Over his career, spanning 25 years and 15 movies, Ray Harryhausen took to new heights the standards of stop-motion animation and optical compositing (superimposing the object into the film action). Though his name is little known outside the fantasy genre, his achievements helped shape today’s special effects industry. His legacy is underlined by the fact that each film that showcases his talents is referred to as a “Harryhausen movie.”
It is good news that Columbia has recently re-packaged five Harryhausen movies in The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen - Legendary Science Fiction Series: It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1961), and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964). All these films were previously available as individual DVDs, and quite unfortunately, this new set does not provide original bonus features. And the only extra of interest, the outstanding documentary “The Ray Harryhausen Chronicles,” appears on every disc. This hour-long documentary examines Harryhausen’s career, from his early experimental shorts to his last film, Clash of the Titans (1981). Along the way, we are treated to movie clips, rare stills, and terrific conceptual drawings, framed by interviews with Ray Bradbury, director Joe Dante, and special effects guru Denis Muren. Sadly, Harryhausen has not provided commentary.
He made the first three films in this set during the science fiction craze of the 1950s, and all conform to conventions of the era. They all combine low production values with compelling and unusual monsters, as in It Came From Beneath the Sea, which had such a small budget that its octopus was afforded only six tentacles. As this was just his third major film, after Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Beast from 10,000 Fathoms (1953), Harryhausen’s skills were still evolving. The octopus lacks the detail of his later creations, and doesn’t appear fully until film’s end. In spite of such constraints, the shots of the tentacles embracing the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco are exceptional.
Earth vs. The Flying Saucers required a variety of effects to bring to life a squad of alien ships. Their design is surely basic, and Harryhausen only animated their lower halves to appear as if they rotated at high speed. It was more difficult to show them crashing into the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building; he animated, one frame at a time, dozens of flying bricks resulting from these explosions. 20 Million Miles to Earth is set in Europe; when the first spaceship to Venus crashes off the coast of Sicily, an alien escapes, grows to giant size, and goes on a rampage in the streets of Rome. But this vulgar humanoid lizard, known among sci-fi fans as the Ymir, is portrayed as a victim of human selfishness.
As he was making these black and white films, Harryhausen was also experimenting with color and his proprietary process, “Dynamation,” showcased for the first time in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Three years later, Harryhausen went to work on Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Loosely based on Verne’s book, this film follows a group of fugitives escaping in a hot-air balloon from a military jail during the U.S. Civil War. Landing on a desert island, they confront a myriad of giant animals, including a crab, chicken, bee, and cephalopod. As usual, Harryhausen’s effects are top-notch, but the crab scenes are among the foremost demonstrations of his great talent and ingenuity. When he realized how difficult it would be to make a convincing crab model, Harryhausen decided to animate the shell of a real crab. Less satisfying is H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. Inspired by Wells’ novel and set in Victorian England, it charts the adventures of the first three men to step on the moon. The effects are outstanding, but the film lacks the sense of adventure and awe of his previous work.
One could argue that in these later films, Harryhausen’s wonderful effects are both their greatest asset and liability. Similar to dance numbers in a musical, the scenes showcasing the monsters bring their plots to a dead stop. This is in contrast with the early work, where the effects augment the narrative. And yet even this has become a familiar story since Harryhausen, perhaps another indication of his influence: every time a new FX technique emerges (see the make-up and prosthetics craze of the early 1980s or today’s CGI vogue), movie makers (and promoters) exploit it until its very exhaustion.
Still, his more significant legacy is artistic, or better, visceral. Framing fantastic monsters against a live background—particularly using landmarks like the Washington Monument or the Golden Gate Bridge—grants screen invasions a compelling familiarity. Compared to other cinematographic tricks of the period, such as the “man in the rubber suit” in Godzilla (1954), the life-sized animatronic ants in Them! (1954), and the ludicrous chicken marionette in The Giant Claw (1957), Harryhausen’s integration looks more convincing.
If The Fantastic Films doesn’t include the best “Harryhausen movies,” it does illustrate the trajectory of his early work and the germs of later achievements. They also speak to André Bazin’s assessment in What is Cinema?: “If the film is to fulfill itself aesthetically, we need to believe in the reality of what is happening while knowing it to be tricked.”