The island of Manhattan has endured its fair share of monstrous destruction through the years. Starting with a certain giant ape who made a big hit on the streets of New York in 1933, the city has weathered attacks from all manner of celluloid beasties. Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, wolf people, gremlins and giant marshmallow men are just a few examples of the Big Apple’s destructive visitors.
Two decades after young Ray Harryhausen watched the mighty KING KONG fall hard for Fay Wray, the animator was awarded the job of bringing another animated creature to midtown. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS was Harryhausen’s first solo effort in the profession that he would dominate for nearly three more decades.
After a hydrogen bomb is detonated in the arctic, a prehistoric Rhedosaurus is released from hibernation. Professor Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is the only one who sees the dinosaur, but no one will believe his story.
Pretty soon afterward, mysterious destruction and capsized ships are reported along the eastern seaboard. Nesbitt is convinced it is the work of his defrosted Beast, and seeks the support of noted paleontologist Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway). The old doc is skeptical at first, but as the incidents mount his resistance wanes.
Nesbitt talks his Navy colonel pal Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey) into letting Professor Elson take a ride in a diving bell, with the hope they might catch a glimpse of the creature. After a bit of marine animal stock footage, the Rhedosaurus shows up and quickly turns Elson into a boxed lunch.
The mourning period for the professor is short, however, as the Beast surfaces at the city docks and starts stomping through town, eating cops and crushing cars. To make things worse, it is determined that the monster’s blood contains a deadly virus, and the army troops are dropping like flies.
Finally, after some considerable destruction, Nesbitt suggests killing the Beast with a radioactive isotope. Sharpshooter Lee Van Cleef is brought in to fire the lethal dose into the creature’s throat, leading to an exciting final act set within a burning Coney Island rollercoaster.
Released in 1953, THE BEAST was the first of many atomic bomb monster films of the ’50s, and easily one of the best. Director Eugène Lourié wisely reveals the monster very early on, and then peppers his appearances throughout the first half of the film.
Once the Beast hits Manhattan, it’s practically non-stop stop-motion action. The scenes are visually stunning at times, such as the Beast in the snowy glacier, the sinking of a cargo ship, the attack on a lighthouse (directly from the Ray Bradbury story that inspired it), the rampage through Times Square and the beautiful fiery climax.
Nearly thirty years later, director Larry Cohen brought his unique brand of quirky horror to the giant lizard-on-the-loose game: when pretty midtown rooftop sunbathers start getting torn to shreds, detectives David Carradine and Richard Roundtree are baffled.
Meanwhile, small time crook Michael Moriarty botches a diamond heist and flees to hide in the spire of the Chrysler Building… where he discovers a giant winged serpent nesting in the attic.
Moriarty first tricks his unsavory heist-mates into walking into the jaws of the creature, then starts thinking big. He plans to extort a huge payout from the city of New York in exchange for the location of the deadly reptile. However, there is also a crazed secret Aztec cult leader who must sacrifice humans to his lizard-God, so that throws a monkey wrench into the works.
Only in New York City could a giant flying reptile swoop overhead in broad daylight, gobble up window cleaners and hide in iconic structures… and not be noticed.
Everything goes wrong for Moriarty, and Carradine discovers Quetzalcoatl’s hiding space in the tower. The dragon is taken down with a hail of firepower, and Carradine even saves Moriarty from a sacrificial death by the crazy cult leader.
All is back to normal in New York… almost. The final shot suggests that the serpent was more fertile than the heroes suspected.
Q is an odd 1982 throwback to the big beasts of the 1950s, with the focus on character rather than critter. Moriarty gives his standard twitchy, off-kilter performance, and Carradine does an acceptable “world weary cop” routine. But the star of the show is Quetzalcoatl herself — a flapping, screeching shaved bird-looking thing.
The design itself may not be quite as spectacular as Harryhausen’s, but animators Randy Cook and Dave Allen definitely bestow life into her. Like the Beast, we feel empathy toward the creature as she faces her demise.
Eugène Lourié must have felt sorry for his Beast; he went on to direct two similar films that featured prehistoric beasts destroying a major city. He decimated London twice — in THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO. But in the case of the latter, he allowed Mama Gorgo and her child to survive in the end.
Luckily, they steered clear of New York City…