That's right, today we celebrate the birth of one of the great pioneers of both horror and sci-fi: Mr. Ray Harryhausen. His work is legendary and undeniably signature. I am sorry to say that I did not discover Harryhausen as a child but rather when I moved to Austin and began watching a new film every day. However the reason behind my youthful ignorance of Harryhausen is as much a compliment to the artist as one can pay: I was scared stiff of his monsters. Fleeting glimpses of his beasts as my father would channel surf on a lazy Saturday would send me running from the room in desperate retreat. Given that horror films are now akin to the air I breathe or the Hostess snack cakes I devour, this man can definitely be credited with leaving an impression on me.
So in honor of the birth of this genius, I will do my best, meager though it may be, to pay him adequate tribute. Jump past the bump to hear me gush about the man and some of my favorite Harryhausen films. Warning, I may spoil some unseen fare. Further warning, a kraken may or may not jump out of a birthday cake.
The reason we all love Harryhausen has largely to do with the revolution he incited in both our beloved genres. During the 1950's, horror/sci-fi films offered two choices for monsters. The first was to take a regular-sized animal and drop into a poorly-constructed box of miniatures to give the illusion of mammoth size. You can argue all you want about this style of monster-making being a direct result of the growing, collective dread of nuclear war but the fact of the matter is that filmmakers employed this tactic because it was incredibly cheap. Only slightly less cheap was to put an actor into a ridiculous rubber suit that offered one gruesome expression and even less legitimate fright.
Amidst this stagnation in the genre, Harryhausen decided to reach back and perfect a process that brought one of the great movie monsters to life. The film was King Kong and the process was stop motion animation (sometimes called model animation). Using a series of snapshots and pains-taking, near microscopic movement of clay figures, director Willis O'Brien was able to bring to life a more realistic giant ape than anyone could have possibly imagined. Harryhausen continued to refine this process through his work and what could have easily been relegated to the gimmick classification became this pioneer's definable style.
I would recommend celebrating Harryhausen's 90th birthday with a triple feature of some of his best work ...
20 Million Miles to Earth
20 Million Miles to Earth is my absolute favorite Harryhausen film. Say what you want about Clash of the Titans, and I intend to, but for me this is where Harryhausen truly shines. The story revolves around the United States secretly succeeding in putting a crew of astronauts on the surface of Venus and the ship crashing off the Italian coast. They bring something back with them that would probably have been better left undiscovered. The film itself is gorgeous and features some of the best acting in a 50's monster movie that you will ever see. But the design of the creature itself and the method by which Harryhausen suggests its rapid growth are what make the film so astounding. My favorite scene of all has to be when the monster is standing atop the Roman Colosseum and is brought down in a hail of bullets. It not only beautifully mirrors the ending of King Kong, and thus is Harryhausen paying homage to his hero, but not one frame of the beast's rampage seems fabricated or overtly false. The film looks especially amazing on Blu-ray.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a wonderful stage for some of Harryhausen's finest work. The film itself may not be the greatest and devolves into typical 50's fare far more than 20 Million Miles to Earth, but the climactic saucer battles are spell-binding. Harryhausen has always shown prowess with monsters but Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is where he displays real flair for more than just giving birth to creatures. Harryhausen's major achievement in this film was creating flying saucers that had a life all their own, because they weren't pie pans on strings or vague blobs of light. Every inch of every fully animated ship was visible and crafted to perfection. Not only that, but the moments in which the ships are crashing into landmarks showcases just how talented an artist Harryhausen could be. He utilized the same care and craftsmanship into crating each shattered brick as he did into any of his monsters. What this work amounts to is an otherwise forgettable sci-fi film elevated to classic distinction.
Clash of the Titans
When Hollywood wanted to bring the story of Perseus to the big screen with all the grandeur and fantasy of Greek mythology in tow, there was only one man they could logically hire to do it. Clash of the Titans represents the greatest scale and range of monsters of any film of Harryhausen's cannon. As a youngin' I was obsessed with Greek mythology and it makes me sad that I did not see this as a kid; but again, scared sh!tless of the guy's work. From the stunningly beautiful Kraken to the unsettling Medusa, Harryhausen breathed new life into one of the oldest stories ever told. My favorite thing about this film has got to be the scene with the Kraken emerging from the water in all his green, scaly glory. It was like a shining rebirth for Harryhausen as he reasserted his dominance of the art form. And then, as if sensing the dawn of computer graphics, Harryhausen faded into the mist and did not make another film. So Clash of the Titans ultimately became his fond farewell to the beasts and monsters that had made him so beloved.