DVD Review: Jack the Giant Killer - 50th Anniversary Edition / Cert: PG / Director: Nathan Juran / Screenplay: Orville H Hampton, Nathan Juran / Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Judi Meredith, Torin Thatcher, Don Beddoe / Release Date: July 2nd
They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Based on the old Cornish folklore legends of a plucky young farm boy who slays giants and monsters, Jack The Giant Killer is usually overlooked amongst more familiar late 1950s /early 1960s rip-roaring fantasy fare such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts with their ground-breaking and hugely-memorable Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monster effects. Jack, released in 1962 and only ever a moderate Box office hit (and not even released in the UK until 1967 when it was fairly heavily cut), is arguably the best and undoubtedly the most colourful and richly-imaginative of this particular sub-genre of movies.
Jack the Giant Killer is a tale of swash-buckling derring-do and fanciful beasts in a mythical historical mash-up where farmer Jack (Matthews) rescues Princess Elaine (Meredith) from the clutches of the fearsome giant Cormoron who has been sent by the malevolent exiled sorcerer Pendragon (Thatcher) who plots to overthrow King Mark (Dayton Lummis) and become King of... er... Cornwall. King Mark gratefully makes Jack the Princess's protector and decides that, for her own safety, she should be sent to France to live in a convent. But Pendragon has other tricks up his sleeve and before long Elaine is in his clutches and Jack must set off to rescue her with only a small boy, a Viking and an imp in a bottle to help him.
Jack the Giant Killer, even fifty years on, is terrific fun, a proper good old-fashioned romantic fantasy where Jack and Elaine fall in love instantly as the evil Pendragon (who may remind some newcomers of Anthony Ainley's 1980s portrayal of The Master in Doctor Who) uses Technicolor wizardry and magic to keep them apart. Burned into the memories of those who saw the movie as kids are the sequences where Jack battles the monstrous Cormoran at the flour mill and the attack by eerie, screaming optically-enhanced witches on Jack's ship as it sails to France - still a dementedly creepy scene all these years later. Jack the Giant Killer's got it all and the pace rarely lets up. Making his way to Pendragon's island stronghold with the help of a passing Viking, Jack find himself battling clunking mechanical guards and sword-wielding arms protruding from the castle's walls before rescuing Elaine and fleeing from a two-headed giant and a squid-like sea monster. But, as ever, love and heroes conquer all...
The stop-motion FX in Jack the Giant Killer are often wrongly credited to the legendary Harryhausen but were actually largely the work of Jim Danforth and whilst it's perhaps not quite as slick and precise as Harryhausen's work - the sea-squid is especially ropey-looking - it's still wonderfully evocative and the slightly juddering movements of Cormoran and the other monsters and dragons just adds to the film's sense of mythological otherworldliness. The film is full of sparkling optical trickery too as Pendragon shoots colourful bolts of magic from his eyes and the scene where he uses the teeth of a statue to animate clunking robot-like soldiers to attack Jack predates Jason and the Argonauts' legendary skeleton fight sequence by a couple of years.
Full of arch performances (Don Beddoe's bottle-imprisoned imp, speaking in rhyme, may be too whimsical by far for modern tastes) and with a script which just gets the job done, Jack the Giant Killer is primitive and unsophisticated by 21st century standards and audiences used to the empty flash of CGI will find the creaky stop-motion tough to tolerate. But it's a charming, rich and innocent tale (albeit with a dark heart beating somewhere just below the surface) and will probably be best appreciated now by oldies who remember its occasional TV screenings from their youth. This 50th Anniversary DVD release, its first appearance in the UK, was clearly timed to coincide with the now-delayed Bryan Singer remake (which seems to have jumbled up the Giant Killer story with Jack and the Beanstalk) but now stands alone as a random piece of half-forgotten cinematic history which is worth investigating if you're a lover of big, brash, uncynical adventure movies from a much simpler time.
Special features: Nothing on the disc but there's a nifty film poster in the packaging which may look nice on your bedroom wall.