By the late 1960s, stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen had already created dozens of fantasy creatures for the big screen, but THE VALLEY OF GWANGI again reacquainted him with dinosaurs, the subject of his previous hit, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. For GWANGI, the story was not set in prehistoric times, but rather Mexico around the turn of the century, giving it an Old West setting. Originally written by King Kong's Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen had a copy of the script in storage, and it was dug out and revamped to give us one of the finest dinosaur movies of all time, a project that took years to complete.
Horse trader Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES) arrives in town to catch up with his old flame, T.J. Breckinridge (Gina Golan, OUR MAN FLINT), performer in and owner of a fading arena circus managed by Champ Connors (1950s sci-fi legend Richard Carlson—THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON—in one of his last roles). T.J. tells of her plans to unveil an eohippus—a miniature prehistoric horse—in the show, but it gets away during a kidnapping attempt. With the help of a bumbling British paleontologist Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED), young Lope (Curtis Arden), and against the warnings of the local gypsies lead by the witch-like Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson, BRIDES OF DRACULA), T.J., Truck, Champ and some cowboys head for a forbidden valley in search of the little critter. But what they discover is a lost prehistoric territory of various extinct creatures, the most intimidating being a fierce Allosaurus whom they plan to capture and feature in their circus act (and they do, with disastrous and deadly results).
The plot of GWANGI basically follows that of KING KONG, as the monster is captured in his habitat and then brought back to civilization to be put on display, thus, breaking loose and wreaking havoc (it’s also somewhat reminiscent of 1956’s THE BEAST OF THE HOLLOW MOUNTAIN, also based on the O’Brien story). But the plot works, and though most of the action is confined to the second half, it's pretty exhilarating stuff. Harryhausen's dinosaurs are flawless, with Gwangi being one of his most lifelike—you can truly imagine something very much like it roaming around millions of years ago. Although a family film, Gwangi is a mean son of a bitch, so some of his attacks are rather bloody, but this is still sure to delight people of most ages. Until CGI took them in a totally new direction in the 1990s (and hasn’t stopped rearing its ugly, overexposed head since), you won't find a dinosaur flick with better effects, and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI stands as one of the finest in the Harryhausen catalog. The scene of the cowboys trying to lasso Gwangi is totally impressive, and naturally, was one of the more complicating sequences to put together. It's a shame that it was originally released as a second feature with very little publicity (this should have been a monster hit), but luckily its cult status has grown due to frequent TV airings from the 1970s up until today. British-born director Jim O'Connolly had an interesting career mostly as a writer or producer, but he also directed a handful of other genre films including the Herman Cohen-produced BERSERK with Joan Crawford and the Richard Gordon-produced TOWER OF EVIL (aka HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND).
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI has had a long history on home video, being available on VHS, laserdisc and DVD, but the Warner Archive Collection’s new Blu-ray is a treasure to behold. Presented in 1080p HD in a fitting 1.78:1 aspect ratio, colors are delightful and thr picture's clarity is excellent, resulting in fine features in the constructed creatures and the actors' faces and costumes, as well as the background textural components. The image also boasts nice contrast levels, with deep blacks and good shadow delineation found in the darker scenes, and the grain structure is light and well defined. As you can expect with any feature Harryhausen worked on, the quality drops or changes when optical effects mixing animation and actors are on display, but it shouldn’t be an deterrent to any seasoned viewer, as the overall presentation here is simply fantastic. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track fairs well (an improvement over the DVD) with dialogue and effects sounding clear (clear enough to easily detect those actors who were re-dubbed), and Jerome Moross' superb score shines. Optional English SDH subtitles are included. The extras have been picked up from the DVD, including the featurette entitled "Return to the Valley" (8:04) which includes an interview with the late Harryhausen, as well as a number of animators from Industrial Light and Magic who talk about the effects and how the master inspired them. The brief “Gwangi and Vanessa” Easter Egg from the DVD (labeled as such here) is included, and it has Harryhausen sharing an anecdote about his daughter's attachment to one of the Gwangi models. Rounding out the extras is the original trailer for the film (1080p HD, 2:44). (George R. Reis)
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