I was looking at an early Harryhausen effort--Mighty Joe Young (1949). Well, actually it's Harryhausen assisting the great team of effects master Willis O'Brien, director Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Merian C. Cooper. When I saw this the first time it left me cold; I was still under the spell of their earlier effort, King Kong. This time around, despite my efforts at sleep, I couldn't help getting up from time to time to enjoy the corny idealism of it all--that a young girl can have a giant gorilla for a playmate, that they can have a semi-sordid adventure in New York where they make a lot of money and dress up in glamorous clothes and even get Joe Young drunk (but--the girl is not once molested--not even whistled at) and still come back to Africa safe and sound. Schoedsack whips this along at a cheery pace, and O'Brien's Joe Young is, if anything, more marvelously expressive than Kong; he just isn't given as grand a role to play, and ultimately isn't as moving (only more cuddly). There is visual beauty here, if you want to look for it: Joe Young thrashing the artifice of the New York 'jungle' club (he kills more than one so-called 'king of the jungle' and no one holds him accountable for it); the young ape sitting melancholy inside a heavy cage; the ape cradling a little girl as they fall from a burning tree.
Harryhausen's Mysterious Island (1961) has music by Bernard Herrmann, and I can't help feeling he's recycling themes here from Vertigo and North by Northwest, among others; still the music does give the movie a classy feeling of nervous tension, of--shall we say, suspense? I was under NPO that night (Nothing per orem), and studiously avoiding the Food Network--and here I see a giant Harryhausen crab, fat and bright orange, battling a group of island survivors, then falling into a hot spring--instant boiled crab, and of course they had to eat the delicious results after (I'd already been salivating back in the fight sequence (And aren't live crabs not orange, but dark gray or green? Never mind)). Later they fight a giant chicken, then roast it over an open fire. Ah, suffering. Drool, drool.
Then Nemo comes in the person of Herbert Lom--and he was magnificent. Wearing a tight wetsuit (over a reasonably slim body), a speargun in one hand, a huge conch slung over the back, doomy melancholy hovering at the brow, ounce for ounce he was a match for James Mason's memorable Nemo in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He felt more diminished when he actually entered the Nautilus, as the limited production budget couldn't keep the inside machinery from resembling Willie Wonka's chocolate factory, but still--this, from Chief Inspector Dreyfus of the Surete? Impressive. The director Cy Endfield, sounded vaguely familiar--didn't he direct some TV episodes of MASH? Nope. Universal Soldier--nope, not the Van Damme dumbkompf, a George Lazenby dumbkompf. I haven't seen a single other movie from this man.
The 1929 Mysterious Island, directed by Lucien Hubbard, Benjamin Christensen, and Maurice Tourneur, uses none of the characters from the Verne novel but does have Lionel Barrymore in all his magnificent masochism as Count Dakkar, who builds a kingdom and a submarine, is deposed, and struggles to regain his power. It's a strange mix of synchronized sound and silent film (Hubbard seems responsible for the sound parts), with strangely beautiful miniatures, eerily realistic underwater effects, pudgy underwater people (they look like Munchkins after a body shave), and a blatantly fake 'dragon'--really, a crocodile with fins pasted on (you get to realize why Harryhausen's stop-motion creatures are so effective: because they give so much more of a real performance).
Willis O'Brien's 1918 Ghost of Slumber Mountain is a charming 19-minute tall tale told to some credulous youngsters, about an hermit (O'Brien) seeing creatures emerging from the woods--the "thunder lizard" (a brontosaur, of course); the "two-legged monster" (a T-Rex), and "horned beasts" (triceratops) fighting it out. Marvelous how, even in these primitive conditions, even with this obviously tiny budget (the creatures are rough, barely recognizable), O'Brien's monsters still show not just life, but personality: they roar, scratch their noses with their clawed feet, chomp hungrily at bleeding flesh. And the grainy, flickering photography only adds to the illusion that this may all be real--or the cinematic equivalent of a fevered dream. Wonderful stuff.
Then, at a quarter past four came a real fevered dream--George P. Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane's The Manster (1962), which my friend TJ had warned me about, an unholy blend of '50s SF horror and Japanese Gojira-style filmmaking. Set in Japan and complete with accessories--smoking volcano, hidden laboratory, wretched caged creatures, impotent Japanese cops, running around (can't have Japanese monster horror without those), the film is about sinister (but are there any other kind?) Japanese scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura, who's no stranger to these pictures, being a veteran from a Mothra movie and the 1957 The Mysterians) invites American reporter Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley) to his mountainside retreat, realizes he'd work better as guinea pig than publicist, and injects him with an experimental drug; Stanford shrieks, tears his shirt open at the shoulder to reveal a blinking eye (a moment Sam Raimi couldn't resist borrowing for Army of Darkness), and proceeds to grow an extra head. As I suspected; an extra head is pretty much like a third leg; more impressive than actually effective in helping the creature defend itself, or hunt its prey. The Manster lopes along at its monstrously misshapen pace, till finally Stanford stands forth before a slim sapling, shrieks a few extra shrieks, and completes the split into two creatures (behind a tree, then one-shot, two-shot, then the two falling away from each other). Dramatically speaking nothing much, tho Suzuki has a near-tearful moment where he says farewell to an especially hideous caged creature--looks like Gollum, only with a pair of fried-egg eyes that somehow half-slipped the pan--that turns out to be his long-beloved wife. After a whole insomniac night of watching monster movies, clear out of my mind with three bags of antibiotics, a few milligrams of morphine, and a couple of thousands of milligrams of Tylenol running in my veins, you can imagine what I thought of all that.