A Goodbye to Ray Harryhausen

hhausen4I remember the first time I saw Clash of the Titans. It was 1991, I was ten years old, and I was in Mrs. Findlay’s fifth grade class at Parker Farms Elementary School. The other fifth graders had been buzzing all week—we were going to take two whole hours out of our school day on Friday and we were going to watch an action movie! We even had to sign a permission slip. It was like a class trip, except we got popcorn.

Friday couldn’t get here fast enough, and, when the day came, we all rushed into class and excitedly took our seats as the VCR whirred to life. Two hours later, the credits rolled and the lights came back up. We began asking the deep, pressing questions that Clash inevitably provokes: What was up with Perseus’s dorky hair? What kind of girly hero rides a flying horse? And, seriously, what was the deal with the owl?

hhausen6Some found the movie silly (a part of me did, too). Some just slept through the whole thing (it’s possible I also dozed a little). Honestly, though? I couldn’t stop thinking about the monsters. There were two-headed dogs and giant killer scorpions. There was a wicked, slithery Medusa with cracked leather skin and a deadly bow and arrow. There was the deformed satyr, Calibos, who creeped me out terribly and who (I’m pretty sure) hid in my closet for several days after the movie ended. And, of course, there was the massive Kraken, who looked like a mashup of King Kong, Godzilla, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I was transfixed—where did these things come from? They obviously weren’t cartoons.  Robots couldn’t look that good (could they?).  I supposed they might have been guys in costumes but that didn’t seem right either. I’d never seen anything like it.

Eventually, our teacher explained that the creatures were made with something called Claymation and they had been created by a guy named Ray Harryhausen. It was a name I never forgot and, over the next several years, I made a point of watching a lot of his movies: Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.  They weren’t necessarily good movies, but I never stopped being fascinated with what Ray Harryhausen brought to life within them.

hhausen2In an era where a guy in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet was considered an acceptable movie monster, Harryhausen’s creations had energy, personality, and texture. They moved like they had weight and mass. They could feel menacing and inhuman or pitable and pained. Even the mediocre acting of the cast and obvious blue screen couldn’t stop them from shining through as something special.

Today, I don’t think people still get a thrill from Harryhausen’s brand of swashbuckling skeletons and rampaging dinosaurs. It’s hard to hold that against them, I guess. We live in an age where the 60,000 hairs on a computer-generated character’s head can be individually rendered and animated. We’re nearing the point where the Oscar for Best Performance can be legitimately awarded to a motion-capture actor. This is an amazing time to be a film fan, even if our nonstop special effectsgasm is making it increasingly easier to be snobby about our movie magic.

So, before we move on to the next news cycle, the next big summer movie, and the next dead celebrity, I wanted to just take a few minutes today to say thank you and goodbye to Ray Harryhausen. He was one of my Cult Heroes, an undeniable piece of film history, and will be very sincerely missed.

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3 Comments

  1. Speaking personally, while I’m not ‘wowed’ by Harryhausen’s work in the same way you probably mean, I definitely do appreciate it. I like stop-motion as an art form – the look and feel of it is unique, and really does fell more REAL in some ways than other types of animation, because, of course, it is; those are real things being manipulated onscreen. Harryhausen’s stuff is special because he was one of the first people to really take it seriously as an art form, and the sheer amount of effort and imagination he put into each and every one of his creatures is astounding. I may not go ‘wow, that looks so real’, but I do go ‘wow, that looks COOL’.

  2. I grew up on Ray Harryhausen films played on cable on Saturday afternoons. Even when I didn’t know there was a common artist creating the monsters, I loved the hell out of them and their creativity as compared to the often horrible monsters of films back then. I consider 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts two of the greatest heroic adventure films ever made, and it saddens me that many folks do not appreciate or have not even really encountered his work. Thanks for the post.

  3. The first of his movies I saw was Jason and the Argonauts. When I was about 7 or 8, Brother2 and I would camp out in the living room on Friday nights and watch movies. Jason was one of those and I loved the claymation in it, and while I laughed hysterically at the skeletons I still wanted to know how it was done. Been a fan ever since.

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