Release Date(s)1961 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)King Brothers Productions (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Eugène Lourié’s 1961 giant monster movie Gorgo is an interesting example of the way that on a long enough timeline, cycles of influences eventually work their way back full circle. Prior to that point, most of the best-known giant monsters in English-language genre films had been brought to life via the miracle of stop-motion animation. That’s how Willis O’Brien created the single most influential giant monster of all time, King Kong. Ray Harryhausen followed suit with the likes of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (directed by Lourié) and It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Lourié had also relied on the same technique for his 1959 effort The Giant Behemoth. Yet when Ishirô Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya set out to create their own spin on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1954, they lacked the time and resources to execute stop-motion effects, so they relied on squeezing the redoubtable Haruo Nakajima into some wildly uncomfortable rubber suits instead—and the rest became cinematic history. Seven years later, Lourié would end up turning to suitmation to bring his next giant monster to life, Gorgo.
Still, Lourié didn’t do so without providing a spin of his own, and while the big twist in Gorgo is quite familiar at this point, it still might qualify as a spoiler for anyone completely unfamiliar with the film. Gorgo was produced by King Brothers Productions, and executive producers Frank, Herman, and Maurice King turned to their house writers Robert L. Richards and Daniel James for a script, working from a story idea by Lourié. (Both Richards and James were blacklisted at the time, so they’re credited as John Loring and Daniel Hyatt.) The basic scenario is a riff on King Kong, with Captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and his partner Sam Slade (William Sylvester) operating a salvage ship off the coast of a small Irish island. When they encounter a giant undersea monster threatening the locals, they figure out a way to capture it and bring it aboard their ship. They dream of making real money, so along with Sean (Vincent Winter), a local orphan boy turned stowaway, they bring the beast to London and sell it to a circus. Dubbed Gorgo, it quickly becomes a popular tourist attraction. Yet unlike in King Kong, the beast that they brought with them might end up being the least of their problems. Gorgo also stars Joseph O’Conor, Bruce Seton, Christopher Rhodes, and Maurice Kaufmann (plus the real wonder of the modern world, Nigel Green, in a bafflingly brief single-shot cameo).
While Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla offered a potent metaphor about the dangers of America’s nuclear testing program, Gorgo settled for a somewhat vaguer ecological theme. This monster is ultimately the victim, while capitalistic exploitation of the environment serves as the real villain. The death and destruction that follows in the wake of Gorgo’s journey to London is the fault of those who wanted to profit from a creature that just wanted to be left alone. That ties into a general redemption arc for Captain Joe, who starts out likeable enough, but quickly becomes more and more of a bastard as his greed gets the better of him. He even starts to take his frustrations out on Sean, but the boy’s steadfast concern for Gorgo’s well-being ultimately wins the day, so Joe ends up working to right the wrongs that he’s been perpetrating all along.
Tom Howard supervised the visual effects work for Gorgo, and the actual suitmation work is superb. The Gorgo suit offered a greater range of motion for the performers, and extra articulation like wriggling ears gave it a distinctive personality. Even the full-scale mockup is surprisingly solid, and despite having relatively limited articulation compared to the suit, it’s still far more convincing than the full-size “robot” that producer Dino De Laurentiis had Carlo Rambaldi build for the 1976 remake of King Kong. Where things fell apart drastically for Gorgo was in the optical department, with some consistently poor matte work that undercut the quality of the suit and miniature effects. Gorgo had an extended and problematic post-production period, with editor Eric Boyd-Perkins doing heroic work to thread the needle between Lourié and the King brothers. (For an extensive look at the editorial chaos on Gorgo, see the detailed article by CineSavant’s Glenn Erickson.) Despite the length of time involved in putting the final cut together, it appears that the composites were all done quickly and cheaply. As a result, the effects in Gorgo mix the good with the bad, but when they’re good, they’re quite memorable indeed.
The entire Japanese kaiju eiga genre may have been birthed by American and British stop-motion animation, but it in turn, it ended up influencing those who had influenced it. In the great circle of cinematic life, Lourié, Howard, and all of their collaborators did justice to the genre with Gorgo. It may not have spawned a seemingly endless series of sequels like Godzilla did, but it made a huge impression on those who saw it in 1961, and it’s had a fond place in the hearts of myriad fans in the decades since then.
Cinematographer Freddie Young shot Gorgo on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. While Gorgo was exhibited on Technicolor prints, three-strip cameras were no longer in use at that point, so Young shot everything on single-strip Eastmancolor negative instead. According to Vinegar Syndrome, this version is “newly restored in 4K from its original camera negative,” and the vivid hues of original Technicolor prints have been reproduced via a new High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is included on the disc). Compared to the 2013 Blu-ray release from VCI, it’s a dramatic improvement. While most of those advances are in the area of grading (more on that in a moment), the textures are still more refined, and the grain has been managed better. Given the large quantity of optical work in the film, the level of grain still varies from shot to shot, but there aren’t any issues with compression artifacts. It’s worth remembering that theatrical prints would have had much softer grain overall than is visible on a native 4K scan from the original negative, but that doesn’t change the fact that this master handles all of it well. There’s also enough fine detail visible that it demonstrates some deficiencies in the miniatures, like the fact that the base of Big Ben doesn’t have any interior behind the windows—you can see clear through them to the other side. There’s still some damage remaining, mostly in the form of light scratches, and there are also some fluctuations visible at times, like in the sky behind William Sylvester’s head at 9:49.
Otherwise, most of the flaws that are visible were inherent to the original production. The stock footage that was used looks softer than the surrounding material, and some of it was in pretty rough shape even back then. (There are huge splotches on the screen in a few shots of the ships.) The biggest problem is the optical work. Any transitions like dissolves affect the full leading and trailing shots, and not only did that soften the image, but it also added artifacts. In the opening shot of the sailors on deck after the credits finish, there’s some heavy ringing around them when framed against the sky, but that’s an artifact from the optical printing and not due to any artificial sharpening that’s been added for this master. Gorgo also has some genuinely awful travelling mattes. Some appear transparent, and others lose detail—the nets in the shots of Gorgo being brought aboard the ship fade in and out, and any fog or smoke effects look terrible. There are also some nasty artifacts from the blue screens, like on the wetsuits at 12:40, and some severe blue spill around the edges of objects—for example, Gorgo is heavily outlined in blue in a few shots during the night attack on the island. All of these flaws are a part of what Gorgo has always been, and this presentation simply renders them with greater clarity.
Setting that aside, the real strength of this version is the new HDR grade, which announces itself the moment that the credits start to roll with the deep, deep blues of the sea and the sky throwing the titles into sharp relief. The bold coloration continues for the rest of the film, with some brilliant reds during the London sequence—the double decker buses really stand out. Gorgo’s eyes also glow a fiery red, and more importantly, Gorgo’s skin is properly green this time, instead of the muddy gray/green of the VCI version. The flesh tones aren’t consistent, looking perfectly natural sometimes, and other times displaying the strong red/orange push that Vinegar Syndrome HDR grades are prone to exhibit. To be fair, some of that inconsistency was probably endemic to the original cinematography, and regardless of any minor question marks, this is a fantastic upgrade over any and all previous home video versions of Gorgo.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, plus French and German 1.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. While overall fidelity is understandably a bit limited, it’s still a clean track, with clear dialogue and little background noise. There’s perhaps just a bit of excessive sibilance in some of the dialogue, and a few of the loudest peaks in Angelo Lavagnino’s score do distort slightly, but it’s nothing unexpected for a genre film of this vintage. Some of the post-synced dialogue doesn’t always match the lip movements accurately, but that’s how the film was originally mixed.
Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K Ultra HD release of Gorgo is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. The insert is reversible, featuring new artwork on the one side, and the classic poster artwork on the other. Tucked inside, there’s a fold-out poster with a sleeping Gorgo on one side, and a cutaway diagram of Gorgo’s anatomy on the other. There’s also a spot gloss hard slipcase and slipcover combo available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 6,000 units. (All of the new artwork for this edition was designed by Matt Frank.) The following extras are included:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with Stephen R. Bissette
- Isolated Music and Effects Track
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with Stephen R. Bissette
- Isolated Music and Effects Track
- The 9th Wonder of the World: The Making of Gorgo (HD – 31:17)
- Gorgo: Behind the Scenes (Upscaled SD – 9:52)
- Gorgo Lives! (HD – 36:46)
- Waiting for Gorgo (HD – 19:13)
- Behind-the-Scenes Feature from Waiting for Gorgo (SD – 36:28)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:36)
- Galleries & Comics
- Promotional Image Gallery (HD – 2:51)
- Original Production Notes (HD – 2:12)
- Lobby Card and Poster (HD – 5:48 + 1:47)
- Pressbook (HD – 1:58)
- Photos (HD – 2:19)
- Gorgo: The Monster from the Sea Video Comic Book (HD – 34:09)
The new commentary track is with film historian, author, cartoonist, and artist Stephen R. Bissette, and as usual, he brings the full weight of those experiences to bear while giving his thoughts about Gorgo. He provides biographical information for most of the cast members, identifies shooting locations, and gives other notes about the production. He addresses criticisms about the nature of the lead characters, and points out that Captain Joe and Sam are really pirates who are entirely in keeping with the roguish Carl Denham from King Kong. The King brothers themselves had played fast and loose with the law prior to getting into the film business, so Bissette argues that they were essentially pirates of their own. He also spends some time talking about the career of Eugène Lourié, before closing by reading from vintage notices about Gorgo (including a personal ad!) and discussing its legacy. Bissette refers to a variety of different material throughout the track, and he names his sources, which is always appreciated. (It’s also nice to hear him give a shout-out to the late Donna Lucas, who passed away unexpectedly late last year.) There’s a wealth of detail here for devoted fans of Gorgo, but for newcomers, it might be best to start with The 9th Wonder of the World first, and then listen to Bissette’s commentary later.
The 9th Wonder of the World is a making-of documentary that was originally included on the 2013 VCI Blu-ray. Produced and directed by the always reliable Daniel Griffith over at Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, it’s designed in the style of an old newsreel presentation, narrated by Randall Turnbull, mixing archival footage and new interviews with C. Courtney Joyner, Ted Newsom, and the legendary Bob Burns. (Douglas Adamsson also provides dramatic readings from Lourié’s memoir My Life in Films.) They offer some background about Lourié and the history of monster movies up to that point, before settling into the actual production of Gorgo. They acknowledge the film’s complicated editorial process, including the fact that Lourié and the King Brothers didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye about the final cut. For anyone wanting to know more about Gorgo, this is the best place to start. The 9th Wonder of the World is joined by Gorgo: Behind the Scenes, a brief featurette that VCI originally produced for their 2000 DVD release. While it’s nice to have it included for archival purposes, it’s been completely superseded by the Griffith documentary.
Gorgo Lives! is a new interview with Stephen R. Bissette, where he relates his own personal experiences with Gorgo and examines the legacy of the film. He provides an overview of the earlier dinosaur and monster related media that had influenced Gorgo, as well as the later media that were in turn influenced by Lourié’s film. (There’s that cycle of influences again.) Bissette brings the receipts, too, showing off many parts of his own collection, including his copy of the both the comic book and the novelization for Gorgo. (Interestingly enough, Steve Ditko drew the first issue of the comic, and was involved in various capacities on other issues as well.) He also shows off parts of his video library, including the original VHS release of Gorgo, as well as the LaserDisc from The Roan Group.
Waiting for Gorgo is 2009 short film that was written by M.J. Simpson and directed by Benjamin Craig. Billed as “A Short Comedy of Monstrous Proportions,” it stars Kelly Eastwood as a young defense analyst who’s trying to get to the bottom of a forgotten British program known only as the D.M.O.A. She finds her way to a pair of seemingly senile old men who may know something about it, but she soon finds out that there’s more to them than meets the eye. Unlike the characters in the Samuel Beckett play that inspired the title, it looks like what they’re waiting for might actually arrive someday. There’s also a Behind-the-Scenes featurette that’s a collection of on-set footage shot during the production of Waiting for Gorgo.
The rest of the extras are various image galleries carried over from the VCI Blu-ray. They’re a little frustrating, because not only don’t they offer a way to step through the images, but they’re also animated—and not in a good way. The camera keeps moving past an array of images, forcing viewers to pause if they want to view any single image, and it won’t be zoomed in, either. That’s even more frustrating when it comes to the video presentation of the first issue from the 1961-1965 comic book run for Gorgo: The Monster from the Sea. It does pause on individual panels, but since there’s no way to advance anything outside of using the fast-forward button, it takes more than a half hour to get through a comic that probably wouldn’t require even half that time for most readers.
That’s most of the extras from the VCI Blu-ray, minus the Toys & Collectibles gallery, a brief French language video comic, and a before-and-after restoration video that wouldn’t have been applicable to this version. There were a few trivial extras included on some older DVDs, but most of them weren’t directly related to Gorgo anyway. So, it’s a fairly comprehensive collection of existing extras, with the addition of some quality new ones. Add in the impressive new 4K transfer, and it’s an irresistible package. This is unquestionably the definitive home video release of Gorgo to date. Just buy it.
- Stephen Bjork