It had been many decades since I last saw The Giant Behemoth. When I was a kid, I had always grown restless with the film, largely because director/co-screenwriter Eugene Lourie withholds a good, establishing glimpse of the titular creature until the picture is almost 2/3 over; an interminable amount of time for an impatient youth who just wants to see a freakin’ monster. As I plopped the DVD in recently, my one thought was, would I be as restless as an adult? Behemoth, of course, was the second in Lourie’s loose dinosaur trilogy. In the first film, 1953’s classic, superb, artful and trendsetting The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Lourie, with the assistance of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen, and working from a short story by Ray Bradbury, had given to the world the template for all thawed-out-dinosaur flicks to come, including the following year’s Gojira. Fans would have to wait until 1959 for Lourie’s Behemoth follow-up, and then until 1961 for his much-loved baby boomer favorite, Gorgo. Beast From… has been one of this viewer’s very favorite films since elementary school; the greatest dinosaur movie ever made, for my money. And so, again, the question: How would The Giant Behemoth strike me as an adult, all these many years later?
The film follows much the same story line as had been laid down by Beast six years earlier. Due to the effects of hydrogen bomb testing, a nasty, prehistoric monstrosity is released (in Beast, the “rhedosaurus” is merely thawed out from its hibernation; here, the paleosaurus, an actual extinct animal as opposed to the fictitious rhedosaurus, is awoken and imbued with radioactivity, a la Gojira itself). As in Beast, the creature initially wreaks havoc amongst coastal communities (primarily the south coast of England, here, as opposed to the Beast’s Canadian maritime scourge), and an American scientist investigates. Thus, Steve Karnes (wonderfully played by Gene Evans), who had coincidentally just been giving a lecture on the possibilities of radiation-induced mutations, and the head of a British scientific society, Prof. Bickford (Andre Morell), go to the Cornish village of Looe, where a fisherman had recently been burnt to death by … something, and where thousands of dead fish had washed ashore. And as in Beast, before long, the prehistoric menace goes on a rampage through a major city (New York in the earlier film; London, as in Gorgo, in the latter), before our heroes dispose of the marauder by shooting a radioactive missile into it.
Good as it is, The Giant Behemoth, sadly, comes up short in every single department, as compared to the 1953 film. In Beast, we are treated to the awesome spectacle of the monster, amidst a North Pole blizzard, within the film’s first 10 minutes (I always loved that fact as a little kid, and still do); Behemoth makes the viewer wait 50 full minutes. Beast had given us such marvelous buildup scenes as the rhedosaurus’ attack on a fishing trawler, on a lighthouse (beautifully done in nighttime silhouette) and on a bathysphere, whereas Behemoth only gives us the sight of several innocents being slain by concentric rings of electrically discharged radiation. The creature that Harryhausen devised for Beast is one of his greatest creations; it moves gracefully, seems truly alive, has a personality, and is absolutely terrifying when it looks into the camera. On the other hand, the paleosaurus here, when not being brought to life by a puppet, is a fairly clunky stop-motion creation, despite being the work of King Kong creator Willis O’Brien and a quartet of others. It does not move realistically or gracefully, and is hardly convincing. Wisely, Lourie often keeps his camera in close-up on the Behemoth’s snarling mug, a mug that admittedly can engender chills when it also looks straight into the camera. And whereas the Beast’s rampage through downtown Manhattan is one of the most exciting sequences in sci-fi history, the Behemoth’s carries a distinct aura of deja vu, with too much emphasis on the fleeing populace and not enough on the monster itself. Oh … and the climax of Beast, the thrilling, flaming cataclysm at the roller coaster, is as awe-inspiring as can be (especially when seen on the big screen); the climax of Behemoth is nowhere near as spectacular, a bubbling underwater affair in which our monster cannot even be clearly seen. As I said, Beast kicks prehistoric butt on Behemoth in every single department; it is a genuine work of inspired cinematic art, as opposed to just being an enjoyable monster movie.
Still, Behemoth does have its selling points. The early sequences in the Cornwall fishing village are very atmospheric, and there is a refreshing lack of a romantic subplot to distract the viewer and our hero. As in Beast, a nighttime attack sequence done in silhouette, works marvelously. Here, the Behemoth destroys a trio of electrical towers as it advances right into Lourie’s camera. For once, the creature is genuinely intimidating and scary. And if you are wondering whether or not the adult me felt restless during the film’s first 50 minutes, as I had as a kid, I will admit that I was not; at least, not overly much. The film IS intelligent and well acted by all, and Evans is immensely likable. Perhaps I would have been more inclined to be generous had I not seen The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms before, and many dozens of times since I was 5 years old. As it is, The Giant Behemoth strikes me as being merely fun stuff, and surely outclassed by its older brother…