Jack the Giant Killer (1962)
"Now...the fable of the ages is here for all to see!"
When the evil wizard Pendragon was exiled by the King of Cornwall, he vowed to reclaim the throne. He attempts to kidnap the Princess Elaine so that he can bargain with the King but his plans are thwarted when Jack, a local farmer, successfully rescues her from the clutches of a giant. Jack is then entrusted with a secret mission to escort the Princess to a convent in France where she will be hidden from Pendragon's clutches. However on the journey there, Pendragon manages to abduct her. Jack then travels to Pendragon's island castle where he must battle all manner of witches, giants and Pendragon himself to rescue her.
When Charles Sneer and Ray Harryhausen were looking for a producer for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Edward Small turned them down. With his decision to reject seemingly backfiring on him after the film’s huge popularity and success, Small was determined to correct his mistake and so the ultimate rip-off was conceived. Jack the Giant Killer reunites The 7th Voyage of Sinbad director Nathan Juran with actors Kerin Matthews and Torin Thatcher and a bunch of stop-motion monsters in a fantasy setting to lesser effect. It's almost a re-run of the entire story of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad with Matthews and Thatcher playing opposite each other again, similar-looking monsters (the cyclops and Cormoran sharing more than one trait, and both films ending with battles against dragons) and even an annoying leprechaun-in-a-bottle, no doubt substituting for the annoying genie-in-the-lamp. The key missing ingredient is the lack of Ray Harryhausen in the special effects department but more on that later. Jack the Giant Killer was so alike to Juran's earlier film that Colombia Pictures threatened to sue Small and so it was later reedited and rereleased as a musical (an utter travesty of a film which I've only been able to sit through about twenty minutes of). Thankfully, the version I remember from childhood is the original, unedited version and whilst it's not a patch on some of Harryhausen's best fantasy films, Jack the Giant Killer is still an entertaining watch.
Jack the Giant Killer is like a fairy tale come to life. The film opens with the story of Jack being narrated from a book before one of the pictures comes to life and we're transported into the magical world full of all of the classic ingredients of a fairy tale: the princess, the dashing hero, a king and a castle, an evil wizard, witches, dwarves, dragons and much more – this innovative opening was long before it ever appeared in Shrek! This framing device clearly targets the film at a younger audience than before, a perfect entry-level fantasy film for children. The actual script isn't up to much though and simply provides a route for the hero to go from one challenge to the next, though that's more of a typical fantasy film problem than something exclusive to this one. When the monsters and witches aren't around, Jack the Giant Killer suffers from a general lack of purpose and leaves audience with a sense that you wish Jack would hurry up and get to the next encounter.
Kerwin Matthews must have been born to play a dashing hero in this sort of film because he does make a believable action man. Ray Harryhausen once stated that Matthews had an uncanny ability to interact with the monsters he's fighting and it shows again here, with Matthews really have to pull out all of the strings with his physical performance so that Danforth could match up his monsters in post-production. Torin Thatcher puts in another fine performance as Pendragon, full of his usual cartoony evil ways. The two work well off each other although here the performances are more of the pantomime kind, especially from Thatcher, and are a bit less energetic than they were in their previous encounter. Judi Meredith plays the token female and looks cute but she's there to be rescued and that's it.
The main reason that Jack the Giant Killer doesn't work as well as it should be is easy to see: there's no Ray Harryhausen. Jim Danforth's variety of fantasy creatures don't look as fluent or realistic as Harryhausen's and the difference in class and skill is easy to identify. These creatures look like rushed special effects, not like labours of love that have been meticulously animated. Take the Cormoran sequence at the start, where the monster grows to enormous size, breaks out of the castle, arrives at Jack’s farm and has a battle with him. The sequence itself is well-staged and exciting, with the monster overcoming the king’s army and battering down the drawbridge establishing it as an unstoppable force, meaning that its next tussle with Jack should be a walkover. The action builds to a climax and there are some nervy moments as the monster hunts Jack and the princess through the farm. Despite the excitement, the monster never once comes off as anything but a gigantic plasticine model, sorely lacking any of the character traits that Harryhausen used to infuse his creations with. Ironically, this is the only real time that Jack gets to live up to his title as ‘giant killer’ as he spends the rest of the film using the wishes from his leprechaun friend to get him out of trouble.
The trademark stop motion monster versus stop motion monster showdown in the final third between a two-headed giant and a tentacled sea monster again is well-staged but the goofy expression on the sea monster’s face takes you out of the believability. The quality of the special effects doesn't necessarily make Jack the Giant Killer a bad film, but they have a jarring effect of taking you out of the film just when you're getting drawn in. Arguably, it's the non-stop motion scenes which far a lot better and are arguably the film’s most entertaining moments, purely because they’re original creations rather than plagiarised from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The haunting attack by the witches upon the ship is rather scary and may alarm some younger children, as the screen is saturated with an eerie purple and red glow, with the witches themselves being outlined in a ghastly white colour to conjure up a spectral image. In another scene, Jack is forced to go up against a platoon of soldiers are who conjured up by Pendragon and trap him against a closed gate. They're a lot more innovative than the monster scenes and you wish that Small would have done his own thing with the narrative, rather than simply plagiarise entire set pieces.
Jack the Giant Killer lacks the killer special effects and fine tuning which were the main reason that the likes of Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad were so enjoyable and are still so beloved today but it's still a damned fine fantasy film which seems to be overlooked a lot more than it deserves to be. Perfect matinée fare.
Jack the Giant Killer
Director(s): Nathan Juran
Writer(s): Orville H. Hampton (screenplay), Nathan Juran (screenplay)
Actor(s): Kerwin Matthews, Judi Meredith, Torin Thatcher, Walter Burke, Don Beddoe, Barry Kelley, Dayton Lummis, Anna Lee
Duration: 94 mins