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Alien Charisma: The Creatures Of Ray Harryhausen
Mat Colegate , May 12th, 2013 17:23

Mat Colegate pays tribute to the special effects legend and king of the movie monster, Ray Harryhausen

For all lovers of adventure films, Ray Harryhausen is one of the most magically charged names in the whole of cinema. As a stop-motion animator and visual effects creator his achievements are unparalleled. He shepherded whole menageries of monsters onto the screen and terrified and delighted generation after generation of movie goer.

A lot of the tributes paid to Harryhausen following his death last week have focussed on his awesome technical ability and the patience required to studiously bring his creations to quaking life, millimetre by millimetre, shot by painstaking shot, over days and days of filming. Undeniably this, along with his pioneering use of overlapping green screens to achieve sensations of depth and distance, are incredible achievements and worthy of note, but to be honest when watching an elephant locked in battle with a giant Venusian space monster, or a flock of shrieking harpies descending, it's not a case of focussing on the effort required to make it all happen, more a case of marvelling at how fantastic those decades-old effects still look and wondering why today's fabulous beasties just don't look as...well... as fabulous.

Harryhausen was no hack or mere technician. What elevated him into the ranks of the greats was his ability to imbue his monsters with grace, emotion and personality. Their juddering, exaggerated movements grant them an uncanny presence and alien charisma. They're monsters, things from the depths of the human imagination, and it follows that they don't move or act like common animals. This is something that gets a bit lost with the slickness of CGI and its attempts to make imaginary creatures behave more 'realistically' (I got news for you, son, it's a 200 foot squid attacking the Golden Gate Bridge, 'realistic' doesn't come into it). Harryhausen's menagerie is tremendously expressive. His painstaking work on the merest facial movements creates relatable characters and occasionally sympathetic ones. (Who doesn't feel a bit sorry for the cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? He was cheesed off, man! They were messing up his manor! I'd react badly if a bunch of scimitar waggling adventurers came blundering into my room while I was having a nap). But his beasts aren't all naked aggression. For example His Medusa from Clash of the Titans with her wriggling nest of hair and ululating body movements, embodies a weird night-side sexuality that confused a lot of pre-pubescent lads back in the early 80s.

A most telling quote from Harryhausen comes from his reminiscences about the time he spent with legendary science fiction writer and life-long friend, Ray Bradbury, when they were both teenagers:

“We said: 'We’re going to grow old but never grow up...We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.’”

This goes a long way toward explaining Harryhausen's affinity for his mythical beasts. He never saw his creations as hack work, or a painfully tedious job he was trapped in in order to make ends meet. He loved his monsters and knew how important they were, not only to the films in which they appeared (although they were often a bad movie's sole saving grace), but also how essential monsters are to our imaginations and how important it is that they can cause normally staid, right thinking people to react with joy, terror and delight. It's this tremendous amount of heart that elevates him above his contemporaries. Perhaps only comics genius Jack Kirby, creator of The Fantastic Four and the true architect of superhero comics as we know them today, comes close to Harryhausen's mix of wonder and single-minded devotion to whatever came roaring out of his imagination.

Harryhausen's influence is easy to see. Pretty much every monster movie of the last fifty years owes something to his Dynamation technique, and film makers from John Landis to Tim Burton to Steven Spielberg have never been backward in coming forward with frothing tributes to The Master. But it's perhaps Guillermo Del Toro, with his sympathetic and sensitive handling of his many weird creations, that updates Harryhausen's legacy. Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies in particular carry on his tradition. One of awe, terror and a weird compassion, and one that seems set to inspire generations more film makers and cinema goers in the years to come.

Here are some Harryhausen highlights.

Talos. (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963)

Of course the skeleton fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts looks magnificent to this day (their slow shuffle forward, step by step, before that piercing shriek and sudden charge is one of the greatest moments in fantasy cinema), but it's the petrified Titan, Talos, that makes my list. It's that slow twist of the head that makes Talos my favourite Harryhausen monster. Peering down at Hercules and his mate with a look of utter disdain and wry superiority. The scorn of the Gods captured with a single motion. “FOOLISH HUMANS...” etc

Ymir (20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957)

Yep, that's right, Corporal Whatever-your-name-is, hit him with a spade. That pitchfork in the back thing worked out great for the other fella, eh? Ymir, a captive from Venus, runs amok all over the world like a one-beast pissed up rugby tour. Except Ymir gets bigger in size every night and has even more capability to utterly ruin your shit. He even unleashes beatings on an elephant, in one of Harryhausens' most brilliantly choreographed scenes. Sympathetic and relatable, Ymir is a definitive Harryhausen creation.

The Cyclops (7 Voyages of Sinbad, 1958)

I love the Cyclops. He's such a mean, braying bad ass. Like the worst school bully you've ever met, only, instead of flushing your head down the toilet, he's going to roast you alive on a giant spit. Harryhausen's expression work is amazing as The Cyclops goes from angry, to outraged, to defiant, to smug, to really really angry. His taunting look of “Ha! Look at you all in that little cage!” cracks me up every time. Indeed, so characterful is Harryhausen's work that you can't help but feel a wee bit of pity our cycloptic friend him when he eventually karks it (at the teeth of a giant reptilian beast, naturally). Full marks for the weird electronic score someone's put over the footage as well.

Medusa (Clash of the Titans, 1981)

Though generally considered to be a pretty duff film, 1981's Clash Of The Titans is saved by some of Harryhausen's best work, and also his last. His four armed Kraken is fondly remembered, as is the mechanical owl, Bubo. While the transformation of Calibos into a satyr legged, horned beast still puts the fear into me. But it's his Medusa that seems destined to last the test of time. Her weird crawling entrance (that for all the world comes across as a dry-run for the entrance of Sadako from The Ring), contemptuous sneer and searching malicious gaze still carry a real sense of sexualised threat, and the gloopy blood that comes spewing from her neck stump following her decapitation ensured that my VHS copy was rewound so much that jumpy static lines started appearing across the picture. Medusa is Harryhausen's most genuinely disturbing creation.

Dino-flipping-saurs! (One Million Years BC, 1966)

You've got to feel a little bit sorry for the actors chosen to appear opposite Harryhausen's creations. Not only were they dwarfed by their monstrous nemeses (often in acting ability) but, faced with the realities of green screen, their instructions seem to have consisted of “look scared and poke into the middle distance with sticks!” Be that as it may, there can be no denying that Harryhausen's favourite type of beast was the dinosaur and this fight still has a raw energy and power that put most modern blockbusters to shame. As a child Harryhausen would spend hours in the Los Angeles County museum staring at prehistoric exhibits, and it was a viewing of the original King Kong (1933), with its swooping Pterodactyls and battling Pteranodons, that determined his future path. He would come back to them time and again (check out 1969's Valley of the Gwangi for some prime cowboys VS dinosaurs throw down) but it's One Million Years BC that allowed him to really bring his favourite scaly aggressors to stomping, angry life.