Written by: Robert Abel & Alan J. Alder (story), Eugène Lourié & Daniel James (screenplay)
Directed by: Eugène Lourié and Douglas Hickox
Starring: Gene Evans, André Morell and John Turner
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"From the sea--burning like fire!"
"What was it?"
"What was it?"
Our reigning golden age fallacy concerning the 1950s has most everyone fooled into believing it was a quaint time, full of apple pies, white picket fences, and Elvis Pressley. In truth, it was a pretty scary time to be alive in the specter of Hiroshima and the threat of further nuclear destruction looming during the Cold War. If the world’s super powered nations didn’t destroy the world, then a giant fucking monster was going to come out of the seas and make everyone pay for mankind’s atomic sins. Okay, the latter part is only true if we believe the films of the age, but these monster movies (for which Godzilla became the most notable mascot) were reflections of very real hysteria. And, like any other film trend, it was mutated itself and was replicated over a hundred times. One of the last giant monster films of the decade was The Giant Behemoth, an Anglo-American production that feels every bit as rote and mechanical as you’d expect at this point--but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The aquatic wildlife keeps washing up on the shores of a small English town, which is odd enough. However, eyebrows are raised when a fisherman dies of mysterious radiation burns, whispering the word “behemoth” as he expires. This draws the attention of a team of scientists, who take off to Cornwall to investigate; soon after their arrival, they discover a monstrous, glowing creature living in the nearby ocean that likes to pay nightly visits to terrorize the coastal town. After some analysis, the team discovers that it’s actually a mutated species of dinosaur and are determined to destroy it before it decides to hitch a ride on the River Thames to destroy London.
The Giant Behemoth is saturated in that nuclear hysteria; its title recalls the Biblical story involving Job and a beastly creature meant to represent a warning from God. Just in case you didn’t get that allusion, the film opens with a quote from the Bible intoning the dangers of risking divine wrath. Creating giant bombs will do that, so mankind gets a giant monster in kind. It wasn’t always going to be that way, as it began life as a film about a simple, amorphous substance; however, because ripping off The Blob was apparently too obvious, the producers decided they wanted to cash in on the giant monster craze. This resulted in the monster being shoe-horned in, though it’s a pretty seamless insertion because the flick follows the usual trajectory for this sort of thing.
Opening with ominous signs (like a bunch of dead fish), we’re then offered small glimpses of the creature (such as its cartoonish outline under the water) before it decides to reveal itself to a bunch of gawking crowds (which are soon turned into manic throngs). While it doesn’t exactly shake up the formula, it does the formula rather well and has a few memorable moments. The build-up is especially nicely done, as it offers enough grisly foreshadowing to keep viewers on edge, such as the victims’ hideous boils. In another bit of obviousness, one scientist notes that they resemble the mutilations of Hiroshima victims to further draw out the atomic age fears informing the script. As far as that goes, The Giant Behemoth captures it as well as any film of the age; the footage of hysteric Londoners frantically spilling through the streets is especially effective at reflecting the panic of large scale disaster.
The film’s monster is rather memorable, too. Though it’s a dinosaur, it’s still just a fictional species; the scientist in the film calls it a Paeleosaurus, which I believe would translate into “old, extinct reptile”). Of course, the irony of that is that it’s very much not extinct and instead wreaks a bunch of havoc in the film’s big effects sequence. Brought to life by legendary effects wizard Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animation, it’s a well done scene that sees the monster tearing up various parts of the city, including a ferry that’s unfortunately caught in its path. Surrounding the creature and the effects work is a solid cast comprised of a bunch of veterans like Gene Evans, Andre Morell, and Jack MacGowran, who play typical 50s scientist-types who are charged with destroying the beast. Their chosen method seems rather dubious; call me crazy, but it seems like a patently bad idea to fight a nuclear beast with nuclear warheads.
Co-director Eugène Lourié only helmed eight films in his career, but three of them were giant monster movies; he actually got the trend rolling with Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, so his presence on The Giant Behemoth was no doubt meant to echo that film. While Fathoms is a bit of a minor landmark (it’s a fine film in addition to being one of the first of its kind), this one is but a footnote, and perhaps isn’t even as memorable as his final film, Gorgo, which would be released two years later. To check it out (and fans of this sort of material should), Warner Brothers has provided two options; there’s a standalone DVD release, or you can find the film as part of the Camp Cult Classics Volume One along with Queen of Outer Space and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. If you’ve seen most movies like this, you’ve pretty much seen The Giant Behemoth. As such, maybe hang around and see if it pops up on Turner Classic (which is what I did) or nab it from Netflix. Rent it!
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