How do you properly pay tribute to a man whose work defines your childhood? On top of that, how do you write an interesting article about someone so influential that there is almost nothing left to say? Well, I’m going to mostly let the man’s work do the speaking here. Most of the time when you think of a cinema legend you think of a charismatic actor or a visionary director. Seldom do you think about the man who did the special effects. Well, when it comes to Ray Harryhausen, you never think of the film in terms of who was in it or who directed it. It is all about the amazing creatures he created that set the standard for and helped define science fiction and fantasy film for decades. He worked under stop-motion animation pioneer and King Kong creator Willis O’Brien, and in time his creations overshadowed even that impressive resume.
Ray Harryhausen was an institution, and his passing earlier this month was a blow to many film geeks’ childhoods. But on the other hand, it is causing a lot of us to stand up and give voice to something we always took for granted: that his creations not only stand the test of time, but are still the standard by which many of us hold modern CG effects to. I can only imagine what I must have been like in the 50’s to go into a movie theater having never seen anything like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and just be completely blown away by the massive spectacle of a gigantic prehistoric beast leveling buildings. What I don’t have to imagine is seeing modern CG effects and often feeling like I am watching a video game. Stop-motion animation’s usage of live models gave fantastic monsters a level of reality that had previously been unheard of in film, and the process took a lot of care and time that most filmmakers simply use computers to get around these days.
Rather than give you yet another brief, uninspired biography about Harryhausen I think the best possible way for me to express my admiration would be to give some of the finest examples of his work, and go back in time to when I watched these creatures come to life on my television as a kid on Saturday afternoon airings or from tapes from the local video rental store. These are some of the monsters that rocked my imagination as a child and helped fuel an obsession with the fantastic that has lasted a lifetime.
It would have been easy to pick a list entirely from Harryhausen’s epic 1981 swan song Clash of the Titans. Really easy. When I was little, there were about five videos I’d rent weekly in a perpetual circle. This was one of those five. Out of the immense and impressive menagerie of beasties the stop-motion maestro cooked up for his farewell tour, the legendary gorgon was the one that scared me the most.
This Medusa was so much more than just an ugly face. She was a perfect predator, meticulous and deliberate in her quest to eliminate all traces of human life from her island lair at the entrance to Hades. Any man who gazed on her face was instantly turned to stone, and she hunted with a bow and arrow in a dark, torchlit maze of pillars and statues. You’ve got to set the right mood, after all.
Perseus and his men enter the cavern and find themselves facing an enemy they can’t look at who is slowly picking them off one at a time from the shadows using arrows and then finishing them with her gaze as they look for their attacker in a panic. It was absolutely terrifying to me. This was a monster who wouldn’t even give you a chance to fight back by attacking you directly; she’d mortally wound you from afar if she saw you first, and if you saw her you at all were already dead. The snake’s body, demonic visage, and brilliantly animated snakes growing out of her scalp completed what was, for me, a perfect vision of horror in one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, bar none.
Out of those five films from that video store I rented constantly, two of the others were Godzilla flicks. After I began making trips to the library, I found books about famous movie monsters, and found out that my favorite movie monster had a daddy, and that daddy’s name was Rhedosaurus. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms remains a cornerstone of the rampaging monster genre, and inspired Godzilla and the resulting kaiju craze that put Japan on the pop culture map.
The film was based on a short story by sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury about a lighthouse attendant that gets leveled when a lonely monster mistakes its foghorn for the call of his own species. While the story served as a great jumping-off point for the film and provided the iconic image above, much more could be done with the Rhedosaurus. Audiences needed a full-on rampage, and they got it.
It’s a simple story. Prehistoric monster gets awoken by nuclear testing, ends up in a city, and havoc ensues. But the twist in this case was that the Rhedosaurus’s blood is contaminated with an ancient germ that poses a much larger threat than the creature itself. That means no blowing it up, obviously. A beast whose death would likely cause more devastation than the destruction of the city? Now there’s a conundrum.
As much as I love a man in a rubber suit smashing up miniatures, stop-motion just has that magical quality to it. The fact that Harryhausen could literally have Rhedosaurus tear a building down piece by piece or stalk the streets with every part of him in motion ready to snatch up the first fool who got close enough made it more like a real living creature than what you saw in your typical rubber suit monster in other productions.
In 20 Million Miles to Earth, we got a different kind of monster. Not an evil beast, nor a giant predator, but a frightened and misunderstood creature taken from its home as an egg and trapped in a hostile place it did not belong. When a spacepod crashes on Earth, scientists find it houses a strange life form from the planet Venus. At first, the creature is actually rather cute, but even the cutest little puppies must grow up some time…
The Venusian life form, named the Ymir, grows at such a fast rate that it breaks free and runs rampant in the Italian countryside searching for the sulfur that is its food source. After a farmer attacks the creature and is killed (pictured above) the government wants the Ymir put down, but the scientists talk them out of it. This is another conundrum because the creature is intelligent and relatively innocent, but still undoubtedly dangerous as it continues to grow.
Captivity is chosen to be the Ymir’s fate, but it works out about as well as you’d expect in any monster movie. The highlight of the film comes when the star of the show ends up busting out of a Roman zoo and is confronted by an angry elephant in a classic battle before smashing up the rest of the city. As expected, this is fantastic to watch.
What makes the Ymir such an interesting creature is its innocence. It’s taken into captivity, poked and prodded, and then pursued with deadly force upon escaping. In a way, it’s more of a horror film for the monster than it is for humans. Its expressions and body language show its fear and confusion, and it’s hard not to root for the Ymir as the real undergod as you watch it spend the entirety of its brief life either in a cage or being attacked. A definitive science fiction creature any way you look at it, and it gave me a new perspective that made me more sympathetic towards those that are different from myself, human or not.
When most people think of Jason and the Argonauts they picture the classic sword fight against an army of skeletons, but for sheer intimidation and stop-motion awesomeness, you’ve got to go with the Hydra. It was the guardian of the legendary Golden Fleece Jason was questing for, and I can’t think of a better deterrent.
It’s one thing to have a dragon coming at you, but when that dragon has seven freakin’ heads, that’s a problem. Seeing all of those jaws snapping at Jason in concert and trying to put myself in his shoes was pretty awe-inspiring. I’m pretty sure I had actual nightmares about that.
Not only was the every inch of the Hydra terrifying, but the danger didn’t lessen after it was defeated. Those skeletons that lead every Harryhausen highlight reel? Yeah, those are just this guy’s teeth! You can’t win. Manage to slay the seven-headed slithering atrocity and now you’ve got an army of skeletons chasing you down. Great.
Jason and the Argonauts is the very definition of classic fantasy and a lot of lists would even put it on top of Clash of the Titans. I’d call you a fool for skipping either.
Do me a favor and think of two things every little boy loves…
How many of you thought “cowboys and dinosaurs”? The Valley of Gwangi was and is the only one-stop shopping spot for both. I’ve been to a few rodeos in my time and I’ve got to say that one thing that would have improved the spectacle of grown men playing with farm animals would be a real live dinosaur. Well, the stars of this film were, insanely, of a similar mind.
The movie was actually meant to be made by Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien, and storywise is very similar to his King Kong, but he passed away prior to filming so Ray ended up getting it done. In Gwangi, a group of cowboys find their way to an isolated valley full of prehistoric creatures looking for an attraction to fill seats at their show. They end up getting chased out by the valley’s resident Allosaurus, named “Gwangi” by the locals, but manage to capture the carnosaur along the way. This is going to end well, of course.
Once again, we end up with a monster versus elephant showdown, but this time we kind of feel bad for the elephant, seeing that Gwangi comes off as kind of a tool compared to the borderline lovable Ymir. But still, it was awesome seeing a dinosaur rampaging about while cowboys ride out to stop him. It’s like my action figures came to life onscreen and started fighting of their own accord. Actually, that’s pretty much most of Harryhausen’s films in a nutshell.
Except Uncle Ray’s toys were way cooler than mine.
There’s a quote from the man himself that defines Ray Harryhausen’s life and career, and in a way, I guess it applies to me too.
“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.”
Is there any among us who could argue? In a world of buying five dollar frappuccinos just to get the energy to make it through your 8-12 hour shift before getting bombarded at home by 24-7 cable news channels telling you who to hate as you try and sort your ever-growing pile of bills, who doesn’t want to escape to a time when your whole world could be absorbed into a movie full of amazing creatures and questing heroes whose lives boiled down to “kill the monster, get the girl”?
So here’s to Ray Harryhausen, a true legend of the silver screen whose work and influence defined many a childhood and continues to inspire me personally as a cynical thirty-something adult to this day. And to the dozens of other monsters who deserved to make this list, I’m sorry. There is no one web article big enough to include them all, but feel free to offer up some shout-outs in the comment section, readers.