Hollywood’s greatest Special Effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen, passed away yesterday aged 92. There’s very little to be said in praise of The King of Monsters that hasn’t been said before, but I want to take the time to say why I believe his monsters were some of the best in cinematic history.
Born in Los Angeles in 1920, Harryhausen became obsessed with stop-motion animation after seeing King Kong in the cinema the age of 13. In his words it “changed his life”. He named his first dog Kong and set about fanatically studying the special effects technology used by Willis O’Brien to bring great gorilla and the dinosaurs to life.
His first major Hollywood project was as an animator on Mighty Joe Young (1949) where he got to work alongside his hero, O’Brien. But his break-through hit came with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) where he designed and animated a ferocious prehistoric reptile.
From there he worked on many fantasy films such as One Million Years B.C. (1966), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), just to name a few. A wonderful chronological montage of every Harryhausen monster can be seen here:
It was his personal dedication to his monsters that made them the best. He worked alone on all his sequences – making each monster a personal achievement.
It would perhaps be better to call him the Father of Monsters, rather than King. Like any good creator, he had a love and affection for his creations, even if they were brutish fiends. He preferred to see his “monsters” as “victims of circumstance” rather than flat-out evil.
His fondness for his creatures is best encapsulated when he was asked which one was his favourite: “It would be Medusa,” he replied, “but don’t tell the others.”
In tribute to the man and to his pantheon of monsters I’d like to list off my top 5 personal favourites.
5) Rhedosaurus (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms)
Harryhausen’s first major monster is also one of his best. From the way the Rhedosaurus paws the wreckage of a car to the bit where he snaps up a wiggling policeman, he’s always a joy to watch. Much like Kong, you’re firmly on the Rhedosaurus’s side as he smashes up the city.
4) Talos (Jason and the Argonauts)
The Awakening of Talos has to be the most famous shot in all of Harryhausen’s work. As the bronze statue’s slowly creaks into life it’s truly awesome to witness.
True to Harryhausen’s tradition of giving his monster a degree of pathos, it’s hard to not feel a tang of sympathy for Talos when he meets his demise: clutching his throat as the ichor drains out of him.
3) Medusa (Clash of the Titans)
She’s Harryhausen’s favourite for a good reason. From the moment she slithers round the corner in the dim, red lighting you know she means business. If you saw her glowing green eyes as a kid it was piss-your-pants scary.
Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s last film and by the end of his career it’s safe to say he’d fully mastered stop-motion animation. From the tip of her rattling tail to the top of her seething head, she moves with an eerie fluidity that sets her apart from the more jerky movements of his earlier monsters.
2) Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)
We’re treated to several different Cyclopses through this adventure flick. All of them show an angry humanity to them which makes them scary as well as endearing. One of my favourite moments is when the first Cyclops gets a spear embedded in him. He pulls it out at looks at with a “Dude, what the Hell?” look upon his face before going ape.
Other Cyclopses uproot trees to use as clubs, lick their lips as they roast sailors on spits and have a climatic final battle with the fearsome dragon, Taro. Although I always wondered why Taro didn’t just torch the Cyclops with his fire breath, it still makes for thrilling monster brawl.
1) Skeleton Army (Jason and the Argonauts)
Nothing else on this list ever really had a chance at the number one spot. The Skeleton Army is indisputably Harryhausen’s greatest achievement. Born from the Hydra’s teeth, they’re called upon by King Aeëtes to kill Jason for stealing the Golden Fleece. And They. Are. Awesome.
The fight itself is jaw-dropping in its speed and detail, but it’s build up that makes them so memorable. They slowly burst out of the ground and stand motionless until the order of attack is given. As they start marching in slow union, getting gradually faster and faster, you’re pumped as hell for the fight when it finally breaks out. Arguably the greatest monster fight of all time.