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The Hollywood Bitchslap/EfilmCritic Hall of Fame #4
by Matthew Bartley

Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.

This months inductee - Ray Harryhausen.

If you are a regular visitor to this site - or indeed, just a fan of movies in general then you're more than likely to be fan of the works of such directors as Don Chaffey, Robert Gordon and Nathan Juran.

What's that you say? You've never heard of them? Of course you have, they're the directors of Jason and the Argonauts, It Came from Beneath the Sea and The First Men in the Moon respectively. It's just that those films, and many others, have became known simply as Harryhausen films, such is the legacy of his work. And that's why we are inducting Ray Harryhausen into this month's Hall of Fame - how many other special effects gurus, no matter how good they are, have actually eclipsed their directors in terms of whose work the film is recognised to be? Our own David Cornelius puts it very well: "Harryhausen was not the director of these movies - he was effects master, and such a top draw that the movies are always remembered as "his" instead of the writers' or directors'".

Of course, Harryhausen was not the only or first effects wizard that movie fans remember fondly - Willis O'Brien's work on King Kong is a massive influence on Harryhausen, as is the fact that Harryhausen worked under O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young. But even O'Brien has not achieved a body of work as rich and unique as Harryhausen, who carved his career out over several decades. So why exactly is Harryhausen so fondly remembered then? Scott Weinberg points out that "Not only is Mr. Harryhausen one of the all-time greatest special effects artists -- but it would be completely impossible to gauge how many young filmmakers he inspired. Good ones, too. Not just Stephen Sommers.".

Although it is probably safe to say that this is the only time Stephen Sommers name will crop up in regard to the Hall of Fame, it actually serves a useful purpose in highlighting part of the beauty of Harryhausen's work. Whereas someone like Sommers believes that the best use of special effects is to completely smother the film in them from beginning to end (Hello Van Helsing!), Harryhausen firmly believes in the 'less is more' adage. Harryhausen's effects never suffocate the film, they complement them. He understands that the more you see of them, the less special they become. That's why, logistics aside, there's only seven skeletons in the famous Jason and the Argonauts battle. Any more than that (how many would Sommers use? 40?) and the impact is lost. Of course, it's a little harsh to credit Harryhausen for all of that, and many other scenes, impact - despite what we said earlier about his name overshadowing that of the writer and directors, they would undoubtedly have some input into how many effects sequences were required.

But what we can credit Harryhausen with, is the sheer work and detail that go into these sequences. The skeleton fight lasts at most 3 minutes - and took Harryhausen four months to create. David Cornelius notes that it's a scene that never fails to get his jaw dropping, and that the timing required to get that scene right is just insane. But that scene is more than just the timing - which is better than right, it's perfect - it's all about the details. The skeletons aren't just scary to fight, they just look evil when we get a close-up of one leaning into Jason's face. And that's another part of Harryhausen's genius - unlike most other special effects creators, Harryhausen manages to create a sense of character and feeling to his creations.

One of the most subtly terrifying scenes is to be found in Jason and the Argonauts where the Argonauts have just robbed a tomb of its treasure. Unknown to them however, the massive gold statue perched on top is Talos, its guardian, which will come to life if the tomb is robbed. This is revealed in a brilliant moment where, alerted by an enormous grinding of metal sound, the Argonauts look up to see Talos peering down on them like insects. Somehow Harryhausen manages to inflect this statue with a blank, burning hatred. It's a trick he pulls off again when Talos attacks the boats as they attempt to flee by sea. Throwing them around like toys, Talos manages to look pitiless, ruthless and sadistic all at once. And that's the genius of Harryhausen right there. It's there again in the six armed statue in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. A creation that Harryhausen manages to make both terrifying and ruthless. But as a switch, Harryhausen also manages to create a creature like the troglodyte in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger that wins our sympathies when embroiled in a fight with a huge sabre toothed tiger.

On this site's forum there was a huge agreement between Scott Weinberg, Marc Kandel and David Cornelius that the Medusa from Clash of the Titans is one of his most nightmarishly frightening creations to the extent that David admitted: "In my younger days, we were actually afraid to watch that scene in the movie, lest we be turned to stone, too. Seriously.". That's a reaction that this critic can only agree with, who will also admit to being terrified by the giant scorpions in the same film. Our own Alex Paquin pointed that sometimes his standards slipped, such as the giant crab in Mysterious Island which he states as being obviously blown up. Perhaps so, but that would be ignore the sheer detail of his craftsmanship, and the fact that when Harryhausen dealt with real, instead of fantastical creatures, just how realistic he made them.

David Cornelius also mentions that "let's not forget his sci-fi work. The destruction of Washington in Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is genius, while his monster movies (Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth) are downright impeccable."

Indeed, David. The attack in Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is a clear influence on Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, as well as the oft-mentioned Topp's trading cards, while the octopus wrapping itself around the Golden Gate Bridge in It Came From Beneath The Sea is an iconic shot as Kong straddling the Empire State building for true movie geeks.

There is however, the criticism from Dionwr that while "Harryhausen cared deeply for his fantasy effects sequences of creatures you couldn't see in the Real World, but he wasn't as concerned about plotting, dialog, pace or acting. (Indeed, would anyone who cared about good acting have hired Patrick Wayne as a lead?)

Even when he hired good actors, he had no sense of how to use them. Was Laurence Olivier ever worse than in "Clash of the Titans"? (Yes, he did equal that with "The Jazz Singer" and "Inchon.")

But he did influence us all deeply, and brought us images we had never seen before. It's a pity he never got to marry his skill at effects with some great natural storyteller, like Howard Hawks or Merian Cooper."

That's a fair criticism, but ultimately the acting, script and direction were something Harryhausen would have no control over. But despite the fact that his movies would often have poor acting or dialogue, they are still movies that continue to delight, inspire and be rewatched. We don't watch Harryhausen films for the acting, we watch them for his genius, and his genius makes the films timeless and endlessly watchable and entertaining. His legacy is there for all to see from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead zombies to Peter Jackson, who stated that The Lord of the Rings were his Harryhausen films. That's clear to see from the way that he designs such creatures as the Mummakils, the Balrog, the cave troll and the Mouth of Sauron. Spielberg is clearly also a massive fan of Harryhausen's methods. Is it any surprise that his re-issue of E.T. THe Extra-Terrestial tanked when it replaced the warm, friendly model of E.T. with a cold CGI version? It's something Harryhausen would have surely not let happen - yes, he would have embraced the tools of CGI if he still worked today, but not at the expense of character. It's also no surprise that Spielberg's best effects film is still Jurassic Park. It is, after all, a mixture of both CG and model work, and has dinosaurs inflected with character and personality in the best Harryhausen fashion.

So, for contributing more eye-dazzling images than anyone else in your field, for showing an energy and verve of vision, and for continuing to influence and inspire film-makers even today, Ray Harryhausen we salute you.

Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame

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originally posted: 09/04/06 20:23:53
last updated: 01/27/07 00:17:16
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