BR: Mysterious Island (1961)

February 5, 2012 | By

Mysterious Island_BR2016Film: Near-Perfect

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Near-Perfect

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: December 9, 2015

Genre: Fantasy / Science-Fiction / Adventure / Ray Harryhausen

Synopsis: Escaped Civil War convicts crash land on a ‘mysterious’ tropical island, where they encounter strange creatures, pirates, and the legendary Captain Nemo.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with film historians Randall William Cook, C. Courtney Joyner, and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith / Isolated Stereo + Mono Music & Effects Score Track / 1992 laserdisc extra: Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island + Publicity Art (11:14) / 1961 Promo Featurete: “Islands of Mystery” (5:31) / 2 Trailers + 2 TV Trailers + 3 TV Spots  / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 

 

Review:

Technical Preamble

2011 Blu-ray edition.

Twilight Time’s 2016 reissue of their limited edition of Mysterious Island (1961), branded the Encore Edition, gives the film a second go for fans who missed out on the prior December 2011 edition, augmented with a new HD transfer and some significant extras.

Their 2011 disc was 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 great little boxed set.

TT’s reissue features another crisp transfer of the film, with sharp colours and a retention of their  1.66:1 aspect ratio. The old Columbia laserdisc contained an unmatted 1.33:1 transfer (which, qute frankly, 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, and a Dolby Surround soundtrack plus an isolated mono music & sound effects track, 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 have on Blu is an ideal compromise, in terms of the film in its most reasonably matted ratio, and on the 2015 Blu a choice in uncompressed DTS of the original 1.0 mono mix, a re-channeled 5.1 surround mix that makes use of surviving stereo music stems, and a down-mixed Stereo 2.0 track that’s equally vibrant. Like TT’s 2011 disc, there’s an isolated score track featuring Bernard Herrmann’s cues plus additional music from the music & effects track (itself featured on the 1992 Pioneer and 1995 Columbia laserdiscs).

Score fans will know which cues in the 5.1 and 2.0 mixes were taken from the surviving mono music & effects stems, and the slight spatial tweaking that smoothens the transition between the genuine discrete material. (Herrmann’s music was initially released on a mono LP and later CD via Cloud Nine Records, who used the newly discovered music masters and Herrmann’s unusual mic placements to craft stereo tracks.)

Visually, the HD transfer may surprise more finicky viewers less forgiving of the flaws inherent to the heavy optical work in older films: greater layers of effects within a single shot do yield more grain and the matte lines between actors and painted backgrounds are sometimes more obvious, but as the historians in the newly recorded commentary track agree, the paintings give the film a mythic look that fits Verne’s fantastical tale of stranded survivors, pirates, monsters, and a megalomaniac.

 

The Film

Mysterious is part of the ancient myth & 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 society dames, 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 Disney’s stellar 1954 version of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and an exploding volcano (almost de rigueur for fantasy films needing a quick denouement), and audiences have a great tale of people who set aside political and social differences to survive in a tropical yet surreal environment.

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 human gore and suffering for newspaper sales; and former dancer and Columbia contract player Michael Callan is fine as the young stud who becomes smitten with leggy former model Beth Rogan after she’s been outfitted with a snappy mini-skirt.

(It is amusing that while the older cast are dressed and manicured for their period roles, Callan and Rogan retain specific early sixties elements – deliberate to draw in younger filmgoers, or just a costume boo-boo – with the former wearing a pompadour mop, and the latter cutting and stitching a mini-skirt to entice her new beau.)

The tight script by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and veteran Crane Wilbur (House of Wax, The BatSolomon and Sheba) may have distilled Verne’s story and characters to their bare essential, but Cy Endfield’s superb direction ensures action and dramatic scenes are equally balanced. 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 (aided by some choice stock shots), but characters aren’t smothered in pyrotechnics and elaborate montages. The same care is given to the creature scenes which, perhaps due to his sense of story and plotting, don’t seem as contrived as some of Harryhausen’s later work, especially Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger; 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 – and if there’s still confusion to audiences, Nemo flattens concerns by admitting everything but the squid stem from his earnest (but wacko) experiments in creating pre-GMO super-food stocks for impoverished hungry humans. It’s all good.

To glue everything together is Herrmann’s music, which cements every element into one fluid adventure tale. 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. Perhaps the most striking moment in the DTS mix lies not in bombast, but in one of the score’s most subtle moments: as the camera tracks through the dim long undisturbed contents of the Granite House, breathy exhalations follow short woodwind passages, beautifully inferring the presence of the cave’s former tortured tenant who went mad and hung himself, and setting up the shock when the skeleton makes its appearance.

 

Extras

TT’s BR includes theatrical trailers packed with every damn spoiler and money shot imaginable, and black & white TV trailers 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.)

New extras include a superb and lively commentary with film historians Randall William Cook, C. Courtney Joyner, and Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith, who do a solid job in balancing details on Harryhausen, Endfield (a rare blacklisted director who managed to survive and arguably thrive in Europe and build up a fine C.V. of work in various genres), the strong cast (especially Lom, arguably one of the best Nemo’s), Herrmann, and differences between the original novel and Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer’s production. Pity Harryhausen wasn’t able to record a commentary track prior to his passing in 2013 at the age of 92; his commentaries for both King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) special editions are quite good.

Also new is a rare B&W promo featurette (“Islands of Mystery”) that interpolates footage from the film with docu footage of the Galapagos island iguanas and tortoises, Easter Island’s giant carvings, Jamaica’s sunken town of Port Royal, Japan’s Ainu people on the island of Hokkaido, and the most famous island that went kaboomski, Krakatoa.

The vintage featurette “This is Dynamation” and the documentary The Harryhausen Chronicles remain unique to Sony’s Harryhausen DVDs. Sony’s prior Mysterious Island DVD included an edited 9 mins. interview with Harryhausen discussing the film’s script and creature designs and visual effects; TT’s new Blu seems to sport the proper 12 mins. version (intro + post-film interview + moving publicity stills gallery) that was originally created by Pioneer for their 1992 special edition laserdisc, which Columbia replicated for their 1995 reissue.

 

Postscript

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.

Other Ray Harryhausen classics from Twilight Time include First Men in the Moon (1961), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

Note: an interview with Twilight Time’s producer Nick Redman and resident film historian Julie Kirgo are also available.

 

 

© 2012; revised and expanded 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

Editor’s Blog — IMDB Soundtrack AlbumSoundtrack Album ReviewComposer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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