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Science Fiction Film: the interesting old stuff by Terry Frost
By Terry Frost

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Movie Poster, The Beast I used to have a poster of this dinosaur on my wall when I was a kid. It showed a saw-backed beastie stomping through New York City. It was right up there next to the Peter Fonda-Dennis Hopper Easy Rider Poster.

This was the first post-war giant monster on the loose film. During the fifties they made one of these every fifteen hours or so. As usual, a nuclear explosion wakes the monster, it hits the town and goes buggo, stomping yellow cabs, trashing small buildings with a single swipe of its tail and eating cops who shot at it with woefully inadequate snub-nosed revolvers.

Eventually, the monster is lured into an amusement park, gets its thong caught in a roller coaster and the authorities set fire to the ride, burning it. Had this movie been made thirty or forty years later, there'd be an aftermath scene with giant roast din-ribs in the background a la Dragonslayer, a film which has both the best exploding Sir Ralph Richardson scene ever filmed and the most expensive dragon-gizzard set design in movie history.

Gojira a.k.a. Godzilla (1954)

Don't bother with the Americanised version of this one, with the additional Raymond Burr footage. The Japanese original is much better, even if the SBS dubbing it occasionally humourous. (During an enquiry into the disappearance of ships off the coast, a woman tells a bureaucrat to 'pull his head in'.)

The spectres of Nagasaki, Hiroshima and the Tokyo firestorm haunt the film. It was made by a people who had fresh memories of destruction and it shows. In one scene, villager leaves his family home in a rainstorm to see what all the noise is about and turns to see the house crushed with his family inside.

Movie Poster, Godzilla

On Tokyo subways, people wonder whether they'll have to evacuate the cities again. The terror and suffering are extremely realistic. It's almost as if Japan had been waiting for something cataclysmic to happen and a giant radioactive dinosaur came along to oblige.

The effects are all imaginative and competent; more so than most of the American films in those days. After the initial sight of Gojira's head at the top of the hill, the crowds of people run to the ridge and see on the beach hundreds of feet below, giant footprints and the drag marks of a tail heading into the sea. The scene is both unexpected and very effective. I also like the fact that Big Guns don't trash the monster. A scientist invents a machine that removes the oxygen from the sea and Gojira sinks into the briny until the first sequel.

Parts of the movie have since become genre clichés but even clichés have an origin. Kurosawa it ain't, but after you've seen Godzilla fight everything from giant robot monkeys to monolithic rose bushes, it's sometimes good to go back to the start and wonder what the hell went wrong.

Conquest of Space (1955) This George Pal film has some fine SF stuff in it. A rotating space wheel habitat, Chesley Bonestall backdrops for the Mars scenes and those great acceleration effects where they slick down the actors' hair and blow wind into their faces until their cheeks slide into their ears. Unfortunately, the humans aspects of Conquest are all ludicrous.

No way would the Powers That Be let a rock-dumb religious nut who's a few ROMs short of a motherboard captain the first flight to Mars. And whose idea was it to assume that the crew of the first flight to Mars would include uneducated dorks who act in a wolf-whistle hubba-hubba way while watching chorus girls in a movie musical? But there's fun in cringing at anachronistic absurdities and the religious monologue about 'challenging God' is eminently groan-worthy.

Tarantula (1955) Giant spider on the loose in the desert flick by the best 50s SF director - Jack Arnold. Due to budget limitations which made the logistics of working in a town prohibitive, Arnold invented the isolated-desert-town-attacked-by-something approach to monster films, which is still going strong as recently as in Tremors.

Leo G. Carroll who was also in The Man From U.N.C.L.E plays the mad scientist like Karloff on Serapax. John Agar's the hero. His only claim to fame was that he once married Shirley Temple. You can play spot-the-matte-lines with the spider in the desert scenes and best of all, one of the fighter pilots who napalms the rampaging theraphosid into briquettes is none other than Clint Eastwood! (Feel lucky, giant-spider-punk?)

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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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Filed: 24-Mar-1997 : Last updated: 24-Mar-1997 : Last tested: 11-May-2001: Last compiled:<08-Aug-2014

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