|Ray Harryhausen Collection (7th Voyage of Sinbad, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers plus two others)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 05 December 2008|
Page 1 of 2
So how many times is Columbia going to reissue the Ray Harryhausen movies they own? There have been at least three different DVD releases of the entire batch of films, and two more of the three early black-and-white films. Earlier in 2008, those were released in reasonably good colorization—and now have been RE-issued in b&w and colorized versions, in high definition Blu-Ray. The package also includes what’s probably Harryhausen’s best overall movie, “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” a big Christmas moneymaker for Columbia in 1958, the year it debuted.
This set is terrific, so far the very best presentation these films have had. The prints are indeed crisper and more detailed; this is especially true of “7th Voyage,” the only one filmed in color. The movie has never looked this good before, not even in theaters; furthermore, the sound as well as the picture has been greatly enhanced—the Dolby True HD5.1 is sharp, “alive” and extremely detailed; it’s as if the actors were in the room with you.
After the initial DVD releases, extras began to be added, first to the laserdisc versions (until now, the best in terms of picture), then transferred to subsequent DVD iterations. Not all of the supplemental material has been carried over (a dialogue between Ray Harryhausen and Joe Dante re: “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” is notable by its absence), and a few new things have been added. For instance, an astonishing, nearly-unheard pop-song written to publicize “7th Voyage” is available, illustrated with ad art: “Sinbad May Have Been Bad but He’s Been Good to Me.” It’s as incredible as its title.
I assume the remaining Columbia/Harryhausen movies will eventually be issued in Blu-ray; if not, this collection is even more of a choice purchase for fans of Ray Harryhausen. You’ll never see his stuff look (or sound) better than this.
If you’re perplexed, wondering just who the heck Ray Harryhausen is, you’re probably in the majority—but it’s not the majority by much. He is the greatest stop-motion animator in the history of movies. And yes, that really does mean more than being, say, the greatest designer of Stop signs in the interstate highway system.
When he saw “King Kong” when it was new, the boy Harryhause immediately knew what he wanted to do for a living. The creatures in that film were realized by Willis O’Brien and his team in stop-motion animation—small, jointed models are moved slightly, a frame shot, then they’re moved again and another frame is shot. As movies run 24 frames a second, you can see how painstaking and patient stop-motion animators have to be. These days, teams of up to several hundred turn out the same variety of effects, only on computers, that were done by just Ray Harryhausen, working alone in a darkened room for months on end. Sometimes he had to hire one or two assistants, as he’d been hired on “Mighty Joe Young” by his mentor, O’Brien.
But after “Joe,” stop-motion work was hard to find, so Harryhausen went back to his fairy tale shorts which he’d been turning out for some time. But then he was hired by an independent producer to create the “rhedosaurus” that attacks New York in “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” That was an unexpected gargantuan hit, so finally Harryhausen was called away from his fairy tales by another producer, Charles S. Scheer; their partnership lasted more than 25 years.
Their first two films were relatively low budget; they were, in fact, made for Sam Katzman, notoriously one of the cheapest producers in Hollywood. The first was “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” a realization of Scheer’s basic idea about an octopus big enough to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a simple story: a U.S. submarine encounters a mysterious something that begins raiding the Pacific Coast. It’s a huge octopus, made radioactive by atomic tests; its radiation scares off its normal prey, so it has begun feeding on people.
The movie is negligible when the octopus isn’t on screen, and feels hasty. A romance between sub skipper Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue is established, and then just disappears in the final moments of the film—it threatened to go slightly over budget, so the romantic-resolution scenes were simply cut. But that’s okay. What really counts is the octopus.
The major distinction between Harryhausen and his (scant) rivals is that his skilled hands bring a great deal of personality, intensity and energy to his creatures—his creations are recognizable by the way they move. Even here, where the creature is a great big octopus (well, a hexapus—Harryhausen eliminated two arms for ease in animating), creatures not known for scintillating personalities, you get a sense of something alive, something with a mind of its own.
The colorized version doesn’t really look quite like it had been shot in color to begin with; the colors are too pastel, not rich enough, and overall tend to have much the same value. Also, the octopus is green; most cephalopods (like octopuses, squids and cuttlefish) are a kind of maroon, though most of them can change the color and texture of their skins, often extremely quickly. But a big green octopus squeezing the orange pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge at least provides more color contrast than a red octopus would have.
The movie is a pretty good entry of its type—the common 1950s subgenre of small creatures turning very large and presenting problems for people (“Them!,” “Tarantula,” “The Giant Claw”). It moves briskly, the effects scenes are well-staged and, in the climax, satisfyingly plentiful.
The high definition works best in the animation scenes; the rest of the film had a rather soft focus to begin with, and when the animation is combined with other footage (usually by miniature rear-screen projection), the rephotographed image necessarily loses a little contrast and detail. This applies to all of the films in this set.
The extras include a commentary track by Ray Harryhausen, Oscar-winning effects artist Randall William Cook and John Bruno. There’s a well-made if brief making-of documentary on the film—each movie in this set has one—and a “Present Day Look at Stop Motion,” in which Kyle Anderson shows how it is done. There’s an oddball and amusing short, “Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen,” filmed in Harryhausen’s London home. It’s amusing and Burton is an enthusiastic (and knowledgeable) interviewer.
There’s also a short hosted by music expert David Schechter: “Mischa Bakaleinikoff: Movie Music’s Unsung Hero.” It’s initially quite good as Schechter demonstrates how, despite budgets so low he had to use mostly library music, Bakaleinikoff was able to add personal touches. But this goes on much too long.
As with the other three movies, there are galleries of ad artwork, behind the scenes stills and other photographs. This also includes a sample of a rather garish recent comic book sequel to the movie, “It Came from Beneath the Sea—Again.” And there are a few trailers.
“Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” is the only Harryhausen movie in which his talents were applied to objects rather than creatures. Aliens arrive in flying saucers, announce they’re going to take over, then wage war on Earth. But even here, Harryhausen’s models are rich with personality and energy, even if all they are is domed discs slicing through the sky.
Until "Independence Day," this and the 1953 "The War of the Worlds" were the only two American films about a mass invasion of Earth by aliens. Other films featured one ("The Man from Planet X" for example) or a few ("I Married a Monster from Outer Space") acting as advance forces. But in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," as in Pal's "War of the Worlds," the aliens are everywhere -- we see their flying saucers over several of the world's capitols.
The movie was, however, a low-budget production from Sam Katzman's division at Columbia, and was not released with any special fanfare. It did well enough at the boxoffice to allow a somewhat higher budget for the next film ("Twenty Million Miles to Earth") from producer Charles H. Schneer and effects maestro Ray Harryhausen (but without Katzman).
Harryhausen he applied the same technique to the flying saucers arriving here from outer space. He even animated Washington landmarks as they're smashed by the flying saucers, building braces to support each collapsing building fragment. The result is vivid and lively; at times, the grim, purposeful flying saucers seem more alive -- literally -- than the human cast. In a forest fire sequence, the cast is reduced to running on a treadmill in ront of a rear-screen conflagration; compared to the saucers gliding through the blazing trees, the people look artificial, even phony.
Harryhausen used saucers of three sizes; for near shots, the models were bigger than for shots of the saucers at a distance, but both had counter-rotating rings, one on the upper surface, one beneath, that suggested a power source. The saucers are highly mobile, tilting frequently as they zip around the screen, or moving in threatening straight lines. They were the best flying saucers done in movies until Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks”—and Burton modeled the saucers in that movie directly on Harryhausen’s.
While the saucers alone make "Earth vs." well worth watching, the movie otherwise is fairly ordinary for 1950s science fiction. It's weakly structured, with most of the effects confined to an opening attack on an air base, and the climactic showdown in Washington, D.C. Harryhausen and veteran screenwriter Kurt Siodmak wrote the first drafts; by the time George Worthing Yates and Bernard Gordon (fronted by Raymond T. Marcus) took over, Harryhausen's effects had either all been done, or were locked in place. This limited the script, but certainly there was no reason to include a lengthy scene of examining the armor of the aliens from the saucer. It has no story function at all, although it is similar to a scene in "War of the Worlds." (In the late 1940s, Harryhausen tried to rouse interest in a movie of "War of the Worlds," and shot some test footage of the Martians, but nothing came of this. At least, not until "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.")
The cast is adequate, with familiar 1950s SF faces turning up: Hugh Marlowe was in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and both Morris Ankrum and Thomas Browne Henry were in several 1950s SF thrillers. Joan Taylor was in both this and Harryhausen’s next, “20 Million Miles to Earth;” she’s briefly interviewed in the supplemental material.
The print is excellent, letterboxed to 1.85:1, although in 1955, some theaters were probably still showing movies like this at the old Academy aperture of 1.33:1. It looks terrific, the sound effects are rendered in mono very effectively, including the eerie sounds of the saucers. (Which we learn from the commentary track is the sound of sewage gushing through piping.)
The most interesting and surprising supplement is “Bernard Gordon and the Blacklist.” Writers Guild representative Del Reisman explains the Blacklist and how “Earth Vs.” writer Bernard Gordon had to hide himself behind the name of another man, Raymond T. Marcus. This short is almost entirely a close shot of Reisman talking; more cutaways would have enlivened it. Still it’s great that the Blacklist can now be discussed so openly.
“Remembering Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers” is mostly Harryhausen telling how the film came to be made, and the challenges he faced. But there are also contributions from John Canemaker, Stan Winston, Frank Darabont and Terry Gilliam. The commentary this time is by Harryhausen, Kunert (Harryhausen’s current partner), and effects artists Jeffrey Okun and Ken Ralston. It’s lively and funny. And another preview of a comic book: “Flying Saucers vs. the Earth.”