Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

It’s sad that Willis H. O’Brien’s last giant monster movie was The Giant Behemoth, rather than 1957’s The Black Scorpion.  Both his, and Pete Peterson's work (Peterson worked with O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young and did most of the animation in both Scorpion and Behemoth) suffer greatly under budget constraints in both films, but their final film sees most of the work coming after the hour mark of this 80 minute feature, and contains several instances of the same scene reused, but cropped in order to give the impression of a different shot.  The Black Scorpion would have been a much better send off than this dull, lifeless film.

Yeah, you'll see this scene a lot in the last 20 minutes of the film.

The story is pretty basic giant monster stuff.  American scientist Steve Karnes (Gene Evans), delivering a speech in England on the dangers of radioactivity to ocean life, learns of a fishing village where thousands of fish washed ashore dead.  Oh, and a local fisherman died of mysterious circumstances, after describing a behemoth coming from the sea.

Convincing Professor James Bickford (André Morell) to allow him to visit the village, the two discover another fisherman suffering what they suspect are radiation burns, after he touched a strange glowing mass where the first fisherman was found. 

Though no evidence of radiation, or the behemoth, is found in the village, a family is found severely burned (okay, more char broiled), along with a giant footprint miles away.  Searching the ocean in the area of the attack, Karnes catches a glimpse of the monster, only to be called back to shore by the local Coast Guard to help with the investigation of a grounded ship.

Finding evidence the behemoth rammed into the ship, Karnes and Bickford contact a local paleontologist (Jack MacGowran), who identifies the creature and discloses that, like an electric eel, it can discharge a shock to stun its prey.  Karnes theorizes this allows the creature, which has absorbed a massive dose of radiation, to discharge radiation, resulting in the burned remains at the site of the most recent attack.  

And the images in the film are very harrowing, 
especially for British citizens with memories of The Blitz.

The paleontologist mentions that, back when these creatures roamed the Earth, they swam up the Thames River to spawn or die.  Of course, that means when the creature reaches land, the military’s first option, blowing it to bits, isn't an option, as it would spread radioactive behemoth bits over a wide part of London. 

Oh, at this point, we’ve only seen the puppet head of the behemoth once.  In place of monster attacks, the script tries to create tension with scenes of people talking seriously about destroying a monster no one, including the audience, as seen for more than a couple of seconds.  But fear not, the puppet head rears up again at about the 50-minute mark, to sink a ferry on the Thames and barbecue the passengers.  It's unfortunate that the script follows the attack up with another ten minutes of people talking about the threat before the stop motion creature emerges in London.

Oh, scary.

Alas, the effects become underwhelming in a short time.  The initial scene, with the behemoth emerging from the Thames and wreaking several large cranes, is really nice.  And a later sequence, as the monster stomps down several power lines, looks great as well.  But it’s pretty obvious O’Brien and Peterson weren’t given much money for their work, as the creature’s seams are pretty visible (and at times, open on the screen).  And directors Eugène Lourié and Douglas Hickox squeeze every second they can from the stop motion mayhem, resulting in repeated shots that are cropped in an attempt to pass them off as different shots.

Oh, you have the monster attacking the same building within five minutes.

And it feels, with this feature, the pupil had become the master.  Ray Harryhausen's work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (an inspiration for this film I'll get to in the next paragraph), as well as It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (all released before Behemoth) showed stop motion creatures with a sense of personality.  Most acted more like actors, rather than stomping beasts, and (with the exception of the "octopus" in It Came from Beneath the Sea), Harryhausen's creatures died in such a fashion that invoked sympathy from the audience.  His creatures were beings, actors sharing the screen with their human counterparts.  O'Brien's behemoth, on the other hand, shared more in common with his much earlier work on The Lost World, rather than his amazing animation on King Kong.

The fault could be contributed to script,  Originally envisioned to be more a Quatermass-style film, with the mysterious radioactive blob seen early in the film being the main “monster," the distributors insisted on a more Beast from 20,000 Fathoms feel (echoed in several drawings of the behemoth before it’s seen on screen), but one suspects no additional money was added to the film’s budget to compensate for the new direction.

What, this looks like The Creature from 20,000 Fathoms?

I don't see the similarity at all.

I will credit the script for taking a different direction than most creature features of the time, at least when it came to a potential love interest.  Early on, we’re introduced to the daughter of the behemoth’s first victim (played by Leigh Madison).  This fisherman’s daughter is easy on the eyes, and though she has an admirer in the town, one could see the dashing American scientist finding a flimsy reason for bringing her on his quest for the monster, and eventually romancing her.  Yet, the script forgoes this cliché and she’s gone once Karnes leaves the village.  It’s a bit of a surprise, yet the script seems intent on not letting romance get in the way of endless scenes of talking scientists and military men. 

Though a few extra scenes of her and Karnes getting to know each other
would have been more interesting than endless discussions about killing the monster.

While the underwater scenes of the monster are nice, one has to wonder if Karnes’ idea of using a torpedo to implant more radiation into the behemoth to accelerate its death (as he believes the creature is dying from it’s exposure to radiation) is really a good idea.  Blowing it up on land is considered bad, but spreading its irradiated carcass in the Thames becomes the best opinion.  Sure, one can point to the public’s naivety concerning radiation, given the time and misinformation spread by the government (duck and cover, my ass), but the bullet used in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms seems a more logical response.  But, as the audience has been lulled to sleep by the countless times the movie has talked about the monster, rather than seen it, I suspect such a dramatic conclusion was needed.

O’Brien would work on one more giant monster movie, the Irwin Allen version of The Lost World.  This could have been the capping mark of his career, working on stop-motion dinosaurs in a remake of the film that catapulted him to fame and lead to his most famous creation, King Kong.  But, trying to compensate for the over-budgeted Cleopatra, 20th Century Fox slashed the budget of numerous other films, leading to the use of lizards with fins in The Lost World, rather than the work O’Brien had sketched out for the production. 

If you're a completist, seek out The Giant Behemoth.  But, if you'd rather watch a fitting finale to the work of a great effects artist, stick with The Black Scorpion.  Despite its faults, that film has more of O'Brien and Peterson's work on the screen, a more fitting tribute than the endless montage of cropped sequences in this feature.  

I don't think the cropping fooled audiences in the 50s, 
any more than it would now.  

NOTE: An early version of this review incorrectly identified Pete Peterson as "Pete Patterson."  My apologies for the error, and my thanks to Steve Sullivan for pointing it out.