Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Let loose the Kraken!"

I’ve been experiencing a bit of a movie trend lately. A couple of months ago, I had a hankering for a giant monster movie, so I watched one of my favorites, 20 Million Miles to Earth. Then in February, actor Lionel Jeffries died and I decided to watch my favorite Jeffries performance, First Men in the Moon. Last night, I watched the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans because I’ve been seeing the trailer for the upcoming remake and hadn’t watched the original in many years. All of these movies have one thing in common – Ray Harryhausen, the special effects master who is a beloved icon to people who, like me, grew up watching science fiction, fantasy and horror films.

A good deal of buzz preceded the release of Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen’s previous two movies had been 1974's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Clash of the Titans would mark Harryhausen’s return to Greek mythology, the subject of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), the movie that many people agree contains his very best work. That, combined with the simple fact that it was a new Harryhausen movie (no matter who directs, writes, produces or stars, any movie that features Harryhausen’s special effects is a “Harryhausen movie”), created a great deal of anticipation.

I saw it the week it opened, and while I didn’t think it was his best work and the movie itself, aside from Harryhausen's effects, was rather weak, I was still entertained. Most of the critics were not and didn’t hesitate to express their disdain. It felt a little like they were attacking a member of my family and I kind of took those reviews personally – probably more personally than I would have taken them if they had attacked a member of my family. Although it was not Harryhausen’s best work, Clash of the Titans unfortunately turned out to be his last.

Watching it today in 2010 is a very different experience from watching it the week it was released in 1981. For one thing, my high school graduation had taken place only days before – I was a teenager and still had a teenager’s perceptions and tastes. For another, a lot has changed in nearly 30 years. Harryhausen’s effects, left in the dust by the digital age, now seem stiff and antiquated. The memory of how mind-blowing they appeared to me in my childhood makes the reality of how they look today rather ... melancholy. But in spite of that, in spite of the movie’s weaknesses, it still delights the 12-year-old boy in me, the kid who used to drop whatever he was doing when a Harryhausen movie aired on TV.

Clash of the Titans has the biggest cast of any Harryhausen movie: Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Undress – er, um, I mean Andress, and Harry Hamlin five years before he donned a suit for L.A. Law. Unfortunately, the script by Beverley Cross gives them some pretty creaky dialogue to recite. They do their best, but still, it’s not much to work with.

As I mentioned earlier, Harryhausen’s effects don’t hold up well these days. If you didn’t grow up watching his work and don’t have the sentimental attachment to it that so many of us do, it might make you wince. Even by 1981, it was a bit outdated. But if you’re like me and have childhood memories filled with his Cyclops, his seven-headed hydra, the giant octopus that destroyed the Golden Gate bridge, the Ymir’s rampage in Rome, flying saucers over Washington, D.C., the giant bees on Mysterious Island, the tyrannosaurus rex that menaced a scantily clad Raquel Welch, that army of angry, sword-wielding skeletons – if these are some of the threads that make up the fabric of your childhood, and if you haven’t seen Clash of the Titans in a long time, then I suspect that, also like me, you’ll be pretty forgiving, and you’ll smile a lot.

While watching this movie for the first time in many years, I made some observations I hadn’t made before:

- Why can’t human beings concoct gods that act like gods instead of like human beings? They don’t even act like well-behaved human beings! That has been the case with all of our gods, from the ancients to those worshiped today.

- Is that really Ursula Andress or a somewhat lifelike mannequin?

- This is the only movie ever made in which you can hear Sir Laurence Olivier say, “Let loose the Kraken!”

- Oh, my god, bare breasts in a Harryhausen movie! Where were they when I was a kid?

- Perseus isn’t very bright. But I doubt that gets in the way of his social life.

- Medusa’s tits look fake.

- Calibos bears a disturbing resemblance to a younger, beefier Larry King.

Harryhausen said of his retirement from filmmaking, “The thing that finally persuaded me to quit was that I saw that the nature of the hero was changing. When I was growing up we had heroes such as Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and David Niven, real gentlemen on the screen. Now, all you have is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and all those people who solve problems with their fists. It's a different world and I sometimes feel I'm not part of it. Say what you like about Hollywood in my time, but they were in the business of happy endings, of escapism. Now, you have to sit through two hours of people dying, you know. Today, everything's so graphic it's rather unnerving.”

This June, Ray Harryhausen will turn 90. I don’t know if he’ll see the remake of Clash of the Titans, but if he does, I hope it’s a pleasant experience for him. Personally, I don’t hold much hope for it. Hollywood has not been making me a happy camper in recent years. I suspect it will be achingly loud, dizzyingly fast-moving, and take itself way too seriously.

There is a conversation with Harryhausen on the Clash of the Titans DVD in which he discusses the influence his work has had on so many. I’m glad he’s aware of it and that it brings him joy. His work has fed the imaginations of Hollywood heavyweights like Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and Mirren. But those are only the famous guys. It also enriched the childhoods of countless millions of regular, non-famous folks who are better people because of it.

Gone are the days of “Dynamation,” which looked so eye-popping back then but now appears stiff and jerky. The new Clash of the Titans will feature seamless CGI in skull-cracking 3-D (soon, everything will be in 3-D -- even you and me!) and will probably do blockbuster business. I wonder if it will lead to a remake of Jason and the Argonauts. If so, I hope they don’t use motion-capture technology to create an army of angry, sword-wielding Keira Knightleys.


  1. Harryhausen films were a big part of my childhood, being frequently shown on the Saturday creature features, and Clash of the Titans was a great movie, even if I could later admit that the writing wasn't so good.

    But after seeing the trailer for the new version, I had a different reaction. I was excited to see that there would be a revival of the story of Perseus. I was even more excited when I saw the new interpretation of the Kraken. The new design remains faithful to the Harryhausen version, which was not "right" in the mythological sense. But it still looked scary enough when I was a kid, and I'm glad that today's younger audiences will get a chance to see a story that inspired me and got me started on a lifelong study of mythology.

    Maybe it isn't Harryhausen's kind of movie, but it is inspired by his work, and people like me will always remember that he was a true giant in the industry long before 3D made anything possible.

  2. Great blog, Ray. As a guy who has not spent the past ten years playing games ten hours a day on an X-box or computer, I'm totally left behind by a lot of today's movie action sequences. And the ability to make you see virtually anything with cgi seems to be an excuse to abandon logic. I just watched Star Trek 2009. Can anyone tell me why, on the Romulan ship, you had to jump from platform to platform, like mesas in the road-runner's canyon just to get around? I bought the DVD, so I suppose I could run the chaotic fight scenes on slo-mo and have a ghost of a chance of perceiving, and thereby comprehending them. I, for one, will be glad when directors stop going for the jittery hand-held camera effect, especially in conjunction with their speeded up, already dizzying cgi fight sequences. Before I can be entertained, I need to see what's happening, please. Harryhausen made you look AND let you see. The new guys could learn a few things from him.

  3. I saw Jason and the Argonauts at the Fox Warfield on Market Street. The movie was preceded by an organist playing while he arose from beneath the stage on a huge platform. Then there was the Movietone News. With somewhere between 300-500 kids in the theater (hey, I was a kid, and that's how I remember it), it was not just a movie, it was an event. Loud, raucous, exciting.

    Jason and the Argonauts was thrilling. It took us on a trip, to ancient Greece. It scared us, made us wince, and made us roar with laughter. In unison. That was all Harryhausen!

    I never knew about him, or any particular directors, just the major actors of the day. Thanks Ray, for widening the screen for me. It has been shrinking over the years.

  4. I hate 3D and I'm disappointed to see that so many movies are 3D. I did not see Avatar because it wasn't available in the boring old 2D experience.

    Up until they popped with 3D crap, I had been excited to see the remake of Titans. That said, I loved the original. I loved all of those bad Hercules movies too, finding all of the lightning bolts, etc.

    I'm an old movie fan anyway. Sure, all of the cool effects now are awesome, but I like the plots of the older movies better.

    Incidentally, when I was a teenager, I called my mother The Kraken.

  5. I love Clash of the Titans : ) I'll see the remake, but I'm ready to have my heart broken.

  6. I finally saw the trailer for Clash in London when I went to see the Argentinian film, La mujer sin cabeza. I guess this is the way you fund small woman-directed films, by matching them with hollow mega-blockbusters. I have to say I laughed out loud. The bombast, will it never end? I think it just drives some of us (apparently a far too small number) to yearn for the quiet, subtle and beautiful (where are you, Bright Star?).

    I didn't go see the original Clash in the theatre because of the owl. I love owls and I thought the wacky mechanical owl was an attempt to bring in the youth market and as a youthful person, I was insulted (snooty boots that I was [cue Dylan]).

    Maybe when I finish my book, I'll finally get over the 3D atrocity that was Zemeckis' Beowulf, but I doubt it. Coraline demonstrated that it was possible to use 3D intelligently and subtly, but no one seems to have picked up that particular gauntlet.

  7. @Saranna -- dude, you rock, LOL. Kraken, heh heh.

  8. >> Now, you have to sit through two hours of people dying, you know. Today, everything's so graphic it's rather unnerving.

    This is so true, and honestly, this is where I see horror heading too. So sad. I treasure the tales that are more than just people dying and men acting out killing and protection fantasies. I wonder i these days of women being "equal" and just as heroic have made the males gender feel obsolete in their heroism fantasies.

    In other news, while I'm very excited to see the new Clash of the Titans I do still love the old version, and that is very likely leading to my excitement about this "update".

    Also, gods are poorly behaved humans because people need other people to relate to, and because the Greek/Roman gods in particular were often just as much of a warning to mere mortal as they were to be worshiped.

  9. Steven -- I enjoyed STAR TREK, but agree with you on those points. JJ Abrams is really bad at action scenes. I think he keeps a cameraman with cerebral palsy on retainer and brings him in to film all of his action scenes. Drives me crazy.

  10. Saranna -- LOL! The Kraken. Heh.

  11. K.A. Laity -- Oh, yes, I agree about the owl! I felt the same way! That damned thing looked like it came out of a Sharper Image catalog! It was like the R2D2 of Greek mythology! It was definitely there as a play for the youth market, and I resented that, too. But I was too much of a Harryhausen fan to let that keep me away.

  12. Michelle -- Heading? Actually, I think horror has been there since the '80s. It's very rare that horror movie comes along these days that I can tolerate or will even bother to watch. The trailers tell me everything I want to know -- more of the same. The horror genre in America has been bludgeoned to death by people with no imagination.

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