Ray Harryhausen Gift Set DVD Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Ray Harryhausen Gift Set DVD Review
    SRP: £30.97


    All three films come with an anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 image (Twenty Million Miles to Earth also has a 1.33:1 option) that has been mastered in High Definition. But don't go expecting anything too grand in the visual stakes. These are old movies that have never actually looked particularly sharp. All have print damage of the fleck, speck and halo variety, but it is quite pleasing to see just how cleaned up the overall image is. All benefit from reasonably good contrast and black levels - the latter really isn't tested that much in any of the films, but, when called upon, it offers good depth and atmospherics to the picture. Close-up detail is often very good indeed, with many faces appearing with a surprising amount of clarity - the abducted General facing his alien captors in Earth Vs The Flying Saucers, for example. But backgrounds often appear quite murky and lose definition. Mind you, this is only to be expected given the vintage of the movies.

    The worst image occurs on It Came From Beneath The Sea, which is terribly afflicted by grain throughout. Though grain is clearly evident on the other two, it is to a much less distracting degree, with some scenes remarkably free from it. All three have edge enhancement, but it isn't to any serious detriment. But I never noticed any dot crawl, blocking or compression problems. Overall the transfers are as good as could be hoped for and the images supplied are steady, reasonably clean and clear and suffer only from the inevitable passage of time.
    Ray Harryhausen Gift Set Picture


    Well, the purists may harp on about the lack of the original mono tracks, but, to be fair, there is little to complain about the Dolby Digital 2.0 mixes on offer here. With the exception of It Came From Beneath The Sea, which suffers from some occasional hiss and a low-level of dialogue, the 2.0 mixes work more than adequately. There is absolutely no depth to the soundfield and no attempt made at directionality across the front, but the transfers still have a little bit of bite to the action sequences - the Saucer destruction of Washington and Ymir's wall-crushing frenzy of Rome, in particular. Apart from the afore-mentioned problems with the worst of the three films, dialogue is pretty clean and sharp, the scores are full-bodied and robust and the overall wear and tear has been kept to a minimum.

    Thus, there is little to praise, but then little to complain about either.
    Ray Harryhausen Gift Set Sound


    First of all, I'd like to mention the fantastic Collectible Scrapbook that comes with this Gift Set. At 44 pages, this is actually an excerpt from the excellent coffee-table tome, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, featuring the chapters detailing the production of the three films in the set. Very well presented and a joy to read, this is an appetiser for the bigger book, with plentiful storyboards, conceptual artwork and stills from the films. A nice idea and a handy little guide-book to peruse whilst the annoying humans are on the screen.

    The discs themselves all carry identical features - as I mentioned at the start, they are the same editions as the stand-alone releases - with the exception of Earth Vs The Flying Saucers. More on that later.

    We get on each - This Is Dynamation, a 3.26 min advert/demonstration of Schneer's and Harryhausen's new filming technique incorporated for The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, The Harryhausen Chronicles, an excellent 57.54 mins documentary narrated by Leonard Nimoy on the life and career of the animator, and a set of theatrical trailers.

    This Is Dynamation is accompanied by one of those ubiquitous voice-over guys who just cannot make his enthusiasm sound convincing. However, incorporating lots of clips and even some behind the scenes footage of Kerwin Mathews, as Sinbad, rehearsing for his monumental swordfight with the skeleton, you get the impression of how exciting all this must have looked back in the run-up to the film's release. Not bad, actually.

    The Harryhausen Chronicles is the real deal, though. Well-filmed and featuring lots of beautiful close-ups of Harryhausen's creations, good, incisive interviews and a terrifically informative, no-nonsense approach that refuses to just kiss the great man's backside (too much), this offers up anecdote, examination and honest critique of his style, methods and practices. Other luminaries, such as ILM's Dennis Muren, Charles H. Schneer, Henry (James And The Giant Peach) Selick, and even a second or two from George Lucas, lend their thoughts and praise for the guy that inspired them. But it is from lifelong friend and fellow fabulist, Ray Bradbury, that the most touching epithets come. Muren, though, hits the nail on the head regarding Harryhausen's enduring success. He states quite simply that Harryhausen's gift is in injecting empathy for his creatures. The documentary charts all the films in order - from his fledgling 16mm efforts after being bowled over by Willis O'Brien's triumphant King Kong (more than any other movie in cinematic history, Kong's legacy has provided so much), through the titles in this set and on through the scintillating sword and sorcery epics to the Kracken-filled finale of Clash Of The Titans in 1981. We even get to see Ray Bradbury issuing heartfelt praise for his friend on stage during the 1992 Academy Awards, when Harryhausen was awarded a special Oscar for his achievements. But, one of the coolest treats is seeing the concept art and test footage Harryhausen made for his interpretation of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds. Sadly, this project, like so many others, never got off the ground. All in all, a well thought out production, informative and entertaining from start to finish.

    Earth Vs The Flying Saucers contains two more extras unique to itself. The first is a brief (8.26 mins) featurette entitled The Making Of Earth Vs The Flying Saucers. This is merely Harryhausen being asked a few questions by director and obvious devotee, Joe (The Howling) Dante. Very amateurish and far too casual for its own good, this small snippet nevertheless offers a wealth of information about the production. The two play with a Saucer model and there are some clips from the movie to illustrate the techniques involved. What is revealed is that the shot of a saucer's death ray taking out a couple of jet fighters is actually real-life footage of the two planes colliding during an air show. To be honest, I don't like real tragedies such as this being utilised for a film ... so that takes the shine off a little bit. Joe Dante might be a talented filmmaker, but he is a lousy interviewer, often cutting off Harryhausen before he has even finished his sentence. And, is it just me, or is Dante a deadringer for TV's Tony Slattery?

    The second Saucer bonus is a small Photo Gallery that offers up 17 images from the film and its publicity. Some nice posters on show.

    All the movies have a selection of theatrical trailers for these and other Harryhausen movies. Although, It Came From Beneath The Sea also has the trailer for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Huh?

    Despite the repetition of the documentary on all the discs, the overall package is pretty decent. Especially when you take into account the awesome little scrapbook.
    Ray Harryhausen Gift Set Extras


    Certainly worth it as an introduction to the movies of Ray Harryhausen, this gift set is further recommended due to the inclusion of the collectible Scrapbook, which is a delight. But the films on offer here are most certainly not the biggest, or the best moments in his illustrious career. He found his niche in the creation of the fantastical monsters from mythology, and it is for them that he will always be remembered. Yet in this set, barring It Came From Beneath The Sea, there is still plenty to savour. Ymir is a fantastic beast of undiluted malevolence and there is much fun to be had from Earth Vs The Flying Saucers. The Harryhausen Chronicles is a great documentary - albeit repeated in triplicate - and the AV performances of the discs are certainly no worse than can be expected for a trio of B-pictures from the 1950's.

    I started off in high spirits with this set but found that my own memories of them were much better than the actual films, themselves. Let me stress that this is not normally the case. Had the set incorporated The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts and The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad, it would have been a vastly different story.
    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £30.97

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