In 1992, visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen was awarded a Gordon E. Sawyer Award for his achievements in visual effects. In his introduction of Harryhausen, Tom Hanks said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane…I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”
It is impossible to tell some of the story of the film Jason and the Argonauts without telling some of the story of Ray Harryhausen, a key figure not only in cinema visual effects but also in screen fantasy. Ray Harryhausen was born in 1920. In 1933 he saw King Kong, an event that changed his life. Entranced by the effects of Willis O’Brien that brought the giant ape to life, Harryhausen researched the art of stop motion animation, of which O’Brien was one of the pioneers. Harryhausen began making his own short films featuring stop motion animation, starring creatures that he built himself.
He got to show his models to his inspiration, Willis O’Brien. Harryhausen ended up working with O’Brien for his first screen credit, Mighty Joe Young in 1949. Though O’Brien was credited as the director of visual effects, Harryhausen has said that he actually completed about 70% of the animation for Mighty Joe Young.
Harryhausen’s first film as solo director of special visual effects was 1953’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the first of many giant monsters in the ‘50s spawned by atomic radiation, and the model for Toho’s Godzilla. Then followed other black and white SF/monster films: It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant octopus; Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers; and 20 Million Miles to Earth, featuring a rampaging creature from Venus. A major turning point for Harryhausen was his first colour film and his first outright fantasy, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957). This film was based on the Arabian Knights tales of Sinbad the Sailor. Like many Harryhausen fantasies it reinterprets and blends mythologies to make a greater cinematic impact.
His later films are a mix of fantasy and SF, including Mysterious Island, First Men in the Moon, The Valley of Gwangi (an entry in the much neglected dinosaur western genre), and two more Sinbad films, Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
Jason and the Argonauts is Ray Harryhausen’s personal favourite of all his films, and is probably his best known movie. It is one of only two Harryhausen forays into pure Greek mythology, the other being his final film Clash of the Titans in 1981. It tells the story of Greek hero Jason’s quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, a quest that brings Jason and his crew face to fang with many mythological monsters along the way.
Harryhausen’s father built the model armatures (metal skeletons) for the film, following Harryhausen’s designs. The bronze giant Talos is based on the Colossus of Rhodes, a 30m tall statue that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The moment where the giant straddles the natural harbour to catch the Argo is inspired by that statue. The Hydra is actually from the story of Hercules, not Jason, and the design of this creature in the film is partly inspired by paintings on classical Greek vases.
The film ends with what is perhaps Harryhausen’s most famous sequence: the battle with seven skeleton warriors. Six of the seven model skeletons were new; the last one was from 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The bones of the skeletons were made from cotton soaked in latex. There were three men fighting seven skeletons. Each frame of film required at least 35 animation movements, and some days Harryhausen was only able to produce less than one second of screen time. To match the animation with the live action, Harryhausen had to count film frames on the live action footage to figure out exactly where the actor’s and skeleton’s swords would meet. The whole sequence took four and a half months to complete.
The film has one of the best scripts of any Harryhausen film. It feels more adult in tone than his other films, with a subtext about humans learning to take matters into their own hands and growing away from the influence of the gods. This is actually a theme echoed in the second Sinbad film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, where a repeated line is “Trust in Allah…but tie up your camel.”
The film is hugely influential and well regarded. Martin Scorsese included Jason and the Argonauts in his list of 85 Essential Films published in Fast Company magazine. Harryhausen’s work in general has inspired countless filmmakers like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and effects artists and companies, such as Dennis Muren, Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar Animation, and WETA.
Writer/director James Cameron said of Ray Harryhausen, “I think all of us who are practitioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.”
When you watch the film, pay attention to how Harryhausen instils character in his creations. He took acting lessons, and drew on this to put movements into his models that bring them to life and give them distinct personalities. Remember that, unlike today where there are armies of technicians working on the visual effects for a film, the effects in this film were all done by just one man, Ray Harryhausen. And above all, relax and be swept away by some pure movie magic.
“Are there any monsters in it?” was the first thing I asked my classroom friend. “No,” he replied. “Just a man with metal hands.”
I shrugged, disappointed. Vaguely interesting, but it didn’t sound like a monster film. At that point, mid 1970s, I was fixated on monsters. My friend was talking about the previous night’s TV screening of Dr. No. It didn’t sound like something that would rate an entry in Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream, my film bible. Shortly after, I was at the public library and my interest was briefly captured by the cover of a paperback copy of Dr. No that featured a dragon chasing Bond and Honeychile Rider through a jungle. A cursory reading of the back cover revealed that the promise of monsters was not fulfilled in the complete book, and my interest again diverged from the world of James Bond.
It came back in January 1980, with the TV debut of Live and Let Die. This was pre-VHS, back when your only options to watch a movie were on its theatrical run and when it appeared on television. So the boob tube appearance of a major film like Live and Let Die was a big deal. With no option to record and watch later, vast numbers of the viewing public would schedule their evenings so they could see a film on TV, like a vast communal screening, a pop social ritual. And so, on that dark January evening, the afterglow of Xmas holidays having faded and the grim realities of high school once again truly settled in, I sat down in the living room with my parents to watch Roger Moore’s safari-suited 007 take on the faux-voodoo forces of Mr. Big.
Live and Let Die was big, colourful, exciting and, at 13 years old, like getting a sneaking glimpse of an adult world filled with danger and sex. The sight of Roger Moore undoing the zipper on a woman’s dress using his magnet watch branded itself into my hormone-bombarded adolescent psyche, as did the ethereal beauty of Jane Seymour. The suave coolness got to me, the ability to handle any situation, take down the bad guys, bed beautiful women, and toss off a quip, all while never even getting a crease in your trousers. And the voodoo stuff was attractive to a monster loving kid. I was into it, and it was all the kids at school could talk about the next school day, but I wasn’t entirely hooked yet.
In 1977, the charms of 007 in The Spy Who Loved Me eluded me. That summer I was much too taken with the idea of hyperspacing through the galaxy as intergalactic outlaw Han Solo. This obviously had an influence on Cubby Broccoli too, leading to my first cinematic Bond experience, Moonraker, in 1979. Fittingly, I saw Moonraker in the same cinema that I saw Star Wars. Lucas’ space epic had taken the world by storm, leading to a slew of SF films, and resulting in Roger Moore ditching the flared trousers for a space suit.
Moonraker was a complicated film experience for me. I dug a lot of it, the stylish sweep and the action, but I felt consistently deflated by the campy humour. A formidable henchman flapping his arms while hurtling downward minus parachute and a double-taking pigeon were not what I wanted from Bond. I wanted the sweet tang of the forbidden, the glimpse into a dangerous, sexy, adult universe. I wanted to exit the film walking a little taller, and I didn’t quite get that. Regardless, I was back for Moore.
The next one, For Your Eyes Only, was bittersweet. My dad had begun the process of moving the family a long way from home, and so it turned out to be one of the last films I saw with my group of high school friends. Bizarrely for a film that is only a little over two hours, there was an intermission at about a third of the way through. Maybe the cinema wanted to sell more choc ices (or albatross, said John Cleese). For me, the film was better than its predecessor and, though not an aficionado yet, I still noted the considerable difference in tone for this one. In many ways this was my first, from-a-distance glimpse of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. But I had yet to meet the literary Bond in all his demon-haunted glory.
I was introduced to him in the penultimate year of high school in my new home town when I bought a Triad Granada paperback edition of Diamonds Are Forever. These editions had covers with exotic models draped in various provocative poses over an oversize model of a golden pistol. I didn’t know quite what to make of this Bond. He was very different, in many ways, from the films I had seen at that point (mostly starring Roger Moore). But I was intrigued, and the rest of the literary series beckoned.
This was the mythical pre-internet era, and so tracking down books wasn’t so mouse-clickably easy. It meant scouring the F section of the fiction shelves in any bookstore I could find. Gradually I pieced together the whole Fleming series, reading them completely out of order.
The Fleming books gave me what I wanted out of the James Bond universe, far more than the next film offerings of Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Those films had their moments, but the books had the intrigue, the danger, the sophistication I was looking for. As an undergrad bumbling his way in the world, this confident, gutsy, yet damaged and vulnerable character was someone I could both relate to and aspire to be. I was hooked, and wanted what I thought of as “the real Bond” to make an appearance in the films.
And so when the summer of 1987 rolled around I was primed by the Bond novels and by posters of the cat-eyed Timothy Dalton as “The Most Dangerous Bond. Ever.” Here was that beckoning again, the whisper of invitation to a world of sex and danger that I had first received and answered back in 1980. I left my summer job early, braving an intense thunderstorm, to see the second matinee showing of The Living Daylights on opening day. The rain belted down on me as I ran the two blocks to the theatre from the café I was killing time in, leaving me damp as I sat watching Timothy Dalton seemingly serve as a portal from Fleming page to 007 screen. Transfixed, grateful, I ignored the film’s flaws because here, at last, was the Bond I had wanted to see grace the silver screen.
The next week I was back for a second round. After I bought my ticket, I killed time by wandering over to a bar in the mall. There, I ran into a coworker who moonlighted as the manager of the theatre that was showing The Living Daylights. He was a man of great generosity and, apparently, odd-shaped kidneys that allowed him to drink copiously without getting hammered, the kind of detail that Fleming would add to a description of a Bond villain now that I think about it. He refunded my ticket money, and invited me to sit and have a drink with him and his friend, Megan.
She was a slightly older woman, attractive, a little tipsy, funny, friendly. I liked her and we chatted. She laughed at my jokes. When it was time for me to head off to the movie theatre, she paused, then jotted her name and number down on a napkin that was on the table. I thanked her, smiled, and ran off to jet to exotic locales like Gibraltar, Vienna, Tangiers, and Afghanistan.
Later, walking a little taller thanks to Dalton’s engrossing channeling of the literary Bond I had come to love, I took out the napkin from my pocket. It had Megan’s phone number scrawled across it, followed by the word “thanks.”
I have to admit that I felt a little like James Bond.
Hitchcock was a master at using visual effects. His films are not usually thought of in that way, but his use of optical effects struck me this time. The climax of The Man Who Knew too Much (the remake) for instance. It’s set in the Albert Hall in London. A foreign dignitary is to be assassinated at the end of the orchestral piece that is being performed. (In a neat touch, the conductor of the orchestra is listed on the Albert Hall poster as Bernard Herrman, the composer of the score, and is played by Herrmann in the sequence.) There is an establishing arial shot of the hall. If you look closely at the shot, it is a composite, with live action footage of the orchestra in one section, surrounded by a beautiful matte painting of the rest of the hall and its seated patrons. Likely, obtaining a real shot like that would be impossible in the confines of the venue. So Hitchcock makes the shot using visual effects.
There are other examples. The shot on the right is from North by Northwest. It’s the lobby of the UN building. The live action is in the lower portion of the frame. The rest is matte painting. Later in the film, there is a shot of the outside of this building. From a dizzying height, we see Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant) running from the building entrance (see below).
Another beautiful optical composite. Today, these would be CGI extensions of live footage. Hitch works with gorgeous matte paintings, done on glass and optically combined with live action footage. They are striking works of art, and examples of the director using all available technology to tell his story.
North by Northwest is a typical Hitchcock “wrong man” story, but it’s also the closest we can get to Hitch’s James Bond film. The first 007 movie was very nearly directed by Hitchcock and starring Richard Burton as James Bond. It was to have been an original story written for the screen. It never happened, and out of these early attempts to put Bond on screen came the 1965 film Thunderball, and likely an early death for author Ian Fleming due to intense stress from legal proceedings. But that’s another story, told at length in Peter Seller’s book The Battle for Bond. Regardless, North by Northwest is a fast and stylish spy thriller, laced with humour. Hitch took great pains on getting the script right and the story here is smooth and efficient. Within the first few minutes we are dropped into intrigue, with Grant’s character being mistaken for a government agent and whisked away to a confrontation with James Mason’s bad guy. It lacks the depth of his other masterworks, but it’s great fun.
Psycho, which followed North by Northwest, is another matter entirely. It’s Hitchcock’s only out-and-out horror film which, in an elaborate fakeout, begins as a typical crime drama. Though it’s often credited as one of the key sources for the “slasher” films that began in the ’80s, there are only two killings in the film. They are strikingly staged killings, though. The justly iconic shower murder is brilliantly staged, scored, and edited. A masterclass in filmmaking in a compact sequence. The second murder, of the private detective Arbogast, showcases Hitch’s recurring use of staircases to generate suspense. The character slowly pads up the steps, only to be quickly and unexpectedly struck when he reaches the top. The camera stays on him as he stumbles backwards and downwards. Following that, there is a wonderfully fluid use of camera movement that has the camera gliding up the stairs and positioning itself overhead at the top of the staircase as Norman Bates carries his mother from her room and down. Macabre, unsettling, brilliant.
Following my viewing of Psycho, I put on the Criterion Blu Ray of Georges Clouzou’s gothic masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. Released in 1960, the same year as Psycho, this is a haunting and still-graphic film that signalled a move of the centre of gravity of the horror picture from America to Europe.
But that’s another story.
For Xmas this year I got Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, a 15-film Blu Ray boxset and I’ve been slowly making my way through this impressive set. So far I’m struck by how well Hitchcock’s films are visually designed and written. I have previously noted the visual invention of his movies, but not the latter.
With the 1942 Saboteur there is a further working out, following on from his breakthrough The 39 Steps, of the Hitchcock storyline of the “wrong man.” Barry Kane is a worker at a factory that produces armaments for WWII rushes to help put out a fire at that factory. He’s handed a fire extinguisher, which he then gives to a coworker who is fighting the fire. His friend burns to death in the expanding flames of the inferno. It later emerges that this extinguisher contained gasoline, and not fire retardant. He becomes the key suspect in the sabotage of the factory and goes on the run from the police to track down those responsible.
The script is precisely structured. It starts right in the action, and introduces a few key clues that Kane must follow up on. There are moments when Kane flashes back to an envelope he picked up off the floor after bumping into another factory worker. The words on this envelope, and the identity of the man it belongs to, becomes the slender thread Kane has to follow. The importance of the memory of an earlier event, and the protagonist thinking back to wring significance out of it, is a plot element that features heavily in the Italian giallo films of the ’70s. These were stylish mystery-thiller-horror hybrids that owed a partial debt to Hitchcock. However, Hitch’s films showed a careful, structured approach to plot that giallos mostly lacked, and it’s this aspect that stuck out on this viewing of the first seven films of the boxset.
The director’s favourite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt was one of the movies I hadn’t seen. It’s ingenious and sly in how it subtly injects corruption into the heart of a “perfect” suburbia. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, coming to stay at the home of his sister’s family, which his smart niece, also called Charlie. The zestful Charlie longs for a break from the boredom of her domestic existence and was composing a telegram to Uncle Charlie when notice of his coming to stay happened to arrive. To Charlie, this is no coincidence and speaks to a telepathic bond between them.
This light tinge of the supernatural, never fully explored as a plot element but present in the mix, pops up again in Hitch’s masterful Vertigo. In that film, the subtle supernatural element is the possibility that the Hitchcock Blonde, Kim Novak’s Madelaine, is the reincarnation of a woman who died decades before, and that the tragic end to that persons life infects the present. This is another element that the giallo films take and heighten. As in the blind protagonist’s seemingly extrasensory perception in Cat o’ Nine Tails, and the medium’s telepathic detection of a killer in the auditorium in Deep Red, both films by giallo master Dario Argento.
I’d forgotten how stunningly gorgeous a film Vertigo is. The photography is radiant, with the scarlet blood red walls of a restaurant fairly popping off the screen in one scene. Saul Bass’ striking title sequence, which gives tantalizing hints of the story to come using pure image, is a sumptuous piece of pop art in its own right. And there’s even a brief moment of animation at the beginning of a dream sequence that I’d forgotten about. Almost like Freud meets Disney. Bernard Herrman’s haunting music turn the film into a beautifully atmospheric noir fever dream. I recommend watching this on Blu Ray. The colours vibrate with life and detail.
So far, the only real disappointment is The Trouble with Harry. A slow, talky black comedy that lacks true wit and has almost none of the Master’s visual flair. It’s easy to see why it flopped at the box office when it was released.
Onwards. The two up next in the set are North by Northwest and Psycho.
In Danse Macabre, his nonfiction work on horror in books, film, and tv, Stephen King noted that the fans of horror films are like miners for gold. They dig methodically and patiently through tons and tons of dirt just to get that one little gold nugget that makes it all worthwhile. The American indie horror film Stake Land is one of those nuggets.
Sort of a cross between The Road and The Walking Dead, this is a postapocalyptic horror film that follows a band of survivors across a decaying America haunted by vampires. The two main characters are a boy, Martin (Connor Paolo) and a harsh, enigmatic loner, “Mister” (Nick Damici), who rescues the kid after his family is slaughtered by vampires in the opening sequence. The duo set out across a bleak, wasted landscape in search of “New Eden” (Canada) which they hope offers a chance to survive. The vampires prowl at night, savage, animal-like creatures, single-minded and remorseless in their search for blood. An early moment with a vampire feeding off a dead baby pushes the envelope of graphic horror and signals the vampires as a relentless, mindless force of evil. Complicating things is the fact that vampires are not the only creatures to worry about. There is a band of religious fanatics who view the vampires as God’s agents who are doing the divine work of bringing about the apocalypse. And they are happy to facilitate the end of the world, even dropping vampires from a helicopter onto a peaceful, fortified town. Martin and Mister travel across this blasted world, picking up the odd straggler to join their group. They move doggedly onwards, Mister teaching Martin the ways of the vampire killer.
Stake Land is written, filmed, and acted with utter conviction. There’s not a single moment that pushes into winking comedy or that jumps the rails into implausibility. Much of it, if not all, looks like it was filmed on location. It uses stark landscapes and decaying buildings as backdrops, creating a tangible sense of a world that has gone to hell. The performances are all naturalistic and believable (including, surprisingly, Kelly McGillis). And the film ultimately becomes very touching and, thankfully, hopeful, in spite of the vast number of characters that die in unpleasant ways. The vampires and the human monsters are convincing and scary. What the film lacks in originality, it makes up for with the obvious care and intelligence that went into its making.
Stake Land is highly recommended, a true gift for us patient horror fans who suffer through much dreck to get a gem like this.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.
Horror Express is a cheap but nifty, fast paced, and unpredictable slice of ’70s Euro horror. A Spain-UK co-production from 1972, the film pairs genre vets Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a story that begins as standard monster-on-the-loose fare, albeit in a unique location, and turns into something quite different. Lee stars as Alexander Saxton, an anthropologist who discovers a prehistoric apeman frozen in a cave in Manchuria at the turn of the 20th century. Packed into a crate, the icy creature is loaded onto the Transiberian Express. The creature, of course, thaws out and escapes from the crate, stalking passengers aboard the train. But the apeman is far more than it appears.
The creature has a unique way of killing. Its eyes glow red and it sucks the memories and knowledge from its victims through their eyes, blanching the pupils and leaving the brains “as smooth as a baby’s bottom” (as is revealed when Cushing’s Dr. Wells performs an autopsy — his surgical training for the Hammer Frankenstein movies must have come in handy for this sequence). This means that the apeman gets smarter with each killing and acquires new skills. After killing a thief, for instance, it can pick a lock to facilitate its escape. In an out-of-left-field twist worthy of the X-Files it’s revealed that this is not an apeman after all.
A great piece of trash entertainment, Horror Express belies its low budget with a briskly-paced and unusual story, colourful period setting, and quality acting. Cushing and Lee, teamed up so often for films for Hammer and Amicus, work beautifully together. In an interview for John Brosnan’s book The Horror People, Cushing remarked on how much he adored doing the film and the two actors’ warm offscreen friendship shines through in the amiable performances. In the last third of the film, Telly Savalas shows up and chews the scenery as a Cossack officer, considerably livening things up for his brief screen time. The film hurtles along like the titular express, and by the time we get to the literal cliffhanging ending we’ve gone from monster movie to demon possession flick to eon-spanning SF to zombie film to disaster epic. When a character near the end has a brief monologue about how they contain within them the “entire history of the earth” then you know you’ve ended up in a very different place than the beginning of the movie. For a cheap genre film, the screenplay has a streak of crazed genre-blending ambition, combining John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There and Hammer’s Nigel Kneale-scripted The Abominable Snowman in a plot that anticipates some of the storylines in Chris Carter’s The X-Files.
This being a cheap ’70s genre flick, of course there’s tat. Though the apeman is wisely kept in shadow for many scenes, there’s a couple of wonderful moments where it steps into light and looks like it’s wearing a rather hairy sweater. The glowing red eye effects are right out of a Halloween costume. Director Eugenio Martin, in the spirit of ’70s European genre filmmakers like Jess Franco, amusingly overrelies on zooms in and out. The shots of the train hurtling down the track are quite obviously a model. And yet….all this just adds to the charm of the film.
The period gothic settings of the Hammer films were hugely influential on the horror genre of that era. Horror Express clearly attempts to ape (ha!) the Hammer look and feel in its costumes and set decoration. Much like Hammer, there is an ingenious use of limited sets. Apparently there was one train car that was redressed for the various sets, something that was done seamlessly, much like Bernard Robinson did for the studio that dripped blood. The efficient use of set decoration and costuming give the film a modestly lavish look that helps disguise the stingy budget. Staging most of the film on a train helps contain costs, of course, but also adds a feeling of claustrophobia. And anyway, how many other films have used a train as a setting for horror? I can only think of the dreadful slasher film Terror Train. Strange, as it seems a natural setting for a horror flick.
To top things off, composer John Cavacas contributes a wonderful, quintessentially ’70s score. The title sequence begins with the eerie, whistled melody that is carried over into the entire soundtrack. It’s reminiscent of Morricone and Goblin, with a twang of electric guitar and exotic Russian and Chinese stylings, and adds immensely to the film.
I saw Horror Express as a nipper, about 12 or 13 years old I think, on BBC tv in the UK. Back then, of course, television was the only way outside of the cinema where you could watch movies, being pre-VHS tape. So when a horror film came on, for a young genre movie fan it was an event. Plus, my parents actually allowing me to stay up and watch it made it doubly special. At this point I’d seen hardly any Hammer films, so this was likely the first pairing of Lee and Cushing that I saw. The ape man and the red eye/white eye/bleeding eye imagery stayed with me for years after, and I ended up buying a cheap videotaped copy of the film, which had inadvertantly lapsed into public domain. So it was with a bit of trepidation as to how the film would hold up that I popped the brand new Blu Ray disc of the film into the player the other night. I’m happy to report that the film holds up, at least for those of us who are not stuffed-shirt film snobs, and that Severin’s disc is fabulous. The high def transfer is crisp and sharp, with the occasional print damage merely adding to the grindhouse feel.
All in all, it’s retro horror as comfort food, and a reminder that sometimes cheap genre cinema can be somewhat bold and enduring.