(I begin typing while THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD plays and Bernard Hermann’s pounding main title theme bosses its way out of my flatscreen TV’s speakers.)
How to even begin to express my feelings of loss with the passing of the god of stop-motion animation, the one and only Ray Harryhausen? Sure, the man had a good run of 92 years and left behind an unmatchable cinematic legacy, but this demise is especially painful thanks to just how large his presence loomed over so many of us for so many years.
If you have no idea who Ray Harryhausen was, think back to the old school movies you saw that took you to fantastical landscapes teeming with mythic beasts of myriad shapes and sizes (with a few extra-terrestrials included for variety). A good number of those films featured stop-motion animation painstakingly wrought by Harryhausen, and those creations were as magical as the sorcery encountered in the narratives. The man spent weeks and months of excruciatingly time-consuming frame-by-frame manipulations that rendered his lovingly-crafted foam rubber and armature models into living, breathing, rampaging characters, the memories of which stick in the viewer’s mind long after the house lights have come up or the DVD is removed from the player and returned to its plastic clamshell packaging.
During my often-lonely childhood, I devoured old sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies whenever they aired on TV in those pre-cable days, with my favorite fare being anything featuring monsters. I was simply crazy for monsters and the bigger they were, the better, with their anti-social, destructive mayhem perhaps allowing me to process my own feelings of powerlessness and anger. I’m not certain I saw any of Harryhausen’s movies on one of those blessed local television showcases for old flicks, but I have carved-in-stone memories of seeing THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) on the big screen during its initial release. The TV commercial come-ons for the film caught my eye like a poorly cast three-pronged fishhook, so I had no intention of missing such a spectacle.
Black magic at its most lethal: Kali enters the conflict.
As I settled into the indoor nighttime of Westport, Connecticut’s Post Cinema, my impressionable eight-year-old self was simultaneously transported and utterly blown away by the film’s fantasy quest that thrust daring seafarer Sinbad into direct, terrifying conflict with an evil sorcerer whose powers commanded an assortment of horrors. A living juggernaut of a ship’s solid wooden figurehead, a bat-like spy in the form of a parrot-sized homunculus, and an agile, sword-wielding stone statue of the six-armed goddess Kali all strutted their fairytale stuff across the silver screen, along with a griffin and a cyclopean centaur, to greatly affect the mind of a child who longed to be anywhere other than where fate had cast him in the wake of a move from one coast to another. (The presence of smokin’-hot Caroline Munro as a bosomy slave girl was also a considerable plus and helped open my mind in other notable ways.) Upon leaving the theater, I was a kid transformed, now infused with a burning hunger for more fantastic cinema bearing the mark of this wizard named Harryhausen.
Having seen the restored, uncensored version of the original KING KONG (1933) earlier that year — the film that over the subsequent decades asserted itself in my consciousness as my all-time favorite movie — I noted many similarities in that film’s animated monsters and how they moved/emoted when compared to what Harryhausen had wrought, so it came as no surprise when I discovered that Harryhausen had seen KONG during its first run. That significant formative experience set him on his life’s path and led him to apprentice under Willis O’Brien, the man who animated King Kong and his numerous prehistoric opponents. (At the time I knew who Willis O’Brien was but I did not truly dig deep into his history until a year later, when I wrote a detailed and passionate report on the making of KING KONG for a 4th grade assignment. Used to her students turning in essays on sports figures and TV stars, my teacher was rather surprised by that one.)
The second step in my Harryhausen education came during a series of weekend theatrical matinees that ran during my ninth year. Each week, Fairfield, Connecticut’s Community Theater screened double and triple-features of old children’s films that parents could drop their kids off at and leave them there all day, and the weekly fare featured mostly cheapjack time-wasters like the culled from Swedish television Pippi Longstocking films (which looked cheap and shoddy even to us under-tens; the books were infinitely better), an occasional 1960’s Italian superhero movie, zero-budget dubbed Mexican imports from schlockmeister K. Gordon Murray, and the occasional Toho giant monster city-stomper to liven things up (those always went over quite well), and it was at one of those matinees that I first encountered THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD.
Considered by many to be the finest fantasy film ever made — an opinion I disagree with in favor of the 1940 version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD — 7th VOYAGE is a visually-stunning, colorful, exciting, and just plain balls-out fun Arabian Nights-style adventure yarn, and it is arguably the first feature that really allowed Harryhausen the ideal showcase for his singular talents.
The Cyclops, aka the garden variety fauna of the island of Colossa.
The monsters that populate the remote island of Colossa (I love that name!) were gigantic, aggressive, and ravenous, and Harryhausen imbues each with a fleshy, palpable urgency that left other such 1950’s fare in the dust. While perfectly suitable for all ages, the encounters with creatures like the Cyclops (once seen, never forgotten, and perhaps the film's signature monster), the two-headed roc, the sword-slinging skeleton warrior, the princess’s handmaiden who is transformed into a disturbing, writhing snake-woman (until the transformation goes horribly wrong), and that poor, beautiful dragon were all scary as hell in a child-friendly way.
Coupled with the lush fantasy of Arabian opulence from a bygone era, THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is the rare fantastic yarn that hits every note precisely, resulting in one of the very few absolutely perfect fantasy movies. It’s a classic for a reason and that reason’s name is Ray Harryhausen.
Another of those Community Theater weekend matinees brought the eager kiddie audience the epic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), and minds that had already been blown by Sinbad’s Arabian exploits were further expanded by Jason’s excursion into Greek mythology. I’d been a hardcore Greek mythology buff since I was seven years old, so I was more than ready for a film of JASON’s caliber, and what I got from it exceeded even my wildest expectations. Crammed from top to bottom with gods and monsters and bolstered by a solid script from Greek mythology expert Beverly Cross, the film is an experience on par with THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and it’s kind of impossible to truly determine which is a better film. If you’re a Harryhausen fan, it’s likely that either 7th VOYAGE or JASON is your favorite of his works, and I’ve seen the debate as to the comparative merits of both movies get quite heated. I personally used to lean more firmly into the camp supporting JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, but I now have to grudgingly admit that THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD strikes me as the superior film, simply by virtue of it having a complete narrative. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, kickass though it certainly is, reaches its climax with the successful heist of the Golden Fleece but abruptly comes to an end shortly thereafter, leaving all of the other hanging plot threads unresolved with hints of a possible sequel that never came. But that’s all apples and oranges.
The monsters in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS are all compelling and brilliantly realized, but the true classics therein are the enormous metal titan, Talos, and the group of skeleton warriors that give Jason and his fellows one hell of a fight (which amazingly eclipses the set-to with the lone skeleton combatant in 7TH VOYAGE). That skeleton battle is now hailed as one of the greatest moments in any film ever made, and its impact has to be experienced on the big screen to truly get what a big deal it is. The same can be said of the reveal of Talos, the sequence that was the first movie moment to elicit an exclamation of “HOLY SHIT!!!” from me.
The horror of Talos.
By the mid-1970’s, Harryhausen was in his mid-fifties and slowing down, be he continued to animate. Between seeing THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD in the theater and the release of SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER (1977), I managed to see all of Harryhausen’s prior films on television and researched the hows and whys that went into their creation. Some were better than others and all were of interest and entertaining, but the days of Harryhausen’s brand of entertainment were numbered and the release of STAR WARS in May of 1977 ushered in a new era of special effects extravaganzas, films crafted by artists who became effects wizards thanks to their budding imaginations being fueled by Harryhausen, an innovator those craftsman spoke of with unabashed reverence.
Following the middling results of SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, Harryhausen’s final film, CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), was a return to the realms of Greek mythology, and while beloved by many who saw it as impressionable youngsters during its initial release, it doesn’t hold a candle to the sheer wonders found in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (which is admittedly one hell of a hard act to follow). It is entertaining, though, and the sequence in the lair of Medusa is one of Harryhausen’s incontestable masterpieces. The design of Medusa largely deviates from her classical iteration, but the changes made all worked spectacularly to create one of cinema’s most horrific and memorable monsters. The sequence is a tour de force of eerie lighting (Medusa’s lair is illuminated by flickering torches), use of silence against which the monster’s rattling tail becomes undeniably ominous, and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Even in the era of movie spectacles like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), it is beyond my powers of reasoning to ponder just how CLASH OF THE TITANS didn’t garner the visual effects Oscar for the Medusa sequence. Even if Medusa had been the only monster in the movie, it would have been worth sitting through the entire film just to see her.
CLASH OF THE TITANS' Medusa: a tour de force of a swan song.
After CLASH OF THE TITANS, Harryhausen retired, which only made sense because, seriously, where do you go after Medusa? He occasionally showed up at conventions and retrospectives of his work, and I was fortunate enough to meet the man twice.
The first of those meetings occurred at a Dragon Con in Atlanta during the late 1990’s, where he was doings signings and a slideshow presentation on his career. During that talk, he discussed his work and I swear you could have heard a pin drop as the lecture hall packed with fans hung on his every utterance. He even brought along the actual puppets of the ghouls from SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER, the living figurehead from THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and sword fighting skeleton from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and when he set them upon the long table, the throng of camera-wielding fans was at the ready. To fans of his oeuvre, seeing those figures was like bearing witness to holy relics.
When the presentation concluded, I fought my way through the tumult of the con’s signing area and, armed with my VHS copy of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, made a beeline toward where Harryhasuen was to begin signing. As I approached, I expected a line of fans that would rival the exodus scene from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (in terms of both sheer volume and imagined stench). When I arrived at the allotted table, there sat Ray Harryhausen himself, one of the most revered living gods in the entire history of geekdom, with naught but two fans seeking his autograph, and otherwise ignored while there were other allegedly greater luminaries to meet. Yes, you read that right. ONLY. TWO. FANS. Appalled by the lack of interest and respect he’d received, I went up to him and did my best to keep my undying admiration and adoration to a reasonable enough level of expression to be able to have a coherent conversation with him while he signed my tape’s box and an 8x10 of himself and some of his creations.
That photo hung framed on my wall for years, and is now filed in a handsome leather presentation binder with my other autographed photos. (I put it away to prevent it fading.)
Harryhausen bore the aspect of a beloved uncle or grandfather, his voice all kindness and mellow tones, and like one would expect from a storyteller of his magnitude, the anecdotes about his career and interests flowed from him like a river. But the best part of all of that was when I mentioned how the original KING KONG was my all-time favorite movie, Harryhausen’s eyes lit up and we spent the next half hour geeking out like kids over how much we loved that film. Getting to geek out with my idol over our mutual favorite film is one of the very small handful of moments in my life where everything seemed right in the world, and it is a cherished memory that I will hold dear in my heart and mind until the day when I no longer draw breath.
Then came the shocking moment when he told me he’d finished writing an exhaustive autobiographical coffee table book, but he expressed dismay at not being able to find a publisher for it. Yes, you read that right. Ray effin’ Harryhausen kept having his lovingly-prepared, loaded-to-the-gills book rejected due to “perceived lack of interest.”
Yeah. Let that one sink in for a moment.
Outraged, I told him I had a friend in attendance at the con who was a publisher and I’d be happy introduce them to one another. Ray was pleased that I wanted to help, so I corralled the friend in question and left them alone to talk. Nothing came of their meeting but the huge book did eventually find a publisher and it saw print a few years later. It’s called RAY HARRYHAUSEN: AN ANIMATED LIFE, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a must-own for all Harryhausen enthusiasts and a must-read for all serious film buffs, so if you can only own one book on this singular artist and his work, this is the sole book you’ll ever need.
My second meeting with Harryhausen came in 2003, at a double feature screening of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS at Manhattan’s famed Lincoln Center that also served as a signing for his aforementioned book. I of course bought a copy and waited on the signing line — this time of a respectable length — and when I made it to him I mentioned our conversation about KING KONG. He remembered me but the length of the line rendered further conversation impossible, so I wished him well and once more thanked him for his influence. And once I began making my way to the auditorium, I bumped into an adorable old lady who was none other than Kathryn Grant, Princess Parisa herself, from 7TH VOYAGE! I recognized her and asked if she’d sign my book, which she very sweetly did. After that, I settled in for the double feature, which began following an introduction from Harryhausen, who sat and watched the movies with the packed crowd of ardent fans. As previously stated, both films are spectacular on the big screen, but it’s another thing entirely to see them with the Master himself in the audience. Each creature drew loud rounds of applause, but when the skeleton battle in JASON was about to start, a hush fell over the theater. As “the children of the Hydra” sprouted from the earth, a smattering of applause began, a smattering that erupted into full-blown applause and resonant cries of approval and praise when the skeletons let out that war whoop and got down to the business of killing. In short, no man could have asked for a more fitting and heartfelt acknowledgement of his achievement.
And now it’s ten years later and Ray is gone. There’s really nothing left to say, other than that his like will never pass this way again and that we all owe him an un-repayable debt for enriching the lives of the big and small the world over. Ray, I didn’t know you personally for more than an hour, but I honestly and very deeply loved you for what you gave to me when I needed it most. You fed my young imagination with a feast that just kept on giving, and that is the greatest gift of them all.