Indicator continue their Blu-Ray re-releases of the great Ray Harryhausen's work with this volume containing three of the films he made between 1955 and 1960. It includes glorious HD prints of It Came From Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, curiously skipping Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (which has previously been made available on DVD in a set with the first two titles). In my earlier review of the Sinbad Trilogy, I professed my love for Harryhausen's stop motion creations and how they played a key part in my cinematic upbringing, so I was thrilled to be offered another set of his films to review, particularly since I'd only seen one of them previously (It Came From Beneath the Sea). My thoughts on the three films are below:
It Came From Beneath the Sea
Director: Robert Gordon
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates, Hal Smith
Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis
Running Time: 79 min
BBFC Certificate: U
It Came From Beneath the Sea opens with a nuclear submarine, commanded by Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), getting attacked by an unseen force while submerged. A chunk of flesh is found on the sub though and when a couple of top scientists, Prof. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis), analyse the sample, they believe it's part of a giant octopus. Indeed it is they discover, as the creature appears again and wreaks havoc across the North American Pacific Coast, cumulating in an attack on San Francisco where the military, with the help of the aforementioned scientists, attempt to stop it.
This is the weakest film in the set. It's rather slow, with lots of padding to flesh out the threadbare plot and stiff dialogue that over-explains everything, making the film drag at times. There's little tension either, so the set-pieces tend to just pop up out of nowhere without a suitable build-up.
However, this being a Ray Harryhausen film, the set-pieces are fantastic. Budget and time constraints meant his octopus only had 6 arms, but it's animated beautifully and the action is thrilling. The final 20 minutes when San Fransisco is trashed by the octopus is particularly exciting. Today we're bored of watching landmarks and cities get destroyed by CGI that has been put together by a huge team of experts, but it's still a lot of fun to see smaller scale damage created by the hands of literally just one man. Harryhausen designed the creatures, created the models and animated them himself, frame by frame, and the results still look great. You wouldn't call it photo-realistic, but the creature feels alive and the attention to detail is still wonderful to see on screen.
It's a shame then that the first hour of the film, when there isn't a huge amount of special effects on display, is kind of dull. There's an unusual love triangle between Mathews, Carter and Joyce and much talk of “a new breed of woman” which makes for some occasionally amusing interplay between the characters, but largely the leads aren't particularly charismatic, so you're just twiddling your thumbs waiting for 'It' to re-appear. When he does it's worth the wait though, so I'd still recommend Harryhausen fans check it out.
20 Million Miles to Earth
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: Bob Williams, Christopher Knopf
Based on a story by: Charlotte Knight, Ray Harryhausen (uncredited)
Starring: William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Thomas Browne Henry
Running Time: 82 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
20 Million Miles to Earth sees an American spacecraft crash off the coast of Sicily on its way back from a journey to Venus, you guessed it, 20 million miles from Earth. A couple of fishermen and a young boy, Pepe (Bart Braverman), are near where it lands and they go to check if anyone's still aboard. The men find two survivors (one of which dies soon after) and rush them to hospital while Pepe finds a mysterious canister washed up ashore. He discovers a strange gelatinous egg inside which he sells to a local zoologist, Dr. Leornardo (Frank Puglia). Soon a small lizard-like creature hatches out of the egg, just around the time the crash survivor, Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper), comes to and asks if the canister has been found, as it contains something vitally important. Meanwhile, the creature is growing rapidly, due to the atmosphere on Earth, and escapes from the cage Dr. Leonardo keeps it in. The military try to track it down before it gets too big, but of course, things go wrong and the creature ends up wreaking havoc in Rome in an action-packed finale.
Now this is more like it. Nathan Juran is a director who went on to work with Harryhausen a couple more times, including one of his best films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He understood what the audience wanted to see and is adept at crafting a pacy and enjoyable B-movie. 20 Million Miles to Earth is crammed with action and effects work and rarely hits any lulls during its brief running time.
And what effects! It's almost pointless going on about how good the effects are in a Harryhausen film, but I do think this deserves a special mention as it contains one of the effects wizard's greatest creations. The unnamed monster here has so much character and is one of the most relatable creatures since King Kong. Although it causes chaos later on in the film, it only ever attacks when provoked and, particularly in its first few scenes, Harryhausen gives the creature a curiosity, timidness and fear as it ventures into this new world by itself. It also gets into an enjoyable fight with an elephant in the finale.
It's a huge amount of fun. Well paced, with plenty of monster action, thrills and excitement, it's my favourite film of the set. The acting is a bit low on charisma again and the story is nothing to write home about, borrowing heavily from King Kong, but as a classic Harryhausen monster movie, it ticks all the right boxes and is one of the best.
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver
Director: Jack Sher
Screenplay: Arthur Ross, Jack Sher
Based on a novel by: Jonathan Swift
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, June Thorburn, Jo Morrow, Lee Patterson, Grégoire Aslan, Basil Sydney, Charles Lloyd Pack, Martin Benson
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certificate: U
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is based on two parts of Jonathan Swift's classic four-part novel, Gulliver's Travels. The titular doctor Gulliver longs to find something better than his hard-up existence as a country physician in Wapping-by-the-Sea (bizarrely named as the real Wapping is nowhere near the sea!), so heads on a perilous ocean voyage, against the wishes of his fiancée Elizabeth (June Thorburn) who wants to settle down in a run-down cottage on the edge of town. She stows away on board and the two argue just before Gulliver is thrown overboard during a storm. He washes up on the island of Lilliput, where the inhabitants are all tiny and view him as a terrible giant. He assures them otherwise and helps make the island a paradise. However, the Lilliputians are at war with the Blefuscudians over the way they break their eggs and the Lilliputian emperor refuses to fully accept Gulliver as a citizen of the island and help him get home before he's wiped out his enemies.
After this section ties itself up, Gulliver ends up on the island of Brobdingnag, where he is now the tiny person in a land of giants. He finds Elizabeth there and the two of them enjoy a life of luxury as toys for the king (Grégoire Aslan). However, the king grows jealous of Gulliver's intelligence and the court's alchemist Makovan (Charles Lloyd Pack) sees him as a witch due to his scientific skills, so Gulliver's life comes under threat.
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is very different to the other two titles in this set. Whereas It Came From Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth are B-movie creature features, this is an attempt by Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer to make a more broadly appealing, family-friendly adaptation of a classic novel. In my opinion they achieve this very successfully.
It's a lot of fun, with plenty of humour throughout the film. Mathews proves a likeable lead too, even if he's not the greatest actor in the world. He's backed up by a wonderful cast of largely British character actors. Peter Bull for instance chews up the scenery in his tiny role and Martin Benson is very enjoyable as the conniving Flimnap.
It's not the most faithful of adaptations by all accounts (I haven't actually read the book myself), with the filmmakers making a lot of tweaks to condense the story as well as to fit in some extra thrills. However, Swift's satire is still evident. It's not always subtle, but it's great to have a children's film that also operates as a commentary on the abuse and pitfalls of power as well as the farcical practise of politics among other things. What's particularly revealing is how relevant much of this satire still is, not only 57 years on from the film, but almost 300 years since the novel was written!
The majority of Harryhausen's effects work here isn't his usual stop motion creature animation, although there are probably more effects shots here than in any of his films. Instead he worked hard to create the illusion of size differences between Gulliver and the islanders. The integration of elements isn't as slick as the green screen work we're used to these days, but it still works and must have been mind-blowing at the time. A couple of excuses for Harryhausen's stop motion expertise are included too as Gulliver is attacked by a couple of giant creatures in the second half of the film. The most impressive of these is a vicious crocodile he's forced to do battle with. I doubt this scene was in Swift's novel, but I certainly enjoyed it. Harryhausen's work is also backed up by some wonderfully colourful cinematography and production design.
One of the standout elements of the film is its score though. Bernard Herrmann composed, orchestrated and conducted it during the height of his soundtrack work for Hitchcock (in the same year as his monumental Psycho score in fact). His score for The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is up there with the best of them too. It's rich, full, rousing and, during the England-set bookends to the film in particular, has the sound of classical music from the period in which the film is set.
Overall then, it's a wonderful story effectively delivered with humour, colourful production design, fantastic music and some groundbreaking special effects. It's not as action-packed as other Harryhausen titles, but it has a stronger story to tell and is equally as enjoyable. It's likely not particularly faithful to the source material, dumbing it down a little and adding more action sequences, but it works as quality entertainment with substance.
The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen, Volume One: 1955-1960 is out on 29th September in the UK, released by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their new Indicator label. The picture and sound quality are superb on all titles.
Powerhouse have also loaded the set with special features. These include:
- Original black and white and alternative, authorised colourised versions of It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth
- Mono and 5.1 surround sound audio options
- It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth audio commentaries with Ray Harryhausen
- New interview with filmmaker Joe Dante
- New interview with SFX maestro Dennis Muren
- New interviews with Aardman Animation's David Sproxton, Peter Lord and Dave Alex Riddett
- Archival documentaries, interviews and featurettes
- Original trailers and promotional films
- Isolated score on The 3 Worlds of Gulliver by Bernard Herrmann
- Promotional and on-set photography, poster art and archive materials
- Box set exclusive 80-page book with new essays, and film credits
As long as it is, this list barely does the package justice, as the 'archival documentaries, interviews and features' listed is actually a wealth of superb material that may have appeared on previous DVD releases, but remains a huge bonus and a joy to trawl through. Ray himself features heavily, as do the numerous famous industry fans, like John Landis and Terry Gilliam. The commentaries (a couple of which have been included on earlier releases) are a great listen too. Ray Harryhausen is on two of them and lets us in on all of his secrets during these (albeit reluctantly at times) and he's joined by other historians and experts to keep the tracks from getting stale. I enjoyed the Gulliver commentary too which features a group of experts/film historians who have plenty of facts and anecdotes to tell. The new interviews are also great and it's nice to have various versions of the films and their soundtracks to watch.
It's a wonderful package, topped off by another one of Indicator's fantastic booklets, which is filled with essays, interviews, behind the scenes stills and concept art.