Kong sequels, stop motion effects and giant insects invade Warner’s “Science Fiction Classics”, where four fantasy favorites make their anticipated Blu-ray debuts. The box set, spread across four discs (each film on its own disc) is a nicely-designed rigid pocketbook style, and each title is also being available separately at a low retail price.
SON OF KONG immediately follows the events of the monstrous 1933 RKO Pictures hit KING KONG. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, reprising his famous role from KONG) is now down on his luck, broke and renting a small apartment and hiding out from the many who want to sue him after the disastrous events of capturing a giant gorilla and putting him on display in Manhattan. Rather than get slapped with another summons, Denham teams up with his old pal Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher, also reprising his role from KONG), who is in a similar predicament of legal threats, having brought Kong to the States on his boat, as they sail off together to ship cargo around the Orient. While ashore in the Dutch port of Daking, they witness a little tent-show attraction with the singing and guitar-strumming Hilda (Helen Mack, 1935’s SHE) and her performing monkeys. After the tent is accidentally set on fire and her father killed, Hilda befriends the sympathetic Denham and after an unfortunate set of circumstances involving a mutiny, Denham, Hilda, Englehorn and cook Charlie (Victor Wong, also reprising his role from KONG) end up on Kong Island. It is there that they discover Kiko, an albino gorilla about half the size of Kong, which Denham believes is the offspring of his old simian friend, and the expected perils follow.
Described as “A Serio-Comic Fantasy”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, SON OF KONG is the very definition of a cheapie, as it was released the same year as the original and made for about half the budget (somewhere in the neighborhood of $250,000). With cute “Little Kong” being on parade for laughs rather than scares, it was obvious that producer/director Ernest B. Schoedsack and executive producer Merian C. Cooper knew they couldn’t top the first picture with the time and budget allotted, so they just made things a bit more lighthearted. Willis O’Brien (who tried to have his name removed from the credits) again does the stop motion effects, which are still marvelous, as Kong Jr. is shown up against a sea serpent, a giant black cave bear and various dinosaurs. Max Steiner again delivers a terrific score, and even Noble Johnson returns briefly as the intimidating leader of the island natives. A critical failure at the time of its release, SON OF KONG has still become something of a monster movie classic, even though it’s overshadowed by its vastly superior prequel. It's still fun and runs a brisk 69 minutes (with a lot of monster action in the final third) and giving Denham a romantic interest of his own is actually a nice touch.
Some 16 years after the release of SON OF KONG, the team of Schoedsack and Cooper (along with executive producer John Ford) attempted another variation on Kong with 1949’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. In Africa, eight-year-old Jill Young is living on a ranch with her father and makes a trade in order to keep a baby gorilla she names Joe. Twelve years later, New York-based showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong in a role that’s Carl Denham in everything but name) and newly-hired cowboy Gregg (Ben Johnson, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN) are exploring Africa, searching for animals for the opening of O'Hara's new Hollywood nightclub. They then encounter the impressive 12-foot Joe, failing to capture him. As Joe is still the property of the now grown-up Jill (Terry Moore, COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA) she is offered and accepts the chance to come back with O'Hara to the States along with Joe to become an instant sensation. At the busy nightclub, Joe is put on display in various acts which include lifting a large platform with Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on a piano above his head, having a tug-of-war with "the 10 strongest men in the world", and being pitted against a famous boxer. The audiences grow rowdier and Joe becomes more homesick, and three drunks sneak backstage, giving Joe whiskey and causing him to break loose and wreak havoc, freeing a number of lions inside the club. When Joe is ordered to be destroyed, Jill, Gregg and O’Hara devise a plan to secretly smuggle him out of California.
Considering how rightly revered MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is today, it’s hard to believe the film was such a box office flop. Willis O’Brien was this time the supervisor of the stop-motion effects, which were largely the work of 28-year-old Ray Harryhausen, along with Pete Peterson and Marcel Delgado. At the start of his long career, Harryhausen proved here what an innovator he would become in stop-motion animation, as the effects dazzle and outdo KONG, especially the seamless interaction between Joe and a group of lassoing cowboys, the memorable tug-of-war sequence and when Joe is pounding on the stop-motion escaped lions (the facial movements on Joe are far more expressive than on Kong years earlier). The bit where Joe rescues the helpless children from a burning orphanage is pretty unforgettable, and the scene was color-tinted for a gimmicky effect in the days when almost every feature release was black & white. The film won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects which was given over to Willis O’Brian by producer Cooper. Because of its heartwarming story, its happy ending and ample sense of adventure, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade in 1998 with Charlize Theron in the Jill Young role.
The Blu-ray transfer for SON OF KONG presents the film in its original Academy Ratio (1.33:1) in 1080p HD, and it’s a nice improvement over the 2005 standard DVD. Given the film’s age of over 80 years, the transfer here looks quite good, with the original elements being in commendable shape. The image is generally sharp and well-detailed, while contrasts also look fine. The grain structure is also well handled, as are the grayscales. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio mono track, which is surprisingly clear and free of any noticeable hiss or other distortion. A vast improvement over its 2005 DVD, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is also presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio in 1080p HD with a sharp and clean black & white transfer. With plenty of depth in its grayscale, the transfer here is consistently excellent, even with all the rear projection and all the other visual effects on display. Black levels are deep, and the contrast is also excellent. The reddish color-tinted scene is intact here, and looks quite nice in HD. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio mono track, and it’s impressive with nice range and good fidelity. An additional Spanish language track is included, as are optional French, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin) and English SDH subtitles (MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also carries the same language and subtitle options). A theatrical trailer is the sole special feature on SON OF KONG. For MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, carried over from the 2005 DVD is the excellent commentary with the late Harryhausen and star Moore, as well as the two featurettes: “A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and The Chiodo Brothers” (22:52) and “Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young” (11:57).
Loosely based on one scene from a 1951 Ray Bradbury short story published in The Saturday Evening Post, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is THE archetypal 1950s giant monster movie. This is the first film on which model animator legend Ray Harryhausen worked independently on the special effects, and the results are still spectacular to this day, as his fictional creation of the "Rhedosaurus" remains one of the most famous movie monsters of all time. Filled with plot attributes that would soon become cliché in the world of fandom, BEAST definitely set the groundwork for films to come, notably Toho's GODZILLA which quickly followed.
During some nuclear tests in the Arctic, scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian, JOURNEY TO THE LOST CITY) witnesses his partner killed by a prehistoric monster that nobody else has seen. Even after unexplained vessel and lighthouse disasters, no one believes him, until a female paleontologist (Paula Raymond, BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE) and a skeptical but amicable military man (Kenneth Tobey, THE VAMPIRE) enter the picture. The beast eventually makes its way to the shoreline of New York, crushing cars, stomping on several buildings, swallowing a police officer, and ends up in Coney Island for a "rollercoaster" of an ending.
Originally conceived as "Monster From Beneath the Sea" and shot by an independent production company for a limited budget ($200,000), the film was purchased by Warner Bros. and became an instant matinee classic. Acting and pacing take a backseat to Harryhausen's monster effects, but the complete package is still an endearing one to fans of this sort of cinema. Director Lourié (who also did the art direction) would later revisit similar territory in THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO, both which were produced in England. Among BEAST's recognizable cast of character actors, look for Lee Van Cleef as the expert Army marksman who saves the day during the climax.
First released on DVD in 2003 to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS now makes a great impression on Blu-ray, which delivers the colossal terror in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p HD. The dirt and debris that marred the standard-def release are gone, delivering an extremely clean picture with perfect grain structure. The transfer has deep black levels and nice depth, with background images being easy to discern and close-ups having strong textures. Shadow definition and clarity look excellent, and grayscale levels also look perfect. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio mono track which boasts crisp dialogue mixed well with the music and sound effects, and no signs of hiss or distortion. Additional French, Spanish (Castilian) and Spanish (Latin) and tracks are included, as are optional French, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin) and English SDH subtitles.
Carried over from the 2003 DVD are a number of featurettes including "The Rhedosaurus and the Roller Coaster: Making the Beast" (6:12) which is an interview with Ray Harryhausen, accompanied by production photos. Harryhausen talks about being approached by producer Jack Dietz, what it was like working alone for the first time, as well as the monster's creation and the special effects. A second featurette, "Harryhausen and Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship" (16:51) has the two longtime friends reunited before an audience at the Warner Bros. Lot to reminisce about old times and share some friendly anecdotes. The two men are delightfully grown-up kids as they demonstrate their diehard love of fantasy. Ray Harryhausen also talks briefly (59 seconds) about the “Armatures” he constructed for the film. The original trailer is also included.
In THEM, New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore, PLANET OF THE APES) and his partner find a little girl (Sandy Descher, THE SPACE CHILDREN) wandering around the desert alone, speechless and in total shock. What turns out to be her missing parents’ trailer is found destroyed from the inside out, with the debris covered in a sugary substance. With a strange whistling sound in the air, a nearby general store owner is also found dead. After Ben’s partner is also killed, a cast of an unidentified footprint is sent to Washington, D.C. for further investigation. Local FBI man Robert Graham (James Arness, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) is brought in along with Myrmecology specialists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) and his attractive daughter Pat (Joan Weldon, DAY OF THE BADMAN). Their investigation leads them to a catacomb in the middle of the desert filled with giant ants, anywhere from 9 to 12 feet long. These mutations, a result of atomic testing nine years earlier, are responsible for all the deaths, and even though their lair and all its insect inhabitants are destroyed, it’s feared that some queen ants have escaped and are elsewhere. Soon, similar attacks and sightings are reported in the Los Angeles area, and while the truth was kept secret in order to avoid widespread panic, it’s in the hands of Dr. Medford and company to put a stop to this mammoth new species of killers before they outweigh mankind.
There’s not much that could be said about THEM! that hasn’t already been said. One of the first of the nuclear age monster movies, it’s also the first giant bug film of the 1950s, and easily the best of them. The only title on this set not to involve stop motion animation, the giant ants constructed for the film never fail to impress, and are complemented by tight editing and the careful cinematography of Sidney Hickox, so unlike similar films of this era, the monster action never gets campy and still wows. Director Gordon Douglas (who started out years earlier doing a number of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts) keeps things taut, serious and thrilling, and the cast is also terrific, especially Whitmore as the dutiful patrolmen who quickly becomes a plainclothes investigator and big-time hero, especially when it comes to rescuing a pair of ant-surrounded young boys. The cast also includes a number of familiar faces from B movies and TV including 1940s horror movie star Onslow Stevens (HOUSE OF DRACULA), Richard Deacon, Fess Parker (pre Davey Crockett), Booth Colman, William Schallert, Dub Taylor and a very young Leonard Nimoy.
Originally intended to be a color 3-D production, THEM! was one of the first films of its type to be presented in a form of matted widescreen, though Warner’s 2002 DVD presented the film full frame. The iMDb lists the film at a 1.75:1 aspect ratio, but the film is presented here in a fitting 1.78:1 ratio (though the packaging states it's 1.85:1) in 1080p HD. There are no issues with the framing, while the black & white image is very pleasing. The transfer is rich in detail with excellent contrasts, black levels are deep and grey scales are also replicated nicely. Overall, the transfer has an attractive, filmic appearance to it with good grain structure. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is quite clear from start to finish, replicating the screechy sounds of the giant ants quite impressively. Optional Spanish (Castilian) and Spanish (Latin) tracks are included, as are optional French, Spanish (Castilian), Spanish (Latin) and English SDH subtitles. The original trailer is included, as is “Ants” (3:06), a behind-the-scenes archive montage on the design and operation of the giant ants. (George R. Reis)
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