The master of Dynamation, Ray Harryhausen, is a legend in the field of special effects, and has inspired everyone from Peter Jackson to the digital whizz-kids at Industrial Light & Magic. Harryhausen had an artistic flair and creative eye that was unsurpassed, and his control and personality of his handmade creations meant that every creature was not only impressive in the mythical cinematic surroundings it was put in, but also a work of art, and full of intricacy and detail.
To celebrate the great man’s cinematic achievements, here’s our list of his top ten creature creations.
Ymir – 20 Million Miles To Earth
Some people have mentioned that the shape-changing Ymir bears an uncanny resemblance to Harryhausen’s other reptilian creation, the Kraken, and while the massive aquatic monster is probably much more well-known and iconic (and, of course, parodied with all the Release The Kraken memes floating around the Internet), the alien creature known as the Ymir is much more fun, and appeared on our screens nearly twenty-five years before the soggy Kraken destroyed its first Greek city.
Ymir creature grows due to the oxygen in our planet’s atmosphere. Coming from Venus, Ymir turns up as a tiny land-dwelling creature, slowly growing to human size and then to the size of a dinosaur. As he grows, Ymir gets into scrapes with irate farmers and unruly circus animals, and eventually meets his doom via an artillery barrage in the Colosseum.
Through every stage of its growth, the creature’s animation is fantastic. From the tiny thing slowly unfurling from its ship, to its impressive battle with the army, all the classic poses and twitchy movements of Harryhausen’s creatures are to be found in this epic 50s B-movie.
Medusa – Clash Of The Titans
Having recently seen the apalling remake of Clash Of The Titans, and its videogame-style run/jump/duck/jump/attack/special move-driven Medusa battle, I’m embarrassed that somebody tried and so completely failed to re-enact one of the most intense, scary and tight set pieces in any fantasy film ever.
The remake burned through millions of dollars and hours of rendering time, while the original’s action was created by a man with a lot of patience, wire and clay. Harryhausen not only beat them hands down in every aspect of film making, he did so nearly thirty years earlier, and on a shoe-string budget.
The 1981 Medusa scene is perfect film making. It looks beautiful – full of shadows, fire, mirror reflections, petrified warriors and a scare around every corner. The slow build up is perfect, the sense of horror and impending doom brilliant, and the actual Medusa is the stuff of pure nightmares. Half woman and half snake, you can take in fully and see every aspect of the workmanship and craft used to create this monster, as opposed to the lightning-fast flashes of pixels of the new version.
From Medusa’s rattling tail, to the look of anger in her face, every aspect of this scene is perfect, right down to the final nail scratching on the walls, and the last flick of her tail as she finally falls victim to Perseus’ blade.
Kali – The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad
I don’t think that a potential adversary has ever danced in front of their adversary before a duel, but in Golden Voyage, that’s exactly what the six-armed statue of Kali does before attacking Sinbad and his crew.
Bought to life by the scenery-chewing performance of Tom Baker, this surprisingly good fight scene shows Harryhausen’s ability to chorograph multiple opponents, and his multi-armed creation is more than able to hold its own in a fight. While Kali may not be as memorable as some of his more unique creature creations, having a personification of the Hindu destroyer god throw some shapes (she really is quite a mover), and then tip-toe up some stairs until her untimely end, shows that Harryhausen could create characters with sensuous and human-like movements, as well as snapping beasts.
Cyclops – The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
The earliest foray into the realms of Persian myth and fantasy, The 7th Voyage is the first in the Sinbad trilogy (Golden Voyage and Eye Of The Tiger came along much later), and gives us a whole array of monsters.
From a slave girl turned into a serpent-like creature, to a misplaced Welsh-looking dragon, a giant mythical bird, and a warrior skeleton, there are loads of superb creatures in this movie to marvel at. However, the most impressive and iconic is the Cyclops that inhabits the cursed island of Colossa.
The bane of evil sorcerer Sokurah, the Cyclops are the natural alpha predators of the island, and these massive one-eyed nightmares have a tendency to horde shiny treasures. Worryingly, they also have an appetite for human flesh. The few we see in the film lay the smack-down on the aforementioned dragon, as well as attempting to barbecue some of Sinbad’s crew.
And while the nifty sailor blinds one and tricks it into falling to its death, the island is teeming with these big brutes, who are bought to life in spectacular fashion.
Mighty Joe Young – Mighty Joe Young
One of Harryhausen’s first stop motion creations, Mighty Joe Young was, of course, inspired by King Kong, who in turn was created by Harryhausen’s mentor and idol, Willis O’Brien.
While Joe lacked the gargantuan presence and attitude problem of his larger cousin, he enjoyed far more interaction with his film’s cast. As such, this stop-motion masterpiece was full of mannerisms and subtle movements , something which Harryhausen was famous for.
Harryhausen’s contribution to Joe is obvious, and while essentially this is O’Brien’s movie, it’s also a passing of the torch from the older O’Brien to the pioneer Harryhausen, and a nod of acknowledgement, perhaps, that fantasy films and the art of stop-motion animation would be passed into safe hands.
With fur notoriously tricky to animate (see the sabre-toothed tiger in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger) Harryhausen shows that, with patience and an iconic mentor, even the most difficult of animation can be bought to life.
Talos – Jason And The Argonauts
How do you give a 100ft metal statue personality? Well, if you watch Jason And The Argonauts, Harryhausen does just that. When Hercules ‘borrows’ a piece of treasure from the gods, he inadvertently activates the trove’s guardian, the immense titan, Talos. Based on the Colossus of Rhodes, Talos is probably the most immense creature Harryhausen ever animated. A vast automaton of sorts, the immense statue rips apart Jason’s ship, as well as squashing a crew member or two.
It’s not just the fluid animation that is spectacular, but also the sound and audio that make the scenes with Talos so memorable – from the first screech of metal as he slowly twists his head towards the fleeing Hercules, to the metallic gurgle he gives out when Jason finds its literal Achilles’ heel, the setting, effects and scale of this set piece is just perfect.
Gwangi – Valley Of The Gwangi
While not held in the same regard as a lot of Harryhausen’s films, Valley Of The Gwangi is still an enjoyable romp, which involves a cowboys finding a hidden valley inhabited by dinosaurs.
With this superb idea, we get to see horse-riding cowboys corralling a triceratops but, best the best bit is when they try to get the king lizard Gwangi of the valley to be appear in their travelling circus. Mirroring King Kong in many ways, Gwangi is essentially the same story, with an alpha creature taken out of its habitat, which then escapes and runs amok. The difference, however, is that Gwangi is just plain nasty.
While Kong was shown to have a bit of a soft spot for Hollywood blondes, Gwangi is simply angry and violent – which is shown by the fact he’s happy to chomp his way through both people and a circus elephant. With a finale on the steps of a cathedral, this as this superb dinosaur flick with a great lead creature, that has a continually permanent scowl on his face, and a constantly angry swishing tail. (Anyone who owns a cat will agree that, when the tail starts swishing, they’re not best pleased at all.)Hydra – Jason And The Argonauts
How do you animate multiple heads, a forked tail and a serpentine body without losing your sanity? Well thankfully, Ray Harryhausen managed to do it in Jason And The Argonauts, where viewers get to see one of the most impressive dragons ever to appear on film. Only let down by the close-up shots, where Jason is wrapped up in the creature’s tail (it looks all too rubbery), this snake-like, multiple-headed creature was created in dark purples and blues rather than the typical dragon green, and fits in perfectly with the darkened, twilight forest setting of the encounter.
The scene is shot and put together perfectly, and the tone and feel is just fantastic. While it is killed off a little easily, without even one of its heads being severed, the lurching, continually undulating beaked heads show just how much patience and artistry Harryhausen had. The creature is only on screen for a few minutes, and yet has an iconic impact. Which leads us to…Skeleton army – Jason And The Argonauts
We had already seen a man versus a skeleton in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, where the hero had to fight an animated bag of bones controlled by the evil sorcerer Sokurah. However, when the king of Colchis (sporting a very natty tea-cosy hat) sows the Hyrda’s teeth to get back at Jason for killing his prized monster, and essentially stealing Colchis’ Golden Fleece, up pops not one but six skeletons.
This leads to one of the most iconic fight scenes ever committed to film. The animation for this scene is breathtaking, and the choreography, synching and physical interaction is all mapped and planned out to perfection. Every skeleton looks unique, with its own sword and shield emblem, and while they initially move in synch, each skeleton warrior quickly starts doing its own thing, as these undead creations rip through Jason’s crew one by one.
This is one of those scenes that can be watched again and again to marvel at the workmanship that went into creating it, and while everything could now probably be done via computer in a fraction of the time, the sheer detail and skill shown in bringing what is essentially little bits of wire and clay to life is just beautiful to see.
Calibos – Clash Of The Titans
The most human of all Harryhausen’s creations, Calibos is the king of the swamps of Joppa, a ritualistic man-beast thrown out of society by Zeus, who curses him with deformity as punishment for killing off his paddock of flying horses. In love with Andromeda, Calibos is the son of the water goddess Thetis, and the arch rival of Perseus. For the close-ups, actor Neil McCarthy played the tortured satyr, but for all the long shots, or when he is fighting Perseus in the swamp, Harryhausen employed his stop-motion skills to bring this demon to life.
Once again displaying all the trademark ticks and movements of a Harryhausen creation, Calibos is all angry posture and flicking tail, and always ready to kill any unsuspecting Greek guard on duty. Another Harryhausen masterpiece.