Decades before civilized man would figure out new and inventive ways to suck the life out of that good ol' fashioned movie magic previous generations grew up looking up to, a species of gifted animators roamed the great halls of special effects studios near and far. Out of all the long-leggedy beasties, none were as revered and respected as the Hausenusharrius Rayus ‒ better known as Ray Harryhausen to us laymen ‒ whose magnificence and might effectively crowned him King of the Stop-Motion Animators. And it is with one of his tales that we begin this peek at two recent Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray releases, The Valley of Gwangi.
While Ray Harryhausen's film output was most active during the '50s and early '60s, his endeavors into the latter half of the swingin' '60s essentially consisted of consignment work. In 1966, Harryhausen was hired by Britain's legendary Hammer studios to create the various creatures and critters seen in One Million Years B.C.. Three years later, with the '70s only weeks away, Harryhausen took audiences into The Valley of Gwangi, fulfilling the unenviable task of completing a project which his late mentor, the original King Kong's own Willis O'Brien, had originally intended to create.
In what would prove to be the last time Harryhausen animated a dinosaur, The Valley of Gwangi is sort of a weird movie, in my opinion. Like one of O'Brien's previous endeavors for Warner Bros., 1957's The Black Scorpion (which later became an early experiment on Mystery Science Theater 3000) with Creature from the Black Lagoon's human villain, Richard Denning, The Valley of Gwangi takes place in a culturally undeveloped spot in Mexico during the early part of the 20th Century. Of course, it's a little difficult to really "get" that, since it's Mexico and all.
But location and time means very little within the realms of science fiction, and once every single conceivable form of exposition has taken place (and there's a bit of it, kids), our sleazy showman of a hero ‒ as played by Beneath the Planet of the Apes star James "The Man" Franciscus ‒ is venturing off into The Valley of Gwangi to discover all sorts of dangerous reptilian foes who bite hard and prove to be quite the challenge for our assortment of cowboys and Mexicans to wrangle, right down to the cute li'l miniature horse thing which spouts a blind Gypsy woman to run around babbling about curses.
But animated dinosaurs and marauding gypsies aren't all this colorful western fantasy from Warner Bros.‒Seven Arts (as they were known then) has to offer. The Valley of Gwangi also features the final film appearances of Gila Golan, who plays our heroine, and the great Richard Carlson ‒ who, as coincidence would have it, was Richard Denning's heroic rival in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Laurence Naismith (as a batty professor), Freda Jackson, and Gustavo Rojo also star in this production from Harryhausen, his producing partner Charles H. Schneer, and British-born director Jim O'Connolly.
Sporting a beautiful new 1080p transfer, the Warner Archive Collection proudly unleashes the animated denizens from The Valley of Gwangi to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The movie looks so good now, the rear projection optical overlays stick out more than ever now, but nothing will ever remove the magical charm of Harryhausen's work. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track is equally impressive, and there are English (SDH) subtitles which are ALL IN CAPS and the special features seen on the 2003 DVD release ‒ a featurette and Easter Egg with Harryhausen in SD and a trailer in HD ‒ are included.
Another species of stop-motion animator sometimes referred to as "Mij Htrofnad" in some circles, better known as Jim Danforth, is on display in another classic from the Warner Archive, 1970's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Interestingly, this famous outing from Hammer Film Productions ‒ an unrelated follow-up to their 1966 hit One Million Years B.C. ‒ was originally supposed to have been a Harryhausen project. Alas, Ray was already busy with The Valley of Gwangi, so the project went to Danforth. (For the record, he and Harryhausen finally worked together on Clash of the Titans.)
This sequel boasts a number of impressive artificial beauties as well as natural ones ‒ most notably the God-given talents of former Playboy Playmate Victoria Vetri, who took the lead when Hammer couldn't get One Million Years B.C. icon Raquel Welch back. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth proved that you could make a movie without any intelligible dialogue whatsoever and still pack 'em in (a strategy Adam Sandler would later employ, much to the chagrin of semi-intelligent people everywhere) provided you had skin to spare. And When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth certainly does not disappoint there!
With oodles of cheesecake, beefcake, buffalo shots, nipslips, and several instances of actual intentional on-screen nudity, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth opens with some brief English narration (courtesy co-star Patrick Allen) before its cast starts to repeat the same six words they learned in rehearsal ad nauseum as the story attempts to tell itself. Fortunately, there isn't much of a story to worry about: blonde vixen Vetri escapes being sacrificed by her dark-haired tribe, is rescued by hunky Robin Hawdon from another clan, which later also tries to kill the blighted beauty, so she heads off to domesticate dinosaur babies.
There's also an exciting apocalyptic climax concerning the arrival of the moon into the Earth's orbit. Like the many scientific inaccuracies of the rest of the feature, it would have Neil deGrasse Tyson shaking his head in disbelief. But then, that's just one of the reasons When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is so gosh darn enjoyable; the fact that we once again get the uncensored 100-minute international edit of the film in this stellar WAC BD release more than makes up for the lack of an actual story. Said edition of the film initially caused some controversy when it was released as a Best Buy Exclusive DVD with a G rating in 2008.
Removed of its "inappropriate" family-friendly rating and given a more acceptable non-rating in its stead (America: where you can blow people up freely just so long as you don't expose your nipples in the process), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth looks just about as perfect as the WAC release of The Valley of Gwangi ‒ from the crisp presentation right down to those noticeable composite shots. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack delivers admirably, giving Mario Nascimbene's score and Hammer's sound effects a chance to strut their stuff since, you know, the movie has very little "real" dialogue and all that.
English (SDH) subtitles, which thankfully, are not in all caps this time around, are on-hand for the feature film. And yes, they subtitle the actual onscreen dialogue for what it is ‒ nonsense ‒ which should give you a good chuckle if nothing else. Wrapping up this catalogue release of another stop-motion animated creature feature fans have been waiting to sink their teeth into for years is the movie's original (American) theatrical trailer, which is presented in HD and features an alternate clothed take or two. Alas, this is the only bonus item to be included with this release, but one does not simply refuse a nude Victoria Vetri in High-Definition.
Likewise, no one says no to the sight of James Franciscus chasing after dinosaurs in Mexico on horseback, effectively making these two individual Warner Archive Collection offerings worth their weight in classic cinematic gold.