I looked through one of my DVD sets, Columbia Pictures' “The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen, Legendary Science Fiction Series,” and plucked an old fave of mine to rewatch: the 78-minute, black-and-white, 1955 classic It Came from Beneath the Sea. While not one of the more hyped Ray Harryhausen productions, this sci-fi effort is still a cut above the usual drive-in fare of that era. As a plus – drum roll – it stars Faith Domergue, the goddess of Cold War era sci-fi flicks such as This Island Earth and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.
The storyline itself, however, is rather pedestrian: H-bomb tests have irradiated a giant octopus, thus making its natural prey avoid him – as we are told in the film, most fish can detect radiation. Consequently, the behemoth rises from the depths of the Pacific to wreak havoc on passing ships. Curiously, the radiation is not the cause of the beast's size (à la Them!), but the reason it needs to hunt new prey – an interesting twist on the atomic-monster genre in which all sorts of insects, dinosaurs, and the like grow in size or get non-native properties. Here, the octopus is simply displaced; it is a homeless cephalopod, a refugee from the Mindanao Deep.
Directed by Robert Gordon, produced by Charles Schneer (this marked the first time he backed a Harryhausen film), and written by George Worthing Yates and Hal Smith, It Came from Beneath the Sea – despite its simple basic plot – offers better-than-average storytelling skills. Aside from the animal's unusual raison d'être, Yates' screenplay is notable for its early feminism, for Domergue's character is portrayed as a 'new breed' of woman; one who's more than just the love interest for the males to brawl over.
Additionally, It Came from Beneath the Sea has several intriguing 'realistic' sequences. I say 'realistic' because, even though the scenario itself is farfetched, the way the characters act is thoroughly plausible. That is especially true of the two male leads, Kenneth Tobey (from the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World) and Donald Curtis. For instance, there is no superheroic machismo on display.
As a plus, It Came from Beneath the Sea opens very stylishly, on board a new atomic submarine captained by Tobey's character, U.S. Navy Commander Pete Matthews, with some real tension built up when a radar blip grows closer and closer until it gets the sub in its grip. In terms of plot, what follows is the usual storyline development found in sci-fi B films of the period, e.g., the Navy brass dismisses the claims of a giant octopus, there's a major attack in an urban area, etc. (Given that the attacked metropolis was San Francisco, it would have been a hoot to see a few panicked Beatniks running with the masses down the streets, bongos in tow, but alas.)
The shots of the octopus' huge tentacles emerging from the deep are particularly impressive, though the underwater scenes featuring models and the rear projection bits, including those using Hawaii as background, are often poorly matched to the studio sets. Cinematographer Henry Freulich does a serviceable job, especially when integrating stock military footage from the Korean War, and the same can be said of Mischa Bakeleinikoff with the musical score. But needless to say, the chief attraction in It Came from Beneath the Sea is Harryhausen's octopus – even if, technically, it was a sextopus because two fewer legs meant fewer expenses.
Overall, Columbia did a quality DVD transfer, for the print is relatively clean. The extras are found in almost all the films in the set: the brief 'This Is Dynamation' documentary and the hour-long profile The Harryhausen Chronicles, narrated by Leonard Nimoy and featuring Harryhausen's old pal Ray Bradbury. There are also a few theatrical trailers for 20 Million Miles to Earth, Mysterious Island, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Back to It Came from Beneath the Sea, another element worth mentioning is the narration. In such films, narrations usually border on the inane and are filled with stentorian hyperbole. Here, the narration is more straightforward even if, at times, it does veer into that crescendo of SCIENCE! as if that pursuit were almighty. Dig this bit from the opening (whoa, a little Beatnik slip): 'For centuries the mind of Man has learned comparative little of the mysteries of the heavens above – or the seas below. Since the coming of the atomic age, Man's knowledge has so increased that an upheaval of nature would not be beyond his belief.'
In sum: although the superfluous love triangle is a bit of a problem, It Came from Beneath the Sea is mostly an enjoyable romp into the past. At well less than an hour and a half, it's the sort of light movie to watch before tucking oneself in at night – as long as one hasn't just come home from an excursion to Red Lobster. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). Dir.: Robert Gordon. Scr.: George Worthing Yates and Hal Smith. Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith, Dean Maddox Jr, Harry Lauter, Chuck Griffiths, Richard W. Peterson.