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RAY HARRYHAUSEN COLLECTION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, William Hopper, Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Torin Thatcher
Directors: Robert Gordon, Fred Sears, Nathan Juran
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, French, Spanish monaural, Thai, English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Hindu, Arabic, Thai, Indonesian, Chinese
Video: Black & white or color, 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 widescreen, 1080p high-definition
Studio: Columbia
Features: Four commentaries, trailers, photo & art galleries, interviews, comic books, music video, special effects featurettes, Remembering featurettes, tributes to Bernard Herrmann and Mischa Bakaleinikoff, colorization process
Length: 332 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2008

I see...great disaster!  There are great buildings falling, women and children slain!  I see...WAR!

Films *** ½

The world of stop-motion animation has one true god, and his name is Ray Harryhausen.  While Willis O’Brien pioneered the field with King Kong, Harryhausen was the single most influential stop-motion animator of the latter twentieth-century, and it can be argued that his films today remain more popular and memorable than contemporary “big monster” movies created through computer graphics and modern technology.

Ray Harryhausen’s technique was old-school and totally hands-on.  He used flexible, realistic miniature models which were manipulated and painstakingly photographed one frame at a time.  The post-production work on his films for these effects alone could take many months of meticulous labor, all the more remarkable since Harryhausen, for the most part, worked by himself.  His father manufactured the metal armatures that formed the skeletons of his models, but otherwise, Harryhausen did the model animation himself, leaving the live-action photography of actors and scenery in his movies to his producers and directors.

During the 1950’s, Harryhausen fine-tuned a pioneering split-screen technique he eventually termed DynaMation.  This inexpensive process split the background and foreground of pre-photographed live action footage into two separate pieces of film; by using rear projection on overlapping miniature screens, Harryhausen was able to position his animated model between the two film elements to create the illusion that the creature was actually in the middle of the action, not just superimposed over principal photography or inserted via the much more expensive optical printing process.

Ray Harryhausen was first introduced to stop-motion animation at a very early age after being awed by Willis O’Brien’s dinosaurs brought to life in The Lost World (1925).  O’Brien’s later triumph King Kong finally inspired the young Harryhausen to try a few experimental films in stop-motion animation himself.  Following a stint on the Frank Capra’s film unit during World War II, Harryhausen returned to the world of stop-motion animation with a series of fairy tale short films.  All this valuable experience finally paid off when Harryhausen, after submitting a demo reel of his early efforts, earned a role as assistant to none other than Willis O’Brien himself on Mighty Joe Young (1949).  The film won an Academy Award for special effects.

The success of Mighty Joe Young led to even greater triumph for Ray Harryhausen, who would eventually emerge as O’Brien’s heir apparent in the field of stop-motion animation by the mid-century mark.  Harryhausen’s first solo project, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), was a big hit for Warner Brothers and caught the attention of producer Charles Schneer of Columbia Pictures.  Soon afterwards, Harryhausen and Schneer would begin a lifelong collaboration that produced some of Harryhausen’s most beloved films.  The Ray Harryhausen Collection assembles four of these early films together.

1) It Came From Beneath the Sea (79 min., 1955)

H-bombs have been blamed from every freak accident that’s happened since, up to, and including marine monsters being disturbed.

The first collaborative effort between producer Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen arose from an image Schneer had in his mind of a giant octopus attacking the Golden Gate Bridge.  Thus was born It Came From Beneath the Sea, a film clearly influenced by legends of the sea-faring Kraken and the prevalent atmosphere of fear throughout the 1950’s of the unknown ramifications of radioactive fallout.  After all, here is a creature of the murky abyss, angered by mankind’s activities and seemingly intent on wreaking havoc.  This film may have seemed a standard 1950’s monster B-movie, but Ray Harryhausen’s effects work and the film’s newsreel-style narration give the story a great sense of urgency and anticipation, particularly as the creature increasingly disrupts coastal fishing, pulls seafaring ships to their deaths in the deep waters, and even attacks military vessels. 

As the film opens, an atomic submarine, while on patrol in the Pacific Ocean, is stalked and attacked by a mysterious sea creature.  The submarine, commanded by Navy Captain Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey), survives the encounter but must limp back to Pearl Harbour for repair.  A specimen of the creature’s flesh is recovered from the submarine’s propeller and sent off for study.

The two scientists, Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) and John Carter (Donald Curtis), work feverishly to analyze the tissue sample.  When they at last reveal their conclusions that the creature is a cephalopod, their theories are dismissed by naval intelligence.  A state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, crippled by a cousin of the common garden slug?  Preposterous!  However, when a trans-steamer is mysteriously attacked and lost at sea soon afterwards, the idea of a giant, radioactive, ship-attacking sea monster no longer seems so unlikely.

The U.S. navy quickly mounts a massive search-and-destroy sweep of the entire Pacific Ocean.  Its efforts only drive the creature towards shallow waters and the inevitable attack on San Francisco, particularly the famous scene involving the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

All in all, It Came From Beneath the Sea is a fun yarn of a popcorn movie (aside from some dreary romantic scenes between Captain Pete and Lesley).  The Harryhausen monster effects are somewhat limited in scope but are a sign of great things to come in Harryhausen’s subsequent collaborations with Charles Schneer.

2) Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (83 min., 1956)

Solidified electricity!

There is an iconic image in this film of a flying saucer crashing into the Washington Monument.  This image, plus the film’s title, pretty much summarizes the plot - what would happen if a fleet of UFOs were to attack Earth?  This film predates other such similarly-themed films such as War of the Worlds, Mars Attacks!, and Independence Day.  It is clearly a product of its time, when UFO-mania was on the rise, and the public expressed equal amounts fear and fascination with the idea of flying saucers and aliens.

The aliens in question for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers are survivors from a “disintegrated solar system,” able to alter time and gravitational forces.  They seek peaceful communications with humanity but are not above sucking men’s brains clean with their “Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank” or vaporizing anyone who resists them, either.

As the film opens, Dr. Russ Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are newly-weds working at a rocket research facility.  When a flying saucer destroys the facility, Dr. Marvin and his wife are the sole survivors.  Together with an international gathering of scientists, they must quickly devise a way to defeat the seemingly invulnerable UFOs before all of Earth is doomed.  The film’s exciting finale, staged in Washington D.C., is the climax of a taut race against time and features a decisive clash between the death-dealing aliens and human soldiers armed with Dr. Marvin’s new secret weapon.

The Harryhausen effects work in this film is extensive.  The focus is mostly on the flying saucers, but Harryhausen also animates the destruction of various well-known tourist attractions in Washington.  The aliens themselves are, alas, portrayed by actors in suits, but Earth vs. the Flying Saucers features tight editing and less romantic mushiness than Harryhausen’s previous film.

3) 20 Million Miles to Earth (82 min., 1957)

Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?

Once upon a time, a young future special effects artist, after seeing this film for the first time, asked his mother how the monster effects were created.  His mother replied that the filmmakers must have shaved a squirrel, or something to that effect.  Fortunately, nothing so utterly grotesque was necessary beyond the standard triumph of stop-motion animation that is Ray Harryhausen’s forte.

20 Million Miles to Earth hypothesizes a scenario in which an alien lifeform is brought back from its native home (the planet Venus) and stomps through a city (Rome) before finally being stopped by the military.  That alien, an Ymir (never actually so-named in this film), is a somewhat sympathetic biped, reptilian-like creature that, in shades of King Kong, is not so much vicious as misunderstood and feared simply for looking different.  He only embarks on a campaign of destruction in self-defense, which makes his fall by the end of the film more poignant (again, shades of King Kong).

The film opens with an exciting crash-landing of a manned rocket ship returning from Venus.  There are only three survivors - one critically-injured scientist who quickly succumbs to his injuries, our astronaut hero (William Hopper), and a mysterious egg that is secreted away from the crash by an inquisitive young boy.  The egg is sold to a local scientist, and when it eventually hatches, the alien that emerges grows at an exponentially rate, much to the shock of the scientist and his daughter (Joan Taylor again).  What initially resembled perhaps a shaved squirrel quickly grows into a gargantuan creature that towers even above a fifteen-foot elephant.

Soon, the fate of the Italian countryside and all of Rome rests in the hands of the astronaut, the scientist’s daughter, and the local military.  After all, how does one defeat a creature that is seemingly impervious to bullets and grows larger by the hour?

Harryhausen’s magical touch can be seen mostly in the emoting and life-like gestures of the Ymir alien (and also a rather realistic-appearing elephant it fights).  While the Ymir faces a typically Harryhausen-like operatic fate by the film’s end, it is perhaps more sympathetic than any of the human characters, particularly when they engage in some prerequisite, groan-inducing romantic dialogue.  Indeed, the Ymir is one of the iconic Harryhausen monsters, topped only by a certain one-eyed beastie in the next Harryhausen film.

4) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (88 min., 1958)

From the land beyond beyond, from the world past hope and fear, I bid you genie, now appear!

What a difference Technicolor makes!  The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was Harryhausen’s first true color film and represented a bold venture into the world of fantasy.  At the time, however, studios were no longer interested in costume fantasies.  Harryhausen had floated the idea for his Sinbad film after his success with Mighty Joe Young, but it was not until he had demonstrated some box office clout a decade later that Harryhausen was finally given the green light to proceed with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

As the story opens, Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is returning home from a passage at sea with his true love, the Princess Parisa of Chandra (Kathryn Grant).  They are betrothed to one another in a gesture that will unite two warring kingdoms and avert violence.  Along the way, Sinbad and his men stop at the mysterious island of Colossa for food and water and end up rescuing a wizard, Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), from a one-eye, horned Cyclops that was guarding a magic genie lamp the wizard had attempted to steal.

The crew just manages to flee and to return safely to Baghdad, where the grand wedding between Sinbad and Parisa is being planned.  However, the scheming wizard, in his greed for power, has other plans, and his driving need to return to Colossa to reclaim the lamp compels him to engage in dark sorcery.  One evening, the wizard bewitches the princess, shrinking her to a height of mere inches.  With the wedding and peace treaty now in jeopardy, the caliph of Baghdad and Sinbad have no alternative but to seek the wizard’s help, not knowing that he is the cause of this black magic.  Sokurah will receive passage back to Colossa, where by wonderful coincidence can be found the proper ingredients for restoring Parisa back to her normal height.

Thus begins a tale of the high seas and treachery and an uneasy alliance between Sinbad and the crafty Sokurah.  The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a triumph of stop-motion animation and features more Harryhausen creations than in any of his previous studio films.  We have a Cyclops or two, a fire-breathing dragon, and two-headed Roc and spawn, and a few other nasty surprises.  The film’s glorious Technicolor, while creating some technical difficulties for Harryhausen, ultimately enhances the atmosphere of the tale.  That, plus the wonderful Bernard Herrmann score, plus elaborate costumes from a never-completed Rita Hayworth film, give The 7th Voyage of Sinbad a richness and a sense of mythological wonder that marks this film has one of Harryhausen’s finest achievement.

It would be several years until Ray Harryhausen would top himself with perhaps his masterwork, Jason and the Argonauts.  But, that is another myth for another day, or perhaps another box set!

Video ***

All four films in this collection are presented in 1080p high-definition.  In addition, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and 20 Million Miles to Earth can be viewed either in the original black & white or colorized through the Chromachoice coloring process.  Purists might shun the colored versions of these classic films, but the colorization is not so bad and will probably be preferred by the casual viewer.  Clothing and inanimate objects look quite good, and there is no color bleed.  However, flesh tone can be pasty at times, and flames and particularly smoke can cause trouble for the Chromachoice process.  Still, if one did not know these films were originally black & white, they could very easily pass as slightly faded Deluxe Color or Eastmancolor films.

It should be noted that Ray Harryhausen had intentionally wanted to do his films in color but was restricted to black & white due to budgetary constraints or film stock limitations.  So, Harryhausen warmed to the idea of colorization after seeing a demonstration of the Chromachoice process, and his commentary tracks for these films were actually made while Harryhausen was watching the colored updates of his pictures.

Of course, as the glorious, super-saturated colors of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad demonstrate, no matter how far the colorization process has progressed, it cannot ever entirely match the visceral eye-candy wonder of a true Technicolor picture.

In general, picture sharpness for all four films is quite decent albeit with a touch of dust specks and debris.  The grain is readily apparent on close inspection.  There are some instances of emulsion density fluctuation or scratches, but these are mostly confined to the various stock footage used in these films.  All in all, not bad considering the films’ age.

Audio ** ½

Audio for It Came From Beneath the Sea is in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1.  Audio for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or French.  Audio for 20 Million Miles to Earth is in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or Spanish monaural.  Audio for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is in English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Thai Dolby Digital 5.1, or English monaural.  The musical scores for these B-movies are a mishmash of canned or recycled music from previous films with new incidental original music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff, particularly the main monster themes.  The best score is, not surprising, the Scheherazade-like Bernard Herrmann score for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Features ****

Each of the four discs in this box set comes with a plethora of supplemental features.  The  It Came From Beneath the Sea disc offers a commentary track with Ray Harryhausen, visual effects artists Randall William Cook and John Bruno, and producer Arnold Kunert.  The topics of discussion include the DynaMation process and arduous post-production work, the new colorization, and the various actors and creature models of the film.

Remembering It Came From Beneath the Sea (22 min.) offers an interview mostly with Ray Harryhausen as he reminisces about his collaboration with producer Charles Schneer and various secrets about the making of It Came From Beneath the Sea.  Harryhausen also describes the DynaMation technique in some detail.

In the “Present Day Look at Stop-Motion” (11 min.), an NYU film student describes how to create, manipulate, and photograph stop-motion characters.  He also takes an opportunity to gush over Ray Harryhausen’s achievements, all done without the use of computers or modern technology.

In the Tim Burton interview with Ray Harryhausen (27 min.), Harryhausen demonstrates one of the flying saucers from his films and reminisces over King Kong, while Burton mostly devolves into a gushing teenaged fanboy.  Otherwise, the discussion revolves around Harryhausen's films from the 1950's.  This featurette is repeated on the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc.

For Film Music’s Unsung Hero (22 min.), music historian David Schecter pays homage to Mischa Bakaleinikoff, a Columbia Pictures composer who assembled and conducted the music behind many of the studio’s better B-movies, including several of the Ray Harryhausen pictures.  This featurette is repeated on the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc.

In the Original Ad Artwork gallery (18 min.), producer Arnold Kunert presents a collection of promotional artwork for various Harryhausen films and discusses their relevance.  The artwork on hand includes pressbooks, lobby art, and title cards.  This featurette is repeated on the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc.

It Came From Beneath the Sea Again is a comic book sequel of sorts to the film but isn’t particularly interesting.  A photo gallery (30 min.) consists of three slideshows, divided into sections for promotional artwork, publicity photos, and design artwork as well as prop photos.

Moving on to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers disc, there is another audio commentary with Ray Harryhausen, a pair of visual effects artists, and producer Kunert again.  The group talks about the saucer models, secrets about the film’s sound effects and numerous stock footage shots, and the actors.  This is the most fun and most Mystery Science Theater 3000-ish of the four commentaries in this box set.

Remembering Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (21 min.) features mostly Ray Harryhausen reminiscing about the movie, its special effects, and how some sequences were created.  Harryhausen also demonstrates how some of the original UFO models worked.  There were over a half dozen saucer models of varying sizes.

The Hollywood Blacklist and Bernard Gordon (29 min.) provides a fairly interesting discussion by Del Reisman of the Writers Guild of America about the infamous blacklist period of Hollywood during the late 1940’s until the mid-60’s.  Bernard Gordon, who had co-written Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, is given due credit, but many other famous screenwriters of the day and their films (including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Spartacus) are mentioned, too.  Reisman also discusses on-going efforts to reinstate film credits for the various blacklisted screenwriters, who frequently had to work under pseudonyms.  Elsewhere on this disc can be found the original screenplay credits (3 min.) for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, on which Bernard Gordon worked under a pseudonym.

In the Joan Taylor interview (17 min.), the bubbly grandmother reminisces about her early acting career in the USO, in westerns (both film and TV), and in music; naturally, she also spends some time thanking Ray Harryhausen for immortalizing her in two of his beloved 1950’s films.  This featurette is repeated on the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc.

A short featurette about the colorization process (11 min.) demonstrates how Legend Films updated this black & white film to color.  For his part, Harryhausen endorsed the process.  This featurette is repeated on the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc.

There is a slideshow (23 min.) of two photo galleries, one containing lobby art and the other containing production stills and promotional photos.  Lastly, the disc includes trailers for the other three films in this box set and another short comic book preview for Flying Saucers vs. the Earth.

Onwards to the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc, there is an unusual commentary track with Ray Harryhausen & company.  The participants are scattered throughout the globe, and conversation is carried out through satellite link.  Topics of discussion include the colorization process, the alien character model, and the actors from the film.

In Remembering 20 Million Miles to Earth (27 min.), various special effects artists and filmmakers pay homage to Harryhausen.  The origin of the creature’s name is also revealed as well as some of the tricks used during the stop-motion animation.

Yet another silly comic book preview is included on this disc.  Of more interest is a slideshow (11 min.) of two photo galleries, one containing production stills and promotional photos and the other containing pre-production art.  There is a trailer for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, too.

Finally, we come to the last disc in this set, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  It features a commentary with Ray Harryhausen & company again, including Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven Smith.  Harryhausen recalls the initial challenges of adapting his DynaMation process to color, while Smith calls attention from time to time to the wonderful Bernard Herrmann score.  This is another fun commentary track.

In Remembering The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (23 min.), Harryhausen discusses the genesis of this film and reveals secrets about the many creature models used in the film, including a breathing dragon, a skeleton, and a snake woman (precursor to Clash of the Titans’ Medusa).  Harryhausen had such success with the skeleton sequence that he would devise another, more elaborate sequence for Jason and the Argonauts.

The Harryhausen Legacy is essentially a 25-minute homage by a plethora of Academy Award-winning special effects artists for Ray Harryhausen.  These men reminisce about their favorite Harryhausen film moments (generally the Cyclops scenes) and how stop-motion animation influenced or changed their lives.

The Music of Bernard Herrmann (26 min.) is an interview with Steven Smith, a Bernard Herrmann biographer.  Smith discusses Herrmann’s career from the early radio days through his four scores for Ray Harryhausen fantasy films and his late career resurgence in the 1970’s.  Smith also analyzes various Herrmann’s scores and their unique arrangements.

There is a slideshow (9 min.) containing mostly black & white production stills from the movie.  Another slideshow of lobby art (3 min.) is accompanied by the tune “Sinbad May Have Been Bad, but He’s Been Good to Me,” a 3-minute song created originally as potential lobby music for the film’s release.

A Look Behind the Voyage (12 min.) is an archival short that pays homage to the cinematic magic of Ray Harryhausen.  Charles Schneer, Ray Harryhausen, and Kerwin Mathews appear in interview clips, and there is a lot of biographical information about Harryhausen as well for curious fans.

This is DynaMation (3 min.) is essentially a vintage trailer for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and reveals how a few of the effect shots were done.  As a trailer, it’s still very effective and exciting.

In the John Landis interview with Harryhausen (12 min.), both men discuss Jason and the Argonauts and how various sequences were created.  Harryhausen again demonstrates the skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which has survived its six successors from Jason and the Argonauts.

Lastly, this disc contains trailers for Casino Royale, MiB, CJ7, and The Waterhorse.

Two of the discs in this box set contain trailers for the other three films in the set.  Each disc, excluding the 20 Million Miles to Earth disc, is also BD-Live enabled.  On an internet-connected Blu-ray player, the BD-Live discs allow access to additional online bonus content.

Summary:

The Ray Harryhausen Collection is an absolute must-have for any fan (and who isn’t?) of those delightful 50’s monster flicks.  Long live giant radioactive sea creatures and mythological monsters of lore and alien invaders!

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