Monster movie fans will forever be indebted to special effects guru Ray Harryhausen.
Today's filmmakers can conjure up any creature they can imagine courtesy of computer technology. But for much of the 20th century directors had two stark choices - dress up an actor in a garish costume or pick up the phone and call Harryhausen for help.
The FX maestro perfected the art of stop-motion animation, the kind that brought early movie monsters like King Kong to life. Harryhausen's work is front and center in "Mysterious Island," the 1961 thriller just released on Blu-ray. The story of Civil War soldiers deposited on an island filled with danger roars to life whenever Harryhausen's handiwork shuffles onto the screen.
"Mysterious Island" opens with a group of Union soldiers plotting their escape from a Virginia Confederate prison. They overpower their guards and make a bee line to a hot-air balloon stationed nearby.
They're up, up and away to freedom, but a series of storms sends the balloon far off course, and they end up crashing near an island that looks untouched by man. They quickly hunker down in a mountain side excavation and use some "Gilligan's Island" like ingenuity to recreate the creature comforts of home.
They even have their own version of Mrs. Howell courtesy of actress Joan Greenwood's husky-voiced matriarch.
But they aren't alone on the island. They soon run into a gargantuan crab, a bird the size of an elephant and other amazing creatures which turn their island paradise into a nightmare.
The film's generic cast isn't as hokey as one would expect given the era in question, although Michael Callan's wan performance as the youngest and hunkiest soldier feels like a focus-tested cast addition.
The opening action sequence is surprisingly crisp, and it's grand fun to watch the soldiers put aside their grievances and get down to the business of survival. No navel gazing, no long epiphanies about their lot on life. Modern audiences may blanch at how the work is divvied up on the island, with the women folk sewing and the men saving the day with their brute weapons. But given the setting the gender divide seems more than appropriate.
"Mysterious Island" takes on dramatic water with the arrival of Captain Nemo ("Pink Panther" foil Herbert Lom). Nemo's inventions give the film a jolt, but his arguments against war and man's inhumanity to one another are so crudely delineated they spoil the B-movie fun underway.
The creatures who threaten our heroes are an odd lot, indeed. Some of Harryhausen's best work involves fantasy monsters like Medusa in "The Clash of the Titans," but here he's working with ordinary animals magnified to monstrous sizes. The crab and bees in particular have aged well, and even when the actors interact with the beasties the illusion of terror remains more or less intact. Credit the shrewd editing and Harryhausen's ability to mimic how real creatures behave.
The new Blu-ray edition lacks extras of consequence. We're left with only an isolated score track, the original theatrical trailer and a TV advertisement for the film. It's a shame the minds behind the release couldn't have corralled some of today's FX gurus to share how Harryhausen's work still influences their art.