Friday, May 20, 2016

Cardboard Science: Tentacruel

Year: 1955
Director: Robert Gordon
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis
Run Time: 1 hour 19 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

So, I guess I’m a fair weather friend. This third chapter in Cardboard Science, my crossover with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue, was supposed to be released in October… Whoops. Let’s just pretend I was trying to beat last year’s record (when I posted my final, belated review in December). Please be so kind as to check out his Census Bloodbath features on Terror Train, The House on Sorority Row, and Killer Party. I owe him that much for not e-mailing me anthrax.

But we’re here now, and that’s what matters. Previously on Cardboard Science, I covered the laughable body snatcher flick The Brain from Planet Arous and the surprisingly well-scripted cheesefest The Giant Claw. So far I’ve enjoyed every one of the five films he’s made me watch in the past two years (save the enervating, gee whiz Invaders from Mars), but I’ve yet to find one that truly resonated with me. But now, It Came from Beneath the Sea… Well, it’s not one of those either, but it’s the best of the bunch. Although it suffers from many of the pitfalls endemic to 50’s sci-fi, its strengths are much greater than I could have imagined.

A caveat before we jump in. Unfortunately, I was not able to view the film as originally intended. If, in fact, anybody was intended to watch these things at all. The copy I got my grubby hands on was colorized from the black-and-white original, which certainly has a number of subtle effects on the finished product, not the least of which is an unsolicited alteration of the effects provided by genius movie magician Ray Harryhausen. Fortunately, the colorization was actually quite skillfully achieved. In fact, save for a slight green tint on certain scenes, it was seamless. And I’m constantly in awe of what they were able to achieve when coloring shots of rippling ocean waves. All in all, the adverse effect is negligible but certainly worth mentioning.

It’s not like I needed to be reminded what color the freaking Golden Gate Bridge is.

In It Came from Beneath the Sea, nuclear submarine commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) encounters a strange blip on the radar that knocks into his ship, leaving behind a huge chunk of organic, irradiated matter. Top marine biologists Dr. John Carter – not of Mars, unfortunately – (Donald Curtis) and Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) are called in to investigate, and discover that the culprit is a giant octopus. Thus begins a long period of sciencing, investigation, and tepid love triangling before the creature lays siege to San Francisco and the team must find a way to stop it.

Con: No more Golden Gate Bridge. Pro: A lifetime supply of calamari.

For the bulk of tis run time, It Came from beneath the Sea is your typical B-movie. More of a science procedural than a rollicking monster flick, you’ve got to earn that giant octopus by sitting through endless didactic scenes of researchers explaining their findings using as many smart-sounding words as the screenwriters could find while flipping through an encyclopedia. It’s charming in its retro, totally oblivious way (and its trendy obsession with the H-bomb and nuclear fallout), but it’s about as enlightening as attending a particle physics seminar hosted by Homer Simpson.

Usually, this is the part where we’re meant to engage with the characters the most. And while I enjoy the proto-feminist discussion prompted by the presence of a female scientist (which I do find remarkable, considering that these movies almost always feature a female scientist so it’s hardly unprecedented, though she’s usually only there for smooching purposes) as well as its anti-romantic ending, the wan love triangle just doesn’t rev my engine. In fact, it hardly revs theirs, because I’m not sure Dr. Carter is even aware that he’s in one. It feels so wrong to say this, but the characterization and dialogue hardly reaches the level of The Giant Claw. At least, in its first act.

To be fair, by any other comparison, It Came from Beneath the Sea makes The Giant Claw look like a crackerjack commercial.

Of course, there are still some unambiguously great moments in this portion of the film. A little bit of psychological espionage livens up the whole affair, and one flirtation in particular is the most hilariously blatant sexual metaphor I’ve ever seen. Professor Joyce fondles a particularly phallic graduated cylinder she has picked up from a lab table while talking to Pete. It’s downright naughty and I adore it.

So all this is decent, if a bit predictable. But then. Oh boy, the third act really kicks it into gear as the monstrous cephalopod goes on the warpath, taking a chunk out of the Golden Gate Bridge before rampaging around the Embarcadero district. And for a movie that couldn’t hire extras for a restaurant so it used shadows on the wall to imply a dance floor, these creature effects are top notch. Of course, Harryhausen is a household name for a reason, but his work here is particularly impressive.

The stop motion animation is a little jittery here and there, but in terms of organic, convincing design and large scale carnage, it crushes the giant ants from Them! under its boot. It boils the overgrown fowl of The Giant Claw and uses the bones to pick its teeth. The wisest brains from Planet Arous couldn’t even conceive this kind of material. Making up for its disappointingly infrequent appearances in the first hour, the octopus crushes cars, destroys buildings, and fells dozens of humans with one tentacular swoop in an unprecedented swath of destruction. The composite animation here is delectable, putting the creature in the frame with living breathing people and – with the exception of just one bum shot – looking pristine while doing it.

Suddenly, every single stiff, melodramatic frame of film you had to work through to get here is worth it. The finale of this film is the most fun I’ve had in any Cardboard Science feature, and though there have been films with stronger scripts, this is the first entry I would leap to recommend with eight sucker-covered thumbs up.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Remember that lesson in science class where they taught you how to identify an unknown radioactive substance by moving fish from one tank to another, then peering into a microscope? Yeah, me neither.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • The navy men stop to have a frank conversation about Mac’s infertility fears in the middle of being attacked by a giant octopus. All hail the American Family!
  • Professor Joyce is a new breed of woman who carves her own path in a man’s world and doesn’t take “no” for an answer. At least, according to Dr. John Carter, who explains this to us (because who would listen to a woman?) as she shrieks and crumples into a ball.
Sensawunda:
  • Some B-roll footage shows a plane taking off while billowing voluminous plumes of smoke. Did those things run on f**king coal?
  • Dr. Carter just happens to have a handy balloon in his pocket, in case he needs to explain cephalopod skull structures. Maybe he moonlights as a clown.
TL;DR: It Came From Beneath the Sea is a decent 50's B-flick until the grand finale, which is an out-and-out masterpiece of Harryhausen movie magic.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1249
Reviews In This Series
The Giant Claw (Popcorn Culture - Sears, 1957)
The Brain from Planet Arous (Popcorn Culture - Hertz, 1957)
It Came from Beneath the Sea (Popcorn Culture - Gordon, 1955)
Terror Train (Kinemalogue - Spottiswoode, 1980)
The House on Sorority Row (Kinemalogue - Rosman, 1983)
Killer Party (Kinemalogue - Fruet, 1986)

1 comment:

  1. Yeah! I like this one a lot, and it's arguably the best work Ray Harryhausen did. (I dunno if I'd make that argument, but it's really good. Even if the octopus only has six arms. Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is cleaner and is designed better, I suppose, but it's also much simpler work.)

    I also enjoy the characters, though they do indeed be somewhat bland.

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