Friday, July 06, 2007

Tyrant Media Guide: The Giant Behemoth --
Obie’s Last Screen Monster Now on DVD

(An Analysis & Review: Part One)

[In the Tyrant year or two, I enjoyed writing and publishing the following kind of in-depth review or article on dinosaur films that few other publishers would offer a venue for; only Mike Dobbs at Animato and, more often, Tim and Donna Lucas at Video Watchdog would indulge such lunacy. Here's a two-parter, running today and tomorrow; Tyrant and dino movie fans, enjoy; DVD collectors, check it out. Enjoy!]

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The Giant Behemoth (1959; UK title: Behemoth, The Sea Monster) is one of those titles -- like Manos, Hands of Fate (manos, natch, being Spanish for ‘hands’) -- one simply resigns oneself to. Yes, it means “The Giant Giant” (see Bob ‘Hemlock Man’ Smith’s comment to my first Giant Behemoth post, last Wednesday; duly noted, Bob). Given the presence of Behemoth in both the UK title (arguably the original title, since this is a British film, though it was initially released in the US) and better-known US title, I’ll just call the film Behemoth for the purposes of this essay. Cool?

Behemoth has been slighted for generations, which is too bad. To my mind, it’s a significant work and quite enjoyable in and of itself. It’s widely acknowledged -- and mourned -- as the last monster movie from the father of King Kong, Willis O’Brien. “How the mighty had fallen” is the consensus view, an unfair assessment of the film, O’Brien’s career, and his fellow (and the film’s chief) animator Pete Peterson, whose work here and in the equally impoverished Warner Bros. animated-monster opus The Black Scorpion (1957) remains extraordinary, given the conditions O’Brien and Peterson labored within. [Tyrant fans, note: I wrote at length about another O’Brien-related film from this period, The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), in Tyrant #3; note a recent issue of Filmfax offered a remarkable reconsideration of that film, O’Brien’s role in its creation and its producer Edward Nassour, via an interview with Nassour’s son; I’ll not get into that film here.]

Biblical Behemoth: "Behemoth and Leviathan," by William Blake

This dismissal also short shrifts Behemoth’s peculiar stature in its genre. "And the Lord said, 'Behold . . . the behemoth!'" the pre-credits voiceover thunders. Biblical references in ‘50s giant monster movies had been de rigueur since Edmund Gwenn’s penultimate line of dialogue at the end of Them! (1954): “We may be witnessing a Biblical prophecy come true: the beasts will reign over the earth...

Behemoth certainly invited a more direct Biblical context via its title; the Behemoth remains (with Leviathan and the whale that swallowed Job, directly referenced by the preacher reading over the grave of the Behemoth’s first Cornwall victim) among the most-cited of Old Testament monsters, sans the iconic presence and personality of Lucifer.

Nevertheless, Behemoth soft-pedaled the calculated Biblical resonance of its own titular monster (the wholly imaginary “Paleosaurus”), sublimating that into its first human victim’s dying words; Behemoth had bigger fish to fry, folding the Atomic Age dread of every other giant monster movie of the decade into the environmental consciousness and fears of the next.

Biblical Behemoth: illustration from Ungeheuer Leviathan, Behemoth und Ziz Bibelillustration, Ulm, 1238 (Picture taken from German Wikipedia, uploaded on 8. Okt 2005, 12:53 by de:Dr. Meierhofer).
  • For more on the Biblical behemoth, click this link.

  • Rachel Carson, not the Old Testament, defines Behemoth’s narrative catalyst and thrust. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King cites Del Tenney's The Horror of Party Beach (1964) as the nominal spearhead of the ecological/environmental horror film, but Behemoth was there five years earlier, explicitly citing the deadly conjugation of food chains and H-bomb tests: the lethal condensation of radioactive pollution (from nuclear bomb tests) in ever-larger oceanic life forms was the new harbinger of doom. Destructive as the Behemoth was via traditional ‘big beast’ mode, crushing buildings and stomping vehicles, its scorching radioactive ‘aura’ is far more toxic, killing every living thing in its wake. Slow Death, here we come!

    Behemoth is now on DVD from Warner Home Video, available individually or as one of three titles in Volume 1 of the 4-boxed-set Cult Camp Classics treasure chest just released last Tuesday. Fans of giant monster, dinosaur and Willis O’Brien (aka ‘Obie’) movies have long awaited this film arriving on DVD, having to satisfy themselves with bootlegs to offset the highly unsatisfactory Warner Home Video vhs release of 1997. That version was inexplicably incomplete, shorn of a full 9 minutes (more on that tomorrow); this has been at last rectified with Warner’s DVD edition.

    Behemoth also completes the DVD release of the seminal ‘50s ‘dinosaur trilogy’ of director Eugène Lourié, which began with the influential Ray Harryhausen effects classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and culminated in Lourié’s melancholy, oddly moving ode to motherhood Gorgo (1961); only Lourié’s non-saurian sf gem The Colossus of New York (Paramount, 1958) has yet to see light of day in any legal home entertainment format. These are all reasons enough for me to celebrate Behemoth’s DVD release.

    The entire Cult Camp Classics lineup is of interest, each boasting a worthy highlight or two. The companion films in this first volume ‘brick,’ Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and Queen of Outer Space (both 1958) -- all three titles were originally Allied Artists productions and releases -- are venerable chestnuts beloved by cheapjack sf film fans and camp-lovers alike, alone justifying the unwieldy and not entirely apropos Cult Camp Classics moniker (few of the films in the sets are cult, camp or classic).

    How ‘cheapjack’ were these films in their day? According to no less an authority than Arthur Knight (one of America’s premiere critics and film historians of the ‘50s and ‘60s, author of The Liveliest Art), “producers... calculate that the margin of safety -- the production cost for a film on which profit is assured -- has dropped to around $150,000. For this kind of money it was possible to turn out the innumerable rock’n’roll musicals, teen-age delinquent melodramas and gimmicked science-fiction thrillers that crowded the American screen in 1957-58, films as elementary in their themes as in their production techniques” (Knight, “The American Scene, 1957-8”, International Film Annual No. 2, edited by William Whitebait, aka G.W. Stonier; John Calder Ltd, London/Doubleday, New York, 1958; pp. 12). Knight cites “a modestly budgeted picture” from the major studios then “costing between $250,000 and $750,000 to produce,” and “most problematical” at that; thus, the three films in the Cult Camp Classics volume under consideration here were clearly in the $150,000 or less budgetary range. Keep that in mind as you read on.

    Attack of the 50-Foot Woman was among the cheapest of the pack, and as such has, like Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space, earned its stature as one of the worst and most entertaining of all 1950s sf films via decades of late-night TV broadcasts and home video exposure. Like Plan Nine, it has also resisted all attempts to profiteer from its uncanny chemistry, including Christopher Guest’s made-for-cable remake and Fantagraphic’s planned Monster Comics adaptation (an aside: when I questioned the wisdom of such a venture in a phone conversation with Monster Comics editor Gary Groth lo those many years ago, noting what made the film entertaining simply could not be translated to a comicbook, he replied, “Well, Dave Stevens will do the cover” -- the sole opportunistic reason for the enterprise; thankfully, I don’t think the comic ever saw light of day, and Fantagraphics’ disdain for and misunderstanding of the genre as a whole soon brought the Monster Comics line to its demise). Queen of Outer Space is the ideal co-feature, and if possible even an odder duck. It’s possibly the first calculated studio ‘camp’ creation, though that conceit flew well under 1958 pop radar: Queen was sold as just another sf opus, milking all the box office it could from the merger of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s inexplicable celebrity and the waning popularity of space travel sf movies. It would take the even stranger fusion of Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp,” producer William Dozier, screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, 20th Century Fox and Batman to thrust camp into mainstream acceptance and marketability a few years later.

    Unlike the black-and-white 50-Foot Woman, Queen remains a colorful romp with the added Three Stooges association of director Ed Bernds (having directed their early shorts and key 1960s features) to spice the brew for diehard fans; both movies are great fun on their own terms, and they’ve never looked better. These two discs also benefit from commentary tracks hosted by the venerable Tom Weaver, interviewer extraordinaire, whose knowledge, insights and ability to keep his subjects on task and fully engaged have made many a DVD purchase worthwhile. Weaver and ‘50s sf femme fatale Yvette Vickers spice Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and the Queen of Outer Space herself Laurie Mitchell sweetens that DVD. Tom is an always-generous co-host, gracing his conversations with readings from the original scripts of deleted sequences (something Laurie Mitchell indulges with pleasure), trivia and tidbits about the casts and crews, and even the reappearance of key props (e.g., the rocketship and giant spider in Queen) in other films. Weaver’s generosity in Queen manifests unexpectedly in his presenting Mitchell with a replica of the Queen mask, a gesture Mitchell is audibly touched by, enhancing the experience for the listener, too, with its warmth. For the commentary tracks alone, I cannot recommend these two discs highly enough to fans of either film or ‘50s sf in general, but I must emphasize the image and audio transfers are stellar, transcending any and all prior releases in any format.

    But my first love for stop-motion animation in general, and the work of King Kong animator Willis O’Brien in particular, is what made this boxed set an essential purchase. The Behemoth -- by any traditional critical standard, easily the ‘best’ (but not the most entertaining) film in the set, which may sound like damning with faint praise -- finally receives a proper home theater release via this DVD. Behemoth has been restored to its full running time and format, with a commentary track by stop-motion/CGI and all-around special effects gurus Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett.

    Alas, Muren and Tippett, though personable, don’t come prepared as Weaver always does. The Behemoth’s commentary is what it is, two now-seasoned veteran special effects professionals chatting over a film neither evidences much knowledge or affection for, though Muren is clearly familiar with the film (he anticipates the repetition of the car-crushing shot, and the extension of the few animation sequences via optical blowups and such). As a lifelong fan (I saw Equinox -- twice! -- at my local drive-in) of both Muren and Tippett and their work (I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Tippett for my good friend G. Michael Dobbs’s tenure as editor of Animato, in conjunction with the release of Dragonheart), I found much to enjoy in the commentary, including the rapport these longtime friends enjoy, but couldn’t help wincing at times. Factual errors and constant oversight characterizes the conversation, offset by the preparation Muren did see to, his reading of the relevant passages in Eugène Lourié’s autobiography My Work in Films (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York., 1985) provide fleeting insights; we could have used more of this! Both men recall working early in their careers with veteran animator (and recently deceased) Phil Kellison, who indeed was part of Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson’s team on Behemoth. As both Muren and Tippett note, Obie’s team constructed some very inventive shots incorporating effective camera movements, and Kellison’s miniature constructions enhance these setpieces with great economy and visual skill.

    Commentary highlights include Muren’s anecdotes about an expedition with Jim Danforth into a backyard in Los Angeles, where a trunk filled with animator Pete Peterson’s memorabilia malingered -- including the Behemoth model itself!

    British film industry and beloved Hammer Films thespian André Morrell as Behemoth's Atomic Commission official Professor Bickford

    Still, these are rather inchoate observations and memories, randomly touched upon, and the lapses sadly carry the day. In the opening minutes of the commentary track, neither Muren nor Tippett can recall when the film was made (their best guess, 1957, is off by two years: the film opened in the US in the spring of 1959, and the UK that fall), nor when they might have first seen it, nor do they recognize any of the actors in the film. The latter is most unfortunate, given the rich cinematic heritage associated with stars Gene Evans (Sam Fuller’s favorite lead and surrogate in Fuller’s key ‘50s films, and costar of the 1953 Donovan’s Brain), André Morrell (a solid British character actor who played Professor Quatermass in the original BBC serial Quatermass and the Pit, and frequent Hammer Films vet who graced gems like Hound of the Baskervilles, Shadow of the Cat, She, Plague of the Zombies, etc.) and support players like Jack MacGowran (Roman Polanski made optimum use of MacGowran in Cul-de-sac and as the eccentric vampire hunter of The Fearless Vampire Killers). This is the meat of most commentaries, the kind of opportunity an experienced film historian like Tom Weaver would have had a field day with.

    Muren and Tippett come across as old pros, not fans -- they’ve been too busy making films, not watching and studying them, to serve a fan’s needs on any but their own incredible bodies of work. As busy, active working professionals, they’re talking off the top of their heads throughout, having done little or no ‘homework’ to sharpen memories or provide some context for their chat. Thus, they misremember many tidbits of our generation’s shared sf film heritage, the kind of trivia fans cling to. These lapses include complimentary narrative points with as primary a film as Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (both the Beast and Behemoth are radioactive ‘Typhoid Marys’, the symptoms quite different: once spilled, the Beast’s blood contaminates those exposed to it with radiation sickness, whereas contact with the Behemoth literally cooks any who cross its path). Tippett at one point conflates the two actors who played the scientists in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! (Cecil Kellaway and Edmund Gwenn, respectively), fudging his point in the bargain; Muren and Tippett often let their conversation wander and drop (“Shouldn’t we be saying something?”), lapsing into repetitive derision of the film’s padding (worth noting initially, indeed, but not interminably) and mocking both adherence to the period/genre clichés and deviation from those clichés -- a lose/lose proposition for the film and any serious viewer/listener. Though this never degenerates (or soars) into MST3000 turf, and is tolerable enough coming from such seasoned filmmaking professionals. Less excusable are their shared assumptions -- that the viewer/listener knows of the participation of Willis O’Brien in Behemoth, where this film fit in Obie’s sad autumn career years, Pete Peterson’s role in this phase of Obie’s career, etc. -- which are rarely articulated coherently enough to inform the uninitiated animation fans listening in. Indeed, how many younger viewers will even know who O’Brien is? Though Muren and Tippett do note the effectiveness of many on-screen highlights, offering informed judgment calls on how some shots were accomplished with limited money and means, they bring little real insight to the table. As Muren notes at one point, it’s too bad their former Cascade (the 1960s/’70s animation studio which offered many animators vital training and experience doing commercials and effects) associate Phil Kellison is no longer with us, he could have illuminated much about the making of Behemoth.

    Thus, the commentary is a lost opportunity: two active 21st Century special effects experts -- the very men whose careers in fact bridge the stop-motion effects era & legacy of O’Brien and Harryhausen with the CGI era that refined and supplanted that legacy -- took time to discuss the last monster movie Willis O’Brien, the founding father of the art and genre, had a hand in. Banter between beloved effects creators like Muren and Tippett sharing half-remembered anecdotes and vague references while ridiculing the film we’re watching may tantalize and even engage old timers like yours truly, but -- no offense intended to the participants -- the Behemoth commentary provides little of interest or merit for any but the diehard stop-motion animation fan and veteran Cinefex reader, willing to forgive the errors and fill in the many missing gaps.

    Per usual in this sort of situation, one can only regret what the involvement of an informed third participant -- a Tom Weaver, for instance -- might have brought to the table, and what further might have been coaxed from such otherwise experienced and knowledgeable pros given willingly of their time to chat over a chestnut like Behemoth. It was very conscientious of Warner to pursue this, and of Muren, Tippett and all involved to follow through; kudos to all and an ‘A’ for effort. Too bad the results weren’t more coherent, cohesive and reflective of that effort. (I’ll emphasize, though, as someone who has participated in a few DVD extras over the past few years, it’s important to remember neither Muren or Tippett were paid for their time: DVD bonuses are ‘freebies’ when pros are involved, and it’s fortunate for those of us who care that Muren and Tippett even had 80 minutes+ to give to this project!)

    So what is of interest and value here? Well, the film, first and foremost, as it should be.

    [To be continued... tomorrow!]

    Have a grand Friday, one and all...

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