Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ray Harryhausen 1920-2013

Ah! It’s like a member of my family died!

Ray Harryhausen passed away yesterday at age 92.

Some of the most cherished memories I have as a small child were because of this man’s work. Can I address him by his first name? Ray was the stop-motion guru for all those science fiction and fantasy movies from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I’ve seen them all, countless times as a kid. Remember the week-long themed 4:30 movies on channel 7? I lived for Harryhausen Week. As a middle-aged man I actually own a handful and DVR them whenever TCM spotlights one. And I try to pass on this example of movie magic to my children. Well, really only Little One, as at eight she’s approaching the proper age; Patch is still a bit too young. I hope with a sincere hope that the CGI she’s so used to, sees so much of even on her Disney and Nick TV shows, has not spoiled the stop-motion, often-black-and-white awesomeness found in this man’s movies.

Where to start? Impossible! Yet, here goes:

My absolute favorite Harryhausen science fiction movie is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Did a parody-review, off to the left on the blog home page there, but I really do love the flick. And all it really boils down to are machines flying around, yet his technique imbues personality in them. Menacing, malicious, and destructive personality. The spinning underbelly, the organic motion of the death ray nozzles. Combine that with their terrible whining whirr, and they are perhaps one of the baddest alien invaders ever.

My absolute favorite Harryhausen fantasy flick is Jason and the Argonauts. Contains one of the greatest creep-out chills of my youth: when Hercules and Hylas break into the house-sized treasure chest and the Titan perched upon it – frozen in a rusted bronze crouch – creakingly turns its emotionless impartial face downwards upon them, echoing through the valley and turning this eight-year-old’s blood cold. The epic battle between the hundred-foot statue and the Argonauts that follow … the capture of the harpies … the skeleton swordplay … the Hydra … this movie alone merits its own blog post or – better yet – its own book!

I think It Came from Beneath the Sea was the first Harryhausen movie I watched. This was the one with the giant octopus – or, rather, pentapus, since budgetary constraints allowed only the filming of a model with five arms. The black-and-white eerie beach scenes (where the cop gets killed off-screen) as well as those arms unfurling along San Francisco’s bayside streets, squashing all those fleeing folks have stayed with me through the years. This movie is also the last movie I saw on VCR. I remember renting it from a library when Little One was a baby, a year before our tube teevee skewed perpetually pink. We bought a flat screen, and chucked the VCR out to the curb.

The movie I watched the most, I think, is Mysterious Island. That’s the one where the Civil War soldiers escape a prison camp via balloon and are swept off-course to an island filled with giant critters: crabs, chickens, bees. Remember the scene where the hero and heroine are being walled into a room-sized honeycomb cell? Captain Nemo makes a cameo in the last part of the film, but by then all of Ray’s animorphs had left the screen, along with most of my attention.

Perhaps the most perfect Harryhausen film was 20 Million Miles to Earth. Recently watched it with Little One. Love this film. Awesome spaceship returning from Venus (how utterly anti-Apollo that ship was!). Heebie jeebies from that egg-like gelatinous thing, which soon hatches the Monster, the Ymir. Then, it’s a fast-paced race to get it, before it gets us … and it’s growing at an exponential rate!

Man, there were others. All those Sinbad movies, as well as Clash of the Titans, his last, which I saw as a teen. There’s H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. There’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, where the bronto-tyrannosaurus cross meets its demise at Coney Island. That one I saw on TCM about five years ago and – how creepy is it when the monster makes its first appearance between snowy gaps in the glacier? Then there’s the one with the cowboys and the dinosaurs, The Valley of Gwangi. Not my personal favorite, but you have to admit – the scene where the dinosaur(s) are lassoed and corralled by the cowboys is a cinematic / technologic marvel. How the heck did he do that, pre-computers and pre-blue screen?

While we were awaiting Little One’s birth, the house all freshly painted, clean, everything in its place, I borrowed Ray’s new book from the library – his life story, the story of his films. Plenty of photos and movie stills. Lots of insights (such as how he managed to get that malevolent whirr for the Flying Saucers). Couldn’t put it down. Think I’ll have to go buy that book now.

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013. Rest in peace.


A brief chronological filmography, with my rating –

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) – B+

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) – A

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) – A+

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) – A+

The Sinbad movies, three of ’em (1958-77) – B+

The Mysterious Island (1961) – A

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – A+

The First Men in the Moon (1964) – B

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) – B

Clash of the Titans (1981) – B+

My loving parody review of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, here.

A reflection on introducing Ray to my first-born, here.

Some more thoughts on his work here.

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