Thursday, March 16, 2017

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) (Blu-ray Review)


Label: Warner Archive
Region Code: A
Rating: G
Duration: 95 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: James O'Connolly
Cast: James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith

I love the stop-motion creations of Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) yet somehow this awesome cowboy/dino mash-up escaped me for all these years, glad I finally caught up with it. The Valley of Gwangi (1969) takes place in Mexico (but was shot in Spain)  at the turn of the century, Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus, Cat O' Nine Tails) arrives at a local wild west circus show run by his former lover T.J. Breckinridge (Gina Golan, Our Man Flint), where he formerly performed as a stuntman. He offers to buy the failing business which he hopes to sell off for a profit, but she refuses, telling him of new attraction she will debut soon, and save the show. The new attraction is a tiny horse called El Diablo, which turns out to be a prehistoric species of early horse known as an Eohippus, so tiny that it can perform a dance routine on the back of another horse, which doesn't seem all that entertaining to me, but I guess audiences were easily amused by such things at the turn of the century. 

The Eohippus was found by a gypsy in a forbidden place located not too far away, conveniently known as the Forbidden Valley. Local witch/gypsy Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson, who also played a witchy woman in Clash of the Titans) warns Tuck, and pretty much everyone in earshot,  that the creature is cursed and must be returned to Forbidden valley or they will face the wrath of a fearsome creature known locally as "gwangi", which everyone chalks up to mere superstition, and we all now how that turns out in the movie... should have listened.

Eventually Tuck aligns himself with British paleontologist named Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith, Village of the Damned) and an annoying local boy named Lope (Curtis Arden), who along with some circus folk and T.J. head into the Forbidden Valley in search of more prehistoric treasures, discovering along the way a terrifying pteranodon, an ornithomimus, styracosaurus and the fabled "gwangi" which turns out to be a purple-skinned, razor-toothed allosaurus - the star attraction. 

The men wrangle the toothy dino in a very cool scene, with nice blending of stop-motion and live action, a scene, among a few,  that seem to have been referenced in the Jurassic Park movies. Much as with King Kong the  men take the creature back to civilization and put it on display hoping to profit, which goes awry when a pint-sized gypsy loosens the bolts on the dinos cage as it is revealed to the circus patrons. As the announcer intones "Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to see has never been seen before, I repeat, has never been seen before by human eyes!" the curtain rises to the horrifying scene of the dino is eating the meddling dwarf, pretty gruesome stuff for a g-rated movie. 

The carnage continues in the usual sort of creature feature way, not a whole lot of anything overly awe inspiring, with the allosaurus facing off against a woefully over matched tusked circus elephant, the goofy paleontologist is crushed to death by piece of the cage, and the poor gypsy who tried to warn everyone at the top of the film is trampled to death when the circus patrons stampede, running in fear from the prehistoric menace, but somehow that annoying kid Lope makes it through unscathed, so unfair. The dino continues to rampage through the town, where Tucker, Lope and T.J. trap it inside a local cathedral, distracting it with the sounds of a church organ Tucker manages spears it with a flag before setting it on fire, burning it to death as the cathedral crashes down upon it, and roll credits, were done.

The film starts off pretty slow, gwangi doesn't even rear his purple-toothed head for nearly an hour, the first two thirds are a standard 50s era sort of western with a troubled romance, it's rather bland to be honest, but once they get to the Forbidden Valley things pick-up considerably. The stop-motion genius of Ray Harryhausen is on full display with gorgeously articulated creations that were not just awe-inspiring at the time, but I think these hold up today, I still love it.

While is is slow to start I love the genre mash-up of old school cowboy and dino creature feature, it's good stuff, and it's loaded with plenty of action. we get some bull fighting, cowboy brawling, and horse tricks including a horse diving off a platform into a pool, done in stop-motion, unfortunately, the Harryhausen effect is cool but I really wanted to see that done live-action!

Audio/Video: The Valley of Gwangi (1969) arrives on Blu-ray from Warner Archive looking crisp and wonderful, sure some of the stop-motion backgrounds look a bit washed out and grainy due to the stop-motion process but the detail and clarity in other scenes look fantastic, the creature effects look awesome in HD! 

Audio on the disc comes by way of an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono track, it sounds great within reason, there's no distortion or issues of note. The dino roars sound great, though that circus elephant sounded like a dying whale, whoa, so bad, but that is through no fault of the transfer. The action-adventure western score from composer Jerome Moross (The Big Country) is pretty good, I was not familiar with his work but looking at his credits he scored loads of westerns, though I'm not familiar with any of them. 

Extras on the disc include an 8-min interview with Harryhausen who speaks about the origin of the film which was produced by longtime collaborator Charles Schneer, based on a script by Willis O'Brien (Son of Kong), keeping it a period piece but also modernizing it. He also speaks about the different challenges animating a few of the creatures, including the famous dino round-up scene. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) Animators Dan Taylor, Glen McIntosh, Ned Gorman, Peter Daulton also pop-up to espouse their love of and influence of the movie on their young minds. Also on the disc is a brief snippet of Harryhausen speaking about how his young daughter Vanessa who would play with a mock-up model of Gwangi which she would push around in a baby carriage! There's also a trailer for the film in widescreen HD. 

Special Features: 

- Return to The Valley: The Making of the Film with Associate Producer/Creator of Special Effects Ray Harryhausen, and ILM animators Dan Taylor, Glen McIntosh, Ned Gorman, and Peter Daulton
-  Gwangi and Vanessa Easter Egg (1 min) 
- Trailer (3 min) HD 

A wonderful Blu-ray release from Warner Archive, love seeing these vintage Harryhausen stop-motion creations in HD, they really take me back to my Saturday matinee TV viewings in the 80s as a kid, and this cowboys versus dinosaurs mash-up, which has somehow evaded me until today, really hit my sweet spot, this is just wonderful. 4/5