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Last summer the Twilight Time company released an excellent Blu-ray disc of The Egyptian, and now they have announced that they have contracted to release Blu-rays of selected Sony/Columbia titles. That's the trend this year -- studios are licensing their desirable older pictures to outside outfits small enough to guide careful limited releases to profit. Sony is farming out titles to Image Entertainment as well.
The first Sony / Twilight Time BD out of the box is Mysterious Island, a welcome choice. Ray Harryhausen fans have been wondering when the next Dynamation spectacular would appear, and Island's superb Bernard Herrmann score is a perfect fit for Twilight Time's policy of featuring top film music in Isolated Score tracks.
Harryhausen and Schneer's third color show was a childhood favorite, especially when paired with the three year-old The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in a dynamite matinee double bill. Mysterious Island continued Hollywood's successful run of Jules Verne adaptations by tackling Verne's sequel to the author's most successful story, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Embellishing the original narrative with several stop-motion monsters, Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer had one of their biggest hits.
The tale begins very much like Jules Verne's original adventure story. Union Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) leads a small band of fellow POWs including war correspondent Gideon Spillett (Gary Merrill) in an escape from a Confederate prison, using a rebel observation balloon. An unprecedented storm blows them Westward across the American continent and most of the Pacific Ocean before depositing them on an uncharted island. There they struggle to survive against bizarre gigantic wildlife and marauding pirates. They join up with a pair of English shipwreck survivors (Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan) along the way. They don't know that they are being watched over by the island's secret inhabitant, the notorious Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), who was presumed to have gone down with his terror-submarine Nautilus a few years before.
Randall William Cook unpacks the original tentacled nautilus monster for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, May 2010.
Mysterious Island remains a favorite of many Harryhausen fans; they respond to its adventure and veritable smorgasbord of unique monsters. Either ace director Cy Endfield was better with actors, or the production allowed more time for them, but the live-action scenes are smooth enough not to seem like filler in between the effects scenes. In a way this quaint quasi-Robinson Crusoe & monsters movie seems a dry run for Endfield's later, brutal Sands of the Kalahari.
Not to take away from the capable Kerwin Mathews, but having the likes of Herbert Lom, Joan Greenwood and Percy Herbert doesn't hurt either. The English actors are classy and credible, even if Herbert's Southern accent slides into Cockney half the time. The levelheaded Michael Craig is convincing as an American while Michael Callan and newcomer Beth Rogan make an okay ingenue couple. Dan Jackson is a robust Neb Nugent. He is given equal character time until the full cast assembles, when his dialogue lines drop almost to nothing.
In a standout performance, Herbert Lom's formidable Captain Nemo dishes out iffy expository lines about his survival and unlikely experiments in a way that makes them sound like great writing. And there's no replacing the deep voice of Joan Greenwood, who enlivens her stock role with her own veddy proper elitist charm. It's rather fun watching drawing-room actors like Greenwood (The Importance of Being Earnest) and Gary Merrill fighting a giant prehistoric bird -- they seem to be enjoying themselves mightily.
Mysterious Island's menagerie of threatening monsters was simply delightful on a first viewing, but, as much as the film is a pleasant diversion, it's also one of Harryhausen's most formulaic pictures. Both the script and Harryhausen's scenes are episodic to a fault, and too many of the thrills are overly familiar. After a tense and exciting balloon escape for the opening, the show plays out almost entirely on Schneer's overused Spanish beach setting. The pace is slow, not helped by frequent torpid 'exploration' scenes, covered by Michael Craig's narration, where little happens. There's little forward motion and no real character conflict. When the castaways meet Nemo near the conclusion, they're the exact same people who landed on the island months before.(Spoilers)
When the aristocratic Nemo does show up, his commitment to his newfound friends is not explained. He's such a misanthrope that we wonder why he cares enough to save their skins. After some fairly static reels, Nemo's decision to sit in his submarine and accept a morbid fate is a real downer. Even to 9 year-olds, the fact that the sub never sets sail is another big letdown. Our heroes escape by virtue of a last-minute engineering miracle, but the reformed Terrorist doesn't make it.
Admittedly, the Verne source novel is the culprit for all the eye-rolling unlikelihoods and coincidences, but Mysterious Island doesn't exploit the interesting situations that the dodgy plotting creates. The theme of War runs through the whole show without once finding expression; even the tin-pot A.I.P. Master of the World handles Robur's pacifist fanaticism in a more consistent way. Yellow tabloid journalist Gideon Spillet (I guess that's what he does with the news) and Nemo exchange a few remarks, and that's it. Disney's superlative show succeeded because he presented Verne's aquatic Terrorist unapologetically, as Verne described him -- a genius-maniac righteously opposing colonial oppression. No matter how well Herbert Lom plays him, this sequel's Nemo is a reborn environmentalist nice-guy, a smudge on Nemo's unrepentant honor.
Harryhausen's animation effect scenes are terrific, but none of them advance the story. The monsters appear, our heroes stick poles at them (and eat a couple, as well) and they exit. The most entertaining critter is the red-crested antediluvian Phorohacos, which delights kids. We didn't care back in '61, but my kids rather resented Harryhausen/Schneer's tendency to kill off so many of their monsters. My daughter loved the puppy-like reptile of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms but didn't want to see the movie twice because of the death scene. Likewise for the defenseless newly hatched Roc chicks in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The kids quickly figured out the "poke-sticks & die" episodic nature of the movies, and cheered when the One Million Years B.C. turtle Archelon escape unharmed.
Part of the delight of the giant bird is Bernard Herrmann's wonderful scoring, which manages to be whimsical and heavy at the same time, sort of a Wagnerian Turkey in the Straw. Herrmann's thunderous music is the glue that holds the film together and provides much of its grandeur.
It also might be unpopular to say outright, but the non-animation special effects in Mysterious Island are not Harryhausen's best. Some of the matte paintings are unlikely vistas not very well realized, with perspective problems to boot. And complicated scenes calling out for large set construction are solved through mattes and composites that even in original prints looked dupe-y and circumspect. In 7th Voyage, Harryhausen designed a beautiful tunnel entrance for his Cyclops; a fairly undetectable meld of miniature set (the carved arch) and live-action footage. Here, there's a fortress in a cliff side cave overlooking the beach, made of five or six cleverly arranged but very artificial-looking optical elements. It's a key location, and it's never very convincing. Many scenes, such as the grotto lagoon where the Nautilus has come to rest, are large, static miniatures with little people matted into them. Couple that with endless slow-motion underwater scenes, and a stock genre volcanic eruption that also has no real character involvement, and the back end of Mysterious Island is slow going. But it comes to life with Bernard Herrmann's warbling bassoons and mighty crescendos.
Columbia filmed Mysterious Island as a serial ten years previously, somehow adding a female alien from Mercury into the mix. The part-talkie 1928 MGM pastiche remains one of the weirdest and most costly Hollywood fantasy films, and there was a Soviet effort (made during WW2) that was reviewed positively in old European journals. Reviewers of this Harryhausen version often commented on the no-show of familiar actor Nigel Green (Hercules in Jason & the Argonauts), whose name appeared in all the official cast lists. Green's scenes were cut - he appears to be the skeleton that the castaways find in their cave fortress. Perhaps a diary-inspired flashback pirate story got dropped, one similar to the lighthouse-wrecker saga of The Light at the Edge of the World - ?
I wasn't all that happy with Columbia's old 2002 DVD of this show; I complained that it looked as if its negative had been stored in the wet end of the vault. Twilight Time's new Blu-ray of Mysterious Island puts an end to my complaints. Sony's restoration department handles all of the transfers and color timing work for Columbia library product, no matter what entity licenses the title.
Transferred at an eye-pleasing 1:66 (no monster feet disappearing below the frame, or heads cut off) the show has an entirely new look. Older prints and transfers were pretty anemic, but somehow they've gotten all the colors back up to near 100% levels. Grain is under control as well. The, and the Phorohacos bird is a real beauty. The ultra-sharp image makes the monsters look sharper and more 3-dimensional. I just noticed for the first time that Harryhausen has affixed little wire anchors at the ends of the pointy crab legs, to attach the feet to the animating pegboard or whatever. Great stuff.
The improved color also helps to smooth out the rough edges in the film's design, half of which is that familiar Spanish beach, and the other half matte paintings that resemble work done by Willis O'Brien's experts (Larrinaga?) at RKO thirty years before. The two "looks" have never blended well. For all the expense and difficulty of adding the images of the castaway's main cave residence -- opticals on opticals, matte paintings, etc., we can't help but think that it might have been simpler to construct a fake rock outcropping right on the beach. On this new transfer these effects are optimized, and even the matte paintings seem more lifelike and mysterious.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes delve into the felicities of Ray Harryhausen's critters and the balance between his work and that of director Endfield. And she of course leaves room for some cogent observations about the film's celebrated composer.
Half the fun of popping in this new disc is hearing Bernard Herrmann's thundering music score. At the matinee in 1961 it focused every kid's attention on the screen, to see those multi-colored waves crashing behind the main titles. Herrmann's work for Harryhausen and Schneer was best when dealing with mythological and fanciful situations, and his music here consists of a lot of BIG CUES to accompany disasters, volcanoes, earthquakes. But I remember the audience -- of 12 year-old brats, mind you -- laughing and applauding at the scene with the giant bird. The music encourages a light-hearted response, and gives the movie its biggest moment of delight.
Twilight Time's DTS master audio track brings out the full dimensionality of Herrmann's rich orchestrations. As the music can be audited in the movie or in the Isolated Music Score, the disc release doubles as a soundtrack. Also included are an appropriately hyped original trailer and a TV spot that show only smatterings of the animated monsters. Columbia never stressed Harryhausen in its advertising, but we monster kids knew him by name. I remember seeing just a 20 second blip of a TV spot for Jason, but recognized immediately that the effects looked as if they were done by "that guy in Famous Monsters who did the Cyclops". I changed my weekend movie plans right away.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mysterious Island rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.