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In the 1950s, when nuclear tensions were at an all-time high, the hands of the Doomsday Clock moved to 11:58 p.m., as close to midnight as they’ve ever been. The world had a brand-new obsession—how to live with the threat of the bomb. Hollywood responded by introducing moviegoers to a cast of misfit monsters released from polar ice and submarine canyons, and coolheaded scientists whose weapons were knowledge and reason. Today, with the threat of nuclear war only slightly reduced, Godzilla—the king of sea monsters and a metaphor for nuclear war—is making a comeback to star in his first animated film. It’s an apt time to remember five classics that sparked the sea monster subgenre.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
What does it take to free a dinosaur from polar ice after 100 million years? The heat of hydrogen bomb testing did the trick in this film inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” Free at last, the “Rhedosaurus” wreaks havoc along the east coast of North America. Scientists, at first fascinated and protective of the Paleolithic survivor—even though it’s radioactive, filled with the plague, and on a tear—ultimately shoot it full of radioactive isotopes to kill it from within.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
In this first film in the Creature trilogy, an amphibian humanoid attacks an Amazonian archaeological expedition before escaping to his kelp-filled lagoon. When the beast, believed to predate dinosaurs, falls for and carries off the only woman aboard the exploratory vessel, even those who wanted to keep him alive for science break out their rifles. Wounded, he sinks back to the inky, mysterious depths of the lagoon, never to be understood.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Forced from its submarine canyon home by atomic testing, a giant radioactive octopus roams San Francisco looking for food. A duo of marine biologists, Lesley Joyce and John Carter, is tasked with taking down the beast. After destroying iconic buildings, the monster starts disassembling the Golden Gate Bridge and Carter risks all to switch off the bridge’s electricity. Although fascinated by the creature, Joyce (billed as a “new breed of woman”) designs and builds a jet-propelled torpedo overnight to deal the cephalopod a fatal blow at sea.
The Giant Behemoth (1959)
When a fisherman in Cornwall, England, dies of radiation burns, a marine biologist from California discovers what caused them: an oversized Paleosaurus, enlarged by radioactive waste. The biologist follows the beast’s migration to the Thames, where all previous Paleosaurus fossils have been found. In London, the behemoth incinerates all comers with its radioactive glare, topples buildings, and destroys a ferry full of people. A scientific team eventually ends the chaos by killing the monster with a radium‑tipped torpedo at sea.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
When a nuclear submarine collision frees Godzilla from an Arctic iceberg, the Tyrannosaurus-Stegosaurus hybrid makes for Japan. Coincidentally, ambitious Tokyo businessmen seeking publicity raft King Kong to Japan from a distant island. The giant gorilla escapes and both beasts rampage solo until the country’s Self-Defense Forces bring them together, hoping they’ll destroy each other and preclude the need for nuclear force. Scientists find the beasts’ contest “interesting,” as it pits “pea‑brained” Godzilla against Kong, “a thinking animal.” Kong wins this round, but Godzilla will be back.