As I worked today, I stopped to check Twitter and was surprised to see it full of people going “RIP Ray Harryhausen”. A quick check of the news revealed that, yes, Ray Harryhausen, the special effects master had passed away in his London home at the tender age of 92. I cannot let that pass without at least a word or two of gratitude to him.
I suspect that like many others out there, I was first exposed to Harryhausen’s magic with Clash of the Titans on either VHS or cable. His imprint is undeniable throughout that movie. Whether it was the Kraken, massive and awe-inspiring, or Pegasus as he gallops through the sky or even Bobo the owl, his creatures effects had this ability to make you believe they existed but were not of our world. Obviously, the one creature that towered over the rest was the Medusa. Decades later and that five minute sequence in the darkened temple between Perseus and Harryhausen’s creation is still breathtaking. It is simple, understated and tense. It’s so good that, even with buckets of money and modern tech, the remake couldn’t come anywhere near it. If you want to see it, here’s a low-res clip.
Clash of the Titans was just the opening to Harryhausen for me. Movies like Jason and the Argonauts – and the famous skeleton warriors fight – and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad came next. And whether it was the giant Talos statue come to life or the six-armed Kali wielding six swords at Sinbad, watching these movies was like giving sugar to a kid. They filled my head with dreams, myths and fantasies. It made me hungry to learn more about all these strange tales and wondrous creatures I saw on the TV screen or on the matinee movie theater. In a manner of speaking, that one movie by Harryhausen unlocked a treasure trove of knowledge for me.
What was and remains so intriguing is that these were all “Harryhausen movies”. They weren’t their directors’ movies or their producers’ movies. I can’t even remember who directed Jason and the Argonauts or Mighty Joe Young or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Or who produced them. Or who else was involved in their making. These were and are movies that were made by Ray Harryhausen. That seemed to say it all. You knew you were getting fantastical creatures, heroes, villains, monsters and legends. You might get a giant gorilla, a horned monster or a dinosaur and then, a few minutes later, something else wondrous would appear.
His influence cannot be understated. Harryhausen was the influence on the movie masters of today – Spielberg, Jackson, Lucas, Cameron, Burton – they all speak reverently of the slow-motion special effects master. Even as they forged ahead and created the technology that would make Harryhausen’s methods antiquated and secondary, they never stopped raving about the man who filled their heads with so many fantastical images. Amazing how much influence he had given that he rarely worked in Hollywood after the 1960s, opting to stay based in London.
In many ways, Ray Harryhausen represents old-school Hollywood – making the impossible a reality, if only for the brief 90 minutes that you were inside the theater. It was straightforward, simple, but enjoyable fare with heroes, villains and good triumphing over evil. He even stated that part of his reason for leaving Hollywood behind laid in how movies were changing to reflect darker, meaner times – heroes solving their problems with their fists and with body counts. If so, that is a shame because while we may grow up and become aware of the evils of the world around us, we never outgrow our need for myths, fantasies and good old fashioned heroes.
So farewell, Ray Harryhausen and may you rest in peace. I, like many, will hold the fruits of your labor dear to our hearts and eagerly pass it onto the next generations. Because they need to see your Pegasus soar, your skeletons fight and your Medusa scare the crap out of them. Through these myths, they will start making sense of the world they live in – just like so many before them did.
I’m very happy that so many young fans have told me that my films have changed their lives. That’s a great compliment. It means I did more than just make entertaining films. I actually touched people’s lives — and, I hope, changed them for the better.