Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I might have dropped a hint or two in these pages about movies we plan to watch a little down the line. One of these, a little later this year, is At the Earth’s Core. But I felt I’d be doing our son a disservice by not introducing him to the concept by way of the fellow who popularized traveling down below into worlds of crystal caverns, luminescent algae or rock formations, and big monsters.

We had a quick recap about the author Jules Verne before beginning the lengthy 1959 20th Century Fox adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. It’s 130 long minutes, and the first three-quarters of an hour move at the speed of a glacier. Five is too young to absorb this material without a grownup; ten would still be pushing it. Much of the material happens far offscreen and is only deduced by the bold Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, played by James Mason. He and his young associate Alec McEwan head from Edinburgh in 1860 to an Icelandic volcano, following a clue and trying to get ahead of two competing parties.

Ewan is played by Pat Boone, of all people. Boone was, then, at the height of his pop stardom, sings one song, and seems to be here mainly because he looks good with his shirt off. The movie also features Arlene Dahl, who starred in several movies in the 1950s, the best of which was possibly the film noir No Questions Asked in 1951. To be fair, though, I really don’t know that much about her. One of the rivals in this scientific expedition is the sinister Count Saknussemm, whose ancestor vanished three hundred years earlier trying to prove there’s a lot to discover underground. He’s played by Thayer David, and twenty years later, he got to play Nero Wolfe in an unsold pilot for ABC in the seventies.

For audiences waiting for the trope of the underground civilization of primitive savages, this movie offers a big surprise: there isn’t one. There’s really not a lot that goes on in this movie at all. It’s imaginative and very nicely designed, but there’s not a great deal of conflict. What we do see is resolved really quickly. There’s a little promise during the very long opening sequence that Mason and Dahl will be at loggerheads, but it proves to be about a sixty second delay before the inevitable “you can’t come with us! you’re a woman!” scene.

There’s a brief moment during the expedition where Boone and Dahl make goo-goo eyes at each other before she reminds him that he has a young lady waiting back in Scotland. She’s played by Diane Baker, who went on to have a massively successful career but is totally wasted here. It’s interesting, though, that the script explains that this expedition goes on for many months, at least ten. One of the movie’s many flaws is that the production doesn’t really show this by showing the actors’ hair growing from scene to scene. Ten months and they’re a bit bedraggled, and Boone and the other young fellow lose their shirts, but I don’t buy that they even packed enough provisions for that long, much less felt it.

To be honest, the movie really does mark time waiting for the monsters. Here’s the most likely reason that Land of the Lost‘s third season producer decided that Torchy, their fire-breathing dimetrodon, would be the size of a bus: because there are a half-dozen gigantic dimetrodons hanging out on the beach of an underground ocean.

You’ll forgive the lack of a photo. The dinosaurs are iguanas with sails glued to their backs and they’re either shot without any point of reference to make them appear gigantic, or in a matte shot so distant that they don’t have any detail, so the screencaps all look lousy. Later on in the film, there’s a salamander or something given the same treatment. They don’t do special effects like that anymore, do they? Frankly, I’d have preferred somebody have phoned Ray Harryhausen and commissioned him to do these in stop-motion.

As I implied earlier, this was far from our son’s favorite film. He struggled gamely through the long, long setup, and lost interest for the most part. He played with a favorite Lego “Mixel” while the heroes get separated, and finally started paying attention when a dinosaur spots them in the cave full of giant mushrooms. The monsters were very successful, but they were the only things here that were. Well, we’ve one or two more trips into the center of the Earth to come. Maybe they’ll go over better.

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Fifteen years after making the first, and, to most people, the definitive Sinbad movie, Ray Harryhausen was back with a movie that many seem to suggest is one of the lesser films in his career. But man alive, I think it’s terrific. It may not be as great as Jason and the Argonauts – what is? – but I enjoyed this even more than the original Sinbad movie, and John Phillip Law, who plays Sinbad in this one, is really fun.

I casually mentioned to our son before we sat down this morning that he should pay attention to two of the actors in particular. Tom Baker, of course, we’ll be seeing much more of in the future. Here, he plays the villainous Prince Koura, an evil magician with designs on the throne of Marabia and far more, and he’s really fun. At no point does Koura do anything heroic or appear as anything other than a black-hearted sorcerer. He’s completely hypnotic, and it beggars belief that he was so short of work in 1973 that he was thinking about calling it quits. Eight years later, work would be a little scarce because of typecasting and something of an industry reputation for being, shall we say, mercurial and temperamental, but every casting director in London should have been phoning him in ’73.

And then there’s Caroline Munro, and I’m planning to see her at least twice more for this blog this year, and possibly a couple more times if I decide to write about James Bond and Hammer movies down the line, when our son’s a little older. I think she was one of the most gorgeous actresses around in the seventies, and I’d watch her in anything, so it’s kind of helpful that she kept making such fun movies that decade.

One of those Hammer films was Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, which was among those films that Brian Clemens made during his brief period working in features between his TV series The Avengers and Thriller. Since Munro was under contract with Hammer at the time, Clemens was encouraged to cast her in Kronos, and was so impressed with her that while he was working on the story for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Scheer, he lobbied for her to take the lead female role. Honestly, there’s not a great deal to her part here, but she looks terrific.

The most curious casting, though, is Sinbad himself. John Phillip Law had been earmarked for greatness just a few years before this, and in 1968 alone had starred in three different cult films: Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, and Skidoo. But while these odd films have fans today, at the time, they were all box office bombs. He was a sex symbol, but his career had stalled. This film was a hit, but it didn’t get him any meaty roles. He worked through the seventies, but mainly in cheap Italian action movies. I think it’s a shame that he didn’t come back for the next Sinbad movie four years later.

But you want to know about the special effects and what our son thought. As befits a Harryhausen movie, anything can happen here, and some of it is completely unpredictable. Other things are ever-so-gently telegraphed by what we know from previous Harryhausen films and what we’ve seen Koura do. I was unfamiliar with this movie and didn’t even look at the package art with more than a glance because I dislike spoilers so much. This wasn’t a case like Jason and the Argonauts where I spent the entire film waiting for that mob of skeletons to get reanimated. When Koura and his henchman get kidnapped by a green-painted tribe of cultists who worship Kali, they make the horrible mistake of bringing him into a cave with a ten-foot tall statue of their goddess, made of stone and with six arms. She’s there on the cover of the DVD, but that’s not why I knew she’d come to life. It’s the way the camera let me know it was coming.

Our son’s favorite monsters, meanwhile, were a pair of hideous, winged “spies,” brought to life from paper and Koura’s blood. His favorite scenes were the two bits where these creatures were killed. He especially loved seeing the second one brought down.

Overall, this whole film was one of the best and most entertaining scary experiences that he’s ever had. He says that he really liked this movie, but insists that it was not exciting. It was just plain scary, full stop. Between all of the monsters and the last-second escapes, he was in heaven, but he was also under his blanket. One thing’s for sure: he was never bored, not at all. There’s just enough humor for an occasional gag, but the stakes are pitched just perfectly for kids: abstract “good” versus “evil,” with no ramifications or subtlety. When a new pair of monsters shows up for one of the last battles, and Koura intervenes on behalf of the evil one, it’s the closest thing to a complicated allegory in the film. Otherwise it’s just wild, delicious popcorn made by a very talented team and we enjoyed it a lot.

Incidentally, there’s a very odd little bit of foreshadowing for a movie that hadn’t been made yet. Douglas Wilmer co-stars here as the magical Grand Vizier of Marabia, and wears a golden mask that completely hides his identity throughout the film. I briefly wondered why in the world you’d cast such a familiar name and face as Douglas Wilmer and then hide him under gold for a whole picture, and then I remembered that’s precisely what happened in 1980, when the makers of that Flash Gordon movie cast Peter Wyngarde as Max von Sydow’s right-hand man and hid him under gold as well! If you ever wonder why, I think they got the idea from here.

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Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

You know who has the best rogues’ gallery in all of TV and films? I’m not talking about the fictional villains, but the actors who played them. The answer is indisputably Tony and Tia from the two Witch Mountain movies. Their opponents were played by Donald Pleasance, Bette Davis, Christopher Lee, and Ray Milland. That’s Blofeld, Baby Jane Hudson, Count Dracula, and that mean guy from Love Story. Pure 100% evil.

And on top of that, the three main adult parts in the first of the two films, Escape to Witch Mountain, are played by Pleasance, Milland, and Eddie Albert as Jason O’Day, the gruff-but-kind old traveler who helps the young castaways. All three men played villains in Columbo in the seventies. If you’re like me and enjoy just sitting back and watching great actors at work, even when the material isn’t exactly challenging, this movie is a complete pleasure.

We were having a long and very lazy Saturday afternoon, so we went ahead and watched this classic today instead of tomorrow morning, and our son just adored it. Escape to Witch Mountain is based on a 1968 novel by Alexander Key, who wrote more than a dozen of these sort of light science fiction adventures for young readers and which we used to devour as kids in the seventies. Him, John Christopher, Madeline L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis were my poison in the tail end of that decade. Yours as well, I bet.

As a screenplay, it’s note-perfect, a flawless 97 minutes without a drop of fat or padding. The director, John Hough, was new to Disney but he already had a pretty fun career, working on favorite TV shows like The Avengers, The Champions, and The Zoo Gang, and directed Hammer’s glorious guilty pleasure, Twins of Evil. Teamed with Disney’s first-rate special effects team – who let the side down a little this time – three veteran actors and two extremely good young kids, he put together a terrific movie.

Sadly, the effects are just not up to Disney’s standard this time. Most of the work before the climax is practical effects done with wires, but sadly I swear I see a new wire visible every time I have watched this movie. I’ve noted with some sadness the way that the print quality of Ray Harryhausen’s films always gives away the “surprise” of something magical about to happen, but that’s nothing compared to the composite shots of the flying Winnebago and upside down helicopter in this movies’s climax. It’s a shame for adult viewers, but kids probably won’t notice. Ours didn’t.

One reason I enjoy this film so much is that it gives kids some believable young heroes with whom they can relate. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann are extremely good in this movie, even managing to convincingly convey their returning memories as actual memories and not “brand new information” that it’s time for the script to provide. Eisenmann was still a novice at this time; Richards was an industry vet by the time she made this at age ten.

The memories slowly returning, done so well by a cute effect that sees the flashbacks becoming increasingly clearer as the film progresses, really helped keep our son’s attention. He was fascinated by the story and curious where it was going. There’s some typical Disney slapstick along the way – there’s a bear, and a truck that crashes into a lake – and it’s used as perfect punctuation at moments where the explanations are a little talky or the excitement gets a little much. It’s a really great film, and I believe it’s much better than its sequel, but we’ll watch that in a couple of months and see what he thinks.

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Latitude Zero (1969)

I figured that I’d subjected my wife to quite enough of Eiji Tsubaraya’s low-budget television special effects on Ultraman and should show off what the genius would do given more money for the big screen, and the collaboration of a brilliantly talented director like Ishiro Honda. One of the best options to accomplish this, and thrill our favorite five year-old critic, is 1969’s Latitude Zero. It is a weird and strange movie.

Toho had been finding it easier in the 1960s to find good distribution deals in the United States by hiring American actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn, but this is a rare sixties example of the studio creating a film with a cast who spoke entirely in English. The acting, overall, isn’t too much better than what you’d get from one of their dubbed offerings, as several of the Japanese actors are speaking English phonetically and one of the American actors, Linda Haynes, was new to the business and was clearly hired because she’s cute in go-go boots. But it’s also got Joseph Cotten in the unlikely role of a 204 year-old action hero, Richard Jaeckel as a fists-first photojournalist, and Cesar Romero as the villain.

Latitude Zero is based on an obscure radio serial that had been popular in 1941. It seems like it must have been pretty close to second-hand Jules Verne at the time – a scientist “drops out” of warlike society in a submarine and starts an underwater utopia based on scientific discovery – but it was updated by Toho to give it a Cold War edge and a platform for Tsubaraya’s special effects. Honda and Tsubaraya had actually made an unrelated “flying submarine” movie called Atragon six years previously, and I recall that it’s a better movie than this and one that I should buy again, but Atragon didn’t have hordes of bat-men, giant rats, and a gigantic winged lion.

The movie is certainly flawed, but it’s a triumph of design and it never stops getting weirder and weirder, with one strange surprise after another. I don’t think that it was a good idea to introduce us to the conflict between the scientists by means of a lengthy cat-and-mouse submarine chase before telling us who these people are. This did keep our son excited, but the comedown is too lengthy. Explanations at the undersea utopia of Latitude Zero go on forever, and a romance between Linda Haynes’ character and a scientist played by Masumi Okada (the dad from The Space Giants) comes from nowhere.

There’s a much more interesting romance between Cesar Romero’s villainous Malic and his femme fatale, played by Patricia Medina, but it all goes south because the black-clad woman who captains Malic’s submarine also has a thing for him. The femme fatale wants her out of the way, so Malic uses her as the subject of his latest grisly experiment.

I hadn’t actually watched this film in about twenty years. I forgot that the operating room sequence, apart from Tsubaraya making a liar out of my claims to his greatness with an absolutely pathetic pantomime lion costume (Monty Python fought a more realistic one in the “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch), might just be too scary for our son. The camera never actually shows the brain transplants, but we certainly hear the sound of the saw. Can’t blame the kid for hiding during that bit.

Aside from that deeply awful costume, this is a film that just looks great, with miniature work far better than what the team had done on a TV budget for Ultraman, and some terrific explosions. It honestly never quite rises above the silliness of its concept and execution, and seeing the 64 year-old Cotten charging into battle in a gold fetish suit is a special kind of ridiculous. But it’s fun and unpredictable and the silliness is rarely stupid. Our son loved the fight scenes and the winged lion – it’s markedly more successful when the camera pretends that it’s a giant monster than a real lion – though I’m pretty sure he docked it a few points for being talky and scary. But he also says that he’s glad that he watched it.

I’m not immediately planning to watch any other Toho movies for the blog, but you never know. My interest in Godzilla is as low as it can possibly be these days, although I do fondly remember Atragon and The Mysterians, and I think that The War in Space might be fun to find as we look at Star Wars cash-ins later this year. Honestly, it may be that any film with a musical score by Akira Ifukube is worth watching at least once, but Toho’s not a priority this year.

(Extra special thanks to Dave from Let’s Anime for sharing his copy of this for us to watch. Okay, technically I did break the rule about using a legitimately-purchased DVD for this blog, but I did buy a copy about a decade ago. It went walkabout along with my Terror of Mechagodzilla [another Ishiro Honda film] in 2011, but I did spend money on it!)

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Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

We hadn’t sat down for a Sunday morning movie in a while, but today we picked back up with a fabulous one. Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film of all time, and I think Hanks knows movies more than I do. He may be right; it’s certainly very fun.

Our five year-old critic got squirmy in the middle, and when the traitor on board the Argo, played by Gary Raymond, revealed himself, he had no idea what the heck was going on. But to be fair, Douglas Wilmer’s evil king tapped Raymond to spy on Jason, the true heir to the throne of Thessaly, almost an hour previously and Raymond didn’t actually do anything nasty after that, so we can forgive him for being baffled by the swordfight.

We also needed to pause early on after realizing that our son had virtually no contact with Greek mythology prior to this, and didn’t know who these gods were. I think that Ares and Hephaestus are in an episode of Justice League Unlimited, but other than that, I don’t know that today’s popular culture really references these beings much anymore. Niall MacGinnis plays Zeus and Honor Blackman, in between her two seasons as Cathy Gale on The Avengers, plays Hera. The two of them take an interest in Jason after competing prophecies and prayers attract their attention.

I really like the way that the film addresses a desire to live in a world without the interference of gods. There’s an interesting bit where the Olympians consider the wisdom in striking down every heathen who blasphemes.

Also appearing in the movie are Todd Armstrong, who never had the career he deserved, as Jason, Nancy Kovack as the priestess Medea, Laurence Naismith, who would later manipulate The Persuaders to do his bidding, as the shipbuilder Argus, Nigel Green as a most unusual (but still very effective) Hercules, and Patrick Troughton – didn’t we just see him last night? – as a blind soothsayer. Our son didn’t recognize him, of course. Troughton was such a chameleon.

The movie’s directed by Don Chaffey, who mainly did television work, but also Pete’s Dragon for Disney, and it is one gorgeous, beautiful movie. It’s also a movie where the director knows when to back off and let Ray Harryhausen take over.

Wow. Okay, it’s true that jaded eyes can spot the difference in film stock whenever something magic is about to happen. This actually works against the beautiful modern restoration of this movie, with the blues in particular so vibrant that even in thirteen-degree January Chattanooga, we warmed up just looking at the sea and the sky. Nevertheless, the special effects are completely amazing for their day and remain astonishing.

I also love how all the stop-motion beasts in this movie have their own body language. The giant statue of Talos is slow and lumbering, the harpies are blurs of motion, the hydra’s heads and tail are each doing their own thing, and the seven (seven!!!!) skeletons who attack Jason, Phalerus, and Castor are unstoppable. Well, it’s possible they might have dispatched one of them.

Apart from his fit of mid-movie boredom, our son really enjoyed this film. He leapt out of his skin when the hydra showed up, started chewing on his security blanket when the skeletons attack, and might have swallowed the whole thing if Jason hadn’t made it out of that. He said that his favorite part of the film was when they use the golden fleece (or “golden cloak thing” in his words) to bring Medea back to life.

I dunno what my favorite part of the movie is. Possibly the skeletons. That animation is so darn good. Sure, they could do it on a computer now, but just imagine the work that went into matching all that up with the live-action footage. We’ll see a few more Harryhausen films down the line, but they might all be in this one’s long shadow. It’s a fantastic movie.

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The People That Time Forgot (1977)

There’s a bit about fifty minutes into The People That Time Forgot where the heroes are being led on horseback toward a fairly good matte composite of what’s clearly a drawing of a city that looks like a bunch of giant skulls. Now, up to that point, this has been a perfectly good adventure film with dinosaurs and cavemen, with lots of great location filming in Spain. Then they go into the drawing and it’s all a laughably obvious set at Pinewood, with a volcano that’s not so much “lava” as it is “lava lamp,” and for the final twenty minutes, the ground keeps exploding and makes little Rick Wakeman keyboard noises along with the booming. Few films fall so far, so fast, as this one.

It’s not so much a sequel to The Land That Time Forgot as it is its inverse. That film starts with a half-hour of power struggles about the U-boat before it gets to the mysterious continent of Caprona. This one begins in the icy waters of that huge island, and within six minutes, the “amphib” seaplane bringing our four heroes inland is getting divebombed by a pterodactyl. And it’s a good pterodactyl, too. The winged dinosaur in the original film was probably that movie’s weakest part, a big inanimate prop swung around on a crane with huge, thick wires. This one is a proper puppet with a moving jaw. It’s Kevin Connor and Amicus Productions letting us know they’ve learned from some of that movie’s mistakes. Shame the company folded once the picture was finished; after twenty years as the chief British rival to Hammer in the world of horror and science fiction, they closed down and The People That Time Forgot was released through American International and MGM.

Dinosaurs are a much smaller part of the action in this one. It’s set a few years after the original. Doug McClure’s character, Beau Tyler, had last been seen throwing a “message in a bottle” into the seas of Caprona containing specimens and a detailed account of events. So a childhood buddy, played by Patrick Wayne, comes to the rescue, financed by a British newspaper. The niece of the paper’s owner is played by Sarah Douglas, best known as Ursa in Superman II. Also along, a scientist played by Thorley Walters and a mechanic, Shane Rimmer. And they’re all eclipsed by blues singer Dana Gillespie and her barely-there cavegirl costume.

Incidentally, before this movie, I knew Gillespie best as part of David Bowie’s glam-era retinue. She was part of the gang that appeared on the John Peel show in ’71 to promote Hunky Dory, and she sung a downright terrific rendition of “Andy Warhol.” So see, I’m not nearly as focused on her breasts as this movie’s cinematographer was.

So anyway, this chugs along as a perfectly good seventies adventure film, punctuated by better special effects and an ongoing competition between Wayne and Rimmer to see who can say “hell” and “damn” the most. Gillespie’s cavegirl character, Ajur, leads the heroes to the tribe called the Nargas that had abducted Tyler a few months before. The Nargas are wearing quasi-samurai armor for some reason. I was rolling around some kind of explanation – maybe a Japanese ship crashed here in the 1600s or something – and then we get to the drawing of Skull City and things get interminable.

The Nargas leader is played by the huge Milton Reid, who was usually holding axes and standing next to big gongs without his shirt on in lots of these sorts of movies. There’s a volcano god and of course the ladies have to be sacrificed, because this is, in fact, this sort of movie. The menfolk, including Doug McClure, who finally shows up without saying either “hell” or “damn,” rescue everybody, get out of the Pinewood set and back to Spain and have the big climactic gunfight while the ground explodes making “peee-sssshewww!” noises. Climax achieved, the film still has twenty minutes to go.

Marie’s theory is that the production company brought all the explosives they could carry to Spain, and by golly, they weren’t going to finish this movie until they’d set off every one of them. At one point they get cornered in a cave by a small four-legged dinosaur with a rocky, armored carapace and the camera keeps showing us the trembling roof and stalactites. An eternity later, one of them finally falls and impales the beast. Then there are more explosions and Shane Rimmer yells at the airplane’s engine to start. Apparently Caprona is alive and, unhappy that the wrong body fell into its volcano – well, given the choice of Reid or Gillespie, who can blame it? – it’s trying to keep them all from leaving. Nevertheless, it is all astonishingly fast-forwardable.

So, over to our five year-old critic, who was very excited by all the action, babbled at the evilness of the bad guys, and hid his head under his blanket during an unintentionally hilarious bit where the heroes are trying to rush through a narrow tunnel with monster heads lunging from the walls at them. I kept imagining the monsters on the other side of the wall standing at awkward angles trying to fit their necks through the hole, somehow figuring that this was a sensible way to find food. Anyway, he said that the best part of the movie was the airplane having the dogfight with the pterodactyl. I actually agree with that almost completely. That was the best part of the movie that didn’t have Dana Gillespie almost naked in it.

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The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

This film is so fun! It’s the first of three Ray Harryhausen movies about the wild adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, and it’s got dangerous monsters, evil magicians, beautiful princesses, and a palpable sense of danger. When you’re an adult, you’ve long passed the point where you understand the supporting characters are going to get killed off, but our son’s right at the age where seeing the good guys die one after another raises the stakes for the hero.

That said, I’m afraid that the special effects casualties at first had him more amused than frightened. As members of Sinbad’s crew get crushed or stomped by tree-carrying monsters, or fall to their deaths from mountain peaks, he chuckled a lot. Almost comedic “waaaaah!” noises by the dead and dying probably didn’t help. But as the story went on and the stakes grew higher, I noticed a change in his chuckling, and it gave way to nervous giggles. Sinbad has a sword fight with an animated skeleton in one of the film’s signature pieces, and the tones of his laugh were entirely different. Bunched up on the couch with his knees literally knocking and his eyes wide, kids don’t come more thrilled. Five years later, of course, Harryhausen would ask “So, you liked that sword fight with one skeleton, did you?” We’ll see what our son thinks of what would come next in a few months.

In the cast, we’ve got Kerwin Matthews, who’d later play another iconic role in The Three Worlds of Gulliver, as the hero, Kathryn Grant as the heroine, Alfred Brown as the comedy sidekick, and Torin Thatcher as the villain. They’re all really good in their roles, with Thatcher doing a great turn on the “sudden but inevitable betrayal.”

This really is a “what’s not to love” movie. It’s got great actors, fabulous monsters, a memorable score by Bernard Herrmann, one of those rock bridges over a river of molten lava, terrific direction by Nathan Juran, and if our modern, jaded, and practiced eyes can spot the joins and note the change in film quality whenever a fantastic creature is about to attack the human players, the kids of 1958 sure couldn’t. Neither did today’s. This is absolutely great, escapist fun. Every kid should see this movie.

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Mad Monster Party? (1967)

If you have a five year-old and don’t show them Rankin/Bass’s 1967 feature film Mad Monster Party? around Halloween, then there should be a government agency to come around your house and cite you for neglect. I’m not saying it’s a great film – it’s a good one weighed down by too many songs – but if you want to keep a kid hypnotized and giggling for 95 minutes, then you need to get a copy of this movie. It’s really fun.

I remain amazed that it isn’t better known. Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion television holiday specials are so well remembered, but this oddball movie just seemed to vanish into obscurity. It was something that you read about but never saw, until 2009, when Lionsgate put out a DVD that was available everywhere. I picked my copy up at Target the week it was released; they had a big display like it was a summer blockbuster. It’s such a charming film, flawed, but impossible to dislike.

Two big factors helped to turn this from an okay old kids’ movie into something long-lasting and memorable. The script was co-written by the immortal Harvey Kurtzman, and the characters were designed by one of my favorite artists, Jack Davis, who passed away earlier this year. It’s full of silly puns and “boys and ghouls” level humor, jokes about poison, and slapstick shenanigans like a Black Lagoon-esque fish creature and an invisible man throwing pies in each other’s faces. This is like Comedy Ground Zero for elementary school kids.

So what’s the story about? Well, on the Caribbean Isle of Evil, Baron Boris von Frankenstein finally completes his life’s work, a formula that can destroy matter with a single drop. He chooses to retire at the top of his game and hand control of the great monsters to his chosen successor, inviting most of them – all but a mysterious pest known only as “It” – to a convention at his castle. Most of the monsters conspire and plot and hope that each will be the new boss, but the baron actually plans to pass the business down to his only living relative, a half-blind soda jerk from Vermont who’s allergic to everything.

Unlike a modern children’s movie, which tries to cast everybody on the B-list for voices, the only celebrity voices involved are Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller, who plays the bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, and they are both hilarious. The monster, incidentally, is called “Fang” for some reason. I love that. Everything about the movie oozes an effortless charm, with gags both obviously telegraphed and subtle. I wouldn’t call it timeless – there’s actually a horrible and badly dated moment where the baron’s scheming secretary falls in love with the soda jerk after he tries to smack her out of being “hysterical” – but kids love monsters like these, and they love the slapstick fun. Our kid was in heaven.

I had almost as much fun building it up as watching it. I didn’t let on that this was a stop-motion film for children or let him see the box art, but over the last week told him we were going to watch a scary movie. I gave him one last chance to back out, and said that if he gets scared, he could hold my hand. Then I asked whether, if I get scared, I could hold his. At one point about two-thirds in, a big black furball in the baron’s lab sprouts a pair of eyes and I went “eek!” My son grabbed my hand and gave me a good squeeze to make sure I was okay.

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