Color, 1962, 94 mins. 32 secs. / 90 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by Nathan Juran
Starring Kerwin Mathews,
Judith Meredith, Torin Thatcher, Walter Burke, Don Beddoe, Barry Kelley
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)
If there's any doubt about the influence of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen, look no further than the films he inspired that continued for decades through the likes of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. However, there's at least one film that qualifies as full-on Harryhausensploitation: Jack the Giant Killer, which bends over backwards to recapture the look and feel of his work right down to roping in Nathan Juran, who had directed 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth (with First Men in the Moon still to come) as well as Sinbad leading man Kerwin Mathews and bad guy Torin Thatcher.
There's trouble brewing in the fairy tale Cornwall kingdom when pretty Princess Elaine (Meredith) is presented with an enchanting animated figure that turns out to be a transforming monster at the bidding of the wicked enchanter Pendragon (Thatcher), who has his sights set on her. The plot is thwarted by intrepid farm boy Jack (Mathews), at least temporarily when he slays the now-giant creature, but an additional supply of dark minions is ready to snatch her away at any cost. Jack must confront these beasts with the aid of sidekicks including - why not? - a leprechaun (Beddoe) found stuck in a bottle. In the meantime Pendragon summons a dark version of the princess in a mirror (a conceit later repeated in Ridley Scott's Legend) and tries to sidetrack Jack on his path to an inevitable watery showdown against a raging dragon.
It should go without saying that this film can't hope to compete with Sinbad as a movie classic, but as matinée entertainment it's colorful and rousing from start to finish and exactly the kind of thing that made a strong impression on young viewers at the time. Mathews is a more than able to anchor the film with his presence alone, and there's so much action over the course of the running time that the film barely seems to be stopping to catch its breath. It also features (at least in its original form) a lively, infectious adventure score by Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter, the same team behind the scores for films like Return of the Fly, The Lost World, and The Last Man on Earth.
Despite its fantasy feature credentials, Jack the Giant Killer suffered a bizarre fate the following decade when it was given a drastic overhaul (either for TV airings or summer kid movie revivals; the history is a bit fuzzy) and transformed into an ersatz musical. An awkward, overly upbeat theme song was wedged in at the beginning (with bright new hand-drawn main titles) and, more disastrously, over the entire climax, with other songs laughably concocted by simply overdubbing the actors with tinkling music behind them. (Some bizarre slo-mo editing and repeated footage also tried to concoct a love song during a boat scene, with truly surreal results.) The final product does the film no favors and feels an awful lot like the Americanized K. Gordon Morray releases of all those Mexican fairy tale films, with a particular Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters vibe at times. This variant somehow popped up on VHS from MGM, but the original version made it to DVD in 2004 in a flat letterboxed transfer that looked okay but left plenty of room for improvement.
The peculiar home video fate of this film has been charted extensively by Tim Lucas in Video Watchdog, so it absolutely makes sense to have him on board to provide a very thorough, well-researched audio commentary for the 2018 Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber. The disc includes both versions (original theatrical and musical), so you'd be best off watching the original version first, then listening to the Lucas commentary, and finally diving into the musical edition and having some much-needed context. The transfer is vibrant with often hallucinatory colors, easily outclassing the DVD and wringing out as much detail as possible from the sets, costumes, and rampaging creatures. It also exposes the rather ratty nature of some of the production design as well as the uneven but sometimes terrific stop-motion animation, and the 1.66:1 framing looks pleasing. (The exact presentation of the film is still a bit controversial and complex, check out this excellent piece from Cinesavant for more details about the whole history behind that including some speculation about its color scheme.) Both transfers look great, though the musical version is sometimes awash in imposed color filters that look garish and unnatural. Don't worry, some colorist hasn't doused the film in heavy artificial blues like Fox's vandalism of The King and I; it's supposed to look that weird. Both films feature DTS-HD MA English mono tracks (with optional English subtitles) and the original theatrical trailer.
Reviewed on June 13, 2018.