Dr. Bob's minions tire away endlessly to help the good Doctor in the name of science,
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Ray Harryhausen

By Melanie


This month, I'm not talking about an actor but a maker of monsters; the maker of the only monster to ever give me a horrible nightmare. I am, of course, talking about Ray Harryhausen.

I may have watched classic Universal Horror movies starting at 5 years old and A.I.P. films around 7 or 8 without any ill effects but the first time I saw Jason and the Argonauts, I woke up sitting straight up in bed after having a nightmare about an army of skeleton men coming after my family and me. I remember watching Jason and the Argonauts before going to bed and enjoying it but this is the only movie that scared me awake and wouldn't let me get back to sleep for the rest of the night. In case you have not seen it, this is not a horror movie! It's a fantasy film based off of Greek mythology with stop-motion monsters. In this film, Harryhausen created Talos (a gigantic statue brought to life), the Hydra, the Skeleton Army (which apparently terrified me) and Harpies (which fascinated me as a child).

His work was superior to most other stop-motion animators of the era. It is amazing how natural he was able to get his creations to move, especially knowing he had to move each part of every creation for each frame, and there was no way to check exactly how the puppet was positioned in previous shots at that time. I couldn’t begin to imagine how much effort it must have been to keep track of all the movement. A creature like Medusa, from Clash of the Titans, with each snake of her hair moving independently of one another must have taken far more concentration then I am capable of. To this day, it amazes me the amount of work and dedication that went into his work.

Much of Harryhausen’s early work was short fairy tales, he directed the shorts The Storybook Review (which contained the stories “Little Miss Muffett," "Old Mother Hubbard," "The Queen of Hearts" and "Humpty Dumpty"), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and King Midas.  I have seen parts of several of these in archival footage but haven't had the opportunity of seeing them in their entirety which is a shame. I think I would have really enjoyed them, especially as a child. His work in these shorts was not as polished as it would become in later films but it was still impressive.

His first really cool monster came in the form of the Rhedosaur in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  The Rhedosaur resembled something of a dinosaur or a wingless dragon. The film itself is a sci-fi classic and a must-watch for any sci-fi fan!

The next big creature he worked on was a giant 6-armed octopus (that must have saved weeks of work) in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Though this creature does not get as much screen time as the Rhedosaur, it shows amazing talent. The octopus almost looked real in that film, much more so than the men in masks that were so common in 1950s sci-fi at the time.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was similar in the regard that the flying saucers had little screen time. As I got to my pre-teen years, it really surprised me to find out that this effect, flying above the ground, was stop motion; it completely blew my mind and, for years, I wondered how it would be possible to completely suspend an item like he did in this and several other movies.

Twenty Million Miles to Earth is probably my favorite of films by Ray Harryhausen. I love the creature, Ymir. I love his design and how tragic he is in many ways. We even have one of the figures at home. The acting of this puppet may have been some of his best work. Possibly because, unlike many of his other creations, this one seemed to be an intelligent being. This wasn’t a mere beast with instincts but something that seemed to reason. This film also has a spaceship and a realistic elephant but Ymir is the film's highlight. I love his dinosaur-like legs, unusual 3-digit hands and completely alien face.

He created dinosaurs for several films in the 1960s. In The Valley of Gwangi, Ray Harryhausen created a lot of amazing, realistic dinosaurs (based on what people thought they looked like at the time) including a Pteranodon, Ornithomimus, Styrathosaur and an Allosaur (the Gwangi of the title). The Valley of Gwangi also features an elephant, horse and an Eohippus, a prehistoric ancestor to the horse. The film is considered a western-fantasy with cowboys and dinosaurs. I guess, in the 1960s, it was every little boy's favorite type of film.

In One Million Years B.C., he created a Brontosaur, Allosaur, Triceratops, Ceratosaur, Rhamphorhynchus and a Pterodactyl with babies. He also created the Archelon, a giant ancient turtle. Even though he created these amazing creatures, this film is best known for the very popular Raquel Welch and her cavewoman outfit. This is a very different Hammer Horror movie than what I grew up with but it is immensely popular. Raquel Welch was very good in it. I’ve seen the movie several times and mostly enjoy it, though it is not one of the films I watch very often.

Another movie he worked on was the very good Mysterious Island, where he created several creatures including a crab, Phorusrhacos, Cephalopod and a giant bee. Though these effects were only used for a few parts of the film, the realistic bee and crab are very memorable.

He also worked on the three Sinbad movies (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), both with stop-motion and assisting in writing. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the first movie shot entirely in color to use stop-motion animation.  He created animal creatures like a dragon, Homunculus, a Griffin, a baboon, the Minotaur, a hornet, a walrus, the Troglodyte, the Saber-toothed Tiger and the Roc and its hatchlings. He also created human-like creatures such as the Cyclops, the Serpent Woman, the figurehead of the ship, Kali, Centaur, ghouls and Harryhausen's first skeleton.

Clash of the Titans was Ray Harryhausen’s last great work and it shows, in a good way.  Every one of the creatures are amazing and, to me, far more memorable than the Sinbad movie. The scorpions are so life-like, I had thought they were actually real and had been superimposed like in movies like Tarantula. I was wrong; they were some amazing puppets handled by a master. The other animals in this film are a vulture, the Kraken, Dioskilos (who only had 2 heads for this movie) and the Pegasus, which is a beautifully-designed creature with a lot of personality. In the thrill of the movie, you can easily be convinced that it is a real breathing animal. He also made the puppet for a few scenes of Calibos that were performed by stop-motion. This film also had Bubo, the robotic owl, which seems to be a fan favorite to this day. Bubo is beautifully-designed and, for a robotic owl, has a lot of personality. The last creature Harryhausen did in this film was the Medusa, who is actually rather terrifying in this movie. It’s fascinating and grotesque to watch the movement of each snake or the rattle of her tail. While the remake made her attractive (does the director know who Medusa was?), the original made her hideous and terrifying! This is the type of character that should send children running in terror. She’s glorious.

Harryhausen did not do much acting but he did do some voice acting near the end of his life in Elf (yes, the Will Ferrell movie) where he voiced the stop-motion Polar Bear Cub, which for me was probably the highlight of the movie.

Ray Harryhausen has also been honored in several films including Monsters, Inc. Mike Wazowski takes his girlfriend to Harryhausen's, a very exclusive, very expensive restaurant in that world. Harryhausen is also the name that appears on the grand piano in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride which was filmed in stop-motion.

I got to meet Ray Harryhausen at a convention in '99 or 2000. It was one of the first conventions I had gone to of that size and I was still extremely shy. I don’t think I could do anything more than just stare in wonder of him and the photos he had laid out at his table, mostly of him working on or with some of his creations. I wish I could go back to that day and make that scared child tell him what he did to me, to tell him that he made creations so life-like I was scared of them more than any other monsters I had seen.  Dracula (Lugosi nor Lee) didn’t frighten me. Frankenstein didn’t fright me. Alien didn’t bother me. However, Ray Harryhausen's creation woke me up terrified.



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