Friday, January 1, 2016

Review: 'Mysterious Island' Encore Edition Blu-ray

The secret to the success of Universal’s classic monster movies was, obviously, its monsters, which tended to be more interesting than the humans with which they shared the screen. The exception that proves this rule is the first Mummy sequel, The Mummy’s Hand, one of the very rare Universal horrors in which the people are considerably more sympathetic, compelling, and likable than the monster. Think of Mysterious Island as the Mummy’s Hand of Ray Harryhausen movies. The stop-motion master limits himself to a few giant animals that occupy ten minutes of screen time, allowing the humans to entertain us, and it’s a testament to the swift and elegantly choreographed direction of Cy Endfield; the writing of John Prebble, Daniel Ullman, and Crane Wilbur (loosely adapted from Jules Verne’s novel); the music of Bernard Herrmann; and the acting of Michael Craig, Dan Jackson, Joan Greenwood, Herbet Lom, and the rest of the cast that Mysterious Island never leaves us whining, “Enough talk... bring on the giant chicken!”

Craig is a union captain captured with two of his soldiers during the Siege of Richmond Virginia in 1865. Joined by a union war correspondent and a confederate stowaway, Captain Harding and his guys escape their captors in an observation balloon. That two sides of one of history’s bitterest wars are represented aboard a tiny vessel is barely an issue, nor is the fact that one of the soldiers is black (something that probably would have at least earned an impolite mention from a confederate). Mysterious Island is not particularly interested in exploring the issues it puts on the table. Its number-one concern is action at all costs, and it delivers that as the balloon lands on a Pacific island where the crew play Robinson Crusoe, battle and feast on extra-large crabs and poultry, rescue a couple of posh British ladies (one of whom has a genuine personality!) who’ve survived a shipwreck, shoot at pirates, and meet the legendary Captain Nemo, played with all-due gravitas by Herbert Lom.

Nemo is the only heavy thing in Mysterious Island, which plays as ultra-swift fun, even when a devastating volcano bears down on our octet of heroes (yes, we are expected to accept the confederate as a hero). Twilight Time’s new blu-ray represents that fun well with a picture a bit heavy with grain but almost completely devoid of blemishes. That grain can actually be of assistance during special effects shots as it homogenizes the multiple elements a bit, keeping the various mattes that comprise so much of the island’s landscape from jumping too far off the screen. There’s a decent selection of extras too, led by an eleven-minute on-screen commentary from Harryhausen and a vintage five-minute featurette (dig the narrator’s pronunciation of “reptiles” and the attempt to make a gentle giant tortoise seem menacing with scary music). There are also a bunch of trailers and commercials and a commentary by a trio of film historians. While the transfer is apparently the same as Twilight Time’s 2011 edition of Mysterious Island, the extras are almost entirely new to its latest one. Get it on here.
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