The Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen, Volume One: 1955-1960 (Blu-ray)

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The Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen, Volume One: 1955-1960 (Blu-ray)

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Review of "The Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen, Volume One: 1955-1960 (Blu-ray)"

published 30/10/2017 | hogsflesh
Member since : 19/04/2010
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Good
Pro The middle film is great, the blu-rays look as good as they're likely to
Cons The first and third films aren't Harryhausen's best
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"Creature features"

The creature (20 Million Miles)

The creature (20 Million Miles)

This boxset from Indicator is about £42 at the moment. It’s a limited edition, and there are plans to release the films individually later on.

Ray Harryhausen was a legendary creator of special effects. These generally used stop-motion monsters which were integrated into live-action films remarkably successfully, especially given the times his films were made (from the 50s to the early 80s). Films were usually created as showcases for his work, and although he didn’t direct them, he had a lot of control over them. You generally don’t get star actors in Harryhausen films – the monsters are the stars, not the people.

This boxset collects three of his quite early efforts. The first two films are simple-minded monster movies, with man in all his scientific hubris coming up against one of Harryhausen’s plasticine abominations. The third is a slightly more ambitious but somewhat frustrating adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels.

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

The first movie begins with a reasonably tense scene in which a state-of-the-art submarine is stalked by something huge under the sea, but sadly it doesn’t capitalise on it. Scientists have to piece together what happened to the sub, and to other boats which go missing in the Pacific, eventually concluding that a radioactive giant octopus is responsible (or squid, possibly; the script changes its mind fairly often, as if it believes the two creatures are interchangeable).

Unfortunately the film spends the majority of its running time watching scientists talking in rooms. A completely unengaging love triangle develops between the beefy sub captain, the female scientist and her male science colleague. Being the 50s, it begins with the submariner expressing surprise that a woman can be a scientist at all, and just gets more and more boring from there. No one is watching a monster movie because they care about the human cast – we’re in it for the giant radioactive squid, and until it deigns to show up, the film plods. (Two sides of the love triangle are played by Kenneth Robey and Faith Domergue, both of whom played second fiddle to monsters in several 50s sci-fi films.)

When the creature does finally come from beneath the sea and start to attack things, we generally only see one tentacle looming out of the water and grabbing and/or smashing things. We finally see the entire beast (which notoriously doesn’t have enough tentacles, as the budget didn’t stretch that far) towards the end of the film, when it attacks the Golden Gate Bridge and fights a toy submarine. The last 15 minutes or so do perk up immeasurably as we finally get the full-on monster attack we’ve been waiting for, while the characters run around trying to sort things out.

As with most Harryhausen films, its only purpose is to act as a frame for the special effects. Unfortunately, since we’re denied seeing them for such a long time, it can’t help but get rather dull. Lots of extras pointing in fear at a large plasticine tentacle can only take you so far. This is not really one of Harryhausen’s better films.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

Things immediately improve with the second film in the set (although the title is a trifle misleading –it suggests an outer space setting, but the film mostly takes place in Italy). An American rocket mission to Venus returns to earth and lands off the coast of Sicily. Only one man survives, the rugged captain. But he has with him a flask containing some kind of alien critter, which is discovered by an annoying kid. The alien starts out small, but soon grows, and eventually runs amok through the streets of Rome smashing up landmarks and fighting an elephant.

This is much better. It helps that, in place of the personality-free scientists of the last film, we get some entertaining stock characters this time – the annoying child, the slightly dotty old professor, the feisty love interest etc. (This time the female lead is training to be a doctor. Again, the hero expresses surprise that a woman might be doing such a thing, and again, she falls in love with him anyway).

Even better is the monster, a bipedal lizard thing with a tail (called ‘Ymir’ during production, but never named in the film). It starts out as a cute baby before growing to the kind of size where fighting an elephant is feasible – it looks quite a lot like the kraken in Clash of the Titans. It’s also (I think) the first of Harryhausen’s monsters to be given a proper personality – it rubs its eyes and stumbles about when newly hatched, and shows emotions like curiosity and anger. It sort-of behaves like a real animal might, and doesn’t get violent until attacked.

All this leads up to a very enjoyable climax in Rome as the creature breaks loose of the zoo for a King Kong-style rampage. It’s not perhaps up there with the London-flattening antics of Gorgo, but the special effects are better, and the elephant fight is terrific. We’re left pondering whether scientific exploration should have limits and if man truly has the right to play god by… ha ha, no I’m kidding. We’re left with a vague sense that maybe the monster could have done with another ten minutes smashing up Roman landmarks, but otherwise the film is very enjoyable and easily the best in the set.

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)

This is an odd one, and I don’t think I’d even heard of it until it was released on Blu-ray. It’s a de-fanged adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s satirical classic. Sadly it removes all the pungent stuff, making it into a kid-friendly adventure movie, the moral of which seems to be that we should all be happy with our lot in life and not have any ambitions.

Gulliver sets off to sea, in spite of the protests of his fiancée, Elizabeth (who stows away to follow him). He gets washed overboard and soon finds himself in Lilliput, the land of the tiny people. Later he arrives in Brobdingnag, where everyone is gigantic. Here’s he’s reunited with Elizabeth, who has also been washed up here. Sadly Gulliver’s other world (the name of the film promises three) turns out just to mean England (Wapping, to be precise, although the film seems to think this district of London is on the coast). Anyone hoping to see the land of the talking horse-people had best look elsewhere.

This is a better looking film, as it was shot in colour and has a glossier feel to it. It also has a greater variety of characters, with comical tiny emperors and gigantic kings. There are a couple of actors I’d heard of – Charles Lloyd Pack, a perennial Hammer horror supporting actor, is good as a comedy villain in Brobdingnag (although the ‘darking up’ makeup a lot of the white cast wears is very of-its-time). Gulliver is played by blandly handsome Kerwin Matthews, who also played Sinbad in a different Harryhausen film.

The oddest thing about this film is that it hardly features any of the stop-motion effects Harryhausen was famous for – there’s a fight with a crocodile, and a briefly seen giant squirrel, but otherwise that’s it. Most of the effects are to do with having the giant or tiny Gulliver and Elizabeth interact with worlds where everything is much smaller or bigger than they are. As ever, some of the effects are weak, but some of them are surprisingly decent, for the time.

The best thing about the film is the music, by Bernard Herrmann, most famous for scoring Psycho and other classic Hitchcock movies. It captures the jaunty, family-friendly feel of the film very well. Unfortunately, that family-friendly vibe is what lets the film down – it turns Swift’s crazy satire into a children’s adventure film, removing the bit where Gulliver urinates on a fire to put it out, or the bit where he balances on a giantess’s nipple. There’s no real sense of danger, and the whole thing is far too whimsical.
Blu-ray, extras etc

The films all look good on Blu-ray, with the black and white ones probably winning out. Gulliver has a lot of shots where half of it looks crispy clear and the other half looks slightly blurred – if, for instance, Gulliver is pulling a small tree out of the ground, watched in amazement by tiny Lilliputians, the small people will look good and Gulliver won’t. The quality of the two halves of the image doesn’t match, which I found distracting, but it’s generally the case in films like this. It’s a lot less noticeable in the black and white movies, which consequently look better.

Colourised versions of the two black and white films are included as extras, and they don’t look as bad as I thought they might. I prefer to stick to the black and white versions, though. There are also DVD versions of the films included, but I didn’t watch those.

Each disk is stacked with extras, many of them carried over from previous releases (Harryhausen died a few years ago, but there are plenty of extras featuring him, including commentaries). The extras I liked best, out of the ones I watched, were the newly filmed ones in which various animators or special effects people were interviewed about Harryhausen’s influence on their own careers. Probably the best, because of how enthusiastic he is, is a short piece by Gremlins director Joe Dante about It Came from Beneath the Sea.

There’s also a quite chunky little booklet included in the package, with decent essays on each film. The boxset itself is sturdy, and the package as a whole is very impressive. These might not be Ray Harryhausen’s best films, but they’re worth seeing once. And Indicator have already released a boxset of his Sinbad movies, and there’s another on the way with some of his later, better known films. This is a good time to be a Harryhausen fan with a blu-ray player.

All screenshots were taken from the blu-rays using Aiseesoft Blu-ray Player software on my PC's BD drive.

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Comments on this review

  • euphie published 17/11/2017
    e :o)
  • danielclark691 published 10/11/2017
    very well covered
  • jb0077 published 05/11/2017
    An E from me.
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Product Details

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Classification: Parental Guidance

Director(s): Robert Gordon, Nathan Juran, Jack Sher

EAN: 5037899071205

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Listed on Ciao since: 29/09/2017