Wait til Mama comes home
Director Eugene Lourie, working in the field created by Cooper and Schoedsack for King Kong, created the template for the modern giant monster movie in the 1950s, and then went on to become one of its foremost users. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was his first. The now-familiar plot featured a huge creature from an obscure corner of the world that somehow makes its way to a large modern city, where it inevitably destroys as many famous landmarks as possible. This taps into the dreams of every kid. Who hasn’t daydreamed about seeing their school smashed into a million pieces, while their least favorite teacher is gulped down or trampled?
Lourie worked on Beast with a young animator named Ray Harryhausen, helping launch that special effects master’s career. Lourie then worked with Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien on The Giant Behemoth, a picture which took the rampaging apatosaurus from The Lost World and updated the concept with ideas about radiation reminiscent of Godzilla.
Behemoth wasn’t much of a success, and it lead Lourie into dealing with various partners that had plans for new monster pictures of their own. One of these ventures called for the abandonment of animated monsters altogether. They would use the “man in suit” techniques developed by Eiji Tsuburaya at Toho Studios to make their own Godzilla-like monster, which would rise from the Pacific to raze some Southeast Asian metropolis.
That deal fell through, but the idea lingered, and Lourie ended up using much of it in his new venture with England’s racketeering filmmakers the King Brothers. The most significant idea came from Lourie’s daughter, who had been upset with him when he killed off the monster at the end of his previous pictures. His new monster would be as sympathetic as possible — and what’s more, it would win in the end!
Bill Travers and William Sylvester star as a pair of salvage divers who are looking for loot in the sea off the coast of Ireland. While diving on a wreck one night, the sea begins to bubble and heave around them. An erupting submerged volcano sends huge waves their way, seriously damaging their ship.
They put in for repairs at a small seaside village, where they find the inhabitants none too friendly to outsiders. An exception is a young orphan named Sean (Vincent Winter), who is excited by the presence of strangers and does what he can to help. Sean has been working for an archeologist studying Viking relics in the area.
The hassles with the villagers, and again with the archeologist, may seem superfluous to the film, especially since much of it goes nowhere and is dropped from the story once the action gets rolling. However, these scenes serve to set up the conflicts between the mercenary salvage men and the more spiritual and scientific characters, and these themes are carried over throughout the running time. These aspects of the plot, the conflict between nature and Man’s greed, were not so apparent in the many years that this film was only seen in a heavily edited television version. Now that it can be seen in full, Gorgo shows it’s erstwhile heroes up as fools and bastards, ultimately undone by a mother’s love.
Travers and Sylvester are about to be thrown out of the village for good, when a big sea monster stomps out of the water to bust up the place. After they manage to drive it away with torches, the salvagers — in possession of the largest rig around — set themselves up as potential saviors. They use their diving bell and nets to capture the beast, and begin making plans to capitalize on their adventure.
Ignoring the pleas of the Edinburough Museum, the ship takes off for London, with Sean stowing away. Amid great ballyhoo, the monster Gorgo is put on display in a Battery Park circus. With the money rolling in, Travers starts buying fancy suits and cars. But a schism develops between the partners, as Sylvester, guilt stricken over the deaths of some of their crew at the beast’s claws, lives in a trailer at the circus and begins drinking heavily.
It turns out he has good reason for concern. The scientists at the museum huffily warn them that Gorgo is still an infant creature, and that an adult version many times larger may be lurking somewhere. Sure enough, a Mama Gorgo appears, and begins a rampage of destruction heading straight for her offspring in London.
The special effects by Tom Howard (The Haunting, Village of the Damned), much like those of a Japanese monster flick of the period but with a much larger budget, are still impressive. The main flaw in them is in the creature design itself, since it looks awkward, stiff and clumsy. But the opticals and miniature work are all first rate.
VCI’s widescreen transfer of the film is a disappointment. The image is soft throughout and the colors sometimes smear. This may be an element of the original film, since the special effects demanded so many generations to go through an optical printer, but it seems like Gorgo looked a bit sharper on laserdisc.
The DVD has an amusing animated menu somewhat like that of the Ghostbusters DVD that features Mama Gorgo stomping around a modern city. Along with a theatrical trailer, there’s also a short written by Tom Weaver and narrated by a very British sounding chap talking over clips and stills. This feels a bit like a compromise for a commentrak, but Weaver packs about 10 minutes with many interesting facts about the film. A photo gallery displays the images up on a billboard sign graphic, distorting them and making them difficult to see clearly.