Monday, March 1, 2010

5 Ray Harryhausen Movies to Love

With the remake of that 80s Ray Harryhausen classic "Clash of the Titans" set to come out in a month, I thought I might rank some of my favorite Harryhausen flicks. Much like comics and Star Trek, Harryhausen was a huge influence on my childhood, particularly his films with a mythological theme. Those movies had everything - monsters, heroes, wizards, gods! For a kid who loved to read the ancient myths, they were thrilling beyond belief. My only wish is that Harryhausen had made a film based on Norse myths. That would have been fantastic to see Thor and Odin, storm giants, trolls, and dragons. Ah to dream...

I'm going to present these in sort of a reverse order. Actually, except for #1, on any given day of the week I might rank them differently! All of them are highly entertaining, as are most of Harryhausen's movies. My only exception/disappointment would be First Men in the Moon, mostly because it takes so long to g
et going, and secondly, because of the low budget, which forced them to use kids in costumes to supplement Ray's stop-motion work with the Selenites. But I digress. Without any further ado, and presented in the miracle of Dynarama, here they are:

#5: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). This is a very solid Sinbad entry, except for one thing: the miscasting of Patric
k Wayne as Sinbad. Yes, that's American Western hero John Wayne's son up there, fighting giant walruses and giving Jane Seymour the eye. Nothing against Wayne but he just doesn't have the right spirit for the role (come to think of it, neither did Kerwin Matthews!). But who cares - Harryhausen again gives us our money's worth with such creations as Trog, the Minoton, and that funky chess-playing baboon! I think this flick gets a lower rating from me not only for Wayne, but because many of the creatures in it are simply versions of actual animals: the baboon, the walrus, the giant wasp, the sabertooth tiger. Just not quite as exciting as some of the other creations seen in other Harryhausen films. Oh, and for those so inclined , there is the lovely Ms. Seymour and Taryn Powers, daughter of Tyrone Powers. A solid fantasy flick.

#4: Clash of the Titans (1981). A wonderful tale of Greek mythology with Harry Hamlin as the hero Perseus, Burgess Meredith (AKA the Penguin from TV's Batman) as his wise
counselor, Ammon, and an assortment of well-known stars in the roles of the greek pantheon. Really, how did they get Laurence Olivier to play Zeus? Hamlin is rather bland but nice to look at. There are some great moments -and monsters - in this movie; Perseus' confrontation with Medusa is thrilling and suspenseful. I'll never forget that tail rattle! The appearance of the Kraken, rising hundreds of feet above the ocean waves, is just amazing. The remake has a lot to live up to.

#3: The Golden Voyage o
f Sinbad (1974). aka Groovy 70s Sinbad. That's John Phillip Law as the very cool Sinbad in this film - you might recall him from Barbarella (or maybe not). In any case, he's my favorite Sinbad and seems to have a good time with the role. The rest of the cast is pretty good too. I always dug the masked Vizier, who, not unlike Dr. Doom or Darth Vader, had a horribly-scarred face hidden beneath his mask of gold. However the Vizier was a good guy. Scream-queen Caroline Munroe plays a girl with a mysterious tattoo, and is Sinbad's love interest. And Tom Baker -that's right, Dr. Who himself - does a great turn here as the evil wizard Koura. But who cares, let's talk about monsters! The battle with the many-armed Kali is definitely a highlight of this film. Although Harryhausen comments that he was unhappy with the full-sized statue in the excellent book, Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, the sequence is still dazzling. We also get a terrific battle between a brutish, giant one -eyed centaur and a griffon near the end. Although it is not a Harryhausen effect, I always liked the Oracle that appears in a sheet of flames; that seemed conjured right out of my dreams. But that's the beauty of these films: they are like dreams come to life.

#2: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). I've got three words for you: Cyclops versus Dragon! Perhaps the most spectacular monster throw-down in any Harryhausen film, these two creatures elevate this film to a high position, despite the general blandness of Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and Kathryn Grant as the princess. You also have to get past the kid genie, who becomes pretty grating after awhile. On the other hand, my favorite evil wizard of all time is here: the menacing Torin Thatcher as Sokura, who just dominates when he is on-screen. But let's talk creatures. This film is chock-full of 'em. We get the cyclops (actually there's two of them, they're just never shown together), one of Harryhausen's most dynamic and expressive beasts. I love the scenes where he's going to roast Sinbad and his crew! Next up is the Roc, a vicious, giant, two-headed bird, and its baby, who is so fluffy and cute, he should be in a toilet paper commercial. There's a sword-wielding skeleton, and a dancing snake-woman too. But the show-stealer is the dragon, huge, sinuous, and breathing flame. I recall as a kid being fascinated by watching the dragon's sides move in and out as it breathed. It almost made me think it was real!

#1: Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The king-daddy of fantasy flicks. I re-watched (for probably the 50th time) this film just recently to refresh my memory, and there wasn't a dull moment. This film is just a thrill to watch from beginning to end. Our hero Jason is caught in a game of the gods, as he tries to regain his father's throne by recovering the mythical Golden Fleece. Along the way, he encounters the colossal bronze warrior Talos, the vicious Harpies, a gigantic sea-god, the 8-headed hydra, and the famous skeleton warriors. To top it all off, there's a wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann. Seriously, go buy the soundtrack -it'll make you want to go out and fight monsters!

My two favorite parts of the film are the sequences with Talos and the skeleton
fight at the end. When the giant Talos climbs slowly down from atop the stone store-room he has been guarding, you hear his metal body creaking. Even Hercules runs in fear from this titan. Talos chases after those who have stolen from the gods (Hercules steals a giant knitting needle, of all things) and in a spectacular scene, straddles the bay, grabbing Jason's ship the Argo as the sailors frantically try to row away from him! He tosses the ship like a toy, and the sailors go flying into the water. When they reach the shore, the giant greets them, and Jason manages to exploit his weak spot, a screw in his heel. When Jason springs this, Talos' molten blood comes gushing out, and the giant dies, pitifully clutching at his throat. This was Harryhausen at his finest, giving an emotional depth to a character of extremely limited facial expression. Towards the end of the film, as Jason and his men make off with the Fleece, he is confronted by a group of skeleton warriors conjured from the teeth of the Hydra. The scenes of Jason and his men sword-fighting with the skeletal terrors are fantastic examples of the high degree of skill that Harryhausen had to employ to make such scenes look real. Yet they do - for every stroke there is a parry, for every blow received, a reaction. It's a thrilling sequence, and probably inspired many a Dungeons and Dragons game.

Harryhausen not only made some classic films: he inspired entire generations of film-makers and special effects artists. He is truly one of the titans of film effects, and all modern fantasy films owe a great debt to his genius.


Horace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Horace said...

I enjoyed reading about your favorite Ray Harryhausen films. He impacted my imagination as well. My top 5 Harryhausen films are like yours, except I would replace SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER with 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH. While 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is basically a "monster on the loose" film, it has some great animation sequences. The sequence early in the film where the little Ymir is waking up is one of Harryhausen's best. Also, I'm sympathetic to the plight of the Ymir. Like King Kong, it was taken out of its world.

Matthew Bradley said...

I had the honor of interviewing Harryhausen for FILMFAX some years ago, and he said JASON was his own favorite among his films as well. The skeleton battle took, if I remember correctly, four and a half months to animate. I know I'm in the minority, but my favorite is MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, largely because I think the underlying story (so often a mere excuse for the amazing effects in a Harryhausen film) is so strong.

Anonymous said...

I first saw Jason and the Argonauts on TV, in the late 1960's. To this day, I still occasionally have nightmares about Talos!

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