"If they could do it, I can do it!" At some point in life or another, some of you have found yourselves saying something along those lines. You may also have also found yourselves coming to the realization shortly after that you could not do whatever it was the other person(s) succeeded in doing so well, usually due to pesky annoyances such as experience and training. Indeed, that was essentially the entire reason for producer Edward Small's 1962 fantasy flick Jack the Giant Killer ‒ which is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics ‒ being summoned into existence. And what a strange and curious existence it is!
It all started in the late '50s, when a talented stop-motion animator named Ray Harryhausen and his associate, Charles Schneer, sought funding from Mr. Small for a proposed production entitled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Uncertain as to what he may be getting himself into, Small ‒ the very same feller who thought greenlighting Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! was a good idea ‒ declined to finance the picture. It was a decision he soon found himself regretting once Columbia Pictures' The 7th Voyage of Sinbad proved to be a box-office smash in 1958. Fortunately for cult movie aficionados all over the world, however, Small had one very large set of balls.
Thus, Small conceived and committed to making his own version of what had once been presented to him. So much so, he even managed to three names from the original film ‒ director Nathan Juran, hero Kerwin Mathews, and villain Torin Thatcher ‒ just to ensure his fairy tale fantasy would be as close to the real deal as possible. Alas, all concepts of originality aside, Small was unable to find anyone who could suitably match (or at least mimic) Harryhausen's skills in the special-effects department, resulting in an all-too-familiar, family-friendly adventure featuring some stop-motion animation which falls somewhere in-between that of Gumby and Mr. Bill in terms of quality.
The great Kerwin Mathews stars here, fresh from appearing in Hammer Films' The Pirates of Blood Island. Phoning it in as our eponymous monster slayer, Kerwin goes toe-to-toe against Thatcher, who hams it up to no end as an evil sorcerer named ‒ wait for it ‒ Pendragon. After somehow being granted access to the Duchy of Cornwall's (well, Catalina Island) during the birthday celebration of the fair Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith, Queen of Blood), Pendragon's creepy demeanor and over-the-top makeup goes completely unnoticed by local royalty, permitting him to hand the princess a trojan horse of a music box with a goofy, thumbprint-ridden, clay creature inside.
But that's just the tip of the guilty pleasure iceberg that is Jack the Giant Killer, which features even more silly-looking monsters from the same FX crew who had previously worked on (the much better) The Time Machine. (To compare the work seen here to that of the aforementioned Oscar-winning MGM triumph is really not recommended, so just blame it on the budget.) Among the many animators who were probably not paid a whole heck of a lot for time or materials was none other than Jim Danforth, who ‒ as fate would have it ‒ teamed up with the legendary Ray Harryhausen himself for the 1970 Hammer production When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.
Also starring in this charmingly naïve storybook yarn from Small is character actor extraordinaire Walter Burke as Torin Thatcher's flunky, and Three Stooges semi-regular Don Beddoe as some sort of bastardized combination of a wish-bestowing genie and a leprechaun (which this film prefers to refer to as an "imp") trapped in a bottle, Barry Kelley (The Asphalt Jungle). Anna Lee (Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die!) plays a bewitched lady-in-waiting, and child actor Roger Mobley fills the proverbial orphaned kid part. Cult composers Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter provided the musical score for the original version of the film, which was ‒ unsurprisingly ‒ met with a lawsuit upon release.
You may have noted I wrote "the musical score for the original version of the film" there. Despite the legal action Columbia Pictures took sometime after Jack the Giant Killer premiered, Small remained determined to push his wares on an unsuspecting public. To this extent, Small had the deranged idea of transforming his magnificent mockbuster into an equally deranged musical, which effectively replaced the original cut of the movie for many years, particularly for television airings. And I should probably point out now that this is where Jack the Giant Killer gets really interesting, in my opinion, as it is executed. And brother, I really mean "executed"!
For, no matter how dumb Jack the Giant Killer may get, nothing can truly prepare you for the abject laziness you'll witness at play in the musical version.
Not wanting to waste more money on reshoots, Small instead hired Peter Pan composer Moose Charlap and his baby-mama, lyricist/songwriter Sandy Stewart, to whip up a couple of songs for the film, which were awkwardly magically inserted into the film via some less-than-subtle editing by Edwin Picker (The Night They Robbed Big Bertha's), with several serious scenes being omitted entirely. Some of the eight (yes, eight!) tunes present in this version are played around the on-screen action. Others were constructed to match the tempo of the film's dialogue, then looped over by uncredited performers and edited into the great big mess it is.
Another banality occurs as Jack battles a transmogrified Pendragon, wherein the imp in a bottle ‒ though lost at sea ‒ croons a peppy instructional ditty telling him called, appropriately enough, "You Can Do It". But it's the love song "Because It's True" that will have you either rolling on the floor dying or committing yourself to the sanitarium for a quick 72-hour check-up. Originally a brief tender moment betwixt hero and heroine, the musical finds them in an all-out duet, made possible (though not plausible) by recycling the same footage, which ‒ in order to sync itself to the just plain rotten track written just for the occasion ‒ is (rather nauseously) stretched out, sped up, and put in reverse intermittently.
I guess you could say they put their thing down, flipped it, and reversed it. It's funny, "Because It's True."
Although the bastardized musical (complete with cartoon credits) briefly replaced Small's initial edit, it too faded into obscurity at some point in time, wherein the original film returned to reclaim its garish throne once more when it came time to release it to home video. The (original) film has become a cult classic in the years since, even receiving a royal lampooning during a RiffTrax Live presentation several years back. But it wasn't until Kino Lorber opted to add Jack the Giant Killer to its library of Studio Classics that contemporary audiences were able to witness the amazingly awful, jaw-droppingly bad musical variation, which is presented on Kino Lorber's Blu-ray as a bonus.
But it's the release of Jack the Giant Killer on Blu-ray itself which will leave villagers singing gayily in a dubbed-over chorus outside. Newly mastered in HD, Kino Lorber's transfer of this "classic" is bound to please lovers and haters alike, as this is the finest this not-so-fine flick has ever looked. The feature film is presented in an MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encode which serves this slayer up via an 1.67:1 aspect ratio. Though there is the occasional instance of grain and/or debris to be seen here and there throughout this Technicolor adventure, the overall transfer is rich, vibrant, and clear. The included DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack is equally impressive, even if most of the dialogue isn't.
English (SDH) subtitles are included, as is a feature length audio commentary by the scholarly talents of film historian Tim Lucas, whose lifelong admiration for the film makes him the ideal candidate for this bonus track. The aforementioned musical monstrosity is next up on the list of special features here. For the most part, the picture looks identical to the original cut of the film, though it would appear a secondary (cropped) source was been utilized in select instances (if I had to guess, I'd say they used all of the as-is footage they could from the new HD print of the original, and inserted musical-only bits from another print). The film's original theatrical trailer wraps up this very special release.
For whatever reasons one may choose to view Jack the Giant Killer, it is an absolute delight to see this bizarre cash-in on Harryhausen's work make it to Blu-ray. Though I may not be the biggest fan of the tale, it nevertheless has managed to leave a mark in the annals of film history, and its inclusion to the world of High-Definition home video is a notable one indeed. After all, it isn't every day that the first mockbuster comes knocking along in 1080p.
Recommended to those who mildly enjoy it, Highly Recommended to those who love it.