While it doesn’t get much recognition these days, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is an incredibly influential movie. With a script based on a short story by the incomparable Ray Bradbury and special effects by stop motion wizard Ray Harryhausen, this movie essentially laid out the formula for dozens if not hundreds of monster movies to follow, and helped build what I call the Atomic Horror genre. Without it, there would be no Godzilla, Gorgo, Gamera, and countless other atomic leviathans of the silver screen.
The film begins as many movies would do in its wake: with a nuclear blast. The bomb is tested in a remote location few humans visit. It revives a long dead/dormant creature that doesn’t belong in our modern day and age, creating a horror that would not have existed if mankind had not been so fool hardy. The monster proves almost impossible to vanquish, with all of man’s conventional efforts failing to work. Eventually a scientist sits down and, after a lot of thought, comes up with a proper solution to the mess. The monster is slain and the day is saved… OR IS IT? So goes The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and likewise, so went its many imitators.
The effective story formula isn’t the only reason the movie succeeded. As I said, its monster was brought to life by stop motion master Ray Harryhausen, and good old Ray is rightly revered because he brought so much life and personality to his creations. While the Rhedosaurus is fierce and menacing, there’s a predatory nobility to the creature, and it is given ample moments of pathos when it comes into conflict with the modern world. Through little touches in the monster’s body language and expressions, Ray makes the beast more than just a force of conflict. The Rhedosaurus is a living creature, a vicious one granted, but one that is also lost and in some way terrified by the strange world of man it’s been thrust into. Despite all the havoc the beast causes, one can’t help feeling a little sad when the poor brute meets its untimely end.
One of the really interesting things about the Rhedosaurus is how little it actually resembles what we now know about dinosaurs. It shows how much our conception of those creatures has shifterd – back in his day, dinosaurs were just big lizards, and that’s what Rhedosaurus looks like: a big lizard. The Prehistoric Monster Archetype was so strong back then in part because it seemed scientifically accurate – we believed that all dinosaurs were big, armored, deadly murder lizards, or, in other words, real life dragons. This myth about dinosaurs is only recently being challenged by science, and it seems the public is really reluctant to let go of their Prehistoric Monsters.
The Rhedosaurus is a pretty cool monster, but outside of Harryhausen’s stunning animation, he’s ultimately a very simple one. As I said, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms laid out the formula for a standard Atomic Horror monster movie. That does not mean it perfected it, and while Rhedosaurus paved the way for the monsters to come, it is the beast’s sad fate that he was ultimately outshined by monsters that took the archetype he presented and built upon it to craft even more complex and tragic tales. Still, while he may have been outshined by his successors, we owe Rhedosaurus a great debt, and at the end of the day a simple prehistoric monster is still a wonder to behold.