Twilight Time’s recent release of Cy Endfield’s Mysterious Island raises an interesting question: how much should film restorations alter the original film? A certain amount of enhancement and clean-up is to be expected with any Blu-Ray release, particularly older movies shot on degradable film stock. But the situation becomes particularly more complicated with special effects heavy genre films where the temptation to go back and “fix” things—see any of the outrages concerning George Lucas’ various re-releases of his Star Wars franchise—can become overwhelming.
I was both pleased and disappointed with Twilight Time’s release of Mysterious Island. Very loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1874 novel of the same name, the film added high adventure elements to what was originally a more standard survival story about a group of American Civil War soldiers who get marooned on a Pacific island via a massive gas balloon during a prison escape. Once ashore they must do battle against giant-sized animals: a massive killer crab that can snatch a man with a single claw; a towering, prehistoric flightless bird; SUV-sized honeybees; and a gigantic cephalopod. Designed and animated by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, these sequences show the master of stop-motion at the height of his talents. Mercifully, Twilight Time didn’t digitally paint over these stop-motion animations, understanding that—in addition to being a crime against the work of one of the cinema’s greatest magicians—the reason why films like Mysterious Island work is because they embrace the artifice of their own stories. To inject more photorealistic creatures would have been to miss the point.
But Harryhausen did more than just bring these creatures to life: he also captained a small army of matte painters and model builders to bring the fantastic locations to shimmering life. And while the model work—especially the giant model of a certain famous submarine by a certain famous sea captain—excels, many of the composite shots involving the matte paintings aren’t up to snuff. Some of them, particularly the ones involving the castaways scaling the sheer rock cliff with the twin caves they will eventually inhabit, seem more the work of Bert I. Gordon, the man who once replicated giant locusts in Beginning of the End (1957) by filming grasshoppers crawling on flat photographs of buildings. The opening 15-20 minutes where the soldiers escape on the balloon are embarrassingly dark. Even the composite shots of the balloon miniature floating over the ocean in the daytime are poorly lit. At first I thought maybe Twilight Time was sticking with the faults of the original film negative. But then I noticed that the clips shown of the escape during the Harryhausen interview included as one of the Blu-Ray special features were of a brighter, more pristine quality.
So what happened? Did Twilight Time darken the opening scenes? If so, why? And did they make any other changes?
Despite the opening sequences, I would still recommend checking out their release of Mysterious Island. The film itself is a wonderful piece of sci-fi/fantasy with solid acting, a crackerjack script, and otherwise timeless Harryhausen wonder. But I hope Twilight Time gets their act together if they release any more of his films.