The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Two new DVDs
reveal the magic
of Harryhausen


August 29, 2002
By Franklin Harris

Almost 70 years ago, in a darkened movie theater in Los Angeles, a boy looked up at the screen, saw the Eighth Wonder of the World, and knew immediately how he would spend the rest of his life.

During a career that spanned five decades, Ray Harryhausen brought some of Hollywood's most beloved monsters to the screen, from the alien creature in "20 Million Miles to Earth," to the seven-headed hydra in "Jason and the Argonauts" to the Kraken in "Clash of the Titans."

"King Kong" inspired quite a few youngsters back in 1933 but probably none more than Harryhausen. He was so enchanted by the groundbreaking stop-motion effects that Willis O'Brien used to bring Kong and the other gigantic creatures of Kong's island to life that he went back to his parent's garage and started making brief stop-motion films of his own.

That, of course, was only the beginning.

Ray Harryhausen and friend.
Ray Harryhausen and friend.
You can learn the rest of the story from the recently released DVD "The Harryhausen Chronicles" (Rhino Home Video, $19.95).

Narrated by Leonard Nimoy, "The Harryhausen Chronicles," gives us our first look at Harryhausen's surprisingly sophisticated homemade efforts.

The prehistoric creatures and landscapes Harryhausen animated one frame at a time (it takes 24 frames of film to create just one second of footage) are an intriguing precursor to Harryhausen's professional work.

Harryhausen's hero, O'Brien, was impressed enough to give him his first Hollywood job, working as a stop-motion animator on 1949's "Mighty Joe Young."

From there, Harryhausen would go on to make his own films, starting with "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," based on a short story by his childhood friend and fellow dinosaur enthusiast, Ray Bradbury.

Throughout "The Harryhausen Chronicles," Harryhausen, now 82 and retired from filmmaking, gives us insights into how he brought his prehistoric and mythological characters to life, most notably in his three Sinbad films and in his master work, "Jason and the Argonauts."

The battle between Jason's men and the skeleton warriors in "Jason and the Argonauts" remains one of the most amazing and complex special-effects sequences ever committed to film. (It is also frequently imitated, including on a recent episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer.")

"The Harryhausen Chronicles" also features interviews with those who have worked with Harryhausen, including Bradbury, and those who have been inspired by him, including George Lucas, who used stop-motion animation to create the Imperial walkers seen in "The Empire Strikes Back."

Also new to DVD is Harryhausen's last film, 1981's "Clash of the Titans" (Warner Bros., $19.98), starring Harry Hamlin (pre-"L.A. Law"), Burgess Meredith and Lawrence Olivier, who has fun chewing scenery as Zeus, the king of the gods.

While not as highly regarded as some of his earlier works, "Clash" does feature one of Harryhausen's best creations, Medusa, whose ghastly appearance can turn any mortal into stone.

Harryhausen creates a formidable foe by turning Medusa from a woman with snakes in her hair to a reptilian monster, complete with a rattlesnake tail.

The Warner Bros. DVD includes a brief interview with Harryhausen and behind-the-scenes footage about each of the movie's creatures.

Both DVDs are must-haves for fans of classic fantasy movies and reminders of deeply personal style of special effects that Harryhausen perfected in the days before computers took over the work of human hands.

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