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The Giant Behemoth

by Glenn Erickson Jan 26, 2019

“Brace Yourself For A SHOCK!…200 Feet of Living Burning Horror!”  Eugène Lourié’s second feature about an irate sea monster wrecking a city features sober eco-preaching, good performances by Gene Evans and André Morell, and several minutes of exciting stop-motion animation nirvana. One just needs to overlook a few lunkhead effects scenes and concentrate on the key Willis O’Brien / Pete Peterson material. It’s a SHOCK all right — do you prefer to be stepped on like a bug, or fried by a zillion volts of ‘projected radiation?’


The Giant Behemoth
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1959 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 80 min. / Street Date January 22, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Gene Evans, André Morell, John Turner, Leigh Madison, Jack MacGowran, Maurice Kaufmann, Derren Nesbitt.
Cinematography: Ken Hodges
Production Design: Eugène Lourié
Special Visual Effects: Willis H. O’Brien, Pete Peterson, Phil Kellison, Jack Rabin, Irving Block, Louis DeWitt.
Original Music: Edwin Astley
Written by Eugène Lourié and Daniel Hyatt (James), story by Robert Abel & Allen Adler
Produced by David Diamond, Ted Lloyd
Directed by
Eugène Lourié, Douglas Hickox

 

The Giant Behemoth, aka Behemoth, Sea Monster may not have a sterling reputation among monster movies, but it remains a favorite of stop-motion animation fans. We kids in the 1960s would watch the movie repeatedly, checking out the impressive dinosaur credited to the artists that engineered the original King Kong. We were also very aware of the film’s sober tone — its story of a radioactive menace attacking London has no comic relief. The show also taught us kids a few lessons in ‘bad’ filmmaking, in the judgmental sense that smooth continuity is assumed to equal good filmmaking. Even a ten year-old can immediately complain that the movie features a cool animated creature in some scenes, and a lame, stiff hand puppet in others. I remember saving money to buy an 8mm digest version of Behemoth, only to discover that the excerpts exclusively showed the monster’s bad, stiff puppet version.

Only later did we realize that Behemoth was more or less a remake of Ray Harryhausen’s epochal radioactive dinosaur classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Former famed art director Eugène Lourié turned to directing with the beautifully crafted Beast, but only got offers for movies about similar Sci-fi monsters. After filming Paramount’s The Colossus of New York Lourié became attached to a project about an invisible, deadly menace. When the film’s backers rejected the idea at the last minute, it became obvious that they really wanted more of the same, only different. The director drafted a quick retread of Beast. The progression of scenes is so similar that it’s likely that Lourié threw the screenplay together over a short weekend.

A fisherman is burned to death on the Cornish coast, and thousands of dead fish wash ashore. Investigators Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) and Prof. James Bickford (André Morell) investigate, fearing another Lucky Dragon– like atomic disaster. They get as far as finding some highly irradiated fish when more sightings occur. Steve glimpses a ‘Behemoth’ monster at sea, and an attack on a farmhouse leaves behind a giant dinosaur footprint. Eccentric paleontologist Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowran) explains that the Behemoth is electric. When Sampson takes a helicopter up to investigate, the monster mistakes him for Dr. Thurgood Elson, sad to say. Finally surfacing in London, the Behemoth sinks a ferry and then stalks the streets roasting citizens with its ‘projected radiation.’ Karnes and Bickford help the military affix a radium tip to a torpedo; Karnes co-pilots a mini-sub to target Behemoth underwater.

 

Despite the no-nonsense performances of the two lead scientists, Behemoth is shaky screenwriting at best. The storyline is a series of blind alleys. A nice couple in Cornwall (Leigh Madison and 2nd- billed John Turner) are nicely established, only to be abruptly dropped from the storyline. The colorful Jack MacGowran is sadly present for just two brief scenes. The scientists’ investigation of irradiated fish is a dead end as well. There is little human conflict to speak of, just an occasional low-key difference of opinion between Karnes and Bickford. The movie’s American ‘star’ Gene Evans mostly played gruff men of action, starting with the pragmatic Sgt. Zack in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet. Brash but basically likable, Karnes keeps making Cassandra-like predictions of monster mutations before the proof is in. As the gentle, polite Professor Bickford, André Morell projects the patience and prudence he brought to Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass in the original BBC teleplay of Quatermass and the Pit.

 

Lourié has updated the story with some ban-the-bomb alarmism about atom testing — sort of. The over-zealous Steve Karnes says he was present at the Crossroads atom test. He rightly lectures along Rachel Carson lines, explaining that trace radiation will end up concentrated in sea life, the same way that chemical pollutants do. That’s at least more realistic than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, where a single nuclear blast thaws and revives a giant dinosaur, freeing it from its tomb under the Arctic ice cap. Ironically, today’s melting of the ice cap is currently creating a different kind of natural threat, the release of atmosphere-altering methane gas that was trapped below the ice for millions of years.

 

Let’s go detail-crazy on the stop-motion!

Of course, what we 1960s were after was a monster on a rampage, and for all its cinematic shortcomings Behemoth fits the bill, special effects-wise. We kids were appalled by the film’s early cutaways to a rigid, mismatched dinosaur neck and head. The utterly artless ferryboat scene was accomplished with a hand puppet instead of real animation, and the result looks like toys filmed in a bathtub. What we wanted to see were the great scenes using stop-motion animation.

In 1959 Ray Harryhausen pretty much had the field of stop-motion sci-fi to himself. After six full features in which he perfected his ‘Dynamation’ process (using mattes to insert his animation models into pre-filmed backgrounds) Harryhausen had already advanced to bigger productions in color. He had left his competition in special effects wizardry far behind. The animation in 1951’s The Lost Continent had been rudimentary at best. The Nassour brothers’ The Beast of Hollow Mountain used a crude mix of clashing techniques.

Without a reliable producer, the established experts Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson were laboring in equally marginal, unrewarding projects, and in this case were forced to imitate their former pupil. The older specialists invested a great deal of demanding monster animation to the impressive The Black Scorpion. The rear-projection (RP) in Scorpion stuck to older, pre-Harryhausen techniques — instead of splitting a live-action plate for a more photo-real effect, O’Brien and Peterson built elaborate, labor-intensive miniature settings. Many shots in Behemoth place the monster miniature in front of an RP screen, but the split-frame setups most often matte live action only in front of the puppet, placing photo-blowup backgrounds behind it. Most of these work well, but a few don’t — like a flat photo of the towers of Westminster Abbey.

 

The animators use the same kinds of angles that Harryhausen employed for The Beast, in each case to lesser effect — the up angle CU on the monster’s head as it walks, side views of just its legs, a detail of a monster foot smashing a car (repeated three times, each time with a slightly different optical framing). Harryhausen-like split screen shots show Behemoth walking into view and coming forward as crowds of people flee in panic in the foreground. The monster can’t be seen through the windows of a bus, a minor flaw shared by Beast’s Rhedosaurus. The soft overcast look of London isn’t as dramatic as the harder natural lighting in Beast, which allows Harryhausen to throw appropriate shadows onto his monster.

The lack of Harryhausen ‘character’ finesse shows in the quality of the animation. The motions of the Rhedosaurus are far more dynamic — it just doesn’t walk, it shifts its weight in a natural manner, bobs its head and peers around as if looking for something (a mate, perhaps). Peterson’s Behemoth struts rather stiffly, much like the brontosaurus back in the ’25 The Lost World. Behemoth also crashes through a prominent Thames bridge, as did the bronto of olde. Compared to Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, Behemoth lacks personality. He may not be as fast or as frisky, but he does manage a regal, elephantine dignity.

Incidental technical flaws crop up as well. We’re told that Pete Peterson’s tabletop animation work was done in a garage; Harryhausen had the benefit of a dedicated workspace, proven equipment, and help of a father who was a machinist. The mattes frequently shift in Behemoth, and the background projection sometimes freezes for a few frames. The backgrounds for a couple of angles almost look unfinished. The overall design and perspective matching is usually good, though.

In contrast to Harryhausen’s carefully storyboarded filmic sequences, the ‘money shots’ during Behemoth’s rampage are sandwiched between random scenes of people running in fear, few of which seem connected to the monster threat. The optical overlay of ‘waves’ of projected radiation are effective enough, as are the cutaways to horror burn makeup. But the dissolves joining ‘before & after’ scenes of people roasted by Behemoth don’t really work — even in fuzzy TV broadcasts on the old ‘Chiller Theater,’ the poor flat artwork fails completely.

Aided by Eugène Lourié’s designs, the O’Brien-Peterson team pulls off terrific illusions for perhaps four shots, including Behemoth’s initial, spectacular exit from the Thames onto dry city streets. For these the camera is animated as well, pushing in and tilting up, imitating an observer’s POV and imparting a sense of awe to the creature. Behemoth rips a pair of crane structures out of its path, twisting and rolling them to one side. Although oversimplified, the action makes the monster tower over our heads. Despite the lack of finishing polish — more layers of sound effects are needed for the twisting of metal, etc. — this shot and others are awesome.

These eight or nine impressive mastershots and perhaps fifteen more walk-bys and cutaways are the core of The Giant Behemoth. Placed end to end they’d likely be less than two minutes in duration. Parts of most of them are pictured in the film’s trailer, which limits itself to only ONE angle of the car being stepped on.

After the one or two ‘okay’ suspense moments early on, little of Behemoth’s live-action matches the dynamism of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Co-director Douglas Hickox wasn’t given screen credit in the U.S. version, and we don’t know what material was his work. If we tend to credit the best scenes to Eugène Lourié, it’s partly because we can point to similar designs and directorial choices in both Lourié’s Beast and Gorgo: the defense planning rooms, etc.. The weak finale once again puts Gene Evans into a submarine, but doesn’t give him a cigar to chomp. Still, the scenes of Behemoth stomping through London, day and night, always satisfied us monster-hungry kids.

The clarity of HD shows plenty of editorial flaws in The Giant Behemoth. Dissolves catch actors in stage waits, and continuity falls apart when repeated crowd actions become obvious — usually a sign that the editor has been told to stretch limited footage as far as he can, to use everything. When the submarine breaches at the finish, there’s even a sloppy negative cut, that lets through a couple of flash-frames of an unwanted stock shot. Kudos to Warners’ for not fixing this error: for home video, Universal ‘corrected’ a negative cut goof that originally let pass a couple of frames of an optical slate in their monster epic Tarantula. (Note, 01.29.19: We are being told that Warners enlarged a couple of shots, in one case to remove from sight a telltale metal mount for the rigid monster neck and head in the ferryboat scene.)

Anatomy of a (crumbling) animation puppet.

We’re now able to scrutinize the Behemoth animation puppet in Hi-Def, and freeze frame on it. Reportedly built by Phil Kellison, later a supervisor at the busy commercial effects house Cascade Pictures, the Behemoth puppet has qualities of a ‘Kong- era’ built-up ‘Delgado’ model as well as a one-piece cast-rubber item. It appears to have been carved out of solid rubber and then cut open to insert the metal animation armature. At least some of its scaly skin appears to be applied, wrapped and sewn on like miniature upholstery. In frozen frame mode, I think I can see actual stitches. It’s rough around the neck and head, especially visible in frequent up angles.

At slow speed, the close-ups show that the puppet is literally falling apart. Seams in its hide have popped in places, like a Teddy Bear in need of needle and thread. One close-up of a foot reveals that the rubber has crumbled away, where the leg meets the heel. We might even see a bit of the armature within.

In 2011 animator Jim Aupperle posted photos of the actual Behemoth animation puppet on the Classic Horror Film Board. The snapshots were taken when he and Dennis Muren took possession of Pete Peterson’s actual animation models. After twelve years of dry storage, we’re surprised that the puppet looks as good as it does.

The Giant Behemoth is a key film for fans of ‘fifties stop-motion, even if it’s the last of its ilk to be released on Blu-ray. What remains, the marvelous animated brains in the gory German Trick-Filmen sci-fi Fiend Without a Face?  I remember the late David Allen mercilessly critiquing the sometimes crude effects in these vintage shows, only to become reverential about ‘Lost Arts’ and lament that his own projects were hamstrung by even worse producer penny-pinching: “Need an automobile to fall into the Thames? Here’s fifty cents for a Dinky Toy.” Most of my subsequent viewings of Behemoth will be to study the animation scenes by themselves, and I’ll never think less of the artisans that made it.

— Final note: it would seem that both Behemoth and Gorgo were besieged by talent agents looking for bit parts for their hungry actor clients. We easily recognize Nigel Green in Gorgo, in a three- second shot of an army officer issuing instructions. In this movie it’s young Darren Nesbitt, wearing a helmet and microphone rig but still instantly recognizable — if you look fast.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Giant Behemoth is a great widescreen scan of this Allied Artists release. It was a major disappointment at age seven to stare in awe at the poster at the Hickam Base Theater, only to miss out when a big Pacific storm forced the theater to go dark for a night. With its strong yellow background, was that poster painted by Reynold Brown? It has been used for the disc cover art.

The transfer reproduces the film’s familiar soft B&W contrast values, and highlights Eugène Lourié’s occasional striking angles and designs. The clear audio points up the rather light sound effects job but flatters the music score by Edwin Astley (The Mouse that Roared), which tends to add stings behind portentous lines of dialogue.

The busy trailer makes good use of advertising tag lines: “Brace Yourself For A SHOCK!”

First heard in 2007 on a three-title Warners DVD collection called Cult Camp Classics Volume 1: Sci-Fi Thrillers, the commentary by the master effects experts Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett is a definite mixed bag. Perhaps the two were in a foul mood, but they watch Behemoth with an attitude of contempt. One might think they hate movies, the way they diss each scene of ‘men talking in rooms,’ offering ignorant remarks like “Who is that guy?” when the respected actor Jack MacGowran makes his appearance. Although they also communicate little admiration for the effects, we do get to hear the animation sequences analyzed in detail by genuine effects experts. They spot plenty of things I certainly wouldn’t. After listening to Muren, we’re acutely aware that almost every shot has unwanted reflections in the glass barriers set up to create the mattes.

I was around Mr. Muren for several hours in the 1970s, and he did express fondness for old effects pictures, especially Forbidden Planet. And he does become more animated when he describes the day he visited Pete Peterson’s widow, and was simply given a box of (priceless) animation puppets outright. Perhaps Muren needed to be prompted by someone a bit more effusive about vintage sci-fi. On the fine commentary for Innerspace, Joe Dante brought out Muren’s sense of humor by teasing him: “Hey Dennis, is that another fat cell?”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Giant Behemoth
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer, commentary from Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 22, 2019
(5914behe)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.