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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Ray Harryhausen Gift Set
Ray Harryhausen Gift Set
Sony Pictures // Unrated // October 7, 2008
List Price: $80.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted October 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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Ray Harryhausen Collection:
Just in time for the holidays comes this bulky, attractive and pretty nifty gift pack for Harryhausen fans on your list. (Those who don't already have these simply repackaged 2007 editions of three of the effects master's early films, that is ... unless they really want the anchor to the box, a sweet Ymir figurine from an edition of 10,000.)

It Came From Beneath The Sea:
Genre movies often don't age well. Special effects get more sophisticated, mores change and the audience's ability to deal with tension tends to escalate (think of how early automobile riders were scared driving 30 miles an hour). It Came From Beneath The Sea fits snugly in the above category, but it's still a great movie, thanks in large part to Harryhausen's work.

The year: 1955. The problem: atomic radiation. The result: gigantic octopus terrorizes San Francisco. That's your basic plot outline, any additional subtext is left to the notion of respecting, lusting after and simultaneously belittling another odd species - woman. The woman in this case is Doctor Lesley Joyce, (Faith Domergue) a gal who not only has enough knowledge of cephalopods to bust the mystery of who's leaving sucker-prints all over the Navy, but can also trick tight-lipped seamen into spilling their guts just by batting her lovely eyelashes. Plus she's got two girl's names and looks great in a swimsuit, in case we forget she's a woman. Sure, she screams hysterically when she finally sees the beast, and she'll only gently chide men when they have a conversation literally over her head, referring to her as if she's not there, but, well, she's a woman. Anyway, that's enough for that screed, the movie's over fifty years old, for crying out loud.

So, after a suspenseful opening sub-attack hindered only by the fact that the bit players are uniformly wooden, we move on to the unfolding of the mystery. Per usual, no one believes it when the giant mollusk theory is fronted, but ultimately the Navy gets around to figuring out what's to be done, with Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Joyce leading the charge.

Relatively tepid pacing and more stilted dialog lead up to what every kid in the audience wants to see; the octopus begins to crush the city by the bay. Though herky-jerky, Harryhausen's stop-motion animation, combined with rear-screen projection and super-imposing techniques doesn't fail to delight. This type of work will always look more real than CGI, since the objects being filmed actually exist. Monster movie fans will love watching the creature inch one of its six tentacles (budget constraints, doncha know) down familiar SF streets, smashing and sliming everything in its path. Featuring plenty of stock Naval footage to add that touch of realism, It Came From Beneath The Sea is above average for a '50s monster movie. Joyce and Mathews have an easy rapport, and even though she's constantly striving to overcome chauvinism, it's plenty of fun noting the Doctor's sly manipulations of those who'd claim to be superior. But ultimately, it's the sea-creature's show, and a tentacle around my neck is telling me that, as a stand-alone, this movie is Recommended.

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers:
Containing truly iconic UFOs and scenes of alien-sponsored destruction targeted but not surpassed (style-wise) by Independence Day, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is nonetheless a kind-of light entry in the Harryhausen canon, though at times a breathless UFO movie.

Horndog Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) divides his time between shooting rockets into space and trying for a different type of rocket launch with new wife Carol (Joan Taylor). (Is that OK for a family paper?) Marvin's government Operation Skyhook is probing for future spaceflights. Shooting down each rocket in turn, the aliens are like 'what gives?' Quite soon the green ones start dive-bombing earthlings in their ultra-cool saucers - including targeting Marvin and wife - as a way to get their mysterious message across. The US government's scramble for answers commences, landmarks are blown up, and good men are vaporized. The only question is; how can we kick their ass?

With a smaller cast wooden performances are kept to a minimum, while Marlowe and Taylor are quite charming and engaging in their bifurcated roles. Half the time they're serious about their work, half the time Carol is reminding Dr. Marvin to keep his hands to himself - it's lighthearted 'realism' meant to ease the (light) tension, and it makes the movie enjoyable. Harryhausen's UFOs are superlative in design and execution, though they make us long for his more creature-iffic work. The discs are far more realistic than your average saucers-on-a-string would be, but - especially in light of the pathetic aliens themselves - they almost seem to represent a waste of the man's talent.

Speaking of waste, the armored aliens might as well turn their lasers on themselves for all the fear they generate. These stiff, slow-moving dome-heads generate more laughs and pity than anything else as they feebly shuffle about like drugged-up, overweight toddlers. When they raise their abnormally long, elbow-less arms to fire their guns, it's a wonder they even have to pull their triggers, as the GIs are more likely to die laughing.

Of course like most 50-year-old sci-fi movies, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers has the deck stacked against it. Stodgy 1950s attitudes don't really translate, even with the fun newlywed subplot, and of course the special effects won't exactly wow anyone without an appreciation of the history of the genre. The real match is not between earth and the flying saucers, but between the flying saucers and their alien pilots. Harryhausen's UFOs are pretty much awesome blueprint models for all that UFOs are supposed to be, while their armored pilots are just sad. Match goes to the saucers, and this movie on its own merits a mild Recommended rating.

20 Million Miles To Earth:
Now we're getting somewhere! Harryhausen has plenty of great black-and-white work, but with 20 Million Miles the things the master animator is best known and loved for come to the front. In two words: awesome monster. And this time, the story and action aren't bad either.

When a massive rocket ship crashes into the sea off the coast of Sicily, some of the most-a stereotypical-a Italians get scared, then curious. They pull survivors out (turns out it's an American vessel) but the precious cargo (alien-in-a-tube) washes ashore to be later found by a stereotyped Italian child actor. (I don't have to tell you how horrible this development is.) Rocket ship survivor Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper) goes on the hunt for the beast, a beast that spends some time with lovely Marisa Leonardo (Joan Taylor) and her creature-loving dad before growing huge and going on the typical misunderstood rampage.

The story is no great shakes, pretty much just a set-up for some monster mayhem, but at least incredulous disbelief on authority's part is minimal - pretty much everyone just wants to get the monster by any means possible, despite its unlikely origins on the planet Venus. Yes, Venus. Taylor is sturdy and sexy as usual, (I just love those '50s heroines) getting to not only gently chide her masculine cohorts, but also scream in terror in a startling monster-gets-big scene. Hopper is as solid as he can muster. I'm not a huge Hopper scholar, but from what I've seen his apex really was smoking cigarettes with Perry Mason as mysterious metrosexual Paul Drake. Here he seems vaguely detached much of the time, as if he'd wandered in from a Naval training video, but otherwise at least displays likeability and low-wattage star power.

Thankfully, Harryhausen's Ymir (the creature) more than pulls in the slack. Moving pretty smoothly like a wrestler during a 'roid-rage, the Ymir struts and frets with affectingly human-like qualities on the stage. Wicked cool in appearance (for kids and adult-kids alike) the Ymir personifies the perfect movie monster - he's at once scary and sympathetic - that winning combination of push-pull that makes for compelling viewing. On the grow, our anti-hero only wants to be left alone, but somehow we puny humans just don't get it. The 20-minute ultimate rampage features a truly awesome battle royale between the Ymir and an elephant, before an oddly thoughtful denouement that delivers a final nod at that first stop-motion hero, King Kong. With 'all that other stuff' (anything non-monster-related) being a notch or two above average for a B-movie, 20 Million Miles To Earth is good for super-fans, but Harryhausen's monster represents something special, cranking my rating back up to Recommended.

The DVD

Video:
All three movies come in anamorphic widescreen, in a 1.85:1 ratio, for widescreen TVs. The movies come in either black-and-white or the colorized version - which you can toggle back and forth between using the angle button on your remote, using the nifty Chromachoice feature. Of course film grain and varying levels of noise - within Harryhausen's effects segments in particular - are present in both versions, but compression artifacts aren't a problem, and for the films' age they all look great.

Sound:
Dolby Digital 5.1 English Audio, and the original English Mono tracks are available for the movies. The 5.1 tracks overall seem fine but not real barnburners, while the mono tracks are perfect for purists. Audio is also available in Spanish and Portuguese for Beneath The Sea and 20 Million Miles, and you can throw in French too, for Flying Saucers. Cool monster and UFO sound effects, dialog and music are mixed appropriately, and no problems crop up in these tracks.

Extras:
All three features are available in their original black-and-white versions as well as Colorized Presentations. Harryhausen personally approved of the colorizations, finding the quality superior to the earliest attempts, and liking how colorization breathes new life into the movies. I still don't enjoy colorization (though this work is certainly much better than that of the early days) finding it still makes things look somewhat artificial, with people especially looking a bit like silly-putty-toned dolls. However, especially with It Came From Beneath The Sea, the image and experience is livelier. All extras across the board come with Spanish and Portuguese Subtitles

Additionally each Disc 2 for each movie repeats these extras: Tim Burton Sits Down With Ray Harryhausen and gushes for 27 minutes. With clips, lots of historical movie talk, behind-the-scenes stuff, it's what you'd expect, and Burton's childish glee is appealing. It's all fun for fans of his movies or anyone with an appreciation of those fantastic oldies. David Schecter On Film Music's Unsung Hero is a surprisingly interesting 22 minute look at the composer/ conductor (though he never got a composing credit) of these three films (and many more) the one and only Mischa Bakaleinikoff. Schecter's intense (maybe too intense?) delivery drags you in, making the composer's four-note themes and terms like 'flutter-tongue' seem very compelling. Voluminous Photo Galleries cover Ad Art, Production Photos, Portraits (of the stars) and Harryhausen Artwork. Auto-navigated and with musical accompaniment, (most of which will eventually drive you bonkers) these represent 30 to 50 minutes (!) of visual occupation. Finally, a 17 minute interview sequence about Original Ad Art allows producer Arnold Kunert to display, and talk in-depth about, his staggering collection of ad art for the three Harryhausen movies - very informative and quite interesting. Of course it's debatable as to whether you need these particular extras (and a couple others that repeat twice) so many times. Oh yeah, each disc delivers a pair of Previews for modern movies and reissues.

Oh yeah, for your trouble you get a seven-and-a-half-inch-tall Limited Edition Ymir Figurine, (out of 10,000) made of solid plastic, exquisite in detail, with beautiful painting, a 'signed' by Harryhausen Certificate of Authenticity, and all of it comes in a large box with flashy '50s graphics.

It Came From Beneath The Sea:

Disc 1 has these Subtitles; English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and the full-length Commentary Track with Harryhausen, producer Arnold Kunert, and visual effects whizzes Randall William Cook and John Bruno. Like all commentaries on these three discs, a wide range of movie-making lore, trivia, apocrypha and esoteric special effects/ movie-making knowledge, as well as tons of Harryhausen behind-the-scenes talk. It's a friendly roundtable with the movie and knowledgeable, geeky adult kids. Disk 2 starts with Remembering It Came From Beneath The Sea, at about 22 minutes, in widescreen (as are all the other extras) which does the expected, with memories of Harryhausen's influence on pretty much anyone who grew up to act, direct or write for Hollywood, and more all bantered about by the man himself mostly, and sundry others. Naturally such memories occasionally leave the purview of the movie, but whatever! Clips and Harryhausen's production drawings add visual flair. An It Came From The Sea ... Again! Comic Book Preview from creators Clay and Susan Griffith, and Chris Noeth burns about 5 self-navigated pages (first in nigh impossible to read full-page, then panel close-ups - but still belly up to the screen if you're rockin' less than 50 inches). An 11 minute short-subject titled A Present-Day Look At Stop-Motion is basically a quick tutorial through the basics of stop-motion from a New York film student.

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers:

Disc 1 has these Subtitles; English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and the full-length Commentary Track with Harryhausen, producer Arnold Kunert, and FX guys Jeffrey Okun and Ken Ralston. Each commentary track from each movie, with two different effects guys, has a slightly different feel; this one throws off lots of funny vibrations, verging on MST3K-style at times.

Disk 2 starts with Remembering Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, at about 22 minutes, with all the same good stuff as the other 'remembering' documentaries. An intense 29 minute featurette, (pretty much a single interview with some clips and stills) Hollywood Blacklist and Bernard Gordon, brings us up to speed on the whole 'Red Scare' of the '50s, in particular how it affected the titular screenwriter, before winding up with a message of vindication. Then the Original Screenplay Credits roll for the first three minutes of the movie, with the ultimate pseudonymous on-screen credit from 1956. Ryan Burton and Alan Brooks get their turn with the gorgeously illustrated Flying Saucers Vs. The Earth Comic Book Preview. A Present-Day Look At Stop-Motion repeats from the It Came From Beneath The Sea extras. A 17 minute Interview With Joan Taylor (star of 20 Million Miles and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers) provides a retrospective of her career, with stops for a traumatic coffee spill and of course the two Harryhausen pics. A discussion of the Colorization Process at about 11 minutes, puffs up the new Legend Films colorization process - including semi-automated film clean-up of dust, lines and scratches. Harryhausen loves it, if he'd had the money he would have filmed in color originally. One Legend Films flack seems to have been filming a poor advertising/ demo-reel for the process, severely straining any good will from this extra.

20 Million Miles To Earth:

Disc 1: contains the usual (or should be usual) of Closed Captioning and Subtitles, in this case English and French, and Chapter Selections. We also get a full-length Commentary Track with Harryhausen, producer Arnold Kunert and effects gurus Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet in a satellite hook-up uniting London and Berkeley California. Somewhat shaggy, but full of love, the track not only hits the marks you'd expect; Harryhausen's tricks, methods and memories, but also side-trips that discuss Harryhausen's other work, the state of sci-fi fantasy movies at the time, and other more prosaic aspects of the movie; performances and direction, for instance. Occasional lapses of silence disappear as the high-octane finale livens everyone up.

Disc 2: First is Remembering 20 Million Miles To Earth, which at 27 minutes has all the stuff you expect, plus snags lots of great interviews. Harryhausen of course provides the bulk of anecdotes, but Terry Gilliam, Rick Baker, the late Stan Winston and the Chiodo brothers also chime in. The new Colorization Process featurette repeats from the Earth Vs. Flying Saucers disc. A 17 minute Interview With Joan Taylor repeats from the Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers disc. A 20 Million Miles Comic Book Preview from creators Scott Davis and Alex Garcia is also here for your reading enticement.

Final Thoughts:
With three of Harryhausen's early, influential works and a very nice collectible figurine, this is a great collection of toney B-movies for the sci-fi fantasy film fan in your life. On the other hand, these are unaltered, repackaged 2007 edition DVDs, with many duplicated extra features, so if you or the one on your list already has one or two of these, you might want to think twice. The movies are all above-average for B-movies, with groundbreaking effects (Harryhausen's dynamation) and a lot more coolness than your average '50s sci-fi potboilers - all of which on their own are Recommended. For the right recipient (figurine fans, for sure) this collection is Highly Recommended, but for the fact that the movies are repackaged and duplicate many features, and the figurine is a real special interest item; so for your average fan or Harryhausen completist who might already have some of these discs, we will give it a solid Recommended.

- Kurt Dahlke

~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com

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