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Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack made an indescribably seismic impact on cinema with King Kong, and less than a decade later, they'd attempt to do it again by embracing an altogether different scale.
Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) isn't cycloptic, exactly, but his failing eyesight is getting in the way of his ambitious experiments with radium deep in the jungles of Peru. Thorkel reaches out to an old colleague stateside to assemble a dream team of scientists and help him further his research. Renowned biologist Rupert Bulfinch (Charles Halton)! Microscopic expert Mary Robinson (Janice Logan)! Second-choice minerologist and all-around scoundrel Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley)!
Robinson and Bulfinch have traveled halfway across the world to aid Thorkel, they've practically extorted Stockton into signing on, and they've even relented to the demands of the miner (Victor Kilian) with the only mules to be found this side of the Amazon and letting him tag along too. They brace themselves for weeks – months, even! – of intense research making full use of their particular expertises, only to find that Thorkel really just wants 'em to peer through a microscope for a couple of minutes. That quick glance – something Thorkel can no longer accomplish on his own, Coke bottle glasses or no – is all the scientist requires to complete his work. Thanks, all! Your services are no longer required. Safe travels.
There's eccentric, and then there's dragging a top-notch scientific team some ten thousand miles into the heart of the Amazon just to look through a microscope. The more they investigate why this is, the more certain Thorkel is that they seek to disrupt his experiments. He locks these interlopers into an enclosed chamber and lets them witness the results of his work firsthand: harnessing the radium's radioactivity to shrink them to one-fifth their original size!
The good news: the team – which now includes assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli) – has survived longer at this diminutive size than any living organism Thorkel has yet shrunk. The other good news: they're growing at an imperceptibly slow rate, so, given enough time, they'll eventually return to their normal height and weight. That is, if they live long enough. Thorkel is soon out for blood, and even if they escape his clutches, they're still all of a foot tall and stranded in the heart of the jungle.
I can't claim that Doctor Cyclops boasts a gripping narrative or arresting performances, but it's certainly remarkable in its own ways. The film is at least a decade ahead of its time, with a premise that feels more at home with the atomic panic and giant creature features of the 1950s than I would've expected in these pre-War years. It's among just a handful of three-strip Technicolor productions from the class of 1940, as well as the first science fiction or horror picture to have been filmed using this process. Its special effects were deservedly celebrated with an Academy Award nomination. Even after eight full decades, many of them still look marvelous, relying on meticulously timed choreography, rear projection, split-screen, glass shots, and gigantic props rather than the expected stop-motion animation or traveling mattes. That spectacle goes a long way towards compensating for the uneven pace and occasionally lackluster performances. Though, to be fair, Dekker is pitch-perfect as the unhinged titular scientist, and, hardly a damsel in distress, Logan's brave and bold Doc Robinson is easily the highlight among Cyclops' five pint-sized victims.
Those with a passion for vintage genre cinema will doubtless find Doctor Cyclops to be an essential purchase, especially given what a knockout this new 4K remaster is on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
When you think of a sci-fi yarn about a mad scientist with a shrinking chamber, chances are that you're picturing a black and white drive-in flick from the 1950s. And, sure, this late night TV staple was most widely seen throughout the '50s without a lick of color to be found. Still, Doctor Cyclops predates the likes of Attack of the Puppet People and The Incredible Shrinking Man by the better part of two decades, and it holds the distinction of being the first genre film produced in three-strip Technicolor. I have to admit that Technicolor was the primary reason I sought out this Blu-ray disc to review, and...whew, in no way does it disappoint.
The ultra-vivid palette leaps clear off the screen, delivering the sorts of colors you wish you could see in the world around you as only Technicolor can. The lush greens of jungle foliage and the cast's wardrobe in particular are eye-popping, but there's something about the image above that I felt compelled to share. I gawk at those hues and just melt. Doctor Cyclops' colors are remarkably stable and, better still, free of any fringing or misalignment.
This 4K remaster teeters on the brink of perfection. Yes, there are a very modest number of specks, but they're far too small and sparse to pose any meaningful distraction. This exceptionally filmic presentation isn't marred by any excessive filtering or processing, and if there are any missteps in its AVC encode, they wholly escaped my eyes. And, as high as my expectations were, the definition and detail showcased here eclipse anything I could've possibly hoped to see.
Note the exceptionally fine checkered pattern of Pedro's shirt above, for instance, as well as the clarity of the text underneath Dr. Bulfinch:
What Kino Lorber and Universal have delivered here is truly exceptional. This Blu-ray release is arriving on literally the first week of 2020, but Doctor Cyclops' remaster will undoubtedly hold a place atop my 'Best of the Year' list twelve months from now.
The film arrives on Blu-ray at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and, given its brevity and the limited video-based extras, Doctor Cyclops has no need for anything more than a single layer disc.
Doctor Cyclops' 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack – presented in two-channel mono – impresses nearly as much as its visuals. The source elements aren't marred by any strain or clipping of note. Background noise is occasionally audible, but never to the point of being all that intrusive. This is as extreme as the noise gets, and even that is rare:
Its most colossal effects – say, a tree crashing to the ground during a torrential downpour in the jungle or the growl of a seemingly titanic alligator – remain impactful these many years later. The electronic oscillator whirr of Dr. Thorkel's equipment, the score's frenzied strings and brass, and the re-pitched voices of the shrunken scientists are equally effective. The same can't be said about the almost certainly human snarls that are supposed to pass for those of black cat Satana, but that's certainly no fault of this Blu-ray release's spectacular lossless audio.
Rounding out the audio options are a commentary track and a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
- Audio Commentary: My favorite Mobian and yours, Richard Harland Smith, contributes expectedly terrific commentary. As ever, Smith strikes a perfect balance, delivering a track that's insightful and exceptionally well-researched while remaining personable and endlessly fun. Smith delves in-depth into the lives and filmographies of most everyone on both sides of Doctor Cyclops' cameras, the critical and commercial response to the film, the differences between what was splashed across the silver screen and various printed versions, the sociopolitical climates that would impact the movie and its stars alike, and extensive details about realizing Torkel's miniaturization process. Better still, we learn about another jungle creature cut from the film, Janice Logan's wardrobe malfunction on-set, and who on the bill here is said to be responsible for John Wayne's iconic walk. When there's a nod to Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead in the first few minutes of this discussion, you know you're among friends. A very highly recommended listen.
- Trailers from Hell (2 min.; SD): Prolific television director Jesús Treviño offers a brief introduction to and commentary for Doctor Cyclops' theatrical trailer. If you're aching for a taste, it's also on Trailers from Hell's YouTube channel.
- Trailer (2 min.; SD): Alongside a standard definition trailer for Doctor Cyclops are vintage trailers for Cobra Woman, The Undying Monster, and The Land Unknown.
The Final Word
Doctor Cyclops isn't going to be mistaken as some sort of underappreciated genre masterwork, no, but its chief strengths – stunning Technicolor photography and Academy Award-nominated visual effects that often continue to impress even after eight full decades – have never shone more brightly than they do on this Blu-ray release. Highly Recommended to those with a longstanding fascination with vintage sci-fi cinema.