Hey, Venus, oh, Venus if you will, please send a little monster for us to thrill.
A massive rocket-shaped spacecraft crashes into the sea among a group of fishing boats in the Mediterranean. Most of the fishermen flee but one boat decides to go closer to investigate the downed craft. The ship is still sticking out of the sea so one brave Italian pescatore crawls in, and from the smoke, tangle of wires and remnants of destroyed equipment, he manages to pull out a couple of (human) survivors before the spaceship sinks completely. As the fishermen are questioned on the safety of the beach, the boy who was with them discovers a washed up container full of weird silicone jelly. Instead of telling authorities, he sells it to a visiting marine biologist who’s living in a nice Airstream trailer with his doctor daughter. The scientist soon finds a mini lizard/dinosaur creature inside, which grows exponentially in a matter of days. By this time, one of the spaceship’s survivors, a Colonel played by William Hopper has recovered enough to get back on the case, and we learn that the creature is an alien brought back from an expedition to the planet Venus–not Venezia, as the locals mishear it, but Venus! As the alien grows to people size, it breaks free, terrorizes a nearby farm, runs loose, is caught and held captive. It’s studied until an electrical mishap allows the now stories-tall thing to escape yet again into the final act where it rampages through Rome until its tragic end.
It might seem like your run of the mill monster flick but this one stands above the pack and is loads of fun thanks to the excellent creature FX courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, likeable actors, a little romance and a fast moving story. Poor Rome got the works simply because Harryhausen wanted to vacation there and adapted his love of King Kong and one earlier story idea into this project. According to the TCM database article, it took four years to develop, finally shooting with frequent Harryhausen collaborator, producer Charles Schneer. They didn’t get colour for this movie as Harryhausen had hoped, but they got director Nathan Juran, with whom Harryhausen would team on his follow up colour classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and again for First Men in the Moon (1964).
The creature has no name in the movie; it got one (the Ymir) in the years afterwards from interviews with Harryhausen, and as movie monsters go, the Ymir is one of the best. It has movements typical of stop motion, but also more than enough personality to be fascinating, real and sympathetic. From its first stirrings to its demise, the way it cleans the goo off its skin in the dark, is as startled by Joan Taylor as she is when she flicks on the light, looks cute while it’s sleeping, looks lost, desperate and panicked when attacked; all that and more make the monster uniquely watchable and likable. Our atmosphere pumps it up like steroids, its innards are all tubes, it craves sulfur, and it never attacks unless provoked, which of course means some unfortunate dummy ignores all of Hopper’s warnings and charges at the Ymir’s rear end with a pitchfork. The creature gets many great set pieces where it: fights an elephant (look sharp for Harryhausen’s cameo there as the zookeeper), is caught in a net dropped by a military helicopter, knocks down pillars, snaps streetlights like toothpicks, grabs, rattles and tosses some poor guy off the street, climbs up and is shot down off the top of the Colosseum, and all of it is totally engrossing, almost reaching the King Kong level Harryhausen was aiming for. I love the bit where Hopper and company lose the Ymir’s trail only to have it pop up at them from under a bridge.
Hopper was in Nathan Juran’s The Deadly Mantis and Taylor in Harryhausen-Schneer’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (practically veterans of the sci fi monster scene) and it really helps to have their charm and talent here to inject some life into their cliched and thinly developed characters. Hopper’s got enough intense concern and an air of intelligence to put across some silly orders, theories and findings, and then there’s a nice break from the scares with the fun flirting between him and Taylor. Now, this type of corny dialogue I enjoy, because the actors give it a fun, ironic spin:
“I’ve been cooking over a hot creature all day… Oh Colonel, when you have a moment I’d like to tell you about the nightmares I’ve had… / I hope when this is all over, you’ll let me try to make it up to you – over a table for two in a dark café./ With a candle burning on the table? / And a bottle of wine… and that candle’s burning lower, and lower… and lower…”
Looks silly as text, not to mention spoken while standing next to that giant sedated alien lying a few feet away, but Hopper and Taylor sell it, make it cute and make you smile and that counts for a lot.
The creature’s demise is the occasion to stop and reflect on another lost opportunity to make friends with and learn secrets of the Universe from strange non-humans, as the officials survey the newer ruins of Rome and ponder, “why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?” This is great fun all the way through, with scares and effects that blew the mind back when and can still thrill today. 20 Million Miles to Earth may be cheesy in places, but it’s the kind of cheese I buy, the kind fine enough to enjoy over a table for two. In a dark cafe. With some wine, and a burning candle.