I finished watching It Came from Beneath the Sea, which I regret, particularly because the whole reason I didn’t shut it down was for the big special effects finale, when the giant radioactive octopus finally attacks a city. Incidentally, it’s San Francisco, which doesn’t turn out to be anywhere near as cool looking as I had hoped.
The film dashes hopes early on, so when you’re sitting through the second act slog, you know there’s no good reason to be doing it, just that expectation the grand finale is going to be worth it. Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work is, after all, objectively stellar.
Sadly, not much of that quality is on display in Beneath. When we finally get to the giant octopus making landfall and giant tentacling the city… the detail’s not good. Because Beneath is way too cheap. It’s been way too cheap and you can kind of get yourself enthused by convincing yourself the cheap for the human science thriller is so there’s enough money for the finish and then… turns out no. It’s just too cheap.
Too cheap, too poorly directed, too poorly written, too poorly acted. And whoever did the light matching on rear screen projection—photographer Henry Freulich, whoever—might be so bad they’re incompetent at it. There’s no reason it should always look so bad, especially when there’s so much of it. There’s a particularly bad scene with the heroes in a beachfront restaurant where you have to remind yourself to pretend the background is supposed to represent something real to the characters.
Of course… maybe if the acting weren’t terrible. So I guess let’s get into how the acting, directing, and writing all congeal into a toxic slop.
From the first scene—well, actually earlier because the opening text crawl is poorly written and then the narration is not a good choice—but from the first live action scene, it’s clear Beneath is going to have some major acting and directing issues. What isn’t clear, from that first scene, is how bad Kenneth Tobey is going to get; he plays a submarine commander who comes across the giant octopus but doesn’t know what it is. Chuck Griffiths is his XO. Griffiths gives such a terrible performance you can’t see anything else. Time stops for Griffiths’s awfulness. It’s incredible.
Somehow, even though it’s not obvious Tobey’s going to be bad, Gordon’s direction is clearly at fault for some of Griffiths. Because Gordon’s directs all the other actors on the submarine terribly as well. Lots of quite bad acting from a variety of actors, which is going to all change when Tobey gets back to the Nazy and off the ship.
Because then it’s going to be creepy sexual innuendo with Tobey and two scientists working on a lab to discover what he found out at sea. Presumably through tissue tests but the science is never explained because George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith’s script is dumb.
It’s also extraordinarily sexist. Like, unpacking everything up with Beneath and its single woman—marine biologist Faith Domergue (doing a dinner theatre Marilyn Monroe impression)—would deserve thorough scholarly research if the movie weren’t just a fifties monster movie.
So in the lab it’s Tobey, Domergue, and Donald Curtis. Curtis and Domergue are not hooking up but Tobey thinks they’re hooking up because if he were Curtis, he’d be hooking up with Domergue. Domergue doesn’t seem to have considered hooking up with Curtis, but then starts to make bedroom eyes at him… after having an extremely suggestive clutch with Tobey out of sight from Curtis.
During this scene, while Tobey explains he wants to hook up and fast, Domergue picks up graduated cylinder and strokes it with her hand the rest of the scene.
Later we find out Domergue’s from a “whole new breed of woman,” they think they’re just as smart and just as brave as the men, which is why Domergue doesn’t know consent is bad—Tobey tells her Navy men take, don’t ask—and if she enjoys a kiss, she has to marry that guy.
I can’t remember if that scene is before or after the Navy sends Domergue into debrief a sailor who has seen the giant octopus and she has to seduce him to do it.
I think after.
So, yeah, It Came from Beneath the Sea is a shit show of misogyny, sexism, and male gaze (Tobey and Domergue are also apparently into each other because they’re exhibitionists; while waiting for Curtis to show up later in the movie they’ve been From Here to Eternitying it on the beach with a local cop hanging around nearby). It’s also a bad movie, with bad direction, bad acting (Curtis is somehow worse than Domergue, who’s somehow worse than Tobey, even though she’s his victim), bad writing, and not worth the wait special effects.
There are like two good effects shots in the movie. But it seems like it’s because they didn’t have money to let Harryhausen do a grander finale. The eventual shots of the octopus on land, tentacles going through the streets, are the good ones. They’re just aren’t good enough to make up for the rest. It’d be impossible to make up for the rest. Because the rest isn’t just bad, it’s icky. And bad.
Directed by Robert Gordon; screenplay by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith, based on a story by Worthing Yates; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Jerome Thoms; produced by Charles H. Schneer; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Kenneth Tobey (Cmdr. Pete Mathews), Faith Domergue (Prof. Lesley Joyce), Donald Curtis (Dr. John Carter), and Chuck Griffiths (Lt. Griff, USN).