It Came from Beneath the Sea/Monster from Beneath the Sea (1955) **½
I’ve remarked on previous occasions that one of the most striking features of the movies Ray Harryhausen made in the 60’s and 70’s for Columbia producer Charles Schneer is their paucity of content and quality apart from that of the Harrryhausen monsters themselves. For the most part, that isn’t as big a problem in Harryhausen’s films from the 50’s, but there is at least one that is every bit as hollow as anything the man worked on later in his career. 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea was obviously made in an effort to force The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ lightning to strike a second time, and it should surprise no one that it was not notably successful in that respect. Nevertheless, It Came from Beneath the Sea is a reasonably entertaining flick if you go in not asking too much of it.
One great weakness makes its presence felt immediately— this movie leans almost as heavily on the dual crutches of stock footage and voiceover narration as Universal’s later The Deadly Mantis. This time, the plan is to establish in the least expensive manner possible the construction and commissioning of the world’s first nuclear submarine. (Even though the real thing had entered service to great fanfare in September of 1954, the stock footage used here all depicts a World War II-vintage diesel-electric boat, as reconstructed under the Guppy program of the early 50’s.) For its shakedown cruise, the unnamed nuclear sub has been placed in the hands of Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey, of The Thing from Another World and The Vampire), one of the Navy’s A-list submariners. When the ship is nearly ready to return home after several months at sea, it has an extremely unusual encounter that will end up eclipsing the other results of the working-up cruise almost completely. Matthews’s sonar men detect a large object closing in on them from behind at great speed. The sonar signature is all wrong for another submarine, but the thing is moving much too fast and is far too large for it to be a whale— or any other known sea animal, either. Matthews suggests that the strange blip is the result of some kind of malfunction, but both sonar operators assure him that all systems check out; whatever the thing is, it really is out there. That’s when the sub’s hull is rocked from astern by a blow of staggering force. What’s more, having been rammed by the mysterious object, Matthews’s ship is unable to move, even with the engines running at full power, nor can the vessel surface, even by blowing every ounce of water ballast from its diving tanks. The thing outside must also be radioactive, because the ship’s Geiger counters begin registering such high radiation levels that Matthews initially thinks the shielding around the reactor has been breached. After several endless minutes, the helmsman is able to shake loose by working the fore and aft diving planes in opposite directions. Then, back at the ocean’s surface and with the crisis past, Commander Matthews orders a couple of his men to don diving gear and take a look at the forward planes, one of which appears to be fouled by something it took away while the boat made its escape. What the divers find is a roughly cylindrical mass of rubbery, obviously organic matter nearly the size of a man. Neither they nor anyone else aboard have a clue as to what it might be.
Once the sub is back in port, that question is turned over to Professors John Carter (Donald Curtis, from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) and Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue, of This Island Earth and Cult of the Cobra), the latter of whom is reputed to be the foremost marine biologist alive today. If anyone can figure out what the hell it was that Matthews and his crew tangled with, it's those two. It takes them a couple weeks of nearly non-stop work, but the two scientists eventually conclude that the stuff from the submarine’s diving plane came from the body of an octopus. Mind you, if they’re right, it would be the biggest damn octopus anyone ever heard of, dwarfing even the “100-foot” squid on display at the National Museum of Natural History. (In the real world, of course, the Smithsonian’s pickled Architeuthis is more like 30 feet long.) Joyce hypothesizes that the giant mollusk had been living in the unexplored benthic waters of the Mindanao Deep, but that some sort of disturbance has brought it up into shallower seas. Reasoning from the creature’s radioactivity, the scientists suggest that recent nuclear weapons tests in the vicinity contaminated its body and that its usual prey can now sense its approach in time to make their escape; thus it is hunger that has brought the monster to the top of the water column. (Incidentally, Joyce’s explanation isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, assuming the octopus ordinarily goes after large sharks for food— which it would pretty much have to, given its size and the depth at which it lives. One of the extra senses that sharks possess is an ability to detect disturbances in electromagnetic fields. A huge, radioactive octopus would disturb the hell out of any such field it encountered, and therefore a shark would indeed sense its radioactivity, albeit indirectly.) Needless to say, Admirals Norman (Dean Maddox Jr.) and Burns (Ian Keith, from The Phantom of Paris and Valley of the Zombies), the officers at whose direction the scientists have been working, are highly skeptical, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Robert Chase (The Hideous Sun Demon’s Del Courtney) flatly rejects Joyce’s identification of the mysterious slab of tissue. Then strange things start happening in the Pacific, and the military men’s scoffing gets a little more muted.
Most of those strange things could be explained away on an individual basis. There are plenty of reasons why fishermen, whalers, and seal-hunters might find their usual waters curiously short of prey, and even once you’ve noticed the pattern formed by the affected regions, the data don’t necessarily add up to a giant, killer octopus on the prowl. Ship sinkings, on the other hand, are another matter, especially if they happen on the same seas that have generated the recent reports of poorer-than-normal fishing. And we in the audience are privy to one such sinking... Damn. That’s one big fucking octopus. It’s hard to be sure, but counting the tentacles, I’d say the thing must be more than 600 feet long. The monster surfaces to attack a freighter of some kind, and by the time it’s finished dragging the ship under, only a tiny handful of its crew are alive. And though the survivors are initially reluctant to tell the authorities what happened to them for fear of being judged insane, Professor Joyce is able to sweet-talk the relevant information out of them. Meanwhile, reports from a town on the Oregon coast suggest that the monster cephalopod may have reached US territorial waters en route to the San Francisco Bay area. Thus it is that we reach the usual monster movie endgame, wherein Commander Matthews will lead his crew back out against the octopus, armed with an aquajet-powered torpedo specially designed for use against living things. The only way to kill the monster, or so believes Dr. Joyce, is to detonate that torpedo right inside its brain; anything else, and all they’ll be doing is tearing up meat. Of course, if I were running this show, you bet your ass I’d have had more than one lousy torpedo built for the mission...
It Came from Beneath the Sea would be pretty damned forgettable if it weren’t for Ray Harryhausen, and it is from his colossal octopus that virtually all of the movie’s entertainment value derives. For one thing, the species of the monster was well chosen; it makes for a change of pace from the usual dinosaurs, apes, and insects, and because octopodes really are as comfortable on dry land as this one is shown to be, they’re just about the only species of marine animal that, in monstrous form, could plausibly threaten a coastal city with direct attack. The octopus is also an impressive creation (at least until we see all of it, and realize that its proportions are all wrong and that budget constraints have left it with only six tentacles), and the numerous shots of its immense limbs feeling their way through the streets of San Francisco’s waterfront have far more impact than any scene involving a rubber mollusk ought to. By treating the tentacles almost as if they were separate organisms in their own right, the movie both does right by cephalopod neurobiology and plays up the mindless implacability of the monster, making it seem far more dangerous than your usual 50’s atomic whatsit. It all goes a long way toward compensating for the utter uselessness of nearly every scene that the octopus isn’t involved in— and those, unfortunately, account for a great deal of the movie’s short running time. There’s one of those trite love-story subplots, inevitably, and complicating it with a low-key rivalry between Commander Matthews and Professor Carter does little to make it more bearable. Kenneth Tobey basically rehashes his performance from The Thing, but this time around, he doesn’t have the benefit of that movie’s snappy dialogue to disguise his limitations as an actor. Faith Domergue fares a bit better as Dr. Joyce, but the situations in which screenwriter George Worthington Yates insists upon placing her are mostly far too hackneyed for her to do much with the part. It Came from Beneath the Sea ends with a bang, though, and on the whole comes across as being a decent enough way for a junkie like me to get his monster movie fix..