It's a 1950s Giant Rampaging Monster movie. I was cheering for the killer octopus.
There's plenty of good stuff here, if you've lowered your expectations for the 1950s. Ray Harryhausen is the main attraction. His stop-motion octopus sinks a ship, tears up Golden Gate Bridge and goes walkabout in San Francisco. This is cool. Its motion is perhaps a bit ponderous, but something of that size probably would be slow and in any case a giant octopus trashing the neighbourhood is nearly as iconic as King Kong. All movies would be improved by having a giant killer octopus, even one that's only been allowed six legs to save money and hence is really (according to Harryhausen) a hextapus.
Incidentally this is the first time Harryhausen worked with producer Charles H. Schneer, establishing a professional relationship that would span seventeen years and the rest of their careers.
The film looks good, even apart from Harryhausen. There's lots of military hardware, albeit often from stock footage, while it also has the classy factor of black and white. (They'd wanted to do it in colour. No, no.)
The script is also relatively low in stupidity. The monster is plausible, the science isn't ludicrous and there's a modest subtext of the Frankenstein-like dangers of the atomic age, with our giant octopus no longer able to live in its deep-sea native environment due to nuclear tests. It's radioactive. It's explained that fish have a natural geiger counter and so the octopus could no longer catch its prey any more, which would appear to suggest that that there's nothing otherwise threatening about a deep sea monster that can pull ocean tankers in half. (Actually, I'm being frivolous. Down in the deepest ocean trenches where there's no light, that actually makes some sense.)
That's mostly it for the good stuff. The stuff that had me rooting for the monster was the sheer 1950s-ness of its characters. Our submarine captain hero is Kenneth Tobey and he has a romance with Faith Domergue that today would count as sexual harassment. In fairness the script calls him on it, complete with feminist lectures, but even so he's kind of creepy. He's arrogant. His idea of flirtation is to make all of Domergue's decisions for her and to move in so close that he's almost treading on her toes. Domergue for her part is grouchy and charmless throughout the film and you'll be expecting her to bite Tobey's head off... but no, it seems she likes cavemen. Any scene involving the two of them being lovey-dovey made my teeth itch.
However that's just a lack of chemistry. A further annoyance is the way that 1950s thinking has made their civilisation stupid. I don't just mean the people within it, but the way in which society operates.
1. Tobey's submarine is attacked by something huge and unknown, leaving behind a plug of flesh the size of a man... and he doesn't inform his superiors, because he knows in advance that there's no point. They won't believe him. Instead he recruits a couple of scientists, forces them to spend a fortnight analysing his octopus plug and only when that's done does he inform his superiors. (22 minutes have now passed.) The military high-ups now have physical evidence, scientific analysis of it and a U.S. submarine that's been attacked by forces unknown, not to mention stories from other parts of the Pacific about Japanese fishing fleets going missing. What do they do? Ignore it because it sounds silly. Retards.
2. The octopus destroys a ship. We see this. What's more, four survivors are pulled from the water and they got a good look at the monster. However when they're talking to a doctor, the first one to mention tentacles immediately gets sent away to the guys in white coats. Naturally all the others immediately deny having seen anything and that first witness turns sullen and shuts up on the subject.
3. The U.S. military closes all shipping in the North Pacific, causing an international incident, but treats the octopus as top secret!
Now admittedly it's hardly new for the authorities in 1950s movies to be as flexible as reinforced steel girders, but this goes beyond that. It's not just individuals. It's in the social fabric. This is a society designed to ensure that vital information can never make its way up the chain, because only an idiot would do anything but sit on it. You've got to go undercover to learn anything even when talking to an eyewitness. Reporting the facts gets you either stonewalled or certified, so the result is that a senior military captain on a test voyage withholds evidence of a threat to national security and thinks this is normal. Scientists working for the U.S. military get laughed at. This is a movie to make you cheer on a monster that wants to eat the USA, because the entire society is just too stupid to live. (No jokes, please.)
A frivolous counter-reading occurred to me. The movie wants us to believe that the octopus is attacking America in search of food, because being radioactive means it can't catch its normal prey any more. However the drawbacks of this theory are that: (a) it sounds silly, and (b) we never see it eating anyone. Even when rampaging through San Francisco, no one gets scooped up. My alternative suggestion is that the octopus is, thematically speaking, Kenneth Tobey. The first thing anyone says in regard to being radioactive is that it stops you from having children. Maybe the octopus is horny? Its boyfriend got splattered in those nuclear tests and it's come to the surface to cruise for sexual partners. Thus both the monster and Tobey are sex pests with an excess of testosterone, waving about their dicks or tentacles. Both get a telling-off from the target of their affections. Note also the following dialogue. "It only has one vulnerable spot: its brain."
Towards the end, I was even feeling sorry for the octopus. They're bullying the poor thing with those flamethrowers. You could also see poignancy in the moment where the creature, in its last minutes of screen life, opens its gigantic eye to look at two scuba divers (and us).
The cast doesn't distinguish itself, but I had fun looking them up on the internet afterwards. I liked Domergue better in This Island Earth. Kenneth Tobey was of course the lead in a bunch of 1950s genre flicks, e.g. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
, The Vampire and The Thing from Another World
, but that's not the half of it. He was never an A-lister, but he was incredibly hard-working. His first film was in 1945, after which he kept going like a one-man industry right through into the 1990s. His TV work includes Lassie, Starsky and Hutch, Bonanza, Columbo, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His movies include Airplane!, The Howling, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Honey I Blew Up the Kid... not to mention, three years after his death, The Naked Monster (2005). I now want to watch that, just from the title.
The third lead actor is Donald Curtis, who was into world religions and studied with Indian holy men, Buddhist monks and Tibetan lamas. He wrote books like Helping Heaven Happen, Your Thoughts Can Change Your Life, and two years after this film became Minister-Director of the Science of Mind Church in Los Angeles.
The film also has a comic book sequel. It's called "It Came From Beneath the Sea... Again!", it's published by Bluewater Comics and the graphic novel came out in June.
Overall, it's okay. It's a 1950s giant rampaging monster movie. It's easy to ridicule and I've been doing so, but there are similar films that are far more boring, wrong-headed or offensively stupid. It's okay. It looks great. Harryhausen did its stop-motion animation. It's even aware of its characters' stupidity, so Tobey will get lectured, the 1950s conspiracy of silence is hopefully meant to be seen by us as counter-productive and the annoying guy who laughs at Domergue becomes octopus chow. Its token romance is risible, but then again you could claim it's so bad that that it comes full circle and becomes the point, as in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
. I can't say I was bored and indeed I found it reasonably entertaining, so in the end I suppose that's a qualified thumbs up.