Wednesday, August 8, 2012

In short: 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

A US rocket that has secretly visited Venus crashes down in the ocean near a small fishing village in Sicily. Courageous fishermen manage to rescue two members of the ship's crew from their sinking rocket - a scientist who will die soon enough of the after-effects of some peculiar quality of Venus's atmosphere, and the square-jawed Colonel Calder (William Hopper). Also on board was a container carrying the egg of one of the native reptile monkeys of Venus. Said container is washed ashore and found by fisher boy Pepe (Bart Braverman). Pepe sells the egg off to a zoologist (Frank Puglia) who is visiting the area, to be able to buy himself a nice cowboy hat. The scientist, Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), is quite excited to have found a specimen that is unknown to science. He'll be getting even more excited when the reptile monkey hatches and grows with ridiculous speed.

While Leonardo is dreaming of the Nobel Price for zoology, Calder and the most diplomatic general ever encountered in a 50s monster movie (Thomas Browne Henry) start looking for their lost specimen. Alas, once they've gotten on the trail of Leonardo, the ever-growing reptile monkey has already escaped and is politely terrorizing the Italian countryside. And even after our heroes manage to recapture the poor thing with his greatest enemy - electricity - there might be another opportunity for it to grow, wrestle an elephant, and destroy the Coliseum later on.

If there's one thing typical of the films the great Ray Harryhausen made his stop motion effects for during the 50s, then it's the fact they aren't all that deserving of the quality effects Harryhausen could provide. For my tastes, 20 Million Miles To Earth is the point where this particular problem of Harryhausen's career stops.

While the film is of course decidedly silly in theory and practice, its director Nathan Juran (veteran of many a film - and soon TV show - containing large monsters) does manage some rather impressive feats. First and foremost, he keeps the film moving at a rather sprightly pace pretty atypical of 50s monster movies which all too often preferred scenes of square-jawed people talking mock science nonsense to scenes of Harryhausen monsters doing their thing; one suspects Juran to have had a clear idea of who was the actual star of the picture (hint: it's not square-jawed), and who was only there to support that star (hint: he's quite square-jawed).

20 Million Miles still contains a lot of the elements that can make 50s monster movies from the US a bit annoying, but most of them are reduced to a minimum: the snarly-voiced off-line narrator shuts up after the film's credits; library footage isn't used to lengthen the film's running time but only to enhance some of its action; the mandatory sickening "romance" is kept to the side-lines as much as possible (plus, the film contains that most rare of scenes in a 50s movie: the jerky hero and the bitchy heroine apologizing to each other for being jerks), and is not quite as sickening as usual; the cultural stereotypes are actually quite underplayed, too;  even the usual realistically war-mongering US military is trying to keep the creature alive for as long as possible. I wouldn't go so far as to call 20 Million Miles To Earth the beatnik version of a 50s monster movie (if we're honest, it's just a cheaper variation on motives of King Kong played as a 50s monster movie), but it sure does keep everything that can make its sub-genre problematic down to a minimum.

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