Capital Celluloid 2023 — Day 133: Sat May 13

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourie, 1953) + Empire of the Ants (Gordon, 1977):
Cinema Museum, 6pm

Lost Reels, an independent film organisation dedicated to bringing forgotten, lost, or unavailable films back to UK cinemas, launches a series of classics, curios and forgotten gems on 16mm with the inspired pairing of Ray Harryhausen’s golden age stop-motion sci-fi / horror masterpiece and Bert I. Gordon’s unintentionally hilarious cult classic. 

Lost Reels introduction to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms:
Having served his apprenticeship as King Kong (1933) animator, Willis O’Brien’s assistant on Mighty Joe Young (1949), Ray Harryhausen’s first solo effort was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, produced by Warner Brothers and based on a short story by his friend science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. The film was a huge success and is largely responsible for a whole sub-genre of monster-on-the-loose films. The role of military authority figures, and the trope of the aging scientist and his brainy attractive daughter were replicated in Them! the following year and many other 1950s sci-fi/horror films including Harryhausen’s follow-up, It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). What makes Beast most remarkable is the creature itself and how Harryhausen imbues it with a real personality, even pathos. Scenes such as the lighthouse attack are beautifully conceived and staged, and the New York City rampage and amusement park climax are high water marks for the stop motion technique even today. Among the capable and pleasant B-movie cast keep an eye out for a young Lee Van Cleef in a small role as a police marksman during the fiery rollercoaster climax.


Lost Reels introduction to Empire of the Ants:
H.G. Wells wrote a story called Empire of the Ants but it bears little resemblance to this tale of a devious estate agent (Joan Collins) trying to sell dodgy condos to an unsuspecting tour group prior to an attack by giant ants. Starting with a classic disaster movie set up (unlikeable characters assemble so the audience can decide who to root for when the killings begin) it becomes a prototype for Jurassic Park (1993), when the condo tour goes horribly wrong. As the ants attack to faux-Jaws (1975) music and Them! sound effects, scenes include an elderly couple leaving the relative safety of the group for a flimsy outdoor cabin, “We’ll be safe in there” they say (guess what happens), and as marauding ants close off escape routes for another group, one of them screams, “They’re herding us like CATTLE!” The hilariously inept special effects only add to the film’s appeal (they actually look better in 16mm than higher definition formats) and the cast heroically play it straight even when ‘fighting’ thin air overlayed with badly superimposed ant footage or unconvincing ant puppets. A ludicrous third act twist reinvigorates the film just as it threatens to drag, cementing the film’s status as an accidental cult classic. The final scene featuring the beleaguered survivors is priceless.

Here (and above) is the trailer from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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