Saturday, September 21, 2013

The magic of Ray Harryhausen

In an era where the only computers you had were glorified giant calculators, Ray Harryhausen was a special effects wizard of the highest order. He didn’t have cgi, so he used his hands instead. Back in those days, you could have the dinosaur, skeleton, or what-have-you actually on set with the actors. There’s something to be said about that kind of tactile input. You know, where the action in a scene isn’t just a video game created by some guy tapping away on a keyboard. Ray Harryhausen made things… and he made magic. To honor Ray’s recent passing, here are reviews of my three favorite films utilizing his signature “Dynamation.”

3. First Men in the Moon (1964)

Honestly, the first half hour of the First Men in the Moon is very slow-going… in fact, you might say glacially so. It’s just a crazy scientist and his assistant bumbling around in the laboratory for a prolonged period of time. Yet once they finally go to the moon, that’s where the fun begins. You’ll see giant space slugs and intelligent, insectoid aliens, all rendered with the loving care of stop-motion. I like how the aliens walk; they remind me of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts… only cooler. The film is pretty lighthearted, and the ending has a comical twist.

2. One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C. is on here instead of the Valley of Gwangi for one very important and beautiful reason: Raquel Welch. The Amazonian darling of the 60’s; people had the movie poster just because she was on it. Raquel Welch in a fur bikini aside, did I mention that fur bikini? Um, like I was saying, the other main attractions here are the wonderful dinosaurs. I’ve always felt that dinosaurs above all else deserve to be stop-motion. Maybe that’s because I saw too many animatronic triceratops as a kid. Anyway, the scene that stands out most to me would have to be the allosaurus attack on the blonde-haired tribe. Here, you get to see a pretty awesome fight scene, as cave-men spear the dinosaur (yeah, it’s not a science documentary). My only complaint with the movie is that I wish somebody would say something and not just grunt.

1. Clash of the Titans (1981)

“Release the Kraken!” Ah, Clash of the Titans. Ray Harryhausen’s masterwork. This film is a swan song to the great monster films started all the way back to King Kong. By the 80’s though, people were getting tired of the traditional effects that Ray used. Star Wars was in, creature features were out. Yet after one watches Clash of the Titans, it’s hard to have any real criticism of it. There are giant scorpions, a two-headed dog, a winged Pegasus, Medusa, and, of course, the Kraken. All of them are gloriously hand crafted in loving frame by frame camerawork. The Medusa fight in particular is astonishing. You really feel that the monster is real, right on stage. How she slithers on the ground, her snakes writhing, as she arches her bow at the hero. Oh, and there’s a mechanical owl named Bubo… he’s pretty annoying though. 

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