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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Dominic Corry: The genius of Ray Harryhausen

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry praises the genius of the late special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen and names his best creations.

Ray Harryhausen manipulates a figure of a serpent-like monster for stop motion animation, circa 1965. Photo/AP
Ray Harryhausen manipulates a figure of a serpent-like monster for stop motion animation, circa 1965. Photo/AP

There can be no overstating Ray Harryhausen's influence on cinema, and pop culture in general. Although he hasn't worked on a film since 1981, his presence can be felt in everything from Star Wars to Avatar to John Carter to The Hobbit.

His death aged 92 yesterday marked the passing of one the towering creative talents of the 20th century, a master craftsman whose legacy will shine bright for years to come.

The stop-motion animation special effects pioneer famously inspired Peter Jackson, but beyond that distinction, he continually elevated what audiences could expect to see in a fantasy or sci-fi movie. James Cameron; Steven Spielberg; Guillermo del Toro; Stephen Sommers and countless others owe him a huge debt.

Earlier this week I wrote about the game-changing effect Jurassic Park had on cinema of the fantastic. In the five decades leading up to Jurassic Park, numerous massive leaps forward in fantastical big screen creatures came from Harryhausen through through films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958); Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973).

His spirit permeated the original Star Wars trilogy. The stop-motion creature animation in those three films was the first such work to compare to Harryhausen's legendary creations.

Like Peter Jackson and innumerable others, Harryhausen was inspired to work in film when he saw 1933's King Kong, which featured ground-breaking special effects work from Willis O'Brien.

Harryhausen later broke into the film industry by working under O'Brien on the 1949 giant (but smaller than Kong) gorilla movie Mighty Joe Young (Harryhausen had a cameo in the 1998 remake).

After a couple of black and white sci-fi movies in the mid '50s, Harryhausen's golden period really began with his first colour feature: 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which featured all sorts of crazy monsters and set-pieces.

Thus began an incredible run of work which lasted right up until his retirement after Clash of the Titans. Tellingly, it was the first film for which he utilised assistants in executing his animation.

While Harryhausen's name generally featured prominently in the marketing of his films, he didn't direct the features themselves, choosing instead to focus on the individual set-pieces for which he was responsible.

But the finished films were all unmistakably "Ray Harryhausen movies" - he originated the projects with producer Charles H Schneer, and the stories were often constructed around the dazzling set-pieces Harryhausen conceived. He's probably the only special effects technician whose work could have the auteur theory applied to it.

In addition to his superlative technical expertise, what made Harryhausen's monsters so indelible was the empathy he showed them. Although they predominantly existed to terrorise the protagonists, the creatures often came across as tragic figures, at the mercy of their savage instincts. Despite Harryhausen's broad influence however, this empathy, as well as the dynamic choreography that infused his set-pieces, are both often sorely lacking in modern monster cinema.

There also existed a mild sadistic edge to Harryhausen's work, which feature numerous nightmarish deaths. I love it all.

If I'm sounding a touch too reverential, it's because I coincidentally just finished reading Harryhausen's professional autobiography Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, a ridiculously entertaining examination of his own work.

The extensive thought Harryhausen put into his craft and his creations comes through loud and clear in the text, and there are endless fascinating tidbits about how he developed his scenes and creatures. He talks a lot about how the work of French illustrator Gustave Doré inspired him. Looking at Doré's amazingly detailed works, it's not difficult to discern the influence.

The insights into Harryhausen's process aside, the book is worth reading solely for the section in which he details ideas and projects that never made quite it on to the big screen. There's at least a dozen awesome movies waiting to be made from these concepts. Hollywood, take heed! And stop tarnishing Harryhausen's legacy with such awfulness as the Clash of the Titans remake.

Here are what I consider to be Ray Harryhausen's five best creations:

1. The skeleton warriors from Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Kerwin Matthews fought a living skeleton in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), but Harryhausen upped his game considerably for Argonauts in which SEVEN skeletons attack our heroes. The extroardinarily complex scene is Harryhausen's most iconic set-piece and it remains just as impressive fifty years after it was made.

2. Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981)

Harryhausen's most haunting scene occurs in his final movie which presented a creatively horrific spin on one of mythology's most prominent nasties. He made the job even harder for himself by lighting the scene with a flickering fire, which adds to the dread considerably.

3. Talos from Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

The gargantuan scale. The rusted exterior. The sound of wrenching metal as he moves. Talos scared the living you-know-what out of me when I first saw him come to life as a child. He's a classic example of how Harryhausen injects huge amounts of personality into what might otherwise have been a static character.

4. The Siren from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Not Harryhausen's flashiest creation, but definitely one of his most disturbing - I recall being strangely transfixed when the wooden siren from the front of Sinbad's ship came to life and started attacking the crew. There's some Freudian sexual terror at work here - I'm not saying the siren is hot or anything, but there's something about her...

5. The Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

An early colour Harryhausen monster that ably demonstrated the master animator's particular skill for bringing the fantastic to life. The satyr legs are an awesome touch, and I love the bit where he is trying to get the spear out of his back. The horror and rage on the cyclops' face is palpable. Also great: the bit where he squashes a dude with a tree. There's that mild sadistic edge at work. Bravo.

This great YouTube video edits together glimpses of all of Harryhausen's creations.

Fan of Ray Harryhausen? Favourite Ray Harryhausen movie/moment? Comment below!

Dominic Corry

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

One of New Zealand's most vocal and enthusiastic film critics for over ten years, Dominic's cinematic opinions can also be heard on radio and seen on television. His list of favourite movies is always evolving, but is generally likely to feature The Lady Vanishes (1938); Vertigo (1958); The Parallax View (1972); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); Aliens (1986); Midnight Run (1989); Metropolitan (1990) and Primer (2002). He also reviews snack food.

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