Our look at the work of Ray Harryhausen continues today with an examination of the 1955 creature feature, It Came from Beneath the Sea. While our review of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms last week chronicled how ‘Creature Features’ were only starting to take shape as a genre in 1953; by this film’s 1955 release, the form was not only established and recognized as popular, but as a creator Ray Harryhausen was developing and morphing quickly into the legend he would become. Here’s what you need to know about It Came from Beneath the Sea.
It Came from Beneath the Sea chronicles the havok following in the wake of a mysterious sea beast attacking ships in the ocean. As the military and a team of scientists quickly try to get the upper hand on what is happening, the creature sets its sights on San Francisco. Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue and Donald Curtis co-star in the film. Robert Gordon directs the picture from a script by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith.
Sitting down to watch this film, I initially fought a teeny bit of skepticism revolving around the monster. Octopi have scared the Dickens out of me since the first time I watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at far too young of an age. They’re great at terrorizing ships, but how would they work in a monster movie of this variety?
Ultimately, the film really finds its stride into the final act as the beast descends on San Francisco. Once again, Harryhausen’s effects work steals the show, particularly as the monster terrorizes the Golden Gate Bridge. I was stunned at how well the models worked. In fact, I would call the scene startling, which can be a bit of a tall order for a monster movie of this era. The combination of stop motion photography and miniature work gels incredibly well on camera, easily capturing the fluid movement of the creature, a task which couldn’t have come easily. As the attack plays out in the final act, it’s easy to get lost in the sense of impending dread.
As with a number of these films, the characters do largely pale in comparison to the beast and the action set pieces. This time out, It Came From Beneath the Sea presents the scientist/leading lady/male lead trio as a love triangle with Domergue’s Lesley caught between partner John (Curtis) and strapping military man Pete (Kenneth Tobey). Curtis draws the short straw in the narrative and largely fades into the background as the chemistry between Tobey and Domergue develops. It’s spicy in that… 1950s kind of way.
The more I contemplate Faith Domergue’s work as Lesley in the film, the more I find I enjoyed it. Initially, the portrayal feels a bit flat… potentially even a bit boring. At the same time though, it’s nice to see a woman taking on the role of a scientist in the film. There are a few examples in other works: Julie Adams “sciences” a bit in Creature from the Black Lagoon while Paula Raymond gives off some graduate student vibes in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. However, both tend to quickly morph into the love interest role and promptly leave academia behind them.
The film presents an interesting take on sexuality with both men in the story openly lampooning their colleague as a “modern woman”. She’s a bit closed off and serious. In fact, Domergue comes off more than a bit like Lilith in Frasier. She’s whip smart, talented and has her stuff together. However, are women in Hollywood movies really supposed to have their lives together? Together and stress-free doesn’t sell. While it’s easily to critique Domergue’s performance, it is at the same time nice to see a woman onscreen who’s a little less flighty and more serious… yet still has the bandwidth to carry out an illicit affair. It gives hope to the rest of us girls.
That being said, the film does feel a bit uneven. It plays at a relatively breezy 80 minutes; however, these characters aren’t always strong enough to sell the film in its quiet moments. A lot hinges on Pete and Lesley’s relationship, but this unfortunately doesn’t get much time to simmer. This is 1955 after all. The couple is fun in the quiet moments together, but there’s a lot of generic military feeder material to get through between the spicy scenes.
It Came from Beneath the Sea of course, isn’t a perfect film. The movie struggles with some inconsistency and it does take a bit to get going. However, when all is said and done, this movie once again presents revolutionary jumps in the field of special effects. While Ray Harryhausen wasn’t alone in the fascinating developments happening during this time, his work was certainly at the forefront of the blockbuster filmmaking as we see it today.
It Came from Beneath the Sea is available, here!
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Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!