Sunday, July 08, 2007

Tyrant Media Guide: The Giant Behemoth -- Obie’s Last Screen Monster Now on DVD
(An Analysis & Review: Part Three, Conclusion)

Per usual, Warner lists generic running times on their DVD packaging -- Behemoth’s lists a '90 minutes’ running time, but the film actually clocks in a few seconds over 79 minutes, as it should. The DVD offers an excellent transfer of the best print of this film I've ever seen: crisp, clean, sharp and vivid throughout; only the removal (“cleaning”) of darkening filters essential to ‘day-for-night’ shots is regrettable. That said, the inadequacies of the film itself are thus brought into sharp focus: the occasional scratches and grain are flaws of the original negative, not a worn print, and the inconsistencies of grain and image texture between the live-action location filming and various special effects sequences are more evident. Some of these crop up amid stop-motion animation on miniature sets, some amid live-action filming of miniatures dominated by water (which, inevitably, ‘beads’ and betrays the tiny scale of the puppet and props).

Left: Warner's 1997 vhs home video release of Behemoth; to be avoided!

Unlike WB's vhs release of this title over a decade ago, the DVD presentation is complete. As I wrote in Video Watchdog #40 a full decade ago (“The Giant Omission,” pp. 6-7, with additional material by editor and amigo Tim Lucas), the WB video offered a sharp but inexplicably abbreviated print, missing the infamous ferry boat attack scene -- the first monster attack of the film! This sequence is notorious among stop-motion fans for the embarrassing crudity of the live-action puppet effects, which arguably (along with the redundant US title) justifies the otherwise inappropriate relegation of this film to “cult camp” status. The puppet head also serves as the Behemoth’s first and final appearance (in a dry-ice bubbling water tank obviously not part of the rugged live-action seascape the insert shots interrupt), as well as a couple of other insert shots, never looking anything but risible.

For the record (and to assure the comment posters on my previous blog post know I was fully informed as to who was responsible for the effects in this scene), here’s the description of the previously missing footage, as it was published in VW #40:

The trouble begins shortly after the sequence in which paleontologist Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowran) sights the behemoth from a helicopter, which is irradiated by its passage beneath him and explodes -- into nothing. At that moment, his copter disappears from a radar screen being audited by the film’s heroes, Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) and Prof. Bickford (André Morell), and the Warner tape -- instead of cutting to the next scene -- jumps ahead, to a London commissioner advising an associate to “Keep in touch with me by telephone.” He then walks to an adjoining room where Karnes and Bickford are waiting with military personnel for further instructions.

Originally appearing between these two scenes was a 9m sequence... The missing footage is as follows:

* Conclusion of the scene with Karnes and Bickford at the radar station, including brief dialogue concerning Sampson’s disappearance from their tracking screen.

* Stock footage montage detailing the emergency mobilization of military forces by sea and air.

Cue They Might Be Giants: "Put your hand inside the puppet head, put your hand inside the puppet head..."

* Montage dissolves to staged shot of London citizens boarding a ferry. Once the ferry is in motion, the monster attacks. In contrast to the fine work done later in the film by O’Brien, animation assistant Pete Peterson (not “Petterson” as listed in the credits) and miniature designer Phil Kellison, the special effects in this sequence are laughable. Although the monster’s head used in this sequence was built by O’Brien, it was damaged by someone working on this sequence, which is credited to Jack Rabin, Irving Block and Louis DeWitt; as a result, the monster here is nothing more than an immobile head puppet, crudely operated by a stick from beneath the water. Each time the ferry is rocked, or a car falls off into the Thames, enormous beads of water fly up, betraying the true scale of the miniature props.

Cover, Video Watchdog #40, 1997; this issue also features my long review (pp. 55-61) of Fox's laserdisc release of the Ray Harryhausen/Hammer Films classic One Million Years B.C., the only complete edition of the film available in the US. When rereleased the film on DVD, Fox stupidly returned to the cut US theatrical version, missing nine minutes -- including some top-notch Harryhausen animation footage!

* As the ferry sequence ends with a shot of a male victim floating in the river, his radiation-burned face turning slowly toward the camera, we dissolve to a montage of newspaper headlines ("MONSTER ATTACKS LONDON!") and emergency radio broadcasts, accompanied by reaction shots of concerned citizens in the streets and, in one case, in their homes. An old woman listening to her radio cries, “Oh, fiddlesticks!” This montage concludes with a reporter on location, describing into a handheld microphone the military meeting about to occur.

* We cut to a brief sequence introducing the commissioner, who orders the closing of the area around the Thames where the monster wreaked havoc.

* A second montage of mobilized military might. Trucks pull out, infantrymen pour out of trucks, go to doors and round up citizens, evacuating the city. This is followed by shots of the empty London streets, which fade to black. Fade in on the commissioner, saying, “Keep in touch with me by telephone.”

Oddly enough, this ferry attack had comprised most of the film’s 8mm version from Ken Films back in the ‘60s -- both the 50 foot and the longer (approximately 12-15 minutes) 200-foot Ken Films 'cut downs' were constituted primarily of the ferry boat sequence; since I owned that puppy, and it remained until my college years the only portion of the film I’d ever seen, the sequence is burned into my memory and carries all kinds of nostalgic baggage it shouldn’t.

The Black Scorpion insert shot puppet, used for closeups -- and always drooling! The use of insert puppets for monster movies was typical, and not only in stop-motion animation monster flicks; note the hokey spider puppet cut into the otherwise live-action Clifford Stine effects sequences in Jack Arnold's Tarantula (1955)

The ferry boat mayhem was always a clumsy fit with the film’s Pete Peterson and Willis O'Brien stop-motion animation, and must have provoked hilarity in theaters back in ‘58. The use of live-action model shots integrated with stop-motion effects was a familiar tactic, initiated by Obie himself in The Lost World (1925) and, to great effect, in King Kong (1933); in O’Brien-related ‘50s films alone, consider the rod-puppet inserts of the Brontosaurus [sic], Allosaurus, Triceratops and Ceratosaurs in The Animal World, the phony-baloney Allosaurus fake hand and crumpled ‘dino boots’ inserts in The Beast of Hollow Mountain, or the anatomically ludicrous ‘drooling scorpion’ closeups of The Black Scorpion. Even the best live-action puppetry usually meshes poorly with stop-motion puppetry; Behemoth’s broken rod puppet fails to convince even momentarily, lacking any animation whatsoever and incompatible with the animated Paleosaurus puppet’s design -- they look nothing alike!

The ill-used Paleosaurus head Obie constructed for Behemoth, as it appears in the film twice: as the first head shot we see via Karnes's binoculars, and as the last shot we see of the Behemoth's death throes, in placid water bubbling with dry ice 'fog.' The patently fake shot is rendered more risible by the shots of choppy ocean waves framing both inserts -- a typical Block/DeWitt/Rabin effects gaffe (photo source: www.animalattack)

Behemoth’s special effects are credited on-screen to Irving Block, Louis DeWitt and Jack Rabin as well as O’Brien and Peterson; Block, Rabin and DeWitt likely handled the matte paintings (including shots of ‘cooked’ soldier victims) and optical effects (e.g., the animated Paleosaurus outline seen swimming in the ocean from above, the glowing radiation ‘halo’ effect superimposed over the Behemoth). Despite the low regard many fans hold for their work, Block, Rabin and DeWitt were expert in their field -- note Muren's commentary track anecdote -- but they were also businessmen. When low-budget producers contracted them to create effects for very little money, the producers got what they paid for and B,R &DW made their dime, too. This meant that a lot of cheap films with the team's credit byline sported tacky, obvious special effects, but Block, Rabin and DeWitt worked on a lot of films and TV series for over two decades, and even produced their own features, like the very unusual Kronos (1957); they were clearly capable of solid work, when time and budget allowed, which was almost never. They were the Hanna-Barbera of '50s and early '60s special effects: economical, efficient, but uninspired corner-cutting craftsmen filling screen time as and when contracted, and doing so for as little money as possible -- to ensure they and their employers made money. The team were subcontracting any and all stop-motion animation needed on their projects during the ‘50s (e.g., Monster from Green Hell, 1958), or landing sole special effects credit on stop-motion monster pix for which they only provided physical live-action and optical effects while others executed the animation (e.g., The Beast of Hollow Mountain, 1956). The clumsy friction between the live-action and animation effects diminishes the whole of Behemoth. O’Brien and Peterson had given their all as a team to Edward Ludwig’s The Black Scorpion (1957), the last great non-Harryhausen stop-motion monster movie of the ‘50s; on Behemoth, they clearly had less to work with in terms of time and money, reflected in the fact the Paleosaurus commands far less screen time than Black Scorpion dedicated to its lively arachnids.

O'Brien and Peterson's formidable stop-motion arachnid star of The Black Scorpion (1957), Obie's last great monster movie in terms of special effects -- not to be missed!

The Paleosaurus model was also less forgiving or durable than the scorpions, spider and ‘screaming worm’ of Black Scorpion. Vertebrate forms are inherently more problematic to animate than invertebrate forms, and Peterson’s creature designs and models never had the lifelike versimilitude, personality or proportional grace of either those constructed by Marcel Delgado (Obie’s modelmaker of choice from 1925 to 1949) or Harryhausen. Consider his test footage for the never-produced The Las Vegas Monster, a reptilian baboon mutation with two prehensile ‘clawed’ nasal protrusions, like a double-trunked mastodon: though unusual, the creature isn’t convincing, the dual ‘trunks’ look odd rather than threatening or viable, and the anatomy of the whole is oddly proportioned. In this, Peterson’s work anticipates the grotesque anatomical distortions inherent in some of the Projects Unlimited animation models of the 1960s, like those featured in Dinosaurus! (1960, sporting animation models by Delgado) and Jack the Giant Killer (1962) -- another film quite consciously patterned after a successful Harryhausen hit (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), its monsters crudely aping the far more elegant and believable creatures Harryhausen had created. This isn’t meant as a pejorative, mind you, as those critters have their own charm, especially for those of us who grew up with Jack the Giant Killer, and the quality of Jim Danforth’s animation (always superior to that of his Projects Unlimited collaborators Gene Warren and Wah Chang) enhances their presence.

The climactic Behemoth attack on London

That said, the Paleosaurus’s adaptation of the Rhedosaurus body type for Behemoth is quite good, and the model looks terrific in most of the ‘land’ shots, offering a nifty streamlining of generic saurian characteristics. The handful of animation shots in Behemoth are for the most part more imaginatively staged than most reviews acknowledge, with deft illusory depth-of-field and use of lighting throughout, save for the underwater shots of the Paleosaurus. However, the model’s limitations are self-evident to even a casual viewer; it just looks wrong. The swimming Behemoth model poses and brace work look stiff and unconvincing (though nothing is as stiff as that damned puppet head!); it clearly was not designed for this activity. The act of animating the model took quite a toll: note in the repeated shots of the Paleosaurus crushing cars/the car (Chapter 17, “Ashore in London,” 1:01:30-1:02:40), in the second repetition of the action and fullest view of the monster’s stride, you can clearly see the model ripping apart at the heel of the rear foot (at precisely 1:02:20)!

Muren and Tippett note in their commentary that the wear, tear and repairs to the model are evident to the trained eye, and the Behemoth offers none of the distinctive touches of personality Harryhausen (or O’Brien, in his heyday) spiced his creations with. The reptilian texture of the Paleosaurus’s skin enhances the closeups, but the creature looks most alive in the far and medium shots of its metropolitan attack footage and its encounter with the power lines. Even at its best, it’s a pale shadow of what O’Brien and Peterson were capable of -- and was indeed the last of O’Brien and Peterson’s team efforts.

The relative speed and economy which Ray Harryhausen had introduced to the industry in 1953 had irrevocably changed how such films were made, and Obie and Peterson were floundering in what was now a young man’s game. Harryhausen could accomplish more working alone than Obie and Peterson could as a team, and by 1958 Obie’s protégé had left the giant-monster-trashing-cities subgenre behind to elevate his venues to full-color fantasy features, breaking boxoffice records in the bargain with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Harryhausen's efforts were contemporary, innovative and novel in ways no other stop-motion animation features had been since Obie's Kong -- the film that had inspired Harryhausen on his path in life. Sans any relationship or sponsorship similar to the shared proprietorship and partnership Harryhausen now enjoyed with producer Charles H. Schneer, Obie was beached, high and dry.

Less than a year after The Giant Behemoth opened theatrically, producer Irwin Allen -- who had hired O’Brien and his former protégé Harryhausen to create the stop-motion and insert live-action puppet dinosaurs for the opening passage of the documentary The Animal World (1955) -- engaged O’Brien to work on Obie’s long dreamed-of color widescreen remake of his debut effects feature, The Lost World (1925). O’Brien was utterly dejected to find himself relegated to being an ‘effects technician’ on Allen’s embarrassing fusion of miniatures and rubber-customized live lizard effects.

Cover art for the Warner Bros. DVD release of The Black Scorpion: don't let the bogus ad art steer you away, this is an essential companion to The Giant Behemoth, and Obie's last great effort

In the decade after Mighty Joe Young (where Peterson first worked with Obie, as 2nd animator), O’Brien and Peterson had, individually and together, desperately sought venues and/or funding for their own pet projects, never again tasting the resources they’d had at their disposal on Joe. Peterson completed test animation footage for at least two projects which turned up in the Los Angeles trunk Dennis Muren mentions in Behemoth’s commentary track, and that footage can be seen on the Warner Bros. DVD release of The Black Scorpion (“never-before-seen test footage of The Las Vegas Monster and Beetlemen,” running a little over four minutes); note the same DVD offers the only legal release of Harryhausen and O’Brien’s complete 10-minute animated The Animal World dinosaur sequence, making it an essential addition to any Obie and/or Harryhausen fan’s collection (note: the Animal World footage is also excerpted as the troglodyte's 'dream/memory' in Freddie Francis and Herman Cohen's truly abysmal Trog, 1970, featured in the Volume 2 'brick' of Warners' Cult Camp Classics, "Women in Peril," a set worth picking up for John Cromwell's excellent women-in-prison classic Caged!, 1949).

Shunned by the studios, freelancing for indy producers and special effects subcontractors seeking more for less, and unable to get any of their own projects off the ground, Obie and Peterson found themselves unwillingly put out to pasture. O’Brien’s only subsequent animation to reach theatrical audiences after Behemoth was a fleeting, near-invisible bit he completed for the climactic ladder sequence of Stanley Kramer’s Cinerama comedy epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963; note Obie had worked on scenic effects for the original Cinerama opus, Merian C. Cooper's This is Cinerama, 1952). Obie never saw his contribution on the big screen; he had quietly passed away in his home the year before. Among his unfilmed pet projects, two eventually reached fruition: his King Kong vs. Frankenstein proposal was hustled by producer John Beck to Toho Studios and transmuted into the 1962 international blockbuster King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963), and Obie’s beloved cowboys vs. dinosaurs Gwangi -- which had almost reached the screen in the late ‘40s -- was realized by the Harryhausen/Schneer team as The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Harryhausen did justice to his much-loved mentor's pet project, but due to strict Writer's Guild rules, Obie was never credited.

Obie and Peterson's subterranean realm of The Black Scorpion: the most terrifying and evocative stop-motion setpiece of the 1950s

Stop-motion animation fans are an odd breed, savoring careers sometimes measured in mere minutes, even seconds, of screen time -- tracking, tracing and obsessively focusing on years and entire lives poured into fleeting cinematic moments.

Obie was among the true pioneers, and there are riches to be found in a film like Behemoth. The grandfather of all special effects films was revisiting one of his crowning achievements: after all, most of Behemoth after the one hour mark is a revamp of Obie’s glorious Brontosaurus-trashing-London climax of The Lost World (1925). Agreed, it was a pale shadow (though not as pale as Allen's 1960 Lost World remake), but it provided -- provides -- a glimpse of, a taste of, the imagined movie Obie unreeled in his fertile imagination, the only remnant we can see of what might have been. Whatever the conditions, however dire the paucity of money, time and empathy from his contractors and producers, Behemoth is Obie’s final movie monster, and he and Peterson put it through its paces with all the skill they could muster.

Obie
fans and old-timers eager to revisit an era long past will find much to enjoy in The Giant Behemoth’s DVD release. Younger viewers should consider, too, that films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Black Scorpion and The Giant Behemoth were precursors to today’s high-octane CGI-fueled summer blockbusters like Transformers. The CGI feasts of the 21st Century simply wouldn’t exist without the groundwork laid by creators like O’Brien, Harryhausen and Peterson; Phil Tippett’s Imperial Walkers for The Empire Strikes Back and ED-209 for Robocop, and the late David Allen’s fine stop-motion animation work for Stuart Gordon’s Robojox are the bridges between 1957’s Black Scorpion and 2007’s Transformers.

It’s true that Behemoth is a lesser vehicle, but it’s still a treat to savor the last animation the creator of Kong had a hand in, and a pleasure to reassess the vehicle that hosted that final fusion of art, commerce and illusion on its own terms. It’s taken almost half-a-century for Behemoth to resurface complete, in a sharp transfer, sans commercials or TV broadcast cuts. However ungainly its association with Cult Camp Classics, let’s count our blessings.

"Behold . . . the behemoth!"


______________________

All images are copyright their proprietors.

For more on The Secret of the Loch, see http://www.missinglinkclassichorror.co.uk/loch.htm
http://www.britmovie.co.uk/genres/fiction/filmography/023.html

Eugène Lourié’s autobiography My Work in Films (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich., New York., 1985) is readily available for $1-$7.50 (a steal!) from
  • abebooks.com (click this link)


  • Video Watchdog #40 is still available
  • here at Tim and Donna Lucas's Video Watchdog site -- click this link!
  • ($10 US, $13 outside of the US)

    Image sources include:
    Biblical behemoth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behemoth
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziz
    http://www.animalattack.info/PmWiki/BehemothTheSeaMonster
    http://www.badmovies.org/movies/blackscorpion/
    http://www.britmovie.co.uk/genres/fiction/filmography/023.html
    http://www.fantascienza.com/cinema/drago-degli-abissi/index.html
    http://www.monstrula.de/filme/ungeheuervonlochness/ungeheuervonlochnessplakate.htm
    Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

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    3 Comments:

    Blogger HemlockMan said...

    Even though I was well into my 40s by the time I saw it, I have to admit that I actually liked the close-up shots of the bugs in THE BLACK SCORPION. True, such shots are incongruous and cross the line into cheesinessX10, but as a matter of pure shock value, I think they're effective. While I'm sure Obie had absolutely nothing to do with them (or I suspect as much), the drooling bug does a good job of evoking a kind of skin-crawling dread lacking in the performance of otherwise flawless giant armored arachnids.

    (I have to admit that I'm as good as the next fan-boy in evoking admiration of schlock.)

    7/08/2007  
    Blogger Johnny B said...

    For a good ten plus years, every weekday afternoon at 4 CST, there was an afternoon movie on channel 5 out of Nashville, TN., called The Big Show. They would show Elvis movies, Jerry Lewis movies, and other great stuff...but more so, they'd show classic horror movies from the 30s and 40s and all the great giant monster movies from the 50's. I couldn't help but grow up revering these films, even though I knew even as a little kid that some weren't as, shall we say, well-made as others. Of course, all the movies you've discussed- Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Giant Behemoth, Black Scorpion- were screened often, so I've seen them at least a dozen times, I'd bet.

    Just wanted to say great job in dissecting all these films and their video releases- it's been very enjoyable to read.

    7/09/2007  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    One of the most loved films of the 1950's, the Behemoth is great fun. It's too bad that the DVD version, even though complete, is missing almost 1/4 of the viewing picture due to the fake "scope" process. In order to create a 'widescreen' look about 1/8 of the picture is chopped from the top & bottom of the full image frame. Many fans noticed that the VHS release (which is not a complete print) shows much more in the full frame than the DVD release. It is too bad some companies do this to many old films that were not made in widescreen. Please release them as they were made! Also, the commentary track is insulting to fans of the film, Warners should have hired people who actually liked the film!

    4/21/2012  

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