IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)

Mysterious Island posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, now appearing in the June issue of the HWA NEWSLETTER.

—Michael

  IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

We lost a master of the genre when Ray Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013.  He was 92.

No one created stop-motion animation effects better than Ray Harryhausen.  His list of credits is extensive, from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), to THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) to his final feature CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), to name just a few.  The most impressive thing about Harryhausen’s movies is they are all quality credits.  A Ray Harryhausen movie with poor special effects doesn’t exist.  He brought his “A” game every time.  Considering how long Harryhausen would spend on these effects, sometimes taking several years to complete a project, it’s no surprise the results were always exceptional.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT we look at the Ray Harryhausen movie MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961).

Loosely based on the novel by Jules Verne (very loosely), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND takes place during the American Civil War.  A group of Union soldiers escape from a Confederate prison using a hot air balloon.  The balloon gets blown off course, and the soldiers suddenly find themselves half way across the world where they crash land on a mysterious island.

Led by their captain, Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) they forage for food and struggle to survive as they fight off various giant creatures, including a gigantic crab, a scene that is one of the movie’s highlights.  When a small boat washes ashore carrying two women, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) they are welcomed into the camp and join forces to try to find a way off the island.  Their presence also offers a romantic subplot between Elena and young dashing soldier Herbert Brown (Michael Callan).

Things grow even more mysterious when a man emerges from the ocean, and lo and behold, it’s Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) from 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA fame.  Nemo provides some dramatic revelations both about his history— his submarine the Nautilus is stationed in a watery cave beneath the island— and the future of the island, a future that spells doom for anyone who remains there.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is a neat adventure, the kind of movie that grabs you at the outset and never lets go, providing thrills, chills and solid entertainment throughout.  Sure, it slows down in its second half, but it still manages to please, and that’s because in addition to Ray Harryhausen’s special effects, the movie also features an energetic music score by Bernard Herrmann, fine acting performances, and a crisp script by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur.

It gets off to a rousing start, as the movie opens with the soldiers’ thrilling escape from the Confederate prison, and then jumps right into their hazardous balloon flight through a torrential storm.  You don’t get a chance to catch your breath until they finally crash land on the island, and that’s when the fun really begins.

Some of the highlights in this one include the aforementioned colossal crab sequence, brilliantly brought to life by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects.  That’s a real crab, too!  No, Harryhausen didn’t give it acting lessons. He gutted it and fitted it with the mechanisms needed to animate it, so it’s not a model built by Harryhausen, but the exoskeleton of a real crab.

Other Harryhausen creations in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND include an oversized bird, monster bees, and a giant squid.  The special effects also include an impressive backdrop of the island’s volcano, and the ruins of an undersea city, not to mention the Nautilus submarine.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is potent as always.  While I prefer his score to THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, this one’s a close second.  It’s a major part of the movie, especially during the opening twenty minutes, when so much is happening.  It really complements the action.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND also has fine acting performances.  Michael Craig makes a strong, likeable Captain Harding, while Michael Callan and Beth Rogan make an attractive romantic couple.

Probably my favorite performance in the film belongs to Gary Merrill as reporter Gideon Spilitt.  Gideon represents the film’s moral conscience and gets to spout off commentary about the war and human nature in general.

Percy Herbert is also memorable as Sgt. Pencroft, the Confederate soldier who gets trapped on the balloon with the Union soldiers.  Once they get to the island, they put aside their differences in the interest of survival.

And then there’s Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo.  I’m a big fan of Herbert Lom’s, and there’s really nothing wrong with his performance here, as he lends credibility to the proceedings, but his Captain Nemo isn’t in the movie very much, and truth be told, there just isn’t a lot for him to do here.  James Mason in the Disney film 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) made a much more memorable Captain Nemo.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND does slow down as it goes along.  I guess this is inevitable, since the first half of the movie rocks, with the prison escape, the balloon ride, and the crab battle.  The giant bird sequence is quite good, but by the time you reach the bee scene and the battle with the pirates, director Cy Endfield seems to have run out of creative ideas, and these sequences are handled with less inspiration than the previous scenes.  And the underwater battle with the monstrous squid towards the end is not that exciting.

Of the three screenwriters, only Crane Wilbur had genre credits, as he wrote the screenplay for several Vincent Price films including HOUSE OF WAX (1953), THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954), and THE BAT (1959).

Where does MYSTERIOUS ISLAND rank in terms of Ray Harryhausen’s work?  As I said earlier, Harryhausen brought his “A” game to each and every movie he ever made, so in terms of the quality of his special effects, they’re just as good here as they are in all his movies.

I’d rate the crab sequence as one of the top five sequences he ever created.  It’s up there with the skeleton battle in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), the Medusa scene in CLASH OF THE TITANS, the Kali fight in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973), and the lassoing of the T-Rex in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969).

You really can’t go wrong with any of the movies Ray Harryhausen lent his name to.  That’s a testament to the amount of talent he brought to the table.  Yet, strangely, none of his movies ever won an Academy Award for special effects.  Go figure.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is grand entertainment.  It’s a movie that won’t leave you crabby.

—END—

My EBook IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 “In The Spooklight” movie columns, is available at http://www.neconebooks.com.

—Michael

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