Cool Zone: Submitted for your approval: Monster Island

If Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island and any Roger Corman creature feature from the ’50s got fused in an atomic blast, the resulting film would look a lot like Monster Island. MTV’s latest original production, an homage to the great B movies of yesteryear, leaves modern digital technology behind and marches into the jungle armed only with good old-fashioned monster movie magic. It debuts on MTV Sunday, March 7, at 7 p.m.

For the uninitiated, Monster Island will be fun to laugh at. The sight of full-scale giant ant heads charging at actors, mandibles mechanically moving in and out, understandably feels a bit out of place in the age of computer-generated imagery. But for viewers who grew up with movies like Them, The Deadly Mantis, The Black Scorpion, Monster from Green Hell and Empire of the Ants, this tongue-in-cheek retro romp should induce a grin of a different type.

As with any B movie worth its weight in popcorn, the plot of Monster Island isn’t important, but here it goes anyway: A broken-hearted teen named Josh (Daniel Letterle) wins an MTV contest that sends his entire class aboard a party ship destined for a tropical island and a night of partying with celebrity guests. Carmen Electra (Scary Movie, the upcoming Starsky and Hutch) shows up to entertain the kids with a concert, which is interrupted when the buxom bombshell is plucked off the stage by a huge flying ant. Determined to rescue her, Josh convinces a handful of partygoers to head into the jungle where they meet up with various mutations and mad scientist Dr. Harryhausen (wink, wink), played with hammy zeal by Adam West of Batman fame. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Harrison and Chelan Simmons also star.

The $3 million pic was written and directed by Jack Perez (La Cucaracha, America’s Deadliest Home Video). "The whole movie is sort of a Valentine to all the movies, especially all the stop-motion animation effects-driven ones, I saw when I was a kid," Perez tells us. "I don’t think since Clash of the Titans has there been a feature film that relied entirely upon stop-motion animation monster effects. It was my wish to resurrect it in a way."

While atomic-era monster movies are often snickered out for their effects, Perez notes, "I told the animators and the designers from the beginning that I definitely did not want them to approach this in any kind of camp way." He cites the 1981 movie Cave Man in which the dinosaurs had googly eyes and comic designs overall, as an example of what he did not want to see. He suggests that the use of stop-motion in and of itself will elicit the desired response from the audience. "The technique is so old it’s new again," he comments. "It’s so from another time that it’s automatically hip."

Perez does a fine job of blending the spirit of ’50s Saturday matinee/drive-in fare with that of the modern teen horror/comedy, but what really makes Monster Island cool is the stop-motion animation. Bowes Prods. in Vancouver handled all the creature effects, as well as the extensive miniature model work. A highlight is the appearance of a pair of giant praying mantises. The animation models ranged from 16 to 20 inches in length and contained 152 different parts that had to be cast in polyurethane foam over metal ball and socket armatures built by Rob Ronning and his team.

Another star of the film is a huge queen ant, which is actually two feet in length and flies around with the help of some clever go-motion. Bowes Prods founder David Bowes explains, "We actually took bicycle cable with a brake handle and after the animator moved the puppet we squeezed the brake cable, which caused the wings to move up and down during exposure. The end result was we had these wings buzzing at what looks like about 70,000 rpm."

Bowes says there was some discussion about how smooth the animation should look, considering animators who worked on the classic films movies had to animate without the use of frame grabbers or motion blur and the animation tended to have some degree strobing. To exaggerate the effect would call for shooting two frames for each movement but the team ended up shooting on ones. "Jack was really looking for very realistic movement so we delivered one-on-one, 24 frames per second," notes Bowes.

Bowes Prods. completed 80-100 effects shots for the film, which offered the company its first opportunity to be the main provider. "Usually when we’ve done a film, unless its our own production, we watch the movie and our minute of fame comes up," says Bowes. "But to watch this, from the opening where you see the miniature island with the ship we built right to the end, we’re all through the movie. It’s quite a high to know that you had a huge part in the whole production."

Bowes talked to us from Kidscreen Summit in Manhattan where he was shopping Jibber Jabber, a combination stop-motion/CG series for kids 6-11. The show is in development with YTV in Canada.

Perez, who originally conceived and pitched Monster Island as a weekly show, would also would like to see it grow into a series of some sort. "There’s certainly room for a sequel, and I’d love to bring Adam West back. He brings his own history and is like an icon. Having him in the movie is as important a statement as using stop-motion animation." Prior to completing Monster Island, Perez directed a sequel to the sexually charged thriller Wild Things, which is due out in April. He says a DVD release of Monster Island may surface in October.