01 March 2010

FD - Jack the Giant Killer

Directed by Nathan Juran
Screenplay by Nathan Juran
Based on the novel by Orville H. Hampton
Special Effects by Jim Danforth, Howard Anderson
Music by Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter

Kerwin Mathews, Judi Meredith, Torin Thatcher, Walter Burke, Don Beddoe, Barry Kelley, Dayton Lummis, Anna Lee
Release 13 June 1963
United Artists, 94 mins.

First up on the 'Fantastic Dinosaurs!' list is Jack the Giant Killer! Doesn't the name itself stir up some sort of excitement? The very title - a man named Jack, perhaps a man of nobility, or maybe simply (and more interestingly) a simple farmer man who has the power (or mere fortune) of killing a giant! And with each successive baddie he meats, he conquers them one by one, and hence the powerful and egocentric name! The actual movie itself is a tad underwhelming - which is unfortunate given my excitement to see this 7th Voyage of Sinbad Redux - but there's plenty of stuff that goes on in its short running time to keep a viewer entertained.

The story behind the movie seems to get more attention than the film itself. While special effects master Ray Harryhausen was shopping around for some funding for 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), he encountered a man from United Artists, a producer by the name Edward Small. He passed on the project, but when 7th Voyage earned Columbia
Pictures $12 million (a good profit) upon it's release, Small saw a opportunity to get some dinero. Not only did Small decide to replicate the successful film nearly to the T, but he also hired two actors from Sinbad (who basically play the same roles they did in that film) - Kevin Matthews and Torin Thatcher. In an attempt to not get sued by Columbia (FYI: didn't work), the film is a cited as a (very, very, very) loose adaptation of a European fairy tale (which apparently is the same as Jack and the Beanstock?).

In the end, Jack the Giant Killer wasn't the runaway success Edward Small (and United Artists) were banking on, and the movie's reputation is mainly that of its backstory, moreso than any jaw-dropping visual effects or unique storytelling. Anywho, onforth to the tale of legends!

Jack begins with a voice over informing us of the city of Cornwall's history, that it was once ruled by the Evil Wizard Pendragon (Thatcher), and it wasn't a very happy experience. Luckily, a powerful wizard stopped Pendragon and banished him (and his minions of freaky looking hobgoblins and witches, etc.) to some remote island. Equally luckily for Pendragon, his being immortal (somehow, someway - it's never explained) allows him to spend the next infinite centuries plotting his revenge.

Fast forward many years later. Cornwall is flurishing with live, everybody's happy, and the much-loved King Mark (Lummis) is celebrating the birthday of his daughter, Princess Elaine (Meredith). A huge party is being held, and Pendragon-in-disguise infiltrates the party, and gives Elaine a gift - a small creature that walks out of a house, dances, then returns to said house. Well, later that night, that little 'awwww, adorable!' gift turns into a freakin' giant Cyclops (apparently named Cormoran) and steals the Princess!

The giant just happens to make its way to Jack's farm, the farm of Jack (Matthews), a simple man who just wants to live the good life, but then this giant with some damsel in distress comes waltzing in, and what's a man to do? So he gets his sword or whatever weapons available to him, and slay the giant down he does! (At this point of time he still doesn't know the gal is a Princess; he just figures her a hot gal who'd want to personally 'thank him' for his service) Jack and Elaine's flirtation is interrupted when the King and his men on horseback arrive for Elaine. Gracious for Jack's saving of his daughter, the King makes Jack a Knight, and bestows upon him the responsibility of protecting Elaine from Pendragon.

A plan is devised - Jack will take Elaine, under the cover of darkness, out of the city, board a boat, and sail to a convent some ways acr
oss the sea. But, y'know, discretion is key, 'cuz they don't want Pendragon to know. But little do they know, that one of the King's royal members is actually a Pendragon supporter in disguise, and gives this info to Pendragon via a flying birdie.

Just as Jack and Princess Elaine confess their love for each other (in less than a 24 hour period, no less!), the ship is attacked by 'witches'! Blue translucent 'witches' that resemble demonic ghouls than anything else (there's even kaiju similarities), they're friggin' freaky to look at. Complimented with the eerie music and the equally eerie sound effect 'cries'...yeah, I got goosebumps. The witches set fire to the flags, kill crewmen, and blow extremely powerful gusts of wind against the crew, stopping them from attempting to save Elaine from their wicked clutches.

They win, swooping in with a mystical flying chariot and capture Elaine, and then go on with their business to show their new catch to Master Pendragon. Back at the ship, all the sailors just wanna go back home, but Jack, being a man of valor and virtue, urges them to head on and save the Princess. No dice. So Jack and the Captain's orphaned son are thrown overboard and into the sea. The witches arrive at Pendragon Castle and produce Elaine. Pendragon is most pleased with events turning to his favor, and uses some voodoo hoodoo magic stuff to make her into a green-skinned, yellow-eyed demon bitch. With the Princess under his thrall, Pendragon goes to Cromwell and reveals his evil plan to King Mark: vacate within a week, and allow Elaine and him to rule.

Jack and Peter, the son of the murdered ship captain, are rescued by the Viking Sigurd on a small 'ittle boat. However, this turns out to be super extremely day-saving lucky, for Sigurd recently found himself a wee small little leprechaun in a bottle. A leprechaun who can grant three 'tokens' to someone with a honorable heart, which is why Sigurd hasn't been able to utilize the little thingy because of his killing streak. Jack proves himself pure of heart, and the wonderful, orange-haired leprechaun who only speaks in rhymes ("Pick up the bottle - I dare you to. A caution - if you've told a lie, the glass will grow, and your hand will fry!") promises to help Jack fight against the evil sorcerer, as long as Jack promises to release him after his duty is completed.

Jack, Sigurd, Peter, and the leprechaun land at Pendragon's Castle of Doom; Sigurd and Peter stay at the ship, Jack (with his spiffy sword) and the leprechaun (still in the bottle) go to confront the baddie. Jack faces such obstacles as a magically closing gate, and four or five magically created guards ('dragon men') who have a habit of staying in place (whilst wobbling back and forth) when they really should be attacking. Intrigued at Jack's resilience to his powers and lack of being dead, Pendragon grants Jack a audience with him. Simply put, Pendragon is baffled: where is the source of Jack's power? Finally, in a rather awesome sequence totally spoiled by the trailers, Pendragon warns Jack (rather creepily, I might add) that if he advances at all, he will be turned into a dog. Gathering all the strength he can, Jack holds his sword in front of him, and advances - and Pendragon's magical curses are useless!

It's a cool scene, but it'
s strange that Pendragon, a master 'witch' of such extraordinary power, is thwarted by a mere leprechaun. At best, this experience has definitely heightened my excitement to see the Leprechaun horror series. Pendragon submits to Jack, and allows him and Elaine a few moments alone. Elaine's real motive is trying to figure out the source of Jack's magic, and Jack just wants to get her out of the Castle and get to a bed. One thing leads to another, and Jack finds himself poisoned by Elaine, and brought back to the castle, chained and tortured. Pendragon has turned Peter into a monkey, and Sigurd into a dog (an improvement, I'm sure).

Well, thanks to Jack breaking the spell that Elaine was under (she's now back on the side of good!), Jack, Elaine, Peter, and Sigurd (those two still in animal disguise) run for their lives out of the castle to the ship. However, Pendragon isn't too happen, and erects a two-headed Cyclops to deal with them. Ah, but not too fast. The leprechaun manages to call out a sea bea
st that works for the side of good, and they wrestle in a gargantuan battle, with the sea beast wrapping its tentacles on the Cyclops, trying to win. Unfortunately, the sea beast gets the short end of the stick, and is beat up pretty bad - but it saves the day in the end.

Finally getting aboard Sigurd's ship, they set sail, more than ready to go home. Pendragon, pissed the frak off that some freakin' mortal messed up with his thousands-year plan of ruling Cornwall, turns himself into a bat-looking dragon to exact his revenge. Elaine screams (AHHH!) and Jack engages in combat. He hacks and slashes at the dragon (!), it GRRRRRRRSS (!), and Jack finally plunges his sword deep into the beast, and they fall into the water.

The slaying of the dragon, and by extension Pendragon, signals the destruction of his castle, crumbling and killing his minions (
including Garna). Pendragon's spells broken, Sigurd and Peter return to their human state, Elaine and Jack make moon eyes to each other, and the day - and Cornwall - is saved with smiles. Ladies and gentlemen, Jack the Giant Killer.

Minnesotan director Nathan H. Juran, a Jewish-American who was behind the camera for such classics like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) and First Men on the Moon (1964), brings his experience from directing the really awesome 7th Voyage of Sinbad and somehow lazily directs a bad movie. I don't know about you, but if I'm given a run-of-the-mill, paint-by-the-numbers script (read: Hallmark Channel productions), I'd use this opportunity to do whatever I please with the camera. Juran chooses the point-and-shoot approach for most of the running time, creativity slightly peaking towards the finale, as
Jack is captured by Pendragon and the Big Epic Battle Scene ensues from there. Still, I can't fault Juran too badly; this production had a reduced budget from what he had to work with in 7th Voyage, and it was made relatively quickly to get the studio some major bucks.

Aside from the directing gig, Juran was also put in charge of the screenplay. The script, as I expressed, doesn't offer anything new to the genre, although I think I might be too hard on that. These stories thrive on the typical set-up: a Evil Sorcerer, a dame to fight for, and a brave, valiant man with a sword ready to fight some baddies. So the overall story, I can get. It's just a little sad that the characters have nothing more to do than hit the plot points at just the right time, not having a ounce of personality to 'em. But if it was sheer, 100% entertainment Juran was striving for more than a good script, I'd say he absolutely succeeded. This is the type of story/movie that kids will remember - the brave farmer who turned into a knight and fought a giant, a dragon, and a sorcerer. Good, epic stuff, no?

With the exception of the stop-motion creatures, Jack the Giant Killer looks and feels like a film produced with a shoestring budget. The sets aren't that lavishing, although Pendragon's Funhouse is the exception. The King's residence in Cornwall looks especially fake with its cardboard walls and breakable doors. Pendragon's pad just looks awesome - skulls, red color tones to spice up the evil feeling, spider webs, chains, weapons, fire-lit candles...everything a bad guy could ever want to make his lair look villainous.

The special effects are epic in scope, but pedestrian in presentation. Shepperd by Jim Danforth, who tutored under Ray Harryhausen (It Came from Beneath the Sea), there's no shortage of imagination: a dragon-like monster in the finale, a sea beast with multiple hand
s/legs/whatever, and even two giants, one being a two-headed, pissed off motherfrakker. The only sad part is that the cyclops is nothing more than a pale replication of Harryhausen's beastie in 7th Voyage. It's regrettable that Danforth didn't attempt to add his own 'spin' to the mythic figure. However, the sea beast that fought the cyclops was pretty damn cool. Horribly cheesy and completely unrealistic (I can only imagine what my reaction would be like if I saw that image for the first time on the big screen back in it's release - I'm sure I probably would have laughed my ass off the seat), cool nonetheless. The finale's dragon that Jack fights to save the day is alright. Pretty menacing looking, but not all that well rendered.

Jack the Giant Killer was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment in 2004. The flick was basically barebones - the only supplement material being the theatrical trailer, which I wager many a fan will find satisfying, as it helps with the nostalgia factor. Plus, the trailer is the thing that ended up hooking me, so I guess kudos to you guys for including it. The DVD apparently also suffers from aspect ratio problems, as it seems to hop ratios at the beginning and end (the end I noticed). Additionally, it's been reported that the film isn't being presented in it's original aspect ratio. As to whether or not this is true, I'll leave all that technical gibbero to the blokes who actually know that stuff, like DVDTalk for example.

So as I walk away from Jack the Giant Killer, in all probability never watching it again, what would I say about it? If you're looking for one of those tales where an everyday man becomes a warrior and fights monsters and eventually saves a Princess and a Kingdom before breakfast, this is a fine addition that doesn't improve or tarnish the story. If you're looking for amazing visual effects that'll make you feel all kid-like again and believe that monsters are real and slay a dragon, the film will leave you a tad disappointed. But it's fun, and you could definitely do a whole lot worse!

...hmmmm, me thinks that last bit wasn't exactly the bestest way to leave off this review...

Well, there's good cheese and there's really bad Manos: The Hands of Fate-type cheese. Jack the Giant Killer comes from the good cheese.

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