MONOCHROME MANOR Presents:
20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
First, a little history…
Memory can be a funny thing. Over time, even really good ones tend to get boiled down into their core components. Remember that week you spent at lake Tahoe, six years ago? It was fun, right? Super pretty. Okay, now describe every second.
You can’t do it because the human brain tends to hold on tighter to the big stuff. The hotel, the first sunrise, the steak chimichanga you had at that Mexican place (and maybe the waitress who brought it over with a smile)… but the details in between tend to just keep on slipping.
It happens all the time with movies.
Those who watch a significant amount would probably agree that remembering every scene and every performance from every single movie they’ve ever watched is a nigh impossibility. Sometimes we saw a movie a single time, like 20 years ago, and are able to recall more of how we felt at the time, than any actual plot. I’m that way with THE GLIMMER MAN (1996). I remember liking it. It had the unlikely pairing of Steven Seagal and Keenan Ivory Wayans. They were cops. One had a thing for beads.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
For movies, core memory components tend to be who the lead actors were, or maybe who directed the thing. I’ll happily hazard the guess that most people know Humphrey Bogart starred in CASABLANCA (1942), and that Steven Spielberg directed JAWS (1975). There are always going to be a few key scenes that we never forget, but usually it’s these guys we remember most vividly. That said, in some cases, it might be a supporting player or villain that sticks with us for the long haul. Cases in point, Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931) and Michael Keaton—who famously appears in BEETLEJUICE (1988) for a grand total of 17 minutes!
My point here is this. For a film to be remembered primarily for any other reason is a rare thing indeed. Yet for millions of kids who grew up in the 60s and 70s, that very thing is the case. At least when it comes to a man named Ray Harryhausen.
For those who don’t know the name, Ray is fondly remembered as one of the true masters of visual effects. Here was an artist who worked in poseable clay sculptures and about a thousand metric tons of patience. Like most who were lucky enough to see the original KING KONG (1933) in theaters, Ray was astounded by Willis O’Brien’s handmade special effects. It was a new technique called “stop motion animation” and when used correctly, it could apparently turn a simple gorilla puppet into a living, breathing character. It was a concept that Mr. Harryhausen would learn, refine and spin into a career that spanned 40 years and 17 films.
For those of us who have seen Ray’s films, it is difficult to recall much over his endlessly entertaining special effects. For in this rare instance, it is the giant clay beasts and monsters, the Cyclops, the Sabretooth Tiger, and even a cowboy-chomping Tyrannosaur who are the real stars.
But enough of that…
20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) was directed by Nathan Juran, who would go on to employ the talents of Mr. Harryhausen in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964). And while Juran was the director, these films tend to be more typically remembered as Harryhausen flicks.
The plot of 20MMTE is simple enough. It begins as many other science fiction pictures of the 50s do, to the sultry sounds of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, delivered in a transatlantic accent, over some matte paintings of planets. Hey, 1957 was still the 50s. After the credits, we fade into what we are told is a “a fishing village in Sicily”.
Side note: The film not only takes place in Italy, but was primarily filmed on location there. Originally, the plan was to set the movie in Chicago, but wily Ray suggested Italy. His reason? Research meant a free working vacation for the visual effects artist. True story.
Out on a charming little fishing boat, we meet two frustrated Italian fishermen. Why frustrated? Because the third fisherman is a fisher-boy named Pepe. This kid sure does a lot of talking, and he sure seems to like Texas for some reason. Seriously, Pepe’s random adoration of the lone star state comes up so often, it has the forced reek of product placement (if the state of Texas were Krispy Kreme, your eyes would be rolling by now).
Luckily for the first two fisherman, the heavens part to reveal the most unlikely darned thing. Out of sheer nowhere, a rocket appears! The huge chrome cylinder screams down and crashes directly into the Mediterranean! Fisherman #1 (an unfairly uncredited George Khoury, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY, 1955) immediately begins rowing directly for the downed craft. Fisherman #2 seems a bit nervous at the prospect, but Fisherman #1 (Verrico was his name) insists on charging inside to rescue any possible survivors. What a guy. I’m sure Pepe would have really looked up to Verrico… you know, if only he had been from Texas.
Once inside the craft, the men discover most of the crew are already deceased. Fortunately, the heroic fishermen are able to haul two living crewmen out before the rocket sinks below the waves.
Edge of your seat stuff, I’m telling you.
Back on shore, a group of city officials greet the boat and help bring the two unconscious rocket men safely back onto land. But as the crowd buzzes for answers, our pal Pepe gets distracted by something a bit farther down the shoreline. Out of the briny shallows, he pulls a three-foot canister marked “U.S.A.F. PROJECT 5”, which he promptly pilfers. That’s right folks, not only is Pepe unrealistically obsessed with Texas, he’s also guilty of stealing government property. The little felon makes off with his spoils, quickly dashing behind some rocks, where he opens the thing. Out of the container he extracts a gross blobby thing that should probably contaminate him with space germs, or high levels of radiation. Alas, we are not so lucky. Almost at once, we can see the gears working in the kid’s brain. He slaps a tarp around that mass and beats feet for the local Zoology Trailer.
Apparently, that’s a thing in Italy.
Here we meet Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) and his lovely and unexpectedly American granddaughter, Marisa (Joan Taylor). As we learn, Doc Leo and Pepe have a little arrangement going. Every now and then, Pepe will bring in a “specimen” in exchange for what probably amounts to a quarter. But the kid is annoying, not stupid. With the space blob, Pape knows he’s carrying a gold mine. Right from the start, he begins to wheel and deal, demanding 200 liras before the good doctor even lays eyes on the merchandise! And why such an exorbitant sum, you ask? Why else? So, the kid can finally purchase a real-life hat… from Texas.
The old zoologist plays along and after forking over the lira, finds himself the proud new owner of a brand spanking new… gross blobby thing. And though he had been only humoring the boy, as Doc Leo really looks at what he has purchased, the man’s expression turns deadly serious. Later that night, the gross blobby thing begins to pulse and move.
Then, the freaking thing hatches!
Out crawls a bipedal, reptilian creature, about 10 inches tall! Having just arrived home, Marisa, forced to muscle past the shock and awe stage, helps Grand Dad put the strange animal into a cage. In the morning, the two are in for a shock, for the creature has doubled in size!
The rest of the movie is pretty by the numbers. To continue describing it is to do it no justice. Sure, the creature keeps growing and growing until it becomes a menace. And yes, as it grows, it does go on a rampage of sorts, destroying public property and causing what could be considered probably a general state of panic. But lest you forget dear friends, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) is a Harryhausen joint. The star of the picture, the thing that you will take away and remember long after the human players have faded in your memory, is the art of a true cinematic master.
As with many of Ray’s best creatures, the Ymir (though it goes unnamed in the movie) is a sympathetic monster. A vegetarian by nature, the creature has been stolen away from its home on Venus, to be born alone and afraid into a strange world filled with things who repeatedly poke it with pointed sticks. All aggression displayed is reactionary, not to mention completely understandable. As with most Godzilla films, you find yourself rooting more for the monster here, than the human characters.
Ray’s so called Dynamation technique probably won’t wow the kids of today. His handmade creations aren’t exactly more realistic than the modern CG we’ve all come to expect. Still there is something so undeniably alluring about his work. What it lacks in polish, it makes up for in soul. It’s the charm of something handmade. Something that isn’t lessened by its scratches and bumps, but made somehow all the more beautiful for them.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson