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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Giant Behemoth (1959) review



Gene Evans (Steve Karnes), Andre Morell (Professor James Bickford), John Turner (John), Leigh Madison (Jean Trevethan), Jack MacGowran (Dr. Sampson)

Directed by Eugene Lourie

The Short Version: The director of the influential 1953 classic THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS directs this Britain lensed, recycled version that, while possessing a few merits of its own, pales in comparison to its earlier, more accomplished antecedent. It fails as a memorable monster picture, but it does excel in its lead performances -- especially a serious turn from American character actor, Gene Evans -- and in the gloomy ambiance of the photography. A mid-grade monster movie that doesn't stand out as a particularly good film, or even a particularly bad one, but it does provide 80 minutes of entertainment for 50s ScFi movie lovers.

Atomic testing unleashes a dormant beast along England's coastline. In addition to its immense size and destructive capabilities, the monster puts off high levels of lethal radioactivity that burns anyone who happens to get too close to it. The creature eventually makes its way to London where it ravages the city. In an effort to contain the potential radioactive damage from blowing the monster to smithereens, scientists devise a special torpedo to kill the prehistoric beast.

The second of three giant monster movies from director Lourie is the weakest of the lot, but not without some advantages of its own. It's a British-US co-production that follows closely the template laid down by Lourie's own THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). In some ways, one could say BEHEMOTH was a remake of the far more accomplished Harryhausen enhanced monster picture. The Behemoth's movements mimic Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus a bit too much, albeit with less spectacular results.

In a rare instance, the ending is uncharacteristically pessimistic. There's also no female scientist, or lady in distress, as so many of these movies often had. It's all left up to leading man Gene Evans, who, amazingly, does extremely well here co-starring alongside well known British actor Andre Morell.

By 1959 this type of movie had played itself out. Virtually every sort of creature of enormity had been the star of its own movie. The behemoth of the title differentiates itself from other standard city stompers by emitting deadly radioactive rays that burn and melt those in close proximity to its path. 1971s GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER used a similar plot device for its antagonist kaiju.

The creature destruction seen here is minimal, and relegated to the last twenty minutes. According to the commentary by famed SPX creators Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren, the monster was originally written as a blob-like creature (which we do see at first). This is of interest taking into consideration Hammer had made a SciFi picture about a radioactive blob monster entitled X THE UNKNOWN a few years earlier in 1956. Rewrites were ordered and a more reptilian monstrosity was designed. In the end, the monster itself looks unusual with its alligator-like skin, although the low budget and likely brief shooting schedule are painfully evident during portions of the picture.

For example, there are moments during the city destruction where you can see the animated monster model falling apart around its ankle joints! At other times, the monsters sockets around its eyes appear mottled (possibly from the animator adjusting the head for takes). Apparently, animator Pete Peterson had to hurry things along to get the picture done. Furthermore, the repeating of certain shots at various points in the picture all show signs of anemic production value. The bulk of the stop-motion animation is relegated to the finale while the few preceding moments of monster mayhem are represented by an unconvincing miniature monster head.

It's not all bad news, though. Some of the set-ups and shots of the creature are impressive, all things considered. The beast is often shot from a low angle to demonstrate its size. The scenes where the monster rips and tears apart metal constructs are likewise accomplished bits of stop-motion animation. Of special note is a wide angle sequence where the Behemoth tears up some electrical towers with a miniature town in the background.

The photography is one of the pictures greatest assets and picks up much of the slack. There are numerous shots of a churning sea backed by a shadowy, blackly clouded sky. The overcast seen throughout the film gives off a humid, gloomily saturated aura that lends the picture some suspense leading up to the moment when the monster is seen for the first time -- even though the beasts first appearance isn't very impressive. Furthermore, the lighting, whether day or night, takes advantage of the mucky weather dominating the exterior locales.

The lead actors are likewise strong and deliver their lines with conviction (especially Evans). He's an unlikely choice for a leading man in one of these movies. Possibly the producers were going for a Quatermass type hero for this. Evans of course was recognizable from any number of westerns of both big and small screen. He also played the crooked sheriff in the classic WALKING TALL (1973) and one of the adult victims of DEVIL TIMES FIVE (1974).

Speaking of Quatermass, co-star Morell played the famed British scientist in the QUATERMASS AND THE PIT television series from the same period. The same year in 1959, Morell co-starred with Peter Cushing in Hammer's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

Among the behind the scenes crew, Willis O'Brien worked on the picture in some capacity (among a handful of other artists); and Desmond Davis, the director of the Harryhausen hit CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), was a camera operator on this movie.

The films title is also curious; at least its stateside title is. In the UK, it played under the more sensible name of BEHEMOTH, THE SEA MONSTER. Taking into consideration the definition of 'Behemoth', the US moniker of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is awfully redundant. 

Lourie's second creature feature (he'd follow this up with the classic GORGO in 1961) is derivative, overly pedantic, and needlessly talky in places when it doesn't need to be. It does excel in its two leads, but nobody watches a monster movie solely for its acting. Its bread and butter comes late in the game, but the payoff is modest yet satisfying. A mid level 50s monster film, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH always feels like it's missing an ingredient or two that would go a long way to make this a much tastier recipe.

This review is representative of the Warner Bros. DVD.

1 comment:

venoms5 said...

Hi, Oz. Thank you for stopping by. I have you on my roll.

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