Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

aka the less pleonastic Behemoth the Sea Monster

Strange things are happening on the coast of Cornwall. First, an elderly fisherman dies of something that looks a lot like radiation burns while uttering the word "behemoth". Then a glowing mass of unknown origin that leaves a different fisherman touching it with burns on his hand and a whole lot of dead fish get left behind by the flood on the same beach. Shortly after that, the fish along the whole Cornish coast are dying.

Fortunately Steve Karnes (dependable American Gene Evans), a North American marine biologist with a clear eye on the dangers of radioactive tests is in the UK and has an easy time convincing Professor Bickford (dependable Brit Andre Morell), the scientist in charge of investigating the reasons for the occurrences, to let him assist in the investigation.

After a bit of research and some doing of SCIENCE(!), Karnes develops the theory that the radiation and the deaths are a mere side effect of a much larger problem: some sort of gigantic, radioactive animal threatening the whole of the UK. Bickford is a bit sceptical about Karnes' theory, but doesn't take too much convincing to come around to the American's views. He's even coming around before he sees a gigantic footprint.

Bickford's (and with him the British authorities') willingness to listen to the American turns out to be rather fortunate, for soon the creature decides to go on a nice weekend vacation in London.

If not for the UK-based setting - thanks to this being a US/UK co-production even a somewhat believable one - one could easily mix up The Giant Behemoth with director Eugene Lourie's other two giant monster movies, The Colossus of New York and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, both of which were mainly taking place around the US. By the standards of giant monster movies of the 50s not made in Japan, there could be worse films to be confused with.

Behemoth belongs to the very earnest class of giant monster movies full of middle-aged men sitting earnestly in earnest looking rooms, with earnest expressions on their faces, discussing an earnest situation very earnestly, and as such, it really is pretty good. The movie is of course a far cry from the emotional and intellectual richness of the original Gojira (the film all earnest giant monster movies tried to yet could not reach before Shusuke Kaneko began making kaiju films), but most of the anti-bomb rhetoric here seems quite a bit less perfunctory and more thoughtful - if not necessarily more scientifically sound - than in many of the film's peers. This side of the movie is additionally emphasised by the look of the radiation burns the behemoth's victims suffer (and often die) from - an element of brutal naturalism I wouldn't have expected in a movie made in 1959. Of course, the film doesn't think its own ideas through as consequently as one would wish it did, but that it has ideas of its own at all seems like quite an achievement to me.

For an art director who was sitting on the director's chair only from time to time, Eugene Lourie's films usually had a rather bland look. In this case, there's some nice use of the actual landscape of the British Isles on display, but not much else that's visually arresting. Lourie's a perfectly competent director, mind you, he's just not more than that.

Perfectly competent seems to be the favourable description of Behemoth's monster too. As rumours say, Willis O'Brien and Pete Peterson had been asked to do the effects scenes only late in the film's development, and had neither time nor money enough to create something truly impressive, so their monster turns out to be a solid but uninspired creation and the effects sequences it appears in are rather variable in quality - the monster's first appearance being the worst of them, its tussle with some electricity lines probably the best.

Still, it's a nice enough example of the sort of giant monster movie that tries to be serious SF too, and as such should provide everyone who isn't hating seriousness or giant monsters with a fine time.



Anarchivist said...

Yes, there just aren't enough tiny behemoths in the world...

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

At least, there's always The Littlest Behemoth.