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BEHEMOTH, THE SEA MONSTER (1959)
[aka The Giant Behemoth]

"From the sea…. Burning, like fire….
"What was it?"
"Behemoth!"

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Director: Douglas Hickok, Eugene Lourie

Starring: Gene Evans, Andre Morell, Leigh Madison, John Turner, Jack MacGowran, Henry Vidon

Screenplay: Eugene Lourie

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Synopsis: American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) delivers a lecture at a British conference on Atomic Research, warning of the possible biological consequences of continued atomic testing. Although many of his listeners scoff, Karnes’ speech impresses Professor Bickford (Andre Morell) of the Atomic Energy Commission. In a Cornish fishing village, a fisherman suffers fatal burns from a mysterious source. When his daughter Jeanie (Leigh Madison) and her friend John (John Turner) find the dying man, he is able only to utter the word, "Behemoth!" After the fisherman’s funeral, John and Jeanie walk along the beach, where they find thousands of dead fish and a strange oozing substance that burns John’s hand when he touches it. About to leave London, Karnes hears a report about the dead fish and claims of the existence of a sea monster. He visits Bickford, who tells him of the fisherman’s death and asks him to come to Cornwall. There, most of the fishermen deny seeing anything unusual, but one claims to have seen a strange, cloudy light in the water. John takes Karnes and Bickford to see the village doctor who, while unclear as to the cause of the fisherman’s death, points out that John’s burn is of a similar kind. Recognising the injury as a radiation burn, Karnes and Bickford examine the cove, but can detect no radioactivity. After a conversation with Jeanie, Karnes begins to worry that radiation may have created some kind of mutation. Although sceptical, Bickford arranges for samples of water and sea life to be collected from all around the coastline. Amongst the fish collected is one which, when cut open, gives off a strange glow in the dark. Tests on the fish, collected near Plymouth, show that it is full of concentrated radioactivity. Karnes takes a boat out to investigate the area where the fish was caught. Suddenly, the Geiger counters on board go off-scale. Searching the surrounding area through binoculars, Karnes sees the head and neck of a gigantic sea monster….

Comments: Having spent the six years that passed between the release of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and that of Behemoth, The Sea Monster watching dinosaurs, ants, octopuses, spiders, crabs, grasshoppers, praying mantises, scorpions and even human beings rampaging through cities as a result of the reckless use of atomic power, it is not surprising that viewers found Eugene Lourie’s small-scale follow-up to his seminal monster movie to be rather cliched. And indeed, it really cannot be claimed that Behemoth breaks new ground. For the most part, the film follows the familiar pattern of strange occurrences, unexplained deaths in isolated communities, scientists trying to get someone to listen to them, and finally the emergence of the eponymous beast and the destruction of whichever city it is whose number has come up.

What differs about Behemoth, and is the reason I nurse a certain fondness for it beyond its rather limited virtues, is that much of its science is unusually level-headed. The script by Lourie concentrates not upon the use of the atomic bomb per se, but upon the possible biological consequences of an accumulation of radioactivity. Steve Karnes’ opening speech, while over-emphatic, at least demonstrates an understanding of the actual processes of environmental contamination, while a subtle note of authenticity is added by having Karnes based in La Jolla, one of the world’s premier marine research communities. (Rather less authentic are the high school level physics equations drawn on the blackboard in the lecture theatre!)

As well, the steps taken by Karnes and Bickford as they try to discover the reasons for the mass fish deaths are perfectly logical. The testing of the collected fish specimens by autoradiography (or the radioautogram, as they call it here) may not exactly make for riveting viewing, but the scenes have a simple practicality about them that holds a real charm for someone all too frequently pained by the embarrassing stupidity of cinematic science. But, let’s face it, science isn’t what most of us are here to see. How does the titular creature stack up against his numerous late-fifties competition?

Well, to be honest, he isn’t one of the screen’s great monsters. Despite being the work of Willis O’Brien, Behemoth’s overall design is too smooth and his movements too jerky. Possibly recognising this, the filmmakers wisely shot a high proportion of the monster’s scenes in the dark, both disguising his design flaws and creating a real sense of atmosphere. Behemoth’s inevitable encounter with power lines is notable in this respect; and indeed, the film’s overall use of light and shadow is one of its better qualities. Although the monster is not especially well animated, his depiction is helped by the fact that he is given a distinct personality, proving himself a vindictive beastie by deliberately knocking over a wall when he sees people hiding against it, and choosing an occupied car to pick up and toss into the water. Thus, although I wouldn’t rank him in the top echelon of monsters, I’d have to call Behemoth an honourable runner-up.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the film’s effects, which range from the merely poor – cutting between an actual ferry carrying people and an obviously empty model, for instance – to the risible. The vacillating pavlova meant to represent radioactive sludge is particularly laughable, as is the overhead shot of a swimming Behemoth, in which we are supposed to see a "strange, cloudy light" but see something instead that looks like the chalk outline of a murder victim drawn on the water. On a more positive note, the location shooting around London lends a certain grittiness to the film’s look, while Gene Evans and Andre Morell are never less than credible. Their scenes together are low-key and convincing, even hampered as they are by a script that insists on using their characters to explain things to the audience (somehow I doubt that "How are you testing for radioactivity?" is a question someone specialising in atomic research would need to ask).

The film’s matter-of-factness helps to surmount its less believable aspects, while the "it isn’t over" ending is one of the more justified and least annoying examples of that convention. On a different note – and without meaning to be disrespectful – it did occur to me while watching this film that if religious people could refrain from speaking their last words in purely Biblical terms, it would be a lot better for everyone. After all, if the dying fisherman had gasped, "Whacking great sea monster!" rather than "Behemoth!" it might have prevented the loss of a lot of lives and property. And while I’m having a bit of a bitch, may I say that I find the film’s alternative title particularly stupid? I mean, what were they expecting? A teeny-weeny Behemoth?