1954’s Gojira wasn’t a cultural milestone because it was the first monster-run-amok opus. The movie owes its game-changing status to the seriousness in which it regarded everyone’s favorite walking atomic bomb metaphor, bringing genuine gravity to what other films would treat merely as some guy in a suit. Such was the attitude held by many imitators that sprung up in the wake of Gojira’s success, but not all of them favored spectacle over storytelling. Having blessed his first flick The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms with a mostly solemn tone, director Eugene Lourie tried to make lightning strike twice with 1959’s The Giant Behemoth. But though this cautionary tale of nuclear nightmares on the loose means well, its impact doesn’t resonate nearly as much as it’d like. Its grave themes aren’t promoted with very much passion, and its unrelentingly grim images frequently clash hilariously against the corny visual effects. Due to the presence of its overtones, you don’t want to laugh at The Giant Behemoth, but it doesn’t explore the ideas that it brings to the table deeply enough to earn the full respect it desires.
Strange events have struck a cozy British village by the sea. Piles of fish have washed up on the beach, and one of the locals has died under mysterious circumstances. His body found covered in what appear to be radiation burns, what precisely killed the man is a mystery — but Dr. Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) has a hunch. Having warned about the effects of atomic testing on marine life for some time now, the dedicated biologist is almost certain that an aberration spawned from all the fallout is responsible. The scientific community has difficulty buying Steve’s theory, but the good doctor is proven right after a towering, radioactive sea creature makes itself known to the world. With the ability to roast those who cross it alive and escape radar detection, the monster proceeds to leave even more death and despair in its wake — and it’s heading right for London. Will Steve be able to find a way to stop this incredible beast before it reduces jolly old England to ashes?
It’s a shame that The Giant Behemoth bearing on creature feature history is as dismally minor as it is. Good or bad, Lourie’s other projects left at least some lasting impression, whether it was “Mystery Science Theater 3000” helping Gorgo stomp its way into our hearts or The Colossus of New York’s haunting weirdness. But although it’s a perfectly harmless film overall, The Giant Behemoth has virtually nothing distinctive going for it. Its observations regarding the dangers of atomic meddling aren’t especially thought-provoking, nor does it carry the sort of cheesy charm that would excuse any number of technical or narrative shortcomings. Nope, this is just another monster movie, one that adheres to the era’s tradition of prolonging the reveal of its eponymous titan with endless scenes of boxy white dudes in lab coats looking sternly at one another. What could have been the film’s ticket to a less schlocky state of being — the frankness with which the creature’s trail of destruction is depicted — instead comes across as a random mean streak. The charred corpses and leveled cities we see are brave for the time, but with no other purpose than being more grim than what audiences were used to, such sights don’t serve the story so much as they feel included for some easy shocks.
The Giant Behemoth’s bids for legitimacy are also undermined by the way its drama constantly clashes with the unspectacular main monster. I’m not about to call out the flick for not having the most polished special effects work, but the ten-ton terror on display here doesn’t come close to casting the imposing shadow that it should. The dino’s design isn’t bad on its own; brought to life with a combination of stop-motion animation and old-fashioned puppetry, the beast is presented with a passable amount of craft. But again, the look is too basic and by-the-numbers to measure up to the stark terror Lourie wants to portray with all the onscreen havoc that gets wreaked. He also fails to make the human characters fascinating, as Evans’ hero scientist feels like a complete square whose impassioned pleas for exercising caution while testing bombs in the briny deep are never revisited in a meaningful fashion. As a colleague whose skepiticism over the existence of a huge radioactive lizard is very short-lived, Andre Morell supplies the smallest possible traces of conflict, and the story spends a woefully brief period of time with those players directly effected by the creature’s carnage. For all the work he puts into telling us that we should care about what is happening, Lourie doesn’t make a compelling argument as to why we need to be invested.
Although commendable for its daringly dark atmosphere, The Giant Behemoth just isn’t a very entertaining or enriching monster mash. Those who came of age during its original run might beg to differ, but from the skyscraper-smashing to the story-spinning, there’s barely anything of note here to get one through a rainy afternoon’s viewing, let alone stay in one’s memories for decades to come. Neither good or horrid to a notable degree, The Giant Behemoth isn’t awful — but it is awfully adequate.
The Giant Behemoth (1959) aka Behemoth the Sea Monster, directed by Douglas Hickox and Eugene Lourie.
Written by Robert Abel, Allen Adler, Eugene Lourie and Daniel James.
Starring Gene Evans, André Morell and John Turner.
The Giant Behemoth is available on DVD, courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.
The Giant Behemoth is also available to buy from Amazon.co.uk; plus if you decide to make a purchase after following the link provided you will have supported Attack From Planet B, so thank you.