Ray Harryhausen Collection (7th Voyage of Sinbad, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers plus two others) 
Blu-ray Sci-Fi-Fantasy
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 05 December 2008

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[The above rating is an avergae for the entire collection.  See the second page for ratings of the individual films]

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.”

“20 Million Miles to Earth” is Harryhausen’s most elaborate and effects-laden black and white movie (though again, a colorized version is available).  It’s his entry in the “King Kong” school of giant monsters—a humanoid (but clearly not human) creature wreaking havoc in a big city, in this case, Rome, Italy.  The creature arrives on Earth off the coast of Sicily as part of an expedition returning from Venus (the crashing spaceship seems gigantic, and is very well realized).  A boy finds a container containing what looks like a lump of gelatin.

He takes it to a traveling scientist (Frank Puglia) and his assistant (Joan Taylor), unaware there’s a human survivor of the ship too, William Taylor.  When he comes to, he realizes the menace the creature—which hatches on the scientist’s lab table—will be on Earth: our atmosphere causes it to double in size every day.  After an exciting and beautifully-shot battle in a barn, the creature (known to its fans, but not in the movie, as the Ymir) is captured and taken to Rome.  When next seen, it’s 18 feet tall or so and, of course, escapes, running riot in the streets of the ancient city.  It makes its last stand high atop the Colosseum.

The extras again include a commentary track featuring Harryhausen and Kunert, but also Oscar-winners Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet, life-long Harryhausen fans.  Much of the time, Muren and Tippet wryly point out how on their movies, hundreds of people are required to do what Harryhausen did by himself.  There’s another look at a comic book sequel, “20 Million Miles More.”

All three of these black and white movies have been colorized; they aren’t harmed by the process, and Harryhausen himself—who oversaw the colorization—is thrilled with the results.  Fortunately for those who don’t approve of colorization, the black-and-white prints are in excellent shape and easily accessible.

But “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” was in color to begin with.  Not only is this different from the others in being an Arabian Nights fantasy rather than science fiction, but it’s structured differently.  We see a monster—a roaring, goat-legged Cyclops—almost immediately, rushing out of a cave in pursuit of a sinister sorcerer, Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), and the magic lamp he carries.  Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his men thwart the Cyclops with the aid of the genie (Richard Eyer) of the lamp, but the lamp itself falls into the hands of the Cyclops.

Sinbad’s mission is to take Princess Parissa (Kathryn Grant) from her homeland of Chandra to Bagdad, where the kingdoms will give up the idea of war upon the marriage of Sinbad and Parissa.  When the sultan of Bagdad won’t give Sokurah the ship and men necessary to return to the island of Colossa and retrieve the magic lamp, he secretly uses his magic powers to shrink the princess to a few inches in height.  The only means to restore her, he says, is by combining the shell of a roc—a giant bird that lives only on, you guessed it, Colossa, with the chemicals he has in his laboratory there.

So Sinbad takes the princess in a tiny box and set sails on a ship partly manned by thieves and murderers (a complication that exists solely to add running time), and despite problems from shrieking sirens (sea creatures, never seen), are able to return to Colossa, armed with a giant crossbow to take care of any pesky Clyclopes.

For a while, things go reasonably well; Sokurah leads one band of men, Sinbad  another, intending to reunite later on.  Sinbad finds a roc’s egg; when it hatches, out pops an adorably fuzzy, two-headed roc bigger than an elephant.  Sinbad’s men are desperate for food, so they kill the helpless chick and roast it.  Whoops, here comes momma.

After a battle with the Cyclops (or maybe it’s a different one), Princess Parissa and the magic lamp change hands between Sinbad and Sokurah several times.  Finally, Sokurah takes refuges in his cave—guarded by a chained dragon, there to shoo away Cyclopes—where he is confronted by Sinbad.  The Princess is returned to full size, but as she and Sinbad try to leave, Sokurah unleashes the most memorable menace of the movie: a skeleton armed with a scimitar.  To almost insanely great music by Bernard Herrmann—whose entire score is a wonder—Sinbad has a swordfight with the lively skeleton.  This leads on to the traditional happy ending.

By being deliberately old-fashioned, “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” was like a refreshing breeze in 1958—we hadn’t seen anything like it since the flurry of swashbucklers in the early 1950s (“Scaramoche,” “The Black Knight,” “Son of Sinbad”), and none of those were crammed with fantastic monsters like these.  The movie was, and is, enormously entertaining, wonderfully exciting, totally free of cynicism or irony, an innocent spectacle.  Half a century later, children today are as captivated by it as we were back in the 50s.

The commentary track by Harryhausen, the returning Randy Cook and Phil Tippet, Arnold Kunert and Herrmann expert Steven Smith is technically interesting—Kunert and Herrmann were in London, the others in California.  They sound like they’re in the same room.

“The Harryhausen Legacy” is a series of talking heads—contemporary directors and effects artists who became determined to make movies by exposure to Harryhausen movies, especially “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”  (Tom Hanks, not seen here, was as captivated by Harryhausen’s “Jason and the Argonauts.”)  We see and hear John Landis, Phil Tippet, Joe Dante, John Dykstra, The Chiodo Brothers, Doug Beswick, Jon Berg, Rick Baker and many others.  Forrest J Ackerman, Harryhausen’s friend since they were teenagers gets a word in, too.

“The Music of Bernard Herrmann” features Steven Smith clearly explaining the great composer’s innovations for this score (and Herrmann’s long-time fondness for the movie), but unfortunately does not demonstrate these techniques.  The usual “Remembering….” making-of featurette is included, plus a 1995 documentary that features the rarely-seen Charles H. Scheer as well as the late Kerwin Mathews.

It took Columbia a long while to get around to releasing Harryhausen's movies on DVD, but apparently it paid off. Some of  Harryhausen’s Columbia movies have now been released at least four times on DVD; the initial, extras-less, toss-‘em-out-the-door, second-rate versions, a version with extras and more care taken with the prints; the three black-and-white movies were then released in pretty good colorization, and now those films plus the magnificent “7th Voyage of Sinbad” have been brought out in high-definition Blu-Ray.  Presumably the remaining Harryhausen-Schneer movies Columbia still owns—“Three Worlds of Gulliver,” “Mysterious Island,” “Jason and The Argonauts” and “First Men in the Moon”—will be given this same first-class treatment.  

Ray Harryhausen is one of the few great effects people still alive to accept the acclaim for his long-ago work. Movies  today still pay him homage, too often pioneers like Harryhausen die before they received their due tributes; it's great that he's lasted long enough to know what a powerful influence he's had.  The extensive supplements in this boxed set include tributes from effects experts like Phil Tippet, Yoyt Yeatman, Ken Ralston, John Dykstra, The Chiodo Brothers, Dunnis Muren, Doug Beswick, Rick Baker, Jon Berg and Stan Winston (Berg and Winston make some especially salient points).  Directors are also heard from, including Terry Gilliam, John Landis, Joe Dante, Frank Darabont and others, plus film collector/historians like Bob Burns and Forrest J Ackerman (friends with Harryhausen since their teens).

But the treasures here are the movies, especially “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”  It’s simply one of the greatest fantasy-adventure movies ever made, still lively, still engaging, and features Torin Thatcher’s powerful performance as the evil wizard.   Altogether, this is one of the best Blu-ray packages to date.

“It Came from Beneath the Sea”
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Director: Robert Gordon
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith, Dean Maddox Jr., Chuck Griffiths, Harry Lauter
Theatrical release: 1955
Blu-ray release: 2008
Running time: 79 minutes; black and white and colorized; not rated
Sound format: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Special featues: Feature available in both black and white and color(ized); Audio commentary with Ray Harryhausen, Randall William Cook, John Bruno, Arnold Kuntert; Remembering “It Came from Beneath the Sea;” Tim Burton sits down with Ray Harryhausen; Mischa Bakaleinikofff: Movie Music’s Unsung Hero; A Present-Day Look at Stop Motion; preview of comic book “It Came from Beneath the Sea…Again;” Video Galleries
Film rating: Three stars
Video rating: Four stars
Sound rating: Four stars
Special features rating: Three and a half stars

“Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers”
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Director: Fred F. Sears
Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Morris Ankrum, John Zaremba, Tom Browne Henry, Grandon Rhodes, Larry Blake
Theatrical release: 1956
Blu-ray release: 2008
Running time: 83 minutes; Black and white and color(ized); not rated
Sound format: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Mastered in high definition
Special features: Commentary track with Ray Harryhausen, Jeffrey Okun, Ken Ralston, Arnold Kunert; Remembering “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers;” The Hollywood Blacklist and Bernard Gordon; Original screenplay credits; Interview with Joan Taylor; Original ad artwork gallery; Photo gallery; The Colorization Process; Preview of comic book “Flying Saucers Vs. the Earth”
Film quality: Three and a half stars
Video Quality: Four stars
Sound quality: Four stars
Supplements: Four stars

“20 Million Miles to Earth”
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Director: Nathan Juran
Starring: William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Frank Puglia, John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry, Tito Vuolo
Theatrical release: 1957
Blu-ray release: 2008
Running time: 82 minutes; Black and white and color(ized); Not rated
Sound format: Dolby True HD5.1
Mastered in high definition
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Special features: Commentary track by Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet and Arnold Kunert; Remembering “20 Million Miles to Earth;” Tim Burton sits down with Ray Harryhausen; Interview with Joan Taylor; The Colorization Process; David Schechter on Movie’s Unsung Hero; Galleries
Film rating: Four stars
Video quality rating: Four stars
Sound quality rating: Four stars
Supplements rating: Four stars

“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”
Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Director: Nathan Juran
Starring: Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Richard Eyer, Torin Thatcher, Alfred Brown, Alec Mango Harold Kasket, Danny Green, Nana DeHerrera
Theatrical release: 1958
Blu-ray release: 2008
Running time: 88 minutes; Color; Rated G
Sound format: Dolby True HD5.1
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Special features: Commentary track with Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippet, Randall William Cook, Steven Smith, Arnold Kunert
Film rating: Four and a half stars
Video quality rating: Four and a half stars
Sound quality rating: Four and a half stars
Supplements rating: Four and a half stars

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