A life-long fan of prehistoric creatures and outer space, Ray Harryhausen wanted to follow in the footsteps of Willis O’Brien and make the definitive dinosaur picture. O’Brien was a stop-motion animation pioneer responsible for some of the best known images in cinema history. The prehistoric creatures in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) himself came to life by O’Brien’s hand so it’s no wonder his work would fuel the imagination of Ray Harryhausen who met his idol while still in high school. The two became friends and O’Brien made Harryhausen his assistant for the special effects work in Ernest B. Schoedsack‘s Mighty Joe Young (1949). From there Harryhausen created his own monsters who destroyed cities in memorable style, but it was when he wanted to venture beyond his beloved prehistoric creatures and into mythological worlds that he truly came into his own and would change the lives of millions of moviegoers and future filmmakers in the process. The gods willed it and he complied. And then some.
I saw Desmond Davis‘ Clash of the Titans (1981) for the first time a few years after I’d been transformed by Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and it built upon my admiration for whoever was making regular guys fight creatures of legend. I hadn’t a clue who that was at the time. I only knew that back again was a Greek myth, a story that enchanted me and monsters. As this story opens Danae and her baby, Perseus whose father is Zeus are cast out to sea by her father Acrisius in retribution for her sins and because he is jealous of her beauty. A livid Zeus orders Poseidon to destroy Argos by releasing the Kraken, a monstrous sea creature and the last of the Titans. Meanwhile, Danae and Perseus reach safety in the island of Seriphos where he grows into a fine specimen. er…I mean, young man who soon learns his mission, which is to rescue Andromeda who has been promised as a sacrifice for the Kraken after she refuses to marry Calibos, the hideous son of the goddess Thetis.
Perseus falls in love with Andromeda the instance he sees her and vows to marry her himself, which means he must defeat Calibos in combat and also answer a riddle posed by Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother. Those who answer the riddle incorrectly are condemned to die. Anyone else would’ve run back to Seriphos, but Perseus persists and begins his journey into the unknown armed with divine gifts: a helmet that renders its wearer invisible, a shield and a sword made by the gods, an advisor, Ammon played by Burgess Meredith and the cutest mechanical bird you’ve ever seen as a companion. Oh, and the last surviving, divine, winged stallion, Pegasus.
Directed by Desmond Davis, but for all intents and purposes known as Ray Harryhausen’s movie, Clash of the Titans written by Beverly Cross deviates from the myth in some instances, but makes for a fantastic story executed to perfection. To start we have a heavenly list of godly actors playing the Greek gods led by Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Clair Bloom as Hera and Maggie Smith who is fantastic as Thetis. Harry Hamlin does a good job as Perseus as does Judi Bowker as Andromeda and Meredith is as enjoyable as always offering poetic insight to our young hero. I also love the score by Laurence Rosenthal here. You get the picture. There is nothing wrong with Clash of the Titans. It’s the best of fantasy and offers some of the greatest scenes in stop-motion animation history. It should come as no surprise that the main reason to watch this is the work of Ray Harryhausen who for his last fantasy feature as both producer and creator of special visual effects offers us a feast of creatures.
As all hero journeys worth their salt dictate, Perseus must be tested over and over again until he fulfills his destiny. As such he encounters and must be victorious against the most fantastical creatures of legend. First he must find a way to defeat the Kraken in order to save his love. But how? Well, for the answer he must visit the Stygian Witches, the old, bloodthirsty sisters who see through a shared mystical eye. Only after Perseus takes their magic eye do they reveal that the only way to defeat the Kraken is by killing the Gorgon called Medusa and cutting off her head.
Perseus and a few soldiers make it to the island where the lair of Medusa is situated and are met with a beastly two-headed dog. Our hero makes it through that task and heads into the lair ready for one of my favorite Harryhausen creatures and battle. This is a battle of wits rather than brawn as the lady Perseus now faces cannot be looked upon or she will turn him into stone. I love this sequence, which builds suspense beautifully as we are shown her powers as we see the remnants of men who once lived and breathed are now petrified with horrific expressions on their faces for all of eternity. Perseus has a plan, but we are unaware and when Medusa slithers into frame, a huge, deformed half giant snake and half woman she takes your breath away. According to Ray Harryhausen Medusa was not easy to animate. Similar to the arduous process of animating the seven-headed hydra in Jason and the Argonauts bringing Medusa to life meant animating the twelve snakes that make up her hair one movement at a time. The end result is fantastic though. Steadily and stealthily Medusa hunts Perseus, creeping along – closer to us – as we hear the rattle of her snake-like tail. She has to get really close in order for Perseus to cut off her head so the sequence is quite stirring as I hold my breath without fail. Perseus is able to defeat her using a most ingenious method, but not before Medusa leaves her lasting mark in the Harryhausen stable of great creatures.
If Perseus’ adventure had ended upon his defeat of Medusa I would’ve been satisfied, but he has lots more to overcome. That same night as he and his party rest, Calibos (Neil McCarthy) – one of my all-time favorite movie villains who scares me to this day – enters the camp, punctures the bag carrying Medusa’s head and produces three giant scorpions that Perseus must now do battle against. The scorpions are nasty creatures and the sequence makes for another memorable battle. I’m even more impressed, however, by an earlier scene during which Calibos tames Pegasus. I’m all for fantastic creatures looking somewhat unreal, which only adds to their charm and wonder. But the Calibos v. Pegasus scene is memorable because it looks real.
The final confrontation of the main characters in Titans is as fine an ending as you can get, one that appropriately put the period at the end of the fantasy feature career of the Titan of stop-motion animation. I have to admit that I get a bit misty-eyed thinking about everything that Ray Harryhausen gave us. Picking up the mantle from Willis O’Brien Ray Harryhausen’s work serves to bridge the old world and the new leaving behind a legacy that reverberates across small and big screens to this day. Every single monster movie that’s made, every creature that scares brings me back to Harryhausen and fantasy the way it’s supposed to be – worlds bigger than we can imagine and monsters that defy imagination. That’s why I love fantasy. I love fantasy because titans can face-off. I love fantasy because ordinary men and women can beat them. I love fantasy because of Ray Harryhausen.
Last week I submitted a guest post to getTV about my introduction to the work of Ray Harryhausen to whom the network is dedicating its primetime line-up TONIGHT! Be sure to tune in to magic. When you’re done visit Joey at Wolffian Classics Movies Digest who read the getTV article and asked if I’d consider submitting an entry to his Ray Harryhausen Blogathon and here I am.