Inspiring The Incredible: The Miracles Of Ray Harryhausen

Ken Shinn explores The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen.

A kindly old woman smiles in an abrupt, awkward, yet charming way, as she introduces a tale of a dog which starves to death, revives without any explanation, and then sits calmly in a chair, puffing on a pipe. Thirty-five years later, a rather less kindly crone with decidedly serpentine tendencies butchers her skulking hunters with arrows and the power of her lethal stare.

For all those decades, one remarkable man had stayed in love with the fantastical, the bizarre, even the outright horrific. A close friend of Ray Bradbury, he shared the dreamer’s imagination with his companion, but where Bradbury toiled with ink and paper to create his marvels, he worked with foam rubber, brass, and a patience which cannot help but inspire awe to this day. His name was Ray Harryhausen.

He learnt from the very best. His mentor was Willis O’Brien, creator of arguably the single greatest monster of them all, King Kong. One of his earliest uncredited jobs was assisting O’Brien in telling the slightly less epic tale of a slightly less epic, but every bit as sympathetic, great ape in the original screen version of Mighty Joe Young. It seems almost inevitable that, with such friends, such teachers, such a background, he would carve himself out an illustrious reputation in the realm of fantasy.

His earliest credited stop-motion work was in a decidedly small-scale arena – animating various fairy tales and nursery rhymes for the series of Mother Goose cartoons of the 1940s. Their budget, as Ray later admitted, was small, but from the very beginning of bringing the unreal to life, his talent shone through. The puppets of clay and cloth, under his careful eye, took on genuine and endearing character and humour, an expressiveness rarely seen before in such productions.

It took a few more years until his work really came into its own. And it did so by achieving something rarely managed before. Among an endearing but tatty army of aliens and monsters in ratty gorilla and dinosaur suits with optional space helmets and antennae, each one housing an obvious and sweating actor, Harryhausen set about making such creatures eerily, believably real. Fittingly, he did so working on a loose adaptation of his friend Bradbury’s short story The Fog Horn, more luridly re-titled The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Appearing in 1953, and possibly inspiring Godzilla – another thing that we may well ultimately have Ray to thank for! – this tale of the punningly-named Rhedosaurus (Ray-dosaurus, get it?) freed from ancient slumbers under the Arctic ice to rampage down New York streets chomping on vainly pistol-firing policemen made an instant impression, as did the unearthly, thoroughly convincing extra-terrestrial invasion craft which Ray arranged to fly through, and into, various monuments of America the Beautiful in 1956’s Earth Vs The Flying Saucers.

Harryhausen was starting to make a name for himself. As the online film critic Brandon Tenold observes, however much other admirable talent was being deployed in front of and behind the cameras, when you went to see a Ray Harryhausen film, you went to see a Ray Harryhausen film. His creations, his tableaux of the unreal and the astounding, were what you really handed over your money for. And it was in 1958, with the release of The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, that he truly presented us with the technique which was to take his work into even more fabulous realms. In a nutshell, this process allowed him to take live-action footage, with live actors, and then place his monstrous, marvellous creations seamlessly into the same image. The Dynamation Era had arrived.

Dynamation continued to be refined and enriched by Harryhausen’s loving hands for almost another two and a half decades, and it brought forth many delights up till 1981’s Clash Of The Titans via such other works as 1973’s The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad – everything from the statue of the goddess Kali’s formal yet sensuous dance and subsequent six-sword-swinging battle with Sinbad’s crew of adventurers to the agonising, shadow play transformation of Calibos from a handsome youth to a hideous, goat-horned monstrosity and the Gorgon Medusa’s tense, creepy stalking of her opponents in her dimly flame-lit lair. But it was arguably during the 1960s, and with three particular films, that Ray really showed us what he could do. Drawing from H G Wells, Jules Verne, and Greek myth, he gave us 1964’s First Men In The Moon, 1961’s Mysterious Island, and – perhaps the most lustrous jewel in his crown – 1963’s Jason And The Argonauts, the three films released in Indicator/Powerhouse’s recent sumptuous box-set, The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen: Volume Two (1961-1964).

It definitely helps that, between them, these three films gather together such solid acting talent as Patrick Troughton, Honor Blackman, Edward Judd, Joan Greenwood, Herbert Lom, and Lionel Jeffries, to name but a few: marvellous, epic scoring by Bernard Herrmann and Laurie Johnson; and First Men In The Moon is even scripted by Nigel Kneale!

But the real stars are provided by Harryhausen, and they provide images which lodge in the mind all these years later and provide solid fuel for the imagination of youngsters even in these CGI-saturated days. This piece is probably becoming a little lengthy already, so I’ll leave you to re-appraise the many other delights of this trio for yourselves and confine myself to just re-kindling some of Harryhausen’s incredible images to blaze in the fire of your dreams.

An American space capsule descending with smug technical superiority to the surface of the Moon, only to discover a tattered Union Flag. A beautiful, baroque sphere of brass and glass, smashing through a terrestrial roof, powered by the mysterious Cavorite, to ascend into Space. A scientist ‘skeletonised’ by the examinations of the moon’s insectoid natives the Selenites, and their massive-skulled, dignified ruler, the Grand Lunar, welcoming his Earthly visitors on his huge, emerald throne…

A storm-lashed balloon escape by prisoners of the American Civil War, and their subsequent crash onto a gorgeous tropical island – which proves to be inhabited by colossal crabs and Brobdingnagian bees. The sleek technological shark of the submarine Nautilus, and her enigmatic captain Nemo, resplendent in his wet-suit and great, sea-shell shaped oxygen tank. The terrifying, baleful-eyed giant cephalopod that awaits Nemo and his unwary guests in the Stygian depths of the ocean…

The bronze behemoth Talos, creaking into slow, menacing life to terrorise the intruding adventurers in his domain. The capering, gleefully-malicious Harpies delighting in tormenting poor, blind Phineas and forcing him into a cruel, starvation-diet existence at the gods’ behest. The Argo’s figurehead turning slowly, gracefully, into the image of a living goddess. Mere mortals swirling in great clouds of smoke into giant deities. The Hydra, with her seven vicious, venom-spitting heads. The army of disturbingly swift and athletic warrior skeletons which erupt from the very ground itself in the final life-or-death struggle for the prize of the Golden Fleece…

If none of those moves you to want to see these films again, then there’s something badly amiss with you. And Indicator/Powerhouse’s gorgeous issue of them is something to be treasured. Among many other delights, you’ll find beautiful restorations, isolated musical tracks, commentaries from Harryhausen himself along with the likes of Peter Jackson and John Landis, interviews with Harryhausen, Michael Craig and Kim Newman, documentaries, storyboards, and some marvellously evocative original trailers. And that’s just scratching the surface. This set, and the others in the range, are quite probably the very best releases that these films will see for the home entertainment market, and they deserve no less.

In the mid-1990s, I was lucky enough to meet Ray when he gave a talk at Cinema City in Norwich. I had to have the autograph of the man who’d created so much to enthral and inspire me, but the only book on sale was an enormous volume far beyond the capacity of my wallet in those temporarily-jobless days. I presented him with a copy of the latest Kim Newman short story collection – he looked understandably slightly bemused. ‘Well,’ I explained sheepishly, ‘you’ve certainly created more Famous Monsters than anyone else that I know…’ He beamed and signed it with a flourish.

Ray Harryhausen – a true master of the fantastic. And this box set is a fine reinforcement of that truth.

❉ The Wonderful Worlds Of Ray Harryhausen: Volume Two (1961-1964) is available on Blu-Ray/DVD from Indicator/Powerhouse now, RRP £42.99

❉ Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult. His 54 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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