June 28, 2012

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961): A Serious Case Of The Crabs

Starring Michael Craig, Herbert Lom, Joan Greenwood, Michael Gallan, Gary Merrill. Directed by Cy Endfield. (1961, 101 min)

When I was in second or third grade, long before basic cable was even a glint in anyone’s eye, we lived in an apartment in Portland and had exactly four-and-a-half TV channels to choose from. There was ABC, CBS and NBC and the half-channel was obviously PBS, since once I outgrew Sesame Street, the programming of PBS was about as appealing as snacking on celery when your other choices were Ding Dongs and Doritos. Even today, PBS is the celery of television entertainment...obviously good for you, but unless you slather on a shitload of peanut butter, not all that tasty.

The other available channel was KPTV - Channel 12 - an independent station not affiliated with any network. Most of the programming consisted of old reruns like Perry Mason, Star Trek, I Dream of Jeannie & Gilligan’s Island. Hanna-Barbara cartoons like The Flintstones and The Jetsons were regular after-school staples. The channel also aired local sports events like Trailblazers basketball and Buckaroos hockey. There were also a few locally-produced shows like Portland Wrestling, KPTV News and, most notably, Ramblin’ Rod. The latter was a daily kids’ show hosted by Rod Anders (RIP), who showed up in a cardboard boat in front an live audience of enthusiastic children. In between smile contests and prize giveaways, the show would air lots of old Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and Popeye. It was the goal of nearly every Portland area kid to appear in the studio audience of Ramblin’ Rod on their birthday because Rod himself would treat you like a VIP and your face was guaranteed to show up on TV.

But every weeknight at 8:00, it was time for The Movie (what the program was called), and KPTV would show the same film (usually from the 50s or 60s) every night for five straight days (sort-of making it the TNT of its time). Being only eight or nine, my short attention span never allowed me to give a damn what old movies they were usually showing, especially since most of them were in black & white.

But one Monday afternoon after school, while I was sitting on the couch watching Ramblin' Rod and snacking on a Ding Dong (to hell with celery), a commercial popped up advertising that week’s The Movie...1961’s Mysterious Island. My jaw dropped as I watched several men battle a giant crab.


It was at that moment I realized not all non-Disney movies were long-ass, boring stories appealing only to Mom & Dad. Some of them had monsters!

I made sure to tune in at 8:00 that night. I had to watch it on the tiny TV in my parents’ bedroom because there was no way Mom & Dad were gonna let me tie up the big living room Magnavox with killer crabs...not when Columbo was on.

Mysterious Island is (very) loosely based on a novel by Jules Verne and sort-of a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. During the height of the Civil War, several union soldiers escape a prison camp in a hot-air balloon and drift for days until crash landing on an uncharted island. At first they think they are alone, but soon discover the island is crawling with a variety of mutated critters, such as gigantic chickens, oysters and the aforementioned crabs, not to mention some angry, marauding pirates.

For the first four days I watched the film, this was as far as I got because my weeknight bedtime was 9:00 and my mother wouldn’t let me stay up for the second half, no matter how much I begged (and trust me, I found this mutant monster movie so amazing that I begged a lot). But finally, Friday came, the night my bedtime was extended to the wee hour of 10:00 and I was allowed to catch the second half of the movie...

It turned out there was even more monster mayhem, like elephant-sized bees and an unholy cross between an octopus and a snail. Another major character eventually arrives, Captain Nemo, fresh from dying at the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which I still hadn’t seen at the time) to inform these castaways that he’s the one responsible for all the mutant animals (trying to boost the world’s food supply). He is also the killjoy who brings the unfortunate news that the island’s angrily-bubbling volcano is about to erupt and they will all die. The rest of the film involves the castaways’ attempt to escape the island.

Giant monsters, pirates and a volcanic eruption! How cool was that for a nine-year-old? The only things missing were dinosaurs and aliens.

Mysterious Island was the first movie I ever sat all the way through that didn’t have Walt Disney’s name in the credits. For me, at that age, it was the best thing ever. Mysterious Island is definitely one of the titles what made me fall in love with movies.

Of course 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had far better acting, direction and special effects, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion critters in Mysterious Island look absolutely archaic compared to, say, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (hell, the effects were sorta quaint even in the 70s). But I love this film more than both of them, mostly out of nostalgia, I suppose.

I still pop it into my DVD player about once a year, plop onto my sofa with a big-ass bowl of popcorn and enjoy the hell out of it. This is usually late at night because I no longer have a bed time, but also because my wife and kids can’t sit through the thing without getting bored or laughing their asses off. My youngest loves monster movies too, but she was brought up on Jurassic Park (the first non-Disney flick she ever sat through)...no way can stop-motion crabs and matte paintings compete with a roaring, gnashing T-Rex.

But that’s okay. I like watching this one alone, anyway. It reminds me of the first time I saw it, propped on a pillow in my parents’ room. Now that I think about it, Mysterious Island may be one of the few films that I’ve always watched alone.
It’s hard to believe the movie’s over fifty years old now and much or the cast & crew are now dead (though I was happy to discover, as of this writing, Michael Craig is still among the living). Jules Verne’s original novel (which I tried to read once but couldn’t get past page 10) has been adapted many times before and since (including some really shitty TV movies), but the 1961 version, for me anyway, is the definitive one.

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