It's a rip-off of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
. They'd planned to make a film about an amorphous radation blob, but the distributor demanded rewrites.
What makes it different from that predecessor is that it's: (a) British, and (b) good.
Not everyone agrees with me here, but personally I thought the 1953 original was barely even a film. (It's the one with the Rhedosaurus, in case you'd forgotten.) It has farcical science and a non-story, in which our hero spends the first half of the movie trying to persuade the authorities that he wasn't just seeing pink elephants.
This film though is intelligent. It has good science! 1950 sci-fi was mesmerised by science, but usually in a retarded, toddler-like way. Nevertheless occasionally you'll find something like this or Revenge of the Creature
, in which the science is done according to proper methodology and is accurate. Our heroes here gather eyewitness reports, look for physical evidence and take specimens for testing. Their discussions make sense and are interesting, but furthermore the tests they conduct are real techniques that actually would detect what they're searching for. Look at how they test for radioactive contamination. Do they use a geiger counter? No, because those only detect certain particles. Instead they expose it to film, as is still done today, and a side-effect of this accuracy is that it's more fun for the audience. Fish x-raying themselves are cool.
This would have been nifty even in a modern sci-fi movie, but it's doubly remarkable in an era whose movie scientists are perfectly capable of looking for radioactivity with microscopes.
The film begins with Gene Evans giving a lecture on how pollution gets more concentrated as it passes up the food chain, which is both a real effect and an elegant storytelling device to justify the movie's monster. It's an interesting speech, delivered with enough intensity to give it camp value. Now obviously you're going to have to swallow a lot when it comes to the idea that a population of 200-foot air-breathing dinosaurs has been living unnoticed in the Atlantic until the 1950s, but the idea of radioactive contamination at least explains why its behaviour has suddenly changed. Thumbs up for the film's awareness that this radiation would be killing the Behemoth too. Finally those electrical powers may not make much sense but do at least give us one intelligent moment when the Paleosaurus uses low-power discharges as a navigational aid, just as do real electrical fish.
The electric eel powers, like the jellyfish blobs in the Cornwall scenes, are a hangover from the original version of the film, incidentally. It would be wrong to imply that this film is free of stupidity, though.
1. "What's this stuff?" (touches it) "Aaargh!" This character's burns are later shown to be on the back of the hand, not the palm and fingers.
2. It's radar-invisible. Okay. Why?
3. The Paleosaurus can send out death rays with effects similar to those seen at Hiroshima. Why isn't its own living tissue being disintegrated too, then?
4. That lyrical paleontologist, as well as being a distracting actor, jumps to some surprising conclusions. "Oh, it's headed for the Thames; they always make for the freshwater rivers to die. That's where the skeletons have been found. Some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows where they were given birth." (Wouldn't Londoners would have noticed if the Thames had been a Paleosaurus spawning ground?) "I suppose you know it's also electric."
The Behemoth hardly appears in the first hour of the film, but I didn't care. I was delighted to be following our scientist heroes, whom I could have watched all day. It also helped that Gene Evans is solid in his leading role, while backing him up is none other than Andre Morell (Quatermass and the Pit, The Hound of the Baskervilles
). I'm waiting to be convinced that Morell's a leading man, but I'm always delighted to see him in the supporting cast and here he's as good as ever. It also adds something to the film that Evans is American, while Morell is playing the most impeccably English gentleman imaginable.
So that's the first half. Strong, interesting scientific investigation. It's all good, rather than just the slow stuff you've got to sit to en route to the monster. The second half though wheels out the Paleosaurus, which is lots of fun in its own way too. It even reminded me of Doctor Who. You've got a monster that shoots death rays on the rampage in London in black-and-white, being fired at uselessly by soldiers. The only difference is that this version looks better. There's stop-motion animation (awww) from the guy who did King Kong. The special effects are always cool and entertaining, but can also have a goofy charm. (The modelwork isn't always careful about scale and the Paleosaurus crushes the same car three times.) There's lots of recognisable location shooting in London, creating a strong sense of place.
At the end of the day, this film doesn't transcend its genre. It's a 1950s monster movie, with enough glitches to persuade a good chunk of the world that it's no better than all the others. "You're young and aggressive." There's a line of dialogue that was written before the casting of Evans. Um, well, I'll agree that he's aggressive. There's also a hilarious reaction shot from a policeman, while the Paleosaurus looks adorable when we're underwater.
However it's still good. I liked it. Maybe my brain's melted from watching too many 1950s films, but I did. I think it stands up as a proper movie. I like the actors, the scientific accuracy and the monster effects work. I like the way that Evans's scientific fervour gives him motivation and so he's not merely chasing monsters because the script says so. I like the way the film reminds me of Doctor Who, with for instance the British military not wasting time being incredulous in the face of scientific evidence. I like the way there's no token romance. I liked the scene where the Paleosaurus kills a boy. I liked the reference to the Book of Job, which is yet another indication that the film is being intellectual above and beyond the call of duty, and I liked the punchline. I'd watch it again.