In medieval England, lovely Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) is celebrating her birthday, when the mysterious Prince Selidororous presents her with his gift: a music box with a tiny, dancing doll. The prince is really the evil sorcerer, Pendragon (Torin Thatcher) master of goblins, witches and giants, and the dancing doll is really his creature, Cormoron who grows giant-sized and kidnaps the princess. Elaine is rescued, and the giant slain, by Jack (Kerwin Mathews), a brave, but humble, young farmer with whom she falls in love. Jack is entrusted to bring Elaine to a church convent where she will be safe from evil, but en route their sailboat is attacked by Pendragon’s hideous demons and the princess is kidnapped. Jack and cabin boy Peter (Roger Mobley) are saved by friendly Viking sailor, Sigurd (Barry Kelley). Together with a wish-granting leprechaun (Don Beddoe), they set out to rescue Elaine from Pendragon and his monster army.
Producer Edwin Small was known mostly for westerns and adventure movies, although he had a few Elvis flicks and Bob Hope comedies to his credit and exploitation titles that ran from It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) to The Christine Jorgenson Story (1970). Jack the Giant Killer was Small’s attempt to cash in on The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and he hired the same director, villain and star: Nathan Juran, Torin Thatcher and Kerwin Mathews. However, Small misjudged one key ingredient in Sinbad’s success: he didn’t hire Ray Harryhausen to animate the stop-motion monsters. That said, while the effects work by Jim Danforth is more cartoon-like than Harryhausen’s, and hampered by a lower budget, the creatures remain wholly delightful. They include a handful of snarling, hairy-legged giants, Pendragon transforming into a oddly lupine dragon, and my personal favourite: the heroic sea-serpent who saves the day.
Indeed, the movie shouldn’t be thought of as Sinbad’s lesser cousin at all. It’s a lot scarier, with spooky set-pieces including the seafarers being attacked by some freaky, fright-masked horrors, and includes colourful characters like Barry Kelley’s burly, booming-voiced Viking and Don Beddoe’s rhyming leprechaun. Judi Meredith enjoys more of an acting challenge than most actresses get in this genre, especially when she is transformed into a eerie, golden-eyed witch; one of several creepy scenes guaranteed to give kids nightmares. Pendragon’s castle is tricked out with more death-traps than a Bond villain’s lair: magic mirrors, multicoloured explosions, hands reaching out of walls, clunking suits of living armour.
As if that weren’t enough, kids can delight to animal antics as Sigurd is transformed into a daring dog and Peter becomes a clownish chimpanzee. The plot is even more basic than Sinbad’s, but Kerwin Mathews makes a stalwart Saturday matinee hero and Juran propels the fantasy action with gusto, especially the centrepiece monster battle between giant and sea-serpent and the rollercoaster climax with Jack clinging onto the flying dragon. Sadly, the film wasn’t a hit and soured Edwin Small on the experience of working with stop-motion animation. He later re-edited Jack and the Beanstalk into a musical for release on the kiddie matinee circuit. Never mind the songs, the film certainly won the hearts of a few young, monster fans, mine included. Who wouldn’t enjoy watching the sea-serpent whacking a giant over the head with a slippery tentacle? Go on boy, get him!