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Warner Home Video presents
"In a dream, I saw it. The great jaws snapping, the riderless horse. He was doomed. And so will you be doomed, all of you, unless the evil one is set free."
DVD ReviewMost of the time, when you remember with great fondness a movie you saw when you were ten years old, it doesn't hold up well to adult scrutiny. I recalled being very impressed as a youngster with this Ray Harryhausen dinosaur extravaganza, and was astonished to find that thirty-some years later, I like it even better than I did back then. There's just something irresistible about the juxtaposition of cowboys and dinosaurs.
In early 1900s Mexico, Wild West Show operator T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan) is teetering on the edge of financial disaster. Old beau Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) breezes into the town where the show is playing, and nearly convinces T.J. to sell out to Buffalo Bill and settle down with him. But then Carlos (Gustavo Rojo) shows up from The Forbidden Valley with an incredible miniature horse for a new attraction. When paleontologist Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith) sees it, he recognizes it as the long-extinct Eohippus, and conjectures that where there was one, there may be more. Despite ominous Gypsy warnings, the group heads for the Valley of Gwangi—only to find that Gwangi is a very hungry Allosaurus, still quite alive in this lost world. He might make a good main attraction too, if he doesn't eat them all.
I'm surprised that I liked this as well as I did years ago, since it takes quite a while to get going: the dinosaur isn't even glimpsed until well into the second half of the picture. Most of the early running time is based on the relationship between T.J. and Tuck. Franciscus (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) makes for a very appealing couple with the sensuous Golan (co-star from Our Man Flint), even though she's saddled with an extremely poor dub job. Naismith would go on to a supporting role in The Persuaders a bit over a year later, and he's pretty engaging here. Heck, even the mandatory annoying young boy, Lope (Curtis Arden), is actually pretty funny, with some good lines. Freda Jackson makes for a creepy blind Gypsy wise woman, though the presence of distinctly Middle European Gypsies in Mexico is glossed over without any explication.
As is usual for a Ray Harryhausen film, however, the stop-motion special effects are the real stars of the picture. And in this case they're quite extraordinary. The Eohippus is well integrated into its scenes, and the various dinosaurs are well realized. Gwangi himself is an incredibly detailed piece of work, with a fair amount of personality. Harryhausen injects nifty incidental bits of business, such as Gwangi pausing in his pursuit to scratch his nose for a moment. The jaw-dropping sequence where the cowboys lasso and rope Gwangi is still state of the art, even after decades of advances in effects work. On the down side, there are some cuts between stop-motion creatures and their practical equivalents that unfortunately reveals the differences between them; more care should have gone into the matching, especially on the pterodactyl bulldogging sequence.
To a substantial extent, this picture can be read as a loose remake of King Kong, without a Fay Wray or tall buildings, with greed and desire for showmanship being the dominant themes (not to mention the common climactic device of a monster show going terrible awry). That's not terribly surprising, since it's based on a screen treatment from the 1940s written by Kong's animator, Willis O'Brien. But Harryhausen surpasses the master with his animation here, an incredible piece of filmmaking effects work, all done by hand by a single man. When you compare this to the gigantic cadres working on any modern effects picture, the achievement is all the more startling.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Warner presents the picture in anamorphic widescreen, and it looks terrific other than very occasional speckling and slightly plugged up shadow detail. Color is generally quite good, as are texture and fine details. The picture is crisp, and doesn't have annoying edge enhancement. Process shots are heavily grained, but this is surely a remnant of the optical processes and inherent in the film, so no deductions are in order for this "defect." In some non-effects shots, the sky has a mild bit of flicker to it. The image will satisfy all but the very pickiest, and it's better than I had ever hoped.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono track has mild hiss, but nothing terrible. The musical score (an interesting cross between Herrmannesque suspense and Bernstein's score for The Magnificent Seven) has excellent presence and a decent bass range. The score by Jerome Moross has a full and expansive sound even from a single speaker, with particularly evocative trombones and horns, and strings that pierce but aren't shrill. Also impressive is the sound design as Gwangi wanders through an echoey cathedral. This is a fine example of a good-sounding original mono track.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Black Scorpion, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Clash of the Titans
Layers Switch: 0h:59m:17s
Extras Review: The extras here are a little on the slight side. A featurette (8m:04s) includes discussions with Harryhausen, as well as an explanation of how the roundup scene was accomplished, and ILM animators waxing over the film and disclosing the influences it had on their work in Jurassic Park. An easter egg on the Special Features screen includes a brief (1m:03s) story about Gwangi and Harryhausen's daughter. There are a set of trailers for the film and three other stop-motion animation classics controlled by Warner. I'd have liked to have seen more here, but this is a good start.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsAlthough frequently underappreciated, this is to my mind Harryhausen's best work, and for a change the cast is pretty good instead of simply being an assemblage of stiffs used to space apart the animation. Just being able to see the roundup sequence frame by frame is worth the price of admission, and when paired with a very good transfer, this DVD should be a no-brainer for any fan of such films.
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