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DVD SAVANT

Mysterious Island


Mysterious Island
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
1961 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 /101 min. / Street Date October 29, 2002 / $24.95
Starring Michael Craig, Michael Callan, Beth Rogan, Gary Merrill, Herbert Lom, Joan Greenwood, Percy Herbert
Cinematography Wilkie Cooper
Special visual effects Ray Harryhause
Art Direction Bill Andrews
Film Editor Frederick Wilson
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur from the novel by Jules Verne
Produced by Charles H. Schneer
Directed by Cy Endfield

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

After grousing about Columbia's no-show with Ray Harryhausen movies last Christmas, Savant has to admit that this year they've made up for it and more. First Men IN the Moon, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Twenty Million Miles to Earth, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, and now this favorite from 1961 have all rolled out in mostly fine fashion. Mysterious Island continued Hollywood's successful run of Jules Verne adaptations by tackling the sequel to the author's most successful story, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Injecting Verne's fairly awkward story with a succession of showstopping stop-motion monsters, Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer had one of their biggest hits.

Synopsis:

Union Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) leads a small band of fellow prisoners, including war correspondent Gideon Spillett (Gary Merrill) in an escape from a Confederate prison, using a rebel spotting balloon. An unprecedented storm takes them across the 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, joining up with a pair of English shipwreck survivors (Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan) along the way. What they don't know is that they are being watched over by the island's secret inhabitant, the notorious Captain Nemo, who was presumed to have gone down with his terror-submarine Nautilus a few years before.

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.

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 - even when the script sags, the characters hold together. The English actors are classy and credible, even if Herbert's Southern accent slides into Cockney half the time. The level-headed Michael Craig is very convincing as an American, while Michael Callan and newcomer Beth Rogan make an okay ingenue couple. Dan Jackson is a robust Neb Nugent, who is given equal character time until the full cast assembles, when his lines drop almost to nothing.

In a standout performance, Herbert Lom is formidable as Captain Nemo, dishing 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 kind of fun having 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 his least interesting pictures to Savant. As this is a statement begging for defense, I'll get right to it.

Both the script and Harryhausen's scenes are episodic to a fault, and too many of the thrills are overly familiar. After a tense opening, with some very convincing effects, the show plays out at 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 no 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. If anything, they're less interesting, having accepted the wonders before their eyes in such a complacent manner.

(Spoilers)

When Nemo-ex-machina does show up, his connection to his newfound friends isn't very convincing, and after some very static reels, his decision to sit in his submarine and accept a morbid fate is a real downer. Even to 9 year-olds, introducing the sub, which then never sets sail, is another big let-down. Our heroes escape with 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 unliklihoods 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 consistently handles Robur's pacifist fanaticism. Yellow 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 unapologetically presented Verne's aquatic Terrorist as Verne described him - a genius-maniac righteously opposing red-coated colonial oppression. This sequel's Nemo is a reborn environmentalist nice-guy, a smudge on Nemo's unrepentant honor, no matter how well he's played by Herbert Lom.

Harryhausen's animation effect scenes are terrific, but none of them advance the story. The monsters appear, our heroes stick poles at them (and get to eat a couple, as well) and they exit. The most entertaining critter is the red-crested antidiluvian bird, 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 it again 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 they saw the One Million Years, B.C. turtle Archelon escape unharmed.

Part of the delight of the giant bird is Bernard Herrman'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 lends it the grandeur it needs.

It also might be unpopular to say outright, but the special effects in Mysterious Island, outside of his marvellous animation, aren't Harryhausen's best. Many of the matte paintings are unlikely vistas not very well realized, with perspective problems to boot. And many 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 cliffside 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 slowmotion 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, best relieved by listening to Bernard Herrmann's warbling bassoons and mighty crescendoes.

Columbia filmed Mysterious Island as a serial ten years previous, somehow adding a female alien from Mercury to 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's well-remembered. 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. His scenes were cut - he appears to be the skeleton the castaways find in their cave fortress. Perhaps there was a diary-inspired flashback pirate story that got dropped, similar to the lighthouse-wrecker saga of The Light at the Edge of the World - ?


Columbia/Tristar's DVD of Mysterious Island, unfortunately, isn't the beauty we were hoping for. No fault of today's restorers, but there's apparently little left to work with in the surviving elements. These pictures were so popular Columbia printed them to death (that's our Torch Lady) without ever making good separations or otherwise guaranteeing their survival. Mysterious Island looks as though it was stored in the sunny, wet end of the vault. It's obvious that a lot of telecine effort has been expended to make it look as good as possible, and perhaps others won't be as disheartened by the transfer as Savant was. Overall the picture is thin and the grain high. The actual animation sequences don't fare too badly, but the other effects look as bad as I've seen them, even in those mis-timed 16mm prints that circulated on television non-stop for 30 years.

Particularly hard-hit are Harryhausen's matte effects. A fat negative, with its full blue register, has a density that is critical for being able to print good copies of effects scenes. When the blue goes away entirely, as with a print I once screened of Journey to the Center of the Earth, every flaw and blemish comes out - in that show, the black corners of the screen, when lightened by the fading, revealed plumbing and 2 X 4's nailed into the pathways leading to the Earth's core! Here, the beach fortress is painful stack of mattes and blue-screen elements that no longer fit together at all.  2

These comments are for the Harryhausen freaks who worry about such split hairs. The movie doesn't stop and die for these flaws, and will likely play just fine for many, especially on screens smaller than 30", which will lessen the grain.

The other probable source of fan complaint is the framing, an issue which I must admit confuses me. All of the flat Harryhausens look a bit tight on my 16:9 television, and it may be the television's fault, after reports I've read that our rear-projection monitors grossly overscan. Yet I play the disc on my small tube monitor, and the crab scene stil looks tight, with the legs going offscreen on the bottom and the crab slightly cropped on the left. That's the only scene that stood out to me as being too tight, but I'm expecting to see the same web controversy on this title as with the other Harryhausens, and the new Hammer discs. But I honestly think Columbia's restorers and home video producers put out the best product they can, and I have too many doubts to point fingers on this one.

Ray Harryhausen hosts his own little featurette on the movie, telling the familiar stories, obviously proud of one of his personal favorites. Trailers are included, along with a few sketches and a photo gallery. Also on board are the This is Dynamation featurette and the Harryhausen Chronicles Richard Shickel docu, which by now must be the most re-issued added features in the short history of the DVD format.

Unless there's a title I'm forgetting, when It Came from Beneath the Sea appears, all of the Columbia Harryhausen films will be on DVD.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Mysterious Island rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 12, 2002


Footnotes:

 1 1. Let me stress that the recent flat-only transfers are a marketing experiment. Of the Harryhausens, only The 3 Worlds of Gulliver was affected by that decision.
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2. The fading negative makes painfully obvious a detail Savant had never before noticed. During the bird attack, Gideon Spillett whacks the monster in its chicken legs several times with a stout stick. In this new transfer, when the bird hops, it reveals a matted-out pole or something for Gary Merrill to strike in reality. I'm sure someone like Ernie Farino could have pointed it out to me before, but on this transfer, it looks as if a big vertical stripe pops in and out of the background.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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