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It Came From Beneath the Sea

year: 1955
runtime: 79′
country: United States
director: Robert Gordon
cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue,
Donald Curtis, Ian Keith,
Dean Maddox Jr., Chuck Griffithe,
Harry Lauter, Richard W. Peterson
writers: Hal Smith
and George Worthing Yates
cinematographer: Henry Freulich
music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
visual effects: Ray Harryhausen
disc company: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
release date: October 7th, 2008
retail price: $107.95
(Blu-ray only available as part of the
Ray Harryhausen Collection 4-film set)
isc details: Region Free / Dual Layer BD50
video: 1080p HD / 1.85:1 / b/w + colorized
audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
subtitles: English, English SDH, Portuguese,
Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic
(Portuguese, Spanish, French, Japanese for extras)
special features: Audio commentary with
Ray Harryhausen, Remembering It Came From
Beneath the Sea featurette, Tim Burton Sits Down
with Ray Harryhausen featurette, David Schecter
on Film Music’s Unsung Hero featurette, A Present
Day Look at Stop Motion Animation featurette,
theatrical trailers (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,
20 Million Miles to Earth
, The 7th Voyage of
), video image galleries
order this film from
2-disc SD DVD | 4-disc Blu-ray Collection

Plot: A mammoth octopus roused by nuclear testing rises from the Pacific Ocean and attacks San Francisco.

While its low budget production values may hint otherwise, It Came From Beneath the Sea was a landmark science fiction production, worth noting if only for its pairing of stop motion auteur Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans) and producer Charles H. Schneer.  It was a relationship that would last through the end of both men’s careers and result in some of the most beloved fantasy and adventure films of the past half century.   Without it many of us would never have experienced the many voyages of Sinbad, the wonders of Captain Nemo’s Mysterious Island, or Jason’s adventure with his Argonauts.

As with many beginnings, this one was humble.  Schneer was working under contract to legendary schlockmeister Sam Katzman (producer of such anti-classics as The Giant Claw and The Zombies of Mora Tau) at the time he offered Harryhausen his first post-The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms gig.  It Came From Beneath the Sea plays as a reworking of basic ideas from that box office success, sending a giant radioactive menace on a collision course with a thriving American metropolis.  The details may be different, the monster in this case is an octopus and San Francisco the doomed city, but the end result was much the same.  It Came From Beneath the Sea meant big money for Sam Katzman and Columbia, and its success only solidified Schneer’s confidence in the young Harryhausen’s stop motion process.

Kenneth Tobey (The Thing from Another World, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Bigamist) stars as Naval Commander Pete Matthews, who is overseeing the maiden voyage of the latest American nuclear submarine when it has a close encounter with a massive unknown something in the Pacific.  Back in dry dock a piece of fleshy material is discovered on the submarine’s hull, and two marine biologists are called in to classify it.  Between romantic moments and dinner outings (Tobey wastes no time in snagging hotty scientist Faithe Domergue for himself) the scientists discover that the flesh belongs to a gigantic octopus, a finding the Navy begrudgingly accepts after more ships are lost in the Pacific.  With the monster making a bee-line for the American West Coast, it’s up to the scientists and the Commander to come up with a new weapon to stop it.

The screenplay, credited to regular Bert I. Gordon writer George Worthing Yates (The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. The Spider) and Hal Smith (The Defiant Ones), ranks a few solid clicks above the garbage that was to take over the genre by the latter half of the ’50s and certainly serves its purpose.  Dialogue is consistently literate, and even the obligatory goofy science lessons (an embarrassed-looking Don Curtis explaining cephalopod propulsion with a rubber balloon, for instance) are above par.  The narrative falls back on tried-and-true melodrama to provide the majority of the distraction, with ample scenes devoted to the rather cold romance between Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue.  The main cast is a professional lot, though some can’t keep from looking utterly disinterested or even annoyed with the material they’ve signed on to perform.

Actor-turned-director Robert Gordon plays the material in the semi-documentary neo-realist fashion that was popular for such pictures at the time, and keeps things moving and interesting, if formulaic.  Brief snippets of narration (by voice talent William Woodson) accompany many of the non-romantic scenes, but never becomes so overbearing as in some contemporary efforts (like The Deadly Mantis and The Lost Missile).  Gordon builds good suspense on a several occasions and the opening, with the submarine’s sonar display slowly filling with a writhing black blob of contact, is the stuff classic monster movies are made of.  Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s original monster themes, full of brassy power, are great no matter how often we’ve heard them repeated, and were new at the time It Came From Beneath the Sea was produced.  It’s music that figures prominently into my formative childhood memories.

The main attraction of the show, and the reason it was as big a success as it was, is without a doubt Harryhausen’s effects work, which still holds up to scrutiny after all these years.  The climactic assault of his six-armed octopus armature on the famous sights of San Francisco is enough to rate It Came From Beneath the Sea a near classic of the genre, and its dismemberment of the Golden Gate Bridge is one of American science fiction’s most iconic images.  There are more than a fair share of flubs to be seen for those on the lookout, but the experience as a whole is quite effective and it’s still mind-boggling to imagine Harryhausen alone in his rented studio space making it all work.  The details of his labor really come alive in the new high def presentation, the almost sentient attitude of the individual tentacles and even the occasional puckering of a suction cup.

Sony has made a good first effort in committing their extensive science fiction and fantasy library to high definition with their Ray Harryhausen Collection from October, 2008.  The set includes he and Charles H. Schneer’s first four productions under the Columbia banner from this film through Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  While 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad are both available separately, the Blu-ray editions of It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers are at present only available as part of this collection.  2-disc SD DVD editions of both are available for purchase individually, with identical supplemental content, and I’ve linked to the SD release for It Came From Beneath the Sea at the start of this review.

The dual layered Blu-ray of It Came From Beneath the Sea combines all the contents of the two disc set in one easy-to-use package, one of the major benefits of the new format for those like me who are quickly running out of shelf space for multi-disc editions (apartment living will be the death of me).  The disc comes with two 1080p 1.85:1 editions of the film, the original black and white and the new colorized variant handled by Legend Films.  Having watched both and given the colorized version its fair shake, this reviewer will be sticking with the black and white original.  The color transfer has a rather processed look to these eyes (understandable given the technique) and while colorization practices have certainly improved since the days when King Kong was fighting a T-rex in cool pastels on TNT, they’re still a far cry from perfect.  Skin tones in particular are flat and lifeless, and some of the effects, like the sunset colors in the background of the mid-film romantic dinner, are flat out terrible.

Both transfers are sharp and very well defined, and have obviously undergone some restorative work to get rid of damage.  The crisp, clean black and white variant is a startling improvement over what I remember seeing on TV as a child, which made the beautiful Faith Domergue appear positively morose.  The experience was like seeing the film for the first time.  The feature is alive with film grain, in understandably higher amounts during the stock footage and effects scenes, and I’m happy to see that no effort was made to smooth it out.  Audio is a powerful Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, which sounds great to these ears (Bakaleinikoff’s themes burst through the opening credits) even if separation is limited.  No original monophonic track is offered.  Subtitle options are extensive (see the full list at the top of this article) for this all-region disc, and even include Portuguese, Spanish, French and Japanese translations for the supplements.

Supplements are surprisingly stacked compared to the SD edition from 2003.  The feature commentary, featuring Ray Harryhausen and effects artists Randall William Cook and John Bruno, is lively and informative, and Harryhausen’s memories are still pretty clear after all these long years.  Next up are a host of featurettes (totalling 83 minutes), including one devoted to Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s work for Columbia hosted by David Schecter (see the full list of featurettes at the top of this page).  Also included is a digital preview of the comic book continuation of the story, It Came From Beneath The Sea Again.  All supplements appear to be 480p SD with the exception of the trio of trailers for the rest of the films in the set, which are all Mpeg-2 encoded HD.  Oddly, the trailer for It Came From Beneath the Sea itself is omitted.

It Came From Beneath the Sea comprises 1/4 of the most expensive home video purchase I’ve made in a while, and I dare say it was well worth it.  The fact that the first two titles of the Ray Harryhausen Collection are only available as part of the collection will infuriate some, especially those who already own the Blu-ray releases of 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  That said, my advice is to suck it up, sell your dupes, and pick up the whole set – in my mind, even a sci-fi programmer like this is worth the HD upgrade.  The 2-disc SD package is available otherwise.  The film itself is a minor classic made at the cusp of that mid-50s genre nose-dive, and comes recommended.

order this film from
2-disc SD DVD | 4-disc Blu-ray Collection

3 thoughts on “It Came From Beneath the Sea

  1. Sorry, but the wonderful story of actor Hal “Otis” Smith writing this movie is bosh. The actor was Harold John Smith; the screenwriter was Harold Jacob Smith, who’d been writing (usually as Hal Smith) since at least 1943. He eventually was nominated for an Oscar for his work with Stanley Kramer on THE DEFIANT ONES and INHERIT THE WIND. The other Hal Smith, on the contrary, made quite a living as a voice-over and character actor. Different guys.

  2. Thanks for that – I was going by the IMDB’s listing (I find myself depending on less and less anymore for real information), which still links in to the filmography for the actor. I’ll update the article momentarily.

  3. actually this colourised version was done by west wing studios,not legend films.i find the colourised version very good like the sea shots.they look like actual colour footage.

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