Hooray For Ray Harryhausen, by Ric Meyers
What a relief! Fellow audio-blogging ComicMixer Mike Raub put it in perspective for me as soon the credits ended on Cloverfield: “What ever happened to science?” he asked. “Remember the good old days when movie characters would actually think about why something was happening rather than immediately whip out the heavy artillery?”
Well, Mike, my friend, I do, I really do, because this week I got two new, colorized, long-delayed, two-disc special editions from the “Ray Harryhausen Presents” line: It Came From Beneath the Sea and, especially, Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers. In the latter film, particularly, smart people do courageous things to foil an attack from the stars, and the literate, logical, talk – so absent in Cloverfield – would do Mr. Spock proud.
But first things first. It Came from Beneath the Sea arrived first, in 1955, with a Godzilla-esque tale of a nuclear-radiated giant octosquid attacking San Francisco. The following year saw the release of Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, which was succinct and accurate in its title. Both are being re-released on DVD now because Ray supervised their colorization, and Sony has done a nice job of presenting them in both their original B&W as well as colorized forms, with a “ChromaChoice” toggle so you can go from one to the other with ease.
Only one problem with Ray supervising the coloring: the monsters look great … but the people often also look like they’re made of clay … or used a scoonch too much liquid tanner. All in all, however, it’s one of the more successful colorization jobs, and rarely too distracting. Besides, what with Ray’s Dynamationalized characters, the whole thing has a nice sheen of artificiality anyway, which the colorization folds nicely into.
Thankfully, this is a good kind of artificiality, unlike the digital sort. As Terry Gilliam – one of many talking heads on the DVDs – states, even at its most implausible, there was a subconscious sense that this was an inventive human being’s labor of love on display here, not the cold electronic shufflings of ones and zeroes. In spite, or maybe because, of this human factor, these B sci-fi thrillers hold up nicely. Underrated writers, directors, and actors (who Tim Burton takes a swipe at in his “interview with Ray” featurette) do yeoman – or, as Flying Saucers co-star Joan Taylor terms, “professional” – work, and producer Charles H. Schneer always had a motto of: keep it moving.
Already you may be getting the taste of the special features. On It, there’s an interview with Ray called “Remembering It Came From Beneath the Sea,” where Harryhausen recalls the making of the film from his p.o.v.. Then there’s interesting photo galleries from the publicity department, on set, in front of the camera, and in Ray’s separate studio (as he points out, he didn’t want to be officed at the Columbia lot). There’s also a “sneak peek” at a new It comic book. There’re other extras, but we’ll get to those in a few paragraphs, for reasons that’ll become apparent.
Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers has more extras than its predecessor – including an engaging interview with co-star Joan Taylor (who married Leonard Freeman, the creator of Hawaii Five-O), a long-winded, repetitive, but ultimately interesting featurette about how blacklisted screenwriter Bernard Gordon’s name returned to the film’s credits, and a documentary on the colorization process, which is weird. Not that the process itself is weird, but the fact that the doc is on the Flying Saucers DVD and not the It DVD is weird, since the two releases share so many other docs.
On both releases are “Tim Burton Sits Down with Ray Harryhausen,” where the famously monosyllabic director turns into a giddy fanboy before your eyes, “A Present Day Look at Stop-Motion,” where a college kid takes you through the rudimentary process step by step, and “David Schecter on Film Music’s Unsung Hero,” a terrific doc in which a soundtrack expert reveals the incredible tale of Columbia Pictures’ B-film music department, its master chef, and its many extraordinary cooks.
Flying Saucers also has a different “remembering” making-of doc with Ray in different clothes on a different set, another comic book sneak peek, and the extensive photo galleries. Both releases also have truly enjoyable audio commentaries. Sony was wise to have Ray and doc maker Arnold Kunert on both, but even smarter to team them with two different sets of idolizing visual effects artists (Randall William Cook [Lord of the Rings] and John Bruno [X-Men: The Last Stand] on It, and Jeffrey Okun [Fantastic Four] and Ken Ralston [Star Wars, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan] on Flying Saucers).
All in all, these are giddy treasure troves for the sci-fi fanboy or fangrl, a wonderful intro to the joys of grade-A B-flix for novices, and a truly welcome antidote for the seemingly endless season of cinematic bummers.
Ric Meyers does lots of great stuff. Google him; you’ll be glad you did.