At some point since I reviewed Gojira last year I learned from the guys I work for (who know Ray Harryhausen) that Ray always resented Godzilla since the whole thing was cloned off of this movie which came out one year earlier. Beast is not only Harryhausen's first solo effort but is also the first movie to feature a monster loosed upon the world by an atomic bomb.
I've always loved the titular Beast from this movie. It's really just a big lizard, roughly the same shape as a colossal dachshund, but something about the lines it cuts in the air -- the profile, the fangs, the ridge of scales going down its back -- have always spoken to some profound, archetypal monster niche deep in my soul. I used to have a great poster that was a screenshot from this flick on my wall in college, and I wish I had it now.
Maybe it was the caramel frappucino I got from Starbucks, but I had a blast watching this. It's basically a template for countless 50's Atomic Monsta films to follow, but like many originals it plays out with an appeal that its copiers never manage.
The story opens with the Serious Narrator, who sets the scene and then never comes back. A bomb test is happening above the Arctic Circle, and the tense-but-capable army personnel stand watch in their smoked goggles. Since this isn't Gojira and the players never had an nuclear bomb dropped on their country, there's all sorts of inspiring banter about SCIENCE. Two scientists head into the snow to collect data from their checkpoints when they encounter a massive prehistoric creature, just freed from its icy prison by the heat of the bomb. (Unlike a lot of its successors, this flick chooses to show the monster almost immediately.)
One man dies in an avalanche, and the other one spends the next 45 minutes trying to convince people he's not crazy. I can't deny that this counts as serious padding, but the script and perfomances play out real enough to keep things interesting. Eventually a respected paleontologist shows up, a likeable old coot with a pretty assistant. I couldn't get enough of this guy, because I love the idea of a world in which paleontolgists are treated with the utmost respect -- in such a world there's an underlying assumption that a prehistoric monster will probably run amok some day, even though it's never happened before and the idea is laughable.
This notion culminates in an exploratory dive that goes bad. By this time a lighthouse has gotten crumbled and the venerable old coot has said "booga booga!" to the military and they've coughed up a boat and a diving bell and guys and everything. Pretty assistant says it's too risky and the old coot invokes the name of SCIENCE and naturally all discussion is shunted aside. Then he gets eaten.
So in the learning institutions in these black-and-white worlds, each professor of paleontology has a day where he pulls the shades down and lock the doors, and the class leans forward in the dark to discuss their secret common goal: monster fighting. "Most of you will spend your lives brushing away acres of dirt with a toothbrush," (here he pauses and one eye gets slightly wider) "... but for that lucky one of you that gets the call when an actual living dinosaur is causing trouble, be prepared to sacrifice everything. For we, gentlemen, are paleontologists."
Eventually, of course, the whole "is there a monster?" plotline is rendered moot when the Beast rampages through New York City, where all the best things happen. Or the worst things, if you're one of weirdos who doesn't like monster rampages.
I have a total crush on the Beast attacks NYC footage. I love stop-motion, of course, since it's where I make my living, but I know that stop-mo/live action never looks very real, exactly. (Machines work better, the strobing somehow fits, as with Empire's snow walkers or the first Terminator endoskeleton.) So it doesn't look real, but it looks... great. Something about the monochrome colors, and the combination of the city's buildings and brick textures against the scaly texture of the Beast, it totally flips my switches.
The scenes of panicked citizens are effectively done, as well. There's a convincing hysteria in the crowd's reaction that heightens the Beast's realness.
Horrorthon by-laws require that I inform you that the big monster attack doesn't occur until about 57 minutes into an 80 minute movie, but I just love it. It may come across like by-the-numbers stuff, but if you embrace the fact that here's where they were first writing down those numbers, you might really dig it.