It’s a hard call as to what’s better in Mysterious Island: Bernard Herrmann’s adventurous and endearing score or Ray Harryhausen’s energetic stop motion work.
Herrmanns score may not rank with his own Psycho’s of the world -not much does- yet there’s a sense of both adventure and dread underpinning all of Mysterious Island. Clashing symbols and shrieking horns indicate something of scale behind those opening credits, a backdrop for a film that is equal parts fantasy romp and survival test.
Harryhausen’s gorgeous work brings to life a crab, oversized bird, ammonite, and a spastic, decidedly angry bee. Each carries a distinctive personality, as if any of Harryhausen’s stop motion creatures didn’t. Mysterious Island required a little subtly though, the narrative calling for something in line with reality rather than fantasy or dinosaurs. Restraint in the creation process hardly dulled his talents.
Put both elements together and you’re left with nothing short of an island classic, all together just meant to take advantage of box office popularity from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues and Swiss Family Robinson adaptations. Jules Verne’s story remains intact in some capacity, of course with added animated crustaceans and the like. Audiences were clearly energized for some mano-on-monster slaughterfests, and a little titillation from Beth Rogan.
Mysterious Island sags a bit as this Civil War era piece kicks off, prisoners making their escape in a hot air balloon which, luckily enough, soldiers can’t quite hit with their rifles. The arduous air journey doesn’t make for thrilling action, just extensive blue screen effects. The framing and the pacing pays off, the film savoring exquisite matte paintings, Spanish-filmed exteriors, and extensive studio décor. It’s beautiful to look at, listen to, and experience, a trifecta of classic Hollywood spectacle.
Twilight Time issues this one on license from Sony, limiting the disc to a brief print run of 3,000 copies. Debate vintage catalog sales on Blu-ray all day, but Mysterious Island certainly deserves wider penetration, more so with the quality of this encode. The print used is immaculate, stunning considering the level of multi-pass effects work. Stray dirt, scratches, and lines are absent in their entirety, this either a masterful restoration or flawless piece of preservation.
The Eastman color print is reproduced here in vivid color, delivering a richness and boldness which brings the film to reinvigorated life. Island exteriors are a marvel of saturation and nature’s beauty, while the intense color of the costuming adds another layer of primaries to gawk at. Underwater scenes carry a dense blue tint, and the creature attacks lose nothing in their miniaturization. That crab is a beautiful, bright orange.
Transitioning the film to Blu-ray is a high bitrate AVC encode that soaks the grain structure and spits it out without any noise complaints. The textural quality here is remarkable really, of course aided by the film stock and then the compression. If Sony doesn’t see the value, short of another limited re-release down the line, it could be decades before Mysterious Island looks better than this. That’s not hyperbole, but a distressing statement on the HD catalog scenario.
Detail oozes from each frame of this disc, from the difficult to dial in mid-range to the close-ups that reveal an unexpected level of high-fidelity definition. Beaches are intricately presented with the texture of the sand and the rocks, while cave interiors with their multicolored lighting schemes are startlingly refined. Captain Nemo’s ship is a fine piece of production work and sterling sharpness. Precision black levels and bright contrast add the heft needed to complete a flawless dimensional illusion.
The fault here, if you can call it that, are the effects sequences, lacking in the precision sharpness because of the technology of the day. It’s a shame the entirety of the hot air balloon ride is done with optical effects, the disc to some coming off as a slow starter for those not in the know. Harryhausen’s monstrous critters come across sternly though, the focus where it should be as the then fuzzy-looking human characters battle in the adjacent part of the frame. What can you do? Nothing, and as it stands, this disc is a clear winner.
It only takes seconds to soak in the clarity of this DTS-HD 5.1 remastering, Herrmann’s booming score rattling off highs and lows within seconds of the opening studio logos. Split into the stereos wide, the music pours from the sides with the utmost attention towards capturing the fullest fidelity possible. Cymbals clash and horns reach their peak; you won’t find any lapse in aural quality here, There’s even a light drop into the low-end as the drums hit home.
Mysterious Island never goes overboard with audio effects, keeping the mix faithful with just a light layer of pizazz. Rain dominates the opening battle scenes, dropping into the surrounds for a little spacious energy. Explosions from the volcano will catch enough of the subwoofer to at least make it felt, energizing the exciting finale. Those concerned about the purist approach can take part in the original mono track, also offered.
Again, the preservation/restoration comes into play, the track consistent without any wavering, warble, or drop outs. Static is never a presence, and dialogue has that great gruff quality films this vintage have. This is a complete package.
Usually, trailers are mentioned in passing, but the two included for Mysterious Island are of such superb quality, they deserve more than that. The TV spot is especially appreciated for the B&W footage of the film which shows how much would have been lost were this not brought to life in the way it was. Herrmann fans can sit back and enjoy an isolated DTS-HD score too.
Inside the case, there’s a brief, well written booklet detailing the factoids and making-of trivia. Remember when DVD’s used to do that, and consistently?
Note: The Amazon link to to the DVD. Screenarchives.com is the only retailer to sell the Blu-ray edition of this film.