On May 7th, 2013, the world said goodbye to a legendary special effects master, who enthralled our imaginations and our wildest nightmares. The mind of Ray Harryhausen is a treasure trove of mythology, monsters and mighty men. Since he first viewed the historic King Kong, he set off on his own special effects odyssey, and brought to life the horrors and wonders of his creations on the silver screen.
His creations were no doubt the precursors to the CGI monstrosities we have come to enjoy. Harryhausen was unique though because, while his special effects were certainly the real stars of the films he worked on, they still had more depth and feel to them than most computerized beasties of the present.
This article is to credit his monstrous creations which left the biggest impressions, not only on our childhood, but on the monster, fantasy and science fiction genre as a whole.
10. The Phorusrhacos (Mysterious Island)
Is it a giant prehistoric relic, or just a big chicken? This avian adversary plagued our heroes and heroines in the 1961 adventure film, Mysterious Island. Originally created (and then killed) by Captain Nemo (yes, THAT Nemo) as part of his master “Food Supply For All” plan, it instead ran amuck, and tried to make a meal out of a pretty British lady and a salty Southern dandy. Fortunately, Nemo’s bullet and a little “buck-awking bronco” action put an end to its rampage. It was not just the model and the walk that made this bird a memorable special effects character; its theme music was just as good.
Skip ahead to 5:30 for the giant bird.
9. The Giant Octopus (It Came From Beneath the Sea)
The ’50s saw tons of “Giant Mutant Animal” monster movies to cash in on the nuclear hysteria at the time. Most of these movie goliaths were real animals, such as actual tarantulas and lizards. But can you convince a real octopus to be menacing when it typically just lies there? Leave it to Harryhausen to make an eight-legged beastie to terrorize the foggy city of San Francisco. Due to time and budget, Harryhausen only managed to give the actual model six tentacles. But the way he handled it, and brought it to life, was convincing enough to make us believe all eight of them were there. Definitely another example of the title monster being the true star; the rest of the movie is kind of a snooze-fest.
8. Joe Young (Mighty Joe Young)
King Kong was no doubt Ray Harryhausen’s biggest influence in his life. So much so he was given the chance to assist Kong’s creator, Willis O’Brien, in animating his special effects descendant, Joe Young. Unlike Kong, Joe was less beast-like, and more curious. Ray’s previous experience with puppetry helped give the stop-motion monkey some real expressions and feelings. As he was only an assistant, Ray did most of the animating, while O’Brien worked on the film’s technical issues.
The film wasn’t as successful as Kong was, but it is still considered a great special effects masterpiece. Anything ranging from Joe’s fight with the stop-motion lions, to an orphanage rescue, truly showed that Harryhausen had ambitions that were itching to be realized. Joe is one of the first movie monster creations to give us an insight into how could Ray put character and depth into something made out of wire framing and soft material.
7. The Tyrannosaurus Rex (The Valley of Gwangi)
Forget Cowboys vs. Aliens. It’s Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs in this western/prehistoric epic. Ray had previous experience with working on dinosaur projects, such as his unfinished opus, Creation, and an outdated “educational” look on dinosaurs in The Animal World.
The T-Rex would not be the only prehistoric monster in the film; Pterodactyls and Styracosaurus would also trudge onto the screen and menace our intrepid western adventurers, as they try and lasso a monster in what was no doubt “the most dangerous rodeo ever.” Harryhausen’s dinosaurs are simply second to none. Plus, the name itself earns a spot. Who would have ever though to name a Tyrannosaurus “Gwangi?”
6. The Ymir (20 Million Miles to Earth)
Giving character to an ape isn’t too challenging, since they’re closely related to us in many ways and all. Giving character to an entirely new creature is another thing all together. Here is a monster that no one had ever seen before. An alien from the planet Venus crash lands onto our own world as a tiny little thing. Yet, with each intake of sulfur, it begins to grow exponentially, from human-sized, to tree-sized, all the way to building-sized.
Yet there is something about this Harryhausen monster that was not too common for a movie monster in the ’50s. This was a creature one could actually somewhat feel sorry for. Not only is he in a strange place, but he is also being harassed by its inhabitants; the stop motion menace is really reacting out of fear and defense. That’s something that even today’s CGI can’t truly capture; an array of motions and feeling. Because it is made of solid material, it almost feels more genuine and real. And the way Harryhausen was able to work emotion and expression in his creation showed there was more to his work than just making a monster. He was making a character, and giving it life. The Ymir is another classic example of this little touch.
5. The Beast (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms)
Most of the early films Ray worked on were low-budget monster movies, that were made quickly and as cheaply as possible. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is no exception. Like most ’50s monster movies, the atomic bomb is to blame. In this case, it’s blast wakes up a huge fictional dinosaur named Rhedosaurus, which proceeds to run loose in New York City. To make things even more chaotic, the beast’s blood contains prehistoric germs that could wipe out the entire populace. It is finally downed in a way no other giant monster has been downed before: by a sharpshooter riding a roller coaster.
Now, this is as absurd a way as any to kill a prehistoric monstrosity; the idea itself, however, is overshadowed by the lumbering monster’s presence. Even with a low budget, Ray brought this monster to life, and helped make the film a success. And while it is just another ’50s monster by Harryhausen, the time has come to look at the true genre-defining creations of his: the monsters of classic mythology.
4. The Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)
One area of mythology Ray loved to visit often, was that of tales from Ancient Arabia. And the one hero he truly got the most from was Sinbad the Sailor. Sinbad’s adventures provided Harryhausen with enough material to create a whole menagerie of monsters to trouble our hero. Among the first of these monsters was the giant one-eyed Cyclops. Traditionally, the Cyclops was depicted as merely a giant with one eye. Harryhausen’s imagination took it a step further, and added faun-like goat legs and a horn. This resulted in a more menacing monster, with a distinguishable and equally menacing roar. It craved man flesh, horded riches, and was a constant problem even for the film’s main villain, Sokurah.
A lust for treasure, and being a constant menace to man, gave a lot more depth to this monster than it previously had. As among the first monsters to truly showcase Harryhausen’s love for mythology on the big screen, it left a big impression. So much so, that he had another Cyclops appear in the film after the first one died. This time it fought off a ferocious dragon guarding Sokurah’s palace. But he too met his end. Well, no matter how Harryhausen’s creations come and go, they still live on in our minds.
3. The Statue of Kali (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad)
Harryhausen was such a master at bringing still models to life, that he could even do it to a model of a still object. In this case, a multi-armed statue of the Hindu goddess Kali. Earlier in the film, Sinbad did battle with his ship’s figurehead, brought to life from the dark magic of the film’s nemesis Koura. But it was nothing compared to the six-armed statue he would soon face. Not only did Koura manage to bring it to life, he also tossed it a sword and it grew five additional ones. This resulted in one heck of a sword fight for Sinbad, battling well over six swords at once.
This also proved to be one heck of a way to get the statue animated for Harryhausen. To use a reference on how the statue would move, three real men were tied together, and moving independently in different directions, would flay their arms about. It must have been a sight to behold. But whatever is needed to bring an art to life results in something that truly makes an impression on us. And the sword battle between Sinbad and the statue remains a memorable moment in Harryhausen’s repertoire of movie monsters.
2. Medusa (Clash of the Titans)
Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s last film. And he certainly decided to go out with a bang. The movie had all sorts of monsters of myth and legend for Harry to show off, as kind of a culmination of his genius. The towering Kraken, the flying Pegasus, the two-headed wolf, and the swarm of giant scorpions; all these monsters were like a reel of Harryhausen’s work.
However, if you’re looking for a full-on stop-motion monster that gave a true sense of getting involved with the scene, the gorgon Medusa was truly a masterpiece. Set up as something even more deadly than the Kraken, this hideous snake woman did not disappoint when she slithered onto the big screen. Harryhausen having to animate the writhing snakes in her hair, and give her a range of emotions to work with, both at the same time, was no doubt a very hard task. Yet her presence was enough to make us feel the genuine fear and tension our hero Perseus went through, in his quest to cut off her head.
1. The Skeleton Army (Jason and the Argonauts)
If there was one scene in special effects history where the true essence of what made Harryhausen a true master of his work, and an inspiration to future filmmakers, it had to be this one. This is a scene that is still just as exciting and as mind-blowing to watch today as it was when it was first introduced. Previously, in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the sailor had a one-on-one sword battle with an animated skeleton. Now in the Greek epic Jason and the Argonauts, Jason was tasked with battling seven of them. What results is a pure adrenaline rush of sword slashing and terror, as these skeletons rush in for the kill. This one scene alone has become a pinnacle of special effects animation, and a true testament to the imagination of Harryhausen.
To choreograph a long battle scene, using stop-motion animation with multiple models, is as complicated as it sounds. You really have to appreciate how much time and effort went into making this scene. But each second was worth it, because it alone defined the fantasy and adventure genre we come to love today. Harryhausen may have taken a long time to bring this spectacular battle to life, but the effect it had on our imaginations will last a lifetime. It is the creativity, the energy, and the skill of this scene that truly made Ray Harryhausen a true pioneer in special effects and movie making. His legacy will live on in our minds, along with his stop-motion animated monsters.