Though he’d been functionally retired for over 30 years, when the great effects designer and stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen died last week, it still felt that an era in popcorn filmmaking had ended. His work was the kind that inspires the fiercest sort of passion in his defenders, for while it was not always seamless, he was basically doing it alone, and the personal, hand-hewn touch that resulted makes his films look personal and memorable. It’s not realistic work, but it’s deeply appealing on a level that most visual effects cannot touch.
In his memory, and to kick off a weeklong tribute to his work, I am happy to present my list of
My 10 Favorite Ray Harryhausen Creatures
There’s no such thing as Ray Harryhausen work that isn’t good on a technical level, but the mechanical owl Bubo from Clash of the Titans is such a disaster on a storytelling level that I felt compelled to single him out for condemnation. Just because you can make a filthy fucking R2-D2 knockoff look absolutely perfect using all the skills honed by a lifetime of painstaking work, doesn’t mean that you should.
The giant gorilla Joe from Mighty Joe Young was on my list from the start, and pretty high, but finally, I blinked. After all, the work was a collaboration with Willis O’Brien, who created the all-time iconic giant ape in King Kong, and though it’s widely-understood that Harryhausen did a great deal of the mechanical work himself, while O’Brien was busy getting other things handled, and it’s really easy to tell the difference between their work, it’s only right to leave this list for movies where Harryhausen wasn’t playing second fiddle, even if he played it exqusitely.
Budget and time demanded that the octopus terrorising San Francisco be shorn of two of its legs, but that just adds to the legend and charm of Harryhausen’s second solo project, which found him creating one of the best real-life animals grown to abnormal size and prone to destroying things of a decade where you couldn’t swing a two-ton dead cat without seeing an insect leveling Los Angeles. Not the showiest thing in his career, but a great way to understand why he was better at doing his thing than everybody else working in the same idiom at the same time.
By far the best of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, the title character of his long-gestating passion project is the perfect mixture of movie monster and historical animal, with just a dash of visible personality that makes him more fun to watch than either of those things imply. And the scenes of him tearing around a desert town like the scourge of God boast some of the best matte work that Harryhausen ever did, making sure that we’re thinking less about the effects’ quality than the oh my god the dinosaur got loose friovlous fun of it.
Some of the best giant insects ever filmed. Full stop. Flawlessly animated to move exactly like a giant nightmare beast would if it was out in the world, trying to kill you dead, they’re imaginatively creepy-crawlie in a way that, if you don’t shudder a little bit while watching them, then you just plain don’t shudder. Far more persuasive and impressive than their 2009 descendants. (And no, scorpions aren’t insects; but “giant insect” as a film trope is ancient and honorable, and it includes arachnids).
7. Cyclops, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The first of Harryhausen’s classical mythology films includes many fantastic evocations of beasts from out of your childhood fantasies, but none are more technically impressive, or convincing as personalities, than the man-eating horned giant who is technically Greek rather than Arabian. Who’s counting? The subtleties of movement, the way you can tell what he’s thinking, the weight and fleshiness; though the process shots aren’t as great here as in many of Harryhausen’s films, that’s the only reason you can ever forget that he’s not real mutant.
6. Kali, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
And here’s a character from India. These are matinee movies, not anthropological documentaries. It’s easy to forgive all of the cultural blindness and antihistoricism in the world when the results are this entrancing: the choreography of the six-armed living statue in its fight with several people is quite possibly the most complex in Harryhausen’s entire career, and the design of the scene is one of the most giddy Old Hollywood throwbacks he ever worked with, creating a truly atmospheric sense of storybook fantasy.
Better-known as the giant chicken, though it’s actually based on a real preshistoric animal, for all that matters. In the movie where the giant animal trend reached its pinnacle, the massive flesh-eating bird is barely the standout, though where giant crabs and giant bees are more squarely in the realm of B-movie fantasy, the phororacos is like something from a primeval memory of terror birds, and its genuinely thrilling in addition to being fun. Also, the moment it knocks over a fence post is one of the great moments of technical complexity in Harryhausen’s body of work.
4. Talos, Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Building on the Cyclops, and anticipating Kali, this giant bronze warrior is an achievement so complete and impressive that I hardly know where to start. Certianly, the fact that Harryhausen managed to depict such a complete personality for a creature that has an immobile face is damned impressive, and so is the way he suggests the massive weight and size of the creature. I’m also amazed at how unflaggingly metallic the giant is – the sound effects help out immensely – and yet always flexible enough to be a real threat. Sheer mastery.
3. Ymir, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
Perhaps surprisingly, the only marauding alien in Harryhausen’s bestiary, despite that being one of the ’50s favorite kinds of monsters. As expected, he did a great job and then some of depicting the marauding, but what’s shocking even now is how much of a character the Ymir is, expressing not just a sense of violent rage but also of terrified confusion, and while it’s a cliché to talk about movies that make us like the monster more than the heroes, it’s never been truer than here: the Ymir’s inevitable death is a genuinely moving. It’s such an overall great piece of work that ideas from the both the design and action would keep returning in Harryhausen’s career till the end.
2. Skeleton army, Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Pure escapist cinema. The scene in which the Argonauts square off against a sorcerer’s fighting undead is so perfectly-executed, imaginatively-conceived, and element in its mythological, fairy-tale simplicity that it could make a lifelong B-movie fan out of anybody who saw it at an impressionable age, or even just those who love a good bit of movie magic. Still the go-to scene when you need to prove to somebody that, for all the advances and complexities of CGI and animatronics and whatever costly effects technology you care to name, they really don’t make ’em like they used to.
I’m not sure what’s more impressive: the raw craftsmanship, or the fact that the scene in which the Gorgon appears is so fast-moving and kiddie-movie terrifying that you pretty much forget that she’s an effect. Complex like nothing else even in a career that favored crazy ambition – between the moving snakes in her hair, her twitching tail, her villainous expression, and her talon-like hands, the model itself must have taken forever to reposition correctly, and that’s ignoring the fact that the firelight in her lair is perhaps the most sophisticated lighting in Harryhausen’s entire canon – it’s a phenomenal climax to a genre-defining body of work, and if Clash of the Titans had not been the last film Harryhausen worked on, I cannot imagine how he’d have topped this. Plus, it’s such a perfect evocation of the mythological monster, with a perfect sense of creepy grandeur, that even now when I think about Medusa in any context, it’s not a version from my imagination that I’m thinking of, but from Ray Harryhausen’s.