Imagine a giant Cyclops fighting a giant dragon. How about a giant radioactive octopus plucking cars off the golden gate bridge? How about a legion a sword wielding skeletons?
You may not know the name Ray Harryhausen, however if you were a kid anywhere from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and beyond its more than likely his films have left an indelible impression on your imagination. In some ways he is imagination personified, a special effects maestro before such a thing existed, who’s stop motion animation made the impossible possible, creating giants, monsters and flying saucers for all manner of matinee, fantasy and adventure films.
This collection brings together seven of his films, including 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, with its famous skeleton fight scene, though also the remarkable flying saucers of 1956’s Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. There’s a sword fighting Kali statue brought to life by an evil magician in 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, a one eyed Cyclops in 1957’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a giant radioactive octopus in 1955’s It Came From Beneath The Sea, and that’s just the beginning.
In the abundance of extra features we learn that Harryhausen was so taken with 1933’s King Kong that he sought out the film’s model animator Willis O’Brien who mentored him and continued to provide him advice. This gave him the confidence to make his own animations, enlisting his family to assist with both models and costumes – something they continued for much of his career.
The list of directors influenced by Harryhausen is ridiculous, some of who appear here in the extra features. John Landis (An American Werewolf In London) interviews him twice, as does a breathless Tim Burton (Mars Attacks), both of whom are delighted with the in-camera effects. It’s fascinating seeing these renowned filmmakers as fan boys.
Leonard Nimoy (Captain Spock) even narrates one of the feature documentaries on Harryhausen.
Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) does a feature commentary of Jason And The Argonauts alongside film historian Tony Dalton who reveals “all the animation was one man who was also the originator of the project, who designed the characters, designed the scenes, directed the scenes after storyboarding them, came up with the technological methods for combining the live action and animation, sculpted the creatures, animated the creatures, composited the creatures. He didn’t even have someone to make sandwiches for him.”
And that’s the best description of Harryhausen’s contribution to these films. He’s an auteur in every sense of the word. Despite the different directors and actors there’s a real consistency across them all. Immediately upon pressing play you’re 12 years old again. Harryhausen films are a place of wonder and imagination.
Regardless of those he inspired, it’s quite incredible that at times you can be watching a film that’s 60 odd years old and you still don’t know how they did it. When you do know how they did it, particularly via the incredible use of stop motion, it’s actually quite heart-warming and nostalgic.
If you exclude the FX, the films are your run of the mill fantasy action adventure, though some of the personnel might be a surprise, such as John Phillip Law (Danger Diabolik) as the hero in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Probably the biggest surprise though is the legendary composer Bernard Hermann (Psycho/ Taxi Driver), who scored three of the films collected here.
This collection of seven films is brimming with extras – too many to mention here. Featuring commentaries from visual effects artists, numerous interviews with Harryhausen, fascinating making of docos, storyboards – including the famous skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, as well as the aforementioned hero worship from Hollywood directors, this collection is FX film school. Though it’s not necessarily about that. Even if you’ve never really bothered about FX, you’ll be fascinated after this.