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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

The Wonderful Worlds of Ray Harryhausen Volume One Blu Ray & DVD (Indicator)

This second Ray Harryhausen collection from Indicator brings together three early examples of films involving his Dynamation creations. The first two, It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth are available for viewing both in their original black-and-white formats and the more recent computer-colourised versions.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)

In the first ever collaboration between stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer, Kenneth Tobey plays a submarine commander named Pete Mathews. His sub has a close encounter with a mysterious beast deep in the ocean - so close, in fact, that the vessel collides with it, getting some of its flesh on its rudders.

He takes the flesh to a laboratory, where two scientists - Prof. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) - examine it. After considerable experimentation they find that it comes from an octopus which has grown to a huge size. Such beings normally exist at too great a depth for humans to come in contact with them. However, in this case Prof. Joyce deduces that it has been stirred up by nuclear testing near the Marshall Islands.

When their findings are reported to Commander Mathews’ superior Admiral Burns (Ian Keith) he is initially skeptical. However, when a beast attacks a ship and drags it underwater they are taken more seriously.

It Came from Beneath the Sea poster

It Came from Beneath the Sea isn’t one of the better films to involve Ray Harryhausen’s talents. In fact, it feels more like a decent FX showreel which has been padded out to a bad feature-length B movie. For the first hour or so of its shortish 79-minute runtime there are just two brief glimpses of Harryhausen’s majestic creation. This wouldn’t have mattered so much if there was anything in the way of pacing, tension or interesting character development. Unfortunately none of these things are present. Instead, we gets lots and lots of dull dialogue scenes with nonexistent direction by Robert Gordon, along with a good deal of U.S. air force and naval stock footage as the armed forces attempt to vanquish the beast on a shoestring production budget.

There’s the odd unintentional chuckle to be had during this dull stretch, such as the opening narration with the line:

“The mind of man had thought of everything - except that which was beyond his comprehension!”

There’s also a laughably overplayed romantic subplot between Commander Mathews and Professor Joyce, which (it is implied) might just extend to a consensual love triangle - being as there seems to be something going between her and Dr. Carter too. Even so, getting through the film is something of a chore.

Thankfully, things do pick up in the final 20 minutes when the creature attacks San Francisco. We see it climb and destroy the Golden Gate Bridge, and then witness its huge arms stretch out to cause havoc on the city’s streets - only to be pushed back by a bunch of soldiers who are clearly keen on putting grilled octopus on tonight’s menu courtesy of their flamethrowers. However, you might want to keep your finger close to the fast-forward button until you reach this point.

Watch a trailer:

Runtime: 79 mins

Dir: Robert Gordon

Script: George Worthing Yates

Starring: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

This one begins with an American spacecraft crashing in the sea off the coast of Sicily after returning from an expedition to Venus. A pair of brave fishermen attempt to rescue some of the survivors and manage to pull two men from the wreckage before it sinks. At the local village, the men are attended to by a doctor named Marisa (Joan Taylor). One of them perishes due to a mysterious alien disease but the other - Col. Robert Calder (William Hopper) - is found to be alive and well.

Meanwhile, a young boy named Pepe (Bart Braverman) finds a mysterious canister washed up on the shore near where the spacecraft crashed. Upon opening it he finds a large larva-like object inside which he takes to Marisa’s father - a scientist named Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia). Later that night Marisa and her father are surprised when it hatches into a small, bipedal reptilian creature. Stowing the beast away in a cage, they head off to Rome to present it to the city’s zoological experts. However, this proves to be a big mistake as the creature grows at an extraordinary rate - resulting in it bursting out of the cage and fleeing into the countryside.

Some American military and science types arrive in Sicily and are anxious to track it down before it leaves a trail of death and destruction in its wake. Can they capture and contain it?

20 Million Miles to Earth poster

After yawning my way through It Came from Beneath the Sea I approached 20 Million Miles to Earth with considerably diminished expectations. Thankfully it holds up a whole lot better. There are a few talky expository scenes but these only take up a minority of the runtime in favour of it focussing on what really matters: Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creature. It’s a much more impressive creation than It Came from Beneath the Sea’s six-armed octopus, being as it’s able to express complex and believable reactions to situations. This is evident right from its introduction after it emerges from its larval form, whereupon we see it shielding its eyes from the light. The attention to detail, along with the fact that it becomes enraged largely through provocation rather than some natural propensity for viciousness, results in it managing to generate some sympathy from the viewer.

There’s quite a lot of action here courtesy of a series of increasingly spectacular setpieces: a fight between Calder and the creature in a barn, an attempt to capture it using a net dropped from a helicopter, a mano a mano between it and an elephant and finally an extended rampage across Rome where the army attempts to stop it ravaging such notable landmarks as the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. Nathan Juran - a solid genre director who would go on to work on a couple of subsequent Harryhausen projects - keeps things moving along nicely.

To be sure there are issues here. The rear projection work is of variable quality, the disease that ravaged Calder’s colleague (along with most of the ship’s crew) is conveniently forgotten about and the romantic interludes between our hero and Marisa are cheesy. Nonetheless, the whole thing is so much unpretentious monster movie fun that such trifles are easily forgiven.

Watch a trailer:

Runtime: 82 mins

Dir: Nathan Juran

Script: Robert Creighton Williams, Christopher Knopf, Charlotte Knight

Starring: William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Thomas Browne Henry, John Zaremba, Frank Puglia, Bart Braverman

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)

This adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift features Kerwin Matthews in the title role. Gulliver is a 17th-century English doctor who, being left impoverished by patients who are often in debt to him, can barely afford the downpayment on a hovel of a home for himself and his fiancée Elizabeth (June Thorburn). In frustration, he decides to seek his fortune by going on a long sailing trip.

When he heads out on his journey he discovers that his betrothed has stowed away aboard the vessel. A moment later, during a violent storm, he is tossed overboard. When Gulliver regains his senses he finds himself washed up on the beach, with Elizabeth nowhere to be seen. He is in Lilliput - an island inhabited by a race of miniature people who are ruled by a group of squabbling politicians who are at war with nearby Blefuscu. Their reasons? A disagreement over which end of an egg to break in order to consume the yolk.

Eventually, Gulliver becomes finds that he doesn’t get on with these absurd little people and heads to another island known as Brobdingnag. In contrast to Lilliput, the inhabitants of this island are giants. He discovers that Elizabeth has ended up on this island, and is living with the peoples’ ruler King Brob (Grégoire Aslan), who decides to keep the couple in a dollhouse in his castle. His spoilt brat of a daughter - named Glumdalclitch (Sherry Alberoni) - insists that she keeps them for herself, so he eventually agrees. However, while the couple initially has a fine life in the dollhouse, Gulliver disagrees with the race’s superstitious ways and, upon demonstrating his skills in medicine, ends up being accused of witchcraft.

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver poster

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is the third film in the box set and the only one to be originally filmed in colour (the Eastmancolor technique to be precise). It’s a moderately enjoyable adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s classic satirical fantasy novel and captures at least some of the wit of its source material. Kerwin Matthews and June Thorburn make for an appealing central couple, while the supporting cast’s shameless hamming works nicely in the humourous context of the script.

Production values are high despite what was undoubtedly another thrifty budget courtesy of Charles H. Schneer. As with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (the previous collaboration between Schneer and Harryhausen) much of the film was shot around several exotic-looking Spanish castles and palaces. These locations, along with plentiful brightly-coloured costumes and sets, ensure that it’s a treat for the eyes. The mixture of miniature and life-sized people is generally realised convincingly via a mixture of matte effects, trick photography (including forced perspective shots) and scaled sets.

However, fans of Harryhausen’s Dynamation might be a little disappointed that there isn’t much in the way of his beloved creations here. His two contributions to this film are a giant squirrel and crocodile, both of which pop up during the Brobdingnag section. Neither are in it for long (the squirrel’s appearance, in particular, is very fleeting), thus reducing Harryhausen’s creatures from their usual starring roles to nothing more than mere cameos. However, the fight between Gulliver and the crocodile does bestow this somewhat leisurely-paced film with a welcome dash of excitement.

All in all, if you come into The 3 Worlds of Gulliver without expecting too much on the stop-motion front then you’ll find it to be decent entertainment. It’s an ideal nostalgic “Sunday afternoon food coma” watch.

Watch a trailer:

Runtime: 99 mins

Dir: Jack Sher

Script: Arthur A. Ross, Jack She, based on a book by Jonathan Swift

Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Jo Morrow, June Thorburn, Lee Patterson, Grégoire Aslan, Basil Sydney, Sherry Alberoni

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth look good in their black-and-white versions. The colour version of It Came from Beneath the Sea looks rather flat and washed-out - but that’s undoubtedly an issue with the limitations of the original film stock than with the HD restoration. 20 Million Miles to Earth fares much better in the colourised format; while it doesn’t compare with a film originally shot using the period’s colour techniques it is still surprisingly easy on the eye. Some details (such as the bright green grass seen in the daytime exterior shots and a tapestry on the wall of an interior set) are more impressive than you might expect.

The 4K restoration of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver looks absolutely beautiful, rivalling The 7th Voyage of Sinbad from Indicator’s previous box set. The bright and diverse colours are a delight for the eyes.

Soundwise, It Came from Beneath the Sea is somewhat flat (once again, this is probably a limitation of the original recording which couldn’t be enhanced away) but the other two are absolutely fine.

Highlights amongst the extras

There are an almost insane amount of extras spread across the three discs (plus an enclosed booklet). Here are the best:

Enclosed booklet

The inevitable enclosed 80-page booklet features essays on each film: It Came from Beneath the Sea by Kim Newman, 20 Million Miles to Earth by Dan Whitehead and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver by Charlie Brigden. Each film also comes with an oral history featuring snippets of commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Charles Schneer and others involved in their productions, edited by Jeff Billington. Finally, there are some brief comments on the colourised versions of the first two films, which were handled by San Diego’s Legend Films in 2008.

Arguably the most interesting parts of the booklet relate to The 3 Worlds of Gulliver. Whereas the first two essays are largely extended reviews of each film, Brigden’s Gulliver contribution critiques the latter’s Bernard Herrmann score. The film’s oral history section also fascinatingly notes that it was originally intended to be a Danny Kaye musical, that director Jack Sher originally wanted Jack Lemmon to star - only to have the idea snubbed by Columbia head Harry Cohn - and that the Dynamation process was renamed to Super Dynamation due to the fact that Harryhausen’s effects covered much more than just stop-motion creatures for this particular film. The snippets where Harryhausen discusses his trick photography to convince us that small and giant humans are sharing the same shots are also interesting.

It Came from Beneath the Sea commentary

A nice natter between Ray Harryhausen and more modern SFX artists Randall William Cook and John Bruno, who discuss the colourised version of the film. Harryhausen admits that he would have preferred it was made in colour but was constrained by budgetary limitations and the fact that he couldn’t develop colour stock in his own home-made booth. The same limitations also meant that he crafted the octopus with six arms rather than eight - an idea which works fine in practice as shots are carefully arranged to so that the fact is well-concealed.

There are plenty of enjoyable anecdotes, including Bruno describing the experience of watching the film while young in a San Francisco cinema, and then being confused when he is driven back over Golden Gate Bridge (which the octopus wrecks in the film). Harryhausen also discusses the time when he showed the original saucers from his subsequent film, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, to Tim Burton, who homaged them in Mars Attacks!

20 Million Miles to Earth commentary

Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett discuss the second film in the set. Ray reveals that the original script was set in Illinois with the spacecraft crash-landing in Lake Michigan. However, Ray changed it to Italy as he always wanted to visit the country. Some scenes were shot in and near Rome, while others were filmed back in California at the Corrigan Ranch and on Columbia’s backlot. The spaceship interior, meanwhile, was a leftover set from The Caine Mutiny.

The trio also take plenty of time to discuss the computer-generated colourisation technique used to produce the colour version. They also helpfully point out a Ray Harryhausen cameo (he feeds the elephant at the zoo) plus a rather glaring gaffe: the stop-motion creature (called Ymir) is clearly seen breathing on an operating table despite the fact that a scientist describes him as having no lungs!

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver commentary

A discussion of the film with visual effects expert Randall William Cook and film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Steven C. Smith. They talk a lot about the Harryhausen FX work and about composer Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film. Harryhausen himself reportedly didn’t love the film as it was too dialogue-orientated for his liking. This was also combined with the fact that he was working with director Jack Sher (who had little experience working on this kind of film) and that he got sick during filming - losing a lot of weight in the process.

They also discuss Swift’s original novel which, despite being continually adapted into child-friendly films, is far from a child-friendly book. As well as this, they mention that there were a lot of laughs UK premiere as the film’s script posits that Gulliver and Elizabeth’s hometown of Wapping is by the sea - when the real Wapping (now part of London) is quite far inland.

Remembering It Came from Beneath the Sea

Ray Harryhausen talks about the special effects he created for the film. John Bruno and John Canemaker also make contributions. There’s some overlap with the commentary (also featuring Harryhausen and Bruno) but nonetheless this is worth watching in its own right for the inclusion of some stills - including one of the six-armed “octopus” model - and detailed breakdowns of how the effects were done.

Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen

This doc pretty much does what it says on the tin! Burton and Harryhausen discuss the latter’s films, especially the older black-and-white ones including Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (which isn’t included in this set, and was one of the inspirations behind Burton’s Mars Attacks!).

There’s a great deal of enthusiasm and affection weaved throughout the 27-minute discussion, which also touches upon the enduring appeal of his stop-motion animation amongst younger viewers (Harryhausen opines that adults lose their imagination, while children don’t).

A Present-Day Look at Stop Motion

University student Kyle Anderson takes a look at the process of making stop-motion animation using traditional puppets and modern computerised video creation suites. It’s a pity we only get to see a few brief snippets of the finished production. Nonetheless, this featurette offers enough to whet the appetite for anyone who is interested in going into the field.

Original Ad Artwork

Despite the name of this extra it isn’t a mere collection of stills. It’s an enjoyable 17-minute featurette where a narrator takes us through a series of old press books (listing available promotional materials) and lobby cards for It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth. Of particular interest is the use of hand-coloured stills in some of the materials, which makes them fascinating to compare with the recent computer-colourised versions of the films.

Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth

Ray Harryhausen reminisces about the film along with contributions by the likes of Terry Gilliam, John Canemaker, Rick Baker, the Chiodo Brothers, Stan Winston and John Landis. Baker reveals that his mother thought they created the creature (christened Ymir - a name not used in the final film as it sounded too Middle Eastern) by shaving a squirrel! A few pieces of concept art are shown for 20 Million Miles to Earth (including Ymir in his originally-proposed Cyclops form) as well as other Harryhausen films, including the unmade The Elementals.

Film Music’s Unsung Hero

An enjoyable documentary exploring Mischa Bakaleinikoff, who was credited as the music conductor for Harryhausen and Schneer’s three early monochrome. Although he used many stock queues from early Columbia productions, he also composed some uncredited pieces. These were typically the so-called “monster themes”.

Overall:

The film selection is a bit of a mixed bag. It Came from Beneath the Sea is only worth watching for a few moments of Harryhausen’s effects, 20 Million Miles to Earth is an excellent creature feature and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver is an enjoyable but not earth-shattering Jonathan Swift adaptation. It would have been nice if Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was included as well since it comes between the first two films on the set and is referred to numerous times in the extras.

It’s the overall presentation and sheer wealth of extras which makes this package absolutely essential for anyone who has a sense of nostalgia for the great Dynamation pioneer.

It Came from Beneath the Sea

Movie: ☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆

20 Million Miles to Earth

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆


Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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