Twilight Time’s limited edition of Mysterious Island (1961) is the first Blu-ray release from the Columbia’s Ray Harryhausen catalogue since 2008 - the last year Sony repackaged their existing quartet of HD transfers - 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) - in a boxed set.
Apparently during that 3-year gap, Sony may have found sales of the Harryhausen films they own (which is the bulk of his prolific output) may have waned, but their decision to maintain HD masters of classic films ensures indie labels have plenty of gems to release in their own special editions.
TT’s features a very crisp transfer of the film, with superior colours and a more reasonable aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The old Columbia laserdisc contained an unmatted 1.33:1 transfer (which I still prefer), but Sony’s 2002 DVD wrongly re-matted the film to 1.85:1, tightening headroom and frankly mucking up the matte compositions - a drastic (and frankly bone-headed) move to make a film more buyer-ready for the first wave of widescreen TVs.
Whereas the laserdisc offered a better ratio, weaker colours, but a Dolby Surround mix of the score / dialogue / sound effects, the DVD had strong & stable colours, finer picture details, severe cropping, and just a mono mix of the soundtrack, all of which meant TT’s BR was badly needed, since no prior home video release was thoroughly satisfying.
What fans finally have is an ideal compromise, in terms of the film in its most reasonably matted ratio, with a choice of the original mono mix, a slightly rechanneled Dolby Surround mix that makes use of surviving stereo music stems, and an isolated score track featuring said Herrmann cues plus additional music from the music & effects track (itself featured on the laserdisc).
Visually, the HD transfer may surprise more finicky viewers less forgiving of the flaws inherent to the heavy optical work in older films: the greater layers of effects within a single shot do yield more grain and less colour richness, but that’s the nature when you have background plates, mattes, and optical effects featuring stop-motion creatures on top of each other. It’s no different than the slight colour and grain shift that occurs in dissolves in older CinemaScope prints, and there’s no sense in digitally scrubbing or creating a false balance of noise; when viewers focus on the movie, these flaws become less obvious.
Mysterious is part of the ancient mythology & popular fantasy quartet produced by Harryhausen between 1958-1963, spanning The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and it’s probably the most dramatically satisfying of the lot, in terms of delivering thrills and plotting that transgresses various age groups: there’s action, exotica, a bit of horror, and tragedy, plus the inherent sense of awe that permeates Jules Verne’s classic tales of exploration and adventure.
The screenwriters goosed Verne’s 1874 story to allow for Harryhausen’s creatures and a pair of snotty British women, but its story is still true to the exciting narrative of a reporter and rival American Civil War soldiers who escape from prison in a giant balloon, only to crash-land on a weird island where the flora and fauna are slightly unusual in scale. Add pirates, legendary Captain Nemo (last seen in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and an exploding volcano, and audiences have a great tale of survivors affected by multiple stressors.
As the stranded group’s chief benefactor, Herbert Lom’s underplaying of an aged Captain Nemo suitably transforms him into a manipulative creep rather than a super-genius. Gary Merrill’s haggard visage matches the persona of Gideon Spilitt, the cynical war correspondent accustomed to exploiting gore and suffering for newspaper sales; and former dancer Michael Callan is the young stud who becomes smitten with leggy Beth Rogan after she’s been outfitted with a snappy mini-skirt.
The chief reason the other less-stellar characters still maintain some among viewers isn’t the tight script, but Cy Endfield’s superb instincts as a director. The opening Confederate prison break and balloon escape are beautifully shot and edited, and express a contemporary filmmaking style where epic action is wrought from humble budgetary allowances, but characters aren’t smothered in pyrotechnics and elaborate montages. The same care is given to the creature scenes, and it’s no surprise Endfield’s next film, Zulu (1964), is a multilayered war classic.
Harryhausen’s creatures are magnificent – the articulated gestures of the giant crab are wholly natural – but even prior to their formal screen appearances, their freak stature is implied through shadows and fear-stricken characters, which make audiences salivate for even a quick glimpse; the agony in waiting to see a character's worst nightmare is often quite unbearable.
The monsters – a giant crab, a Dodo-like bird, giant bees, and a menacing cephalopod (big squid) – are the film’s standout effects creations, but there are the equally impressive matte shots that evoke the dangerous balloon ride, the scope of an island crowned with a smoldering volcano, and the foreboding Granite House where the characters settle inside a deep-set cave within a cliff wall.
With the exception of the cephalopod creature (which is as indulgent as the sunken Greek / Roman / Egyptian city that ‘happens’ to lie submerged near the island), the monsters are actually functional to the plot: each human-creature encounter yields a little ‘mysterious’ detail which adds to the characters’ intuition that someone is out there - watching them, and lending a subtle helping hand for some unknown reason.
To glue everything together is Herrmann’s music, which cements every element into one fluid adventure tale, suggesting off-screen horror through eerie woodwind. A chilling, muted fanfare touts abandoned and otherworldly locations, and individual themes for the creatures are derived in some fashion from elements of his pounding Main Title music. The interplay between dissonance and tenderness also calms audiences after a creature sequence and settles them into a false state of safety before a character discovers a new danger, or island weirdity.
As mentioned, TT’s BR includes a newly mastered isolated score track of Herrmann’s music, featuring the surviving stereo cues previously released on CD by Cloud Nine Records, and additional cues with sound effects that are less distracting than critics are making them out to be.
The mono mix remains punchy and effective, and for the Surround Sound mix, the aforementioned mono music cues have been slightly tweaked to impart a light stereophonic effect; sound effects are slightly directional. The goal seems to have been to create a broad sonic image that’s playable through a 5.1 setup, but unaffected by extra tweaking that could’ve altered the impact of the original audio elements.
TT’s BR includes a theatrical trailer packed with every damn spoiler and money shot imaginable, and a black & white TV trailer teases audiences with a less exhaustive collection of money shots. TT’s booklet features Julie Kirgo’s wry liner notes, and some brief material on the production. (Fans of the film could easily go on for a few thousand words as to why Mysterious Island er, rocks, and Kirgo makes a firm case as to why the film has and will remain the definitive film version of Verne’s tale.)
Pity Harryhausen wasn’t available for a commentary track; his contributions to both King Kong [M] (1933) and Mighty Joe Young [M] (1949) special editions are quite good.
The vintage featurette “This is Dynamation,” the documentary The Harryhausen Chronicles (which appears on all of Sony’s Harryhausen DVDs), and an edited Q&A between director John Landis and Harryhausen remains unique to Sony’s disc, whereas full Q&A is exclusive to the Columbia laserdisc.
Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island has appeared several times in film and TV, including MGM’s 1929 partial sound, partial Technicolor version; Columbia’s 1951 movie serial; a 1973 Spanish production; a 1975 animated TV special; a 1995 Canadian TV series; and a 2005 TV mini-series.
Note: an interview with Twilight Time’s producer Nick Redman and resident film historian Julie Kirgo are also available.
© 2011 & 2012 Mark R. Hasan