By the late 60s, stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen had already created dozens of fantasy creatures for the big screen, but 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) arrives in town to catch up with his old flame, T.J. Breckinridge (Gina Golan), performer in and owner of a fading circus helped managed by Champ Connors (50s sci-fi legend Richard Carlson 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), young Lope (Curtis Arden), and against the warnings of the local gypsies lead by the witch-like Tia Zorina (BRIDES OF DRACULA's Freda Jackson), 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 intimating being a fierce Allosaurus whom they plan to capture and feature in their circus act.
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. 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 almost imagine something 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 90s, you won't find a dinosaur flick with better effects, and VALLEY OF GWANGI stands as one of the best in the Harryhausen catalog. The scene of the cowboys trying to lasso Gwangi is totally impressive, and naturally, 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 big hit), but luckily its cult status has grown due to frequent TV airings from the 70s up until today.
Warner is presenting VALLEY OF GWANGI on DVD for the first time in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement. The compositions now look correct, the fleshtones more true and the colors are more sparkling than on the previous VHS and laserdisc versions. The level of detail is also improved significantly. The film source used for the transfer displays only minor blemishes, and grain does crop up from time to time, but nothing too distracting in an outright beautiful image. The mono audio is nicely presented, although limited with occasional hiss coming through. Still, the dialog and effects are clear, and Jerome Moross' superb score still shines. A French language track is also included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Extras include a featurette entitled "Return to the Valley," which includes an interview with Harryhausen, as well as a number of animators from Industrial Light and Magic who talk about the effects and how the master inspired them. There is also an Easter Egg that has Harryhausen sharing an anecdote about his daughter's attachment to one of the Gwangi models. Rounding out the extras are trailers for GWANGI, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and CLASH OF THE TITANS. (George R. Reis)
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