Behemoth The Sea Monster

UK/US (1959) Dirs. Douglas Hickox & Eugène Lourié

As we know us Brits decided to jump on the monster movie bandwagon with Gorgo in 1961, essentially Godzilla with a hint of King Kong and classic Ray Harryhausen movies thrown in for good measure. However, we actually had a crack at it a couple of years earlier as this lesser known effort reveals.

Decrying the damage caused to marine life by atomic tests in the Atlantic ocean, US scientist Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) fails to convince the members of a British scientific society with his pleas, save for its head Professor James Bickford (André Morell). As Karnes is about to return to the US, he catches a news report about a man on a remote fishing island who died after apparently being subject to radiation.

Karnes convinces Bickford to join him on a trip to the island where all traces of radiation have vanished, except for a burnt hand of a local man John (John Turner) who touched a blob of it near where the man (Henry Vidon) died. The only clue Karnes and Bickford have are the victim’s last words “Behemoth”, setting them off on a search to discover the cause, and concluding it is a prehistoric beast awakened by the nuclear pollution.

If Gorgo was a riff on Godzilla, then Behemoth reads as practically being a direct rip-off – except it isn’t. Back in 1953 Behemoth’s co-director Eugène Lourié helmed the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (itself based on a Ray Bradbury short story from the 1951 anthology The Fog Horn) which actually pre-dated Godzilla by over a year to become cinema’s first atomic monster.

As legend has it, the original story was less derivative with the titular monster actually being an amorphous blob of radiation, but the distributors insisted they pastiche Lourié’s previous monster film instead, causing a script rewrite by Robert Abel and Allen Adler, which Lourié also contributed to. Quite why this decision was made seems to have died with the idiots that made it, leaving the rest of us to wonder what could have been.

Not everything was discarded from the original script though, evident by the infection incurred by John when he touched a shiny, palpitating blob of radiation at the start of the film – okay, it was really just a lump of foam plastic with air being pumped in out of it but you get the idea, after all it served the BBC well for 25 years of the original Doctor Who run, right?

Essentially following the plot beats of 20,000 Fathoms right down to having an eccentric palaeontologist in Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowran) and concocting a “fight fire with fire” solution to kill the monster doesn’t help the film establish an identity of its own, though to be fair, genre films aren’t exactly shining beacons of originality by definition. Yet there are signs that some thought has been given to distancing itself from its predecessors in subtle enough ways that it can stand on its own.

One obvious difference is this monster isn’t toxic-breathed like its atomic forefathers, instead its weapon of choice is a radiation signal it can somehow emit (depicted via a overlay of circular pulses and an alarm sound) that causes anyone caught in its path to either break out in large, unsightly bulbous pustules on their skin or be frazzled to death.

There is no explanation given as to how this is able to discern which fate to inflict, given it works seemingly at random; meanwhile it only affects some of the people among the fleeing crowds, leaving the others completely untouched. Maybe the beast has amassed a list of enemies over the years and is able to hit selected targets with pinpoint accuracy by design?

Something else the script has going for it is in the refusal to make the scientific jargon as arcane and impenetrable as films tend to have a habit of doing. Everything is easily understandable yet shows no signs of being dumbed down for mass consumption; it is simply laid out in layman’s terms but without the patronising smugness of doing so, making it all sound so relatively plausible.

In the grand tradition of the monster movie, the titular beast isn’t seen until late into the film, although with a terse 69-minute run time making its first full appearance at the 46 minute mark is cutting it a bit fine. Before this we are treated to victims looking up to the sky in horror whilst being bathed in a bright light that eventually takes their lives. When the beast does first reveal itself it is model form, rising up from the Thames to capsize the Woolwich Ferry.

For the rampage through London, stop-motion animation is employed, courtesy of the legendary Willis O’Brien of King Kong and The Lost World fame. These were filmed in Los Angles while everything else was shot here in England. There is a bitter irony to O’Brien working on a low budget knock-off of a successful film by his protégé Ray Harryhausen but at least it gives Behemoth something to hang its hat on.

You won’t find much depth to the characters but that is to be expected for a quick sprint of a film where a giant monster is the main attraction. There is little point bemoaning the fact the main protagonist is a Yank since the producers are American, but Gene Evans makes Karnes an admirable and proactive hero to follow, and like his British co-stars, he show total commitment to the role.

There is something of a parody in seeing working class British folk of the 50’s, sporting their cloth caps, head scarves and handbags, running en masse from a nuclear-powered prehistoric monster opposed to young, casually dressed Americans but that is part of its charm! Behemoth may not be the best of British cinema but is an earnest effort against the odds and worth a look if you have a spare 69 minutes.

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