Tricked: The Science Fiction Films of Ray Harryhausen

Marco Lanzagorta

Over his career, spanning 25 years and 15 movies, Ray Harryhausen took to new heights the standards of stop-motion animation and optical compositing.

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."

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.