Monday, March 21, 2011

Of lighthouses and foghorns and beasts from evocative fathoms

I live within walking distance of a lighthouse (Google Maps). Okay, it's not a casual walk like a stroll to a neighborhood coffee shop as an excuse to procrastinate stretch my legs after hours here in this chair. But it's a doable walk when the mood strikes to shut down this laptop and head out for an afternoon outside these four walls.

At 98 years old, it's a working Coast Guard lighthouse, one that's open to the public only a few weekends each summer. As far as picturesque lighthouses go, it's a modest structure, but as a walking destination nearby it beats the colossal hole in the ground where the Whole Foods was supposed to go three years ago.

Any lighthouse is inherently romantic. Perhaps especially during the lingering gray of a Seattle winter, such as the one that ended (officially) yesterday.

From my home office window, I can hear the foghorn, invariably evoking images of a lonely sea creature rising from Puget Sound to seek the source of the baleful call and hump woo it.

Which brings to mind, every time, the forlorn and frustrated creature from Ray Bradbury's Saturday Evening Post story "The Foghorn," and particularly its atmospheric visualization in Ray Harryhausen's seminal The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

This enjoyable "B" popcorn cruncher from 1953 is noteworthy not just for establishing a template for the Atomic Age Behemoth flicks that followed. Its giant dinosaur was the first solo project by upcoming stop-motion talent Harryhausen, a protégé of Willis O'Brien of King Kong fame. For the first time, Beast allowed Harryhausen complete special-effects control of a feature-length film.

It opens in the white Arctic wastes, where a nuclear bomb test rouses a "rhedosaurus," an immense dinosaur suspended in the ice for a hundred million years. Driven by its primitive instincts, the giant reptile heads for its ancient breeding grounds — which are now occupied by New York City. The ensuing Wall Street walloping remains archetypal (and, lately, extra soul-satisfying), with automobiles crushed beneath reptilian claws and policemen gobbled like Jell-O shots.

After military bazookas only wound it, the stricken brute makes its climactic last stand at the Coney Island rollercoaster. There marksman Lee Van Cleef and scientist Paul Hubschmid (billed as Paul Christian) aim for the soft spot with a grenade spiked with radioactive isotopes. (A well-timed all-consuming conflagration helps too.) Every great monster movie needs a kindly professor, and that service is ably provided by Cecil Kellaway, the only standout among the cast until he's swallowed whole in his bathysphere. Genre fans will recognize The Thing From Another World's Kenneth Tobey as Col. Jack Evans.

Lacking the personality of O'Brien's Kong or Harryhausen's later creations, the rhedosaurus is just a big dumb animal eliciting little sympathy from the audience. But it's true that Harryhausen monsters die like operatic tenors, and it's a tradition that begins here.

Harryhausen and production designer-turned-director Eugene Lourie made Beast independently as a private project for $200,000. Warner Brothers then snapped it up for a song compared to the millions it raked in for the studio. Because Beast was one of 1953's biggest box-office successes, a new subgenre was born, showcasing irradiated and/or gigantized reptiles, ants, spiders, crabs, bugs, scorpions, leeches, lieutenant colonels, and Allison Hayes. It also proved that quickly-made, inexpensive monster movies could be profitable even if all the stuff surrounding the special-effects scenes (e.g., the acting of purest knotty pine, a suspiciously stagebound "Arctic," the slow and tin-ear script) failed to rise to the level of Harryhausen's tabletop creations.

After Beast, Harryhausen signed on to do it again for It Came From Beneath the Sea ('55), which substituted the rampaging rhedosaurus with an enormous radioactive octopus.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is slow and stodgy today, and its comparatively primitive visuals are impressive more for their pioneering history than their technical polish. That said, the opening twilight lighthouse scene and the closing Coney Island assault remain moody mile-markers in effective genre cinema.

As far as I know, the Alki Point Light Station has not yet been ravaged by a passionate saurian from the Mesozoic. Nonetheless, I often recall that poor beast when I see our local lighthouse, especially on those gunmetal-and-charcoal overcast days when nature gets as close as it ever does to vintage black-and-white.

Music: Sharon Isbin
Near at hand: Duck Dodgers figure