An almost forgotten American monster movie from the 1950s has received a new lease of life after some major tampering with the print. Mark Fraser looks back at a revitalised moment in the genre.
Audience snobs who think the colourisation of black and white films is akin to some kind of cinematic blasphemy may have to reassess their position when it comes to Robert Gordon’s 1955 science fiction opus It Came From Beneath the Sea.
When watched in its original dreary monochrome, the movie comes across as being a tad flat and sometimes just a bit too grainy.
But when embellished with rudimentary colours, the viewing experience becomes a completely different kettle of fish. Suddenly the titular monster’s climatic attack on San Francisco Bay is much livelier than the drab exercise in stop motion animation it appears to be when in its earlier incarnation.
Adding colour also gives a number of night scenes (including one when the giant octopus – which only has six tentacles – sinks a merchant freighter somewhere in the Pacific) better definition and clarity. Even the moonlight being reflected off the water next to a beachside restaurant in Pearl Harbour adds a little more dimension to the picture.
Fortunately the Powerhouse Films Ltd Blu-ray release of the film includes both colourised and monochrome versions of the movie, allowing viewers to make up their own minds as to whether adding colour is, in this instance at least, an improvement rather than a self-indulgent evil.
Certainly the man behind its special effects – the legendary Ray Harryhausen – would probably have enjoyed this upgrade given some of his best known works (like 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the 1966 dinosaur romp One Million Years BC and his final film, Clash of the Titans, which came out in 1981) are all in glorious colour.
Unlike the above-mentioned titles, though, It Came from Beneath the Sea had sunk into the same kind of Hollywood obscurity that many other cheesy American monster movies from the same era have also found themselves – a sad state of affairs given it is a better film than a lot of its peers.
One possible reason for this is the fact its script, by George Worthing Yates and Hal Smith (with the original idea coming from Yates), runs strictly by the book, containing the usual elements of an atomic beast, a heroic US military (this time the navy), some cheaply-staged acts of bravery, a touch of unlikely romance, as well as a climatic attack on a recognisable landmark (San Francisco).
The fun begins when a US nuclear submarine commanded by Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) is interfered with by some unknown force while out scouting the Pacific (in a moment which is kind of reminiscent of the opening of James Cameron’s 1989 underwater opus The Abyss, albeit sans the mass devastation).
On arriving back at Pearl Harbour, some tissue left behind by a giant cephalopod is studied by marine scientists Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Prof John Carter (Donald Curtis), who conclude the monster came from the Mindanao Basin as the result of some hydrogen bomb testing.
Later, when the beastie sinks the freight ship and repeatedly attacks an Oregon beach, the navy decides to lure the creature to San Francisco, culminating in some entertaining chaos as it wraps itself around part of the Golden Gate Bridge before destroying the port’s landmark ferry building.
Putting Harryhausen’s handiwork aside, which is really the only thing that gives this work any kind of historical significance, the melodrama, while overall unremarkable, does have some interesting moments – particularly when it comes to its attitude towards women.
As one of the smartest marine biologists on the planet, Domergue’s Joyce represents “a whole new breed” of females “who feel they are just as smart and just as courageous of men”.
While Carter – who turns out to be the true hero of the film – seems to understand this, her behaviour still perplexes Mathews, who falls in love with the attractive scientist the minute he lays eyes on her.
After they kiss for the first time during a going away dinner (at this point the navy has still not accepted the grim truth it is dealing with a giant octopus), Joyce and Mathews rejoin Carter at their restaurant table, where she informs her new beau that – as planned – she will be leaving the next day.
Although she makes it clear earlier in the film that she doesn’t like people “making my mind up for me” or “being pushed around”, Joyce’s decision to continue putting her career first still upsets the submarine commander.
“Do you mind if I make a mental comment about the nature of women?” Mathews remarks as he abruptly gets up and leaves.
Naturally this is all sorted out by the end of the movie when the naval officer tells Carter (who, strangely, isn’t jealous of the blossoming romance despite working very closely with Joyce for days on end studying the cephalopod tissue): “Say, doctor – you were right about this new breed of women.” (For whatever reason this line of dialogue is almost obscured by Mischa Bakaleinikoff’s score as the film’s closing credit appears.)
Having sat through both the black and white and colourised versions of It Came From Beneath the Sea, it becomes obvious the furore over the colourisation of movies – which was a point of conjecture amongst film makers and critics during the 1980s – was perhaps more of a teapot tempest than the major argument over “cultural butchery” (as put by the Directors Guild of America) that it tried to be.
Of course there are many monochrome works – classic and otherwise – which should never be colourised. And given the fact that not too many of the so-called important black and white films have been coloured-in over the past 20 or so years, it’s unlikely most of them ever will be.
In an article which appeared in The Los Angeles Times on September 12, 1986 (“Film Directors See Red Over Ted Turner’s Movie Tinting”), writer Jack Mathews summed up why some movie makers oppose colouring – namely it changes mood, subverts original concepts, alters subtle lighting and shadows, redirects the viewer’s focus from where the director intends it to be and undermines scenes by giving intentional moments of distorted reality an unwanted authenticity.
This is worth noting because It Came From Beneath the Sea doesn’t suffer from any of these problems. Colourisation does not change the film’s mood, nor does it subvert any of the black and white version’s concepts. It does, though, have an effect on the lights and shadows, but only in an undeniably positive way.
As for the final two points regarding audience focus and the watering down of distorted realities, they probably don’t really apply to this work given Gordon’s direction style is strictly meat-and-potatoes and – at the end of the day – this really is only a B-grade monster movie.
Towards the end of his 1986 article, Mathews threw some of his weight behind colourisation: “The truth is that the quality of computer colour is not as aesthetically awful as we might expect, and it will get better,” he said.
Perhaps he should have added there are a few films which could definitely do with a bit of colour in their lives, with It Came From Beneath the Sea being one of them.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed It Came From Beneath The Sea on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. It Came From Beneath The Sea was released as part of the THE WONDERFUL WORLDS OF RAY HARRYHAUSEN, VOLUME ONE: 1955-1960 limited edition Blu-ray box set on Sep 25, 2017.