Arness, The Thing From Another World) and a father/daughter team of entomologists to launch a massive investigation. What they find is extraordinary; radiation has resulted in ants growing to massive proportions!
World Without End (1956): A quartet of astronomers is circling Mars when they are suddenly sucked into a time warp, transporting them to the 26th century. After landing on Earth, they are shocked to discover a race of savage, one-eyed mutants. Eventually, they do locate a small band of survivors living underground; the men are aging, the women are beautiful, and children are scarce. The astronauts want to help them regain control over the Earth's surface and rebuild the human race, but the society elders refuse to do so.
Satellite In The Sky (1956): A team of British scientists is sent on a mission into outer space so they can test a new tritonium bomb. While in orbit, they find a stowaway in the form of a plucky female reporter named Kim Hamilton (Lois Maxwell, Goldfinger). To make matters worse, the propulsion system on the bomb fails and they have only a few hours to make it back to Earth before detonation.
Talk about a trip back in time! I must say I've rarely delved into the pantheon of 1950's sci-fi, even though I've seen many modern throwbacks to the era, such as Tremors and Eight Legged Freaks. Aside from Them!, the four films offered here are hardly the best examples to come out of the decade of big bugs and Cold War paranoia. Still, there's enough entertainment value to tickle any classic sci-fi buff, with all the primitive special effects and stiff acting the genre is known for.
Let's begin with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a palatable effort which isn't nearly as fun as I expected. Based on a short story called "The Fog Horn" by Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), the film certainly begins well with the Rhedosauras making a truly dynamic entrance and freaking out the scientists. Once we get to the paleontologists, however, things seriously go downhill; turning a potentially rousing monster movie into an overly talky, middling affair. The characters aren't interesting in the slightest (save for Prof. Elson, played with gusto by veteran Kellaway), the explanations for the Rhedosauras' motivation are preposterous, and the film suffers from a heavy amount of stock footage. Oh, yeah, there's also a superfluous love story which only slows things down when all we want to see is the dinosaur doing his thing. It's not until the hour mark, when the Rhedosauras finally makes it to New York and destroys everything in its path, does the film really come to life.
Still, despite all its problems, Beast is worth seeing for Ray Harryhausen's spectacular special effects and stop-motion animation. Working under the tutelage of the great Willis O'Brien (King Kong), Harryhausen was inspired by several sketches which were included with Bradbury's story in The Saturday Evening Post. The awesome scene of the Rhedosauras arriving on the Massachusetts coast and tearing down a lighthouse was based on one of those sketches, and it's a sight to behold. The climactic sequence at an amusement park is also noteworthy, even if the action is virtually nil. I'll also give credit to David Buttolph (House Of Wax) for giving the film a better score than it deserves. Finally, keep your ears open for the voices of Merv Griffin (as a radio announcer) and Vera Miles (Psycho), who can be heard as an announcer in the film's trailer.
Shortly after the runaway success of Beast, Warner Bros. discovered sci-fi was all the rage, and thus was about to heavily invest into their next project, Them!. Originally, the film was supposed to be in color and 3-D (the latter of which was also huge at the time). Right before principal photography, however, the studio slashed the budget and opted for black-and-white instead. Still, these cutbacks didn't affect Them!'s amazing success, as it became the highest-grossing film of the year. My mother, who was eight years old at the time, was one of many who viewed the film in the theater. When I asked her what she thought of it, she simply said, "It was cool…way cool!" And she was right, too! Them! is great, great entertainment.
Now the idea of giant ants terrorizing the world sounds about as scary as Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, doesn't it? However, what most people forget is ants are actually strong and very aggressive creatures; the film proves this by having Dr. Medford (Edmund Gwenn, Miracle On 34th Street) showing nature footage of ants beneath the soil, noting a fight over a female which lasts over 72 hours. What's interesting about Them! is it isn't the special effects which make the film so good, but the fact it treats science and nature with respect. In fact, the giant ants are all-too-obviously radio controlled and fake-looking, despite the film's Oscar nomination for the effects. Them is punctuated by smart writing and first-rate performances, the two keys which amplify the film's endurance as a classic. Plus, unlike others of its ilk, you actually become emotionally involved, especially during the nail-biting climax in the L.A. sewers. No distracting love stories, either. Trust me, as far as big bug movies are concerned, this is as good as it gets.
Moving on to 1956, we get two films radically different in tone and subject matter when compared to Beast and Them!. Emerging from the fledgling Allied Artists studios, World Without End was the very first sci-fi thriller to be released in CinemaScope. The film was written and directed by Edward Bernds, who had worked with the Three Stooges for about a decade before transferring to Allied Artists to helm several entries in the aging Bowery Boys series. Borrowing a bit too much from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, Bernds makes World Without End a surprisingly engaging yarn with enough energy and spice to make it a worthwhile view. Despite all the familiar trappings, the journey is smooth and the acting is above average, particularly from Hugh Marlowe (The Day The Earth Stood Still) and Rod Taylor (who later starred in the 1960 George Pal version of The Time Machine). Plus, the film avoids any religious diatribes suggested by the title.
All being said, World Without End contains some really campy elements. First off, like many other films of the era, the astronauts manage to stay in their seats and not be affected by zero gravity. Second, there's a short scene where the astronauts enter a cave and are attacked by—get this—giant rubber spiders! The mutants have the ability to make one chuckle uncontrollably, and the effects in the beginning are quite terrible. Last, but certainly not least, Bernds writes the female characters as being sex-starved beauties who only wear short dresses and who've gotten tired of the impotence evident in their male counterparts who control the society—not exactly something which will make female viewers comfortable. Oh, and get this, the women think true love is reflective of 20th century romantic fiction! So, basically the filmmakers want us to believe that Danielle Steele survived but not Viagra???
As for the final film included in this set, Satellite In The Sky, is one of the strangest I've ever seen. It's also alarmingly dull. I guess this was supposed to be England's answer to the sci-fi boom at the box office, but its thrill-less from beginning to end. The main attraction here is the sexy Maxwell, who would go on to play Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series. And unlike The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the nifty special effects (by 2001's Wally Veevers, of all people) and handsome production values can't save it. It spends way too much time with the characters just chatting about the advancements of science and space travel then giving us any genuine sense of excitement. It's also so damn straight it would be impossible for the MST3K guys to throw decent jokes at it. At its best, it's a curio; otherwise, it's a total bust.
As for the discs themselves, Warner Bros. has done a mostly fabulous job. World Without End and Satellite In The Sky look amazingly clean in their 1.85:1 anamorphic prints. Both are in color, and have very little grain and scratches. The 1.0 mono tracks are also quite stellar, with equal attention given to the dialogue and sound effects. Satellite has English and French subtitles, while World has none. Warner Bros. does make one mistake on the packaging, while it indicates Satellite as being on side B, both films are in fact on the same side. No extras, either.
As for Them! and Beast, both of the black-and-white, full frame prints are better than average. Of the two, Beast suffers the most, as it has numerous scratches and a generous amount of grain, mostly provided in the aforementioned stock footage. Oddly, Beast has an additional mono track in French, while Them! has subtitles in five languages. Them! is also skimpy on extras, with three minutes of archive footage and some bug movie production notes. Beast's bonus material is positively worthwhile, however, with two excellent featurettes. First up is the 7-minute "The Rhedosauras and the Roller Coaster," with Harryhausen talking about his approach to the project and how he executed some of the effects. Even better is the 17-minute "Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship," which has both reminiscing about their experiences in the business and their affection for dinosaurs.
For those who any of these films on DVD already, this disc set is not really worth it. For anyone who loves old school sci-fi and don't own the films, this is a fine investment. However, the small amount of extras makes one yearn for more, especially from Warner Bros.
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Scales of Justice, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Perp Profile, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Scales of Justice, Them!
Perp Profile, Them!
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Them!
• Archival Footage
Scales of Justice, Satellite In The Sky
Perp Profile, Satellite In The Sky
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Satellite In The Sky
Scales of Justice, World Without End
Perp Profile, World Without End
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, World Without End
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