Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Confessions of a Monster Kid – Ray Harryhausen

With the coming release of a CG remake of Ray Harryhausen’s last film, Clash of the Titans, I thought I’d focus on the great man’s works, which I and many of you other Monster Kids grew up watching.

As a boy reading Famous Monsters magazine, one person’s name that kept recurring in regards to some of my favorite films was Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen’s films were class acts, loaded with imagination, fun, action and cool monsters. In FM, I read about how he worked alone, creating some of the coolest creatures brought to seeming life on film, one frame at a time. But before I had ever heard his name or knew what he had done, I was a fan.

As I mentioned here previously, my mother watched scary movies all the time (still does). She was never worried that I may become traumatized… and, with one exception, I never was while watching them. (The exception was George Pal’s War of the Worlds… which I’ll get around to writing about someday.) So, I caught a lot of monster flicks very young, remembering only small bits of having done so.

I didn’t know what stop-motion animation was, but there was something about those films using the technique that hit me just right... weird, smooth movement and actually character despite their rubbery origins. I noticed the style when I was a wee lad on such things as Karel Zemen’s amazing Journey to the Beginning of Time (which was serialized in 5 minute chunks on the Chicago kid show Garfield Goose) and the very loud Black Scorpion, created by Willis O’Brien.

Not even knowing who had done the effects, Harryhausen’s films were rubber heads and metal armature shoulders over all others, even the man who trained him. (Sorry, gang, while I recognize O’Brien’s genius, Harryhausen took the technique into greater heights than O’Brien was ever allowed to… but that’s my opinion.)

As far as Harryhausen was concerned, I strongly recall small but memorable bits I caught on the tube that I never forgot as I got older, seeking them out. I remember watching the giant octopus, from It Came From Beneath the Sea, wrapped around the Golden Gate bridge, stretching out a tentacle beyond reason, squishing some of the locals in San Francisco. Cool but also creepy.

Another film was 20 Million Miles to Earth, featuring one of Harryhausen’s greatest creature creations, the reptilian Ymir from Venus, right up there (or pretty close) to Kong in the pathos department. The scene I remembered as a kid was when the Ymir is almost cornered in a barn. I remembered the creature’s screams. Boy, did it ever scream a lot.

Only short years later, another of Harryhausen’s films became the one I must have seen more than any other. It was Mysterious Island. The film was a regular part of WGN-TV Channel 9’s Family Classics movie library on Sunday afternoons (provided there was no Cubs game). Because the film was shown on that program, it was almost more like a legit movie because of its classic book origins, rather than just a monster movie. The odd thing was that in the period of watching the film, I had read (probably in FM) that there was a giant chicken in the story, besides the giant crab, bees and octopus. To fit its 2 hour slot, with commercials, that chicken was cut out. Strangely, later in the film, the characters mention a mystery gunshot killing the bird… “Bird? What bird?”

I also recall one Saturday night going to visit my Aunt Irene and Uncle Roy in Aurora. We got there just in time for me to catch a portion of an unusual film they were watching. The scene I walked in on showed a giant merman holding some shakey rock walls from crushing a ship attempting to pass through. I remember seeing most of the rest of the film, with the great skeleton sword fight at the end. Of course, the film was Jason and the Argonauts, which is probably my favorite Harryhausen film of all. While I was college years later, I finally got to see the film on the big screen in a theatrical re-release.

As I grew older, I saw more of Harryhausen’s work on the WLS-TV Channel 7’s afternoon film, in its 90 minute slot. The film, which I quickly came to love, was Mighty Joe Young, animated by Willis O’Brien with his protégé, Harryhausen. I loved the ending when Joe rescues some kids from a burning orphanage. I dug it when the monster made the transition from misunderstood monster to lovable lug. The film was usually shown as part of the station’s theme weeks, in particular Gorilla Week. The other films which were almost always shown were King Kong (O’Brien at his best… it blew everything else away), Son of Kong (a little too cute for my tastes), King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes.

I remember one Friday night out of many, when two of my buddies, Eric and Fish, came over for what was an impromptu stop-motion film fest. At 10:30pm, CBS’s late night movie slot ran The Valley of Gwangi. This is Ray's western dinosaur movie, which is loads of fun.

Then, a half hour past the end of that film, one of the local channels ran Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. Earth is, of course, totally unique in Harryhausen's body of work, creating the flying saucers very effectively. It's loads of fun, particularly the attack on Washington at the end... including the Washington monument falling on a crowd a la the giant octopus' tentacle.

After that, we had to wait over an hour for Willis O’Brien’s The Giant Behemoth. I have to note here that this took place in the days before VCRs or cable TV, so alternatives to watch what was on TV were, well… none. We attempted to stay conscious for an hour of Soul Train. I always thought the girls were hot on that show, but I barely stayed awake for Behemoth. In fact, I don’t think I made it all the way through that film, anyway…

Right around that time, my interests were diversifying, besides the wonders of the female gender I had also become obsessed with comic books… but I remained a monster kid, err… teenager. One day, I was over at Fish’s house and he showed me a comic he had just bought. It was an issue of Marvel Comics short-lived scifi anthology comic series, Unknown Worlds. He bought the first part of a two-part story that were also the last issues of the 4-color comic. The story was an adaptation of the upcoming Harryhausen film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Immediately I was determined to see the movie. Soon afterwards, I saw that it was coming to the Plano Theatre. I had to see it, but having no drivers license I had no way to get to a theatre 2 towns away. In addition, my parents were indifferent and couldn’t grasp why I was so excited about this Sinbad movie.

I had to see it, but how? Well, back in the early 70s, there was still an attitude about long hair. I had long, crazy hair that was like Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, I get along with my stepfather as an adult, but when I was a headstrong kid, I could be a real pain in the ass. Meanwhile, my stepdad hated long hair and was always trying to get to me to cut it.

And in a moment of weakness, fearing I might not ever see Golden Voyage, I set aside my righteous Billy Jack attitude and told “The Man” that I would cut my hair to see the movie. He was stunned and agreed. I got the worst haircut I had ever had in my life (no kidding at all there, really) and I saw the movie. It was better than I hoped. I loved the monsters and, of course, Caroline Munro. My Dad liked Caroline, too.

My crazy hair soon grew back… but I had seen Golden Voyage in a theatre. It was worth it.

I just noticed that I didn't mention The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. For reasons that could mean that Chicago TV didn't show it very often, I rarely saw it, and when I did I came in after it had started. Without a doubt, the Cyclops was one of the greatest monsters brought to life by Harryhausen, not to mention the swordfight with the skeleton... before he kicked that idea up a few more notches for Jason and the Argonauts. Of course, I did finally see the whole thing and liked it quite a lot.

Speaking of Jason, here are the first 10 pages of the DEll comic book adaptation (don't worry, I'll show the rest of the book soon enough...).

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post!!!!! I always looked forward to Mysterious Island on Family Classics. My favorite part was when they were stuck in the honey comb. The music is so memorable too. I remember seeing Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger at the Cascade Drive-in (West Chicago, IL)on my birthday. What a great time. I think I saw Orca and The Land That Time Forgot on other birthdays there. When I was a kid I saw Mighty Joe Young at my Grandma's house. After the movie she played "Beautiful Dreamer" on her player piano for me. My favorite one to watch though would have to be Black Scorpion, with the whole 50's sci-fi thing going on and pit sequence, similar to King Kong's lost spider one.