Ray Harryhausen was the maestro of stop-motion animation, often mixed with live action. The latest batch of Harryhausen films in HMV’s Premium Collection are three movies he did the special effects for during three different periods of his career. The first is The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, followed by The Valley of Gwangi and then finally Clash of the Titans.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was loosely based on a Ray Bradbury story, marking their only collaboration even though he and Harryhausen were friends since their teenage years in 1930s Los Angeles. As young men they were involved in the overlapping science and science fiction scene via the Science Fiction League, which was one of the first formal science fiction associations in the world. Obviously Harryhausen was a scientist of sorts—he needed the kinds of skills used in rocketry and electronics to create the special effects he made for films, a career trajectory he shared with occult rocket scientist Jack Parsons, also a member of the League. Although Harryhausen had worked on a few films previously, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was the first real “Harryhausen film.”
The studio contacted Bradbury to work on the script—which he then discovered was actually an uncredited adaptation of one of his own short stories! Their error resulted in actually having to pay him for the rights, although he isn’t credited for the final script. It has a very typical atomic monster film—it came out a few years before Godzilla and was a major influence on it. The monster has a definite resemblance to Godzilla, with the poster featuring a green dinosaur-like creature coming out of the sea with an atomic blast in the background. Harryhausen built the models at full scale, and it’s a fun bomb-gone-wrong monster movie.
The Valley of Gwangi came almost two decades later, after Harryhausen had made his name with classics like Jason and the Argonauts. It was his first feature post-One Million B.C., which is remembered more for Raquel Welch in her fur bikini than its quality as a movie. In The Valley of Gwangi, there’s a Wild West show in a border town in Mexico around the turn of the century, and its main performer, T.J., meets a palaeontologist who has found a miniature horse. They go to see its place of origin in the Forbidden Valley, where they find a lost world.
By this point the monster movie genre was pretty much dead, and Harryhausen had long since branched out to other projects, like his Greek myths series (there is also a long list of planned Harryhausen films that were never made). The Valley of Gwangi went out as half of a double bill with a biker film, probably not the best pairing. But as always there was a lot of love and care put into every stop-motion creature. It was the last dinosaur film made using that technique.
Clash of the Titans is awesome, but sadly was Harryhausen’s last film (he did pitch a sequel in 1984, but it didn’t go anywhere). He saw that there was a massive sea change in how special effects were being done, and his old-fashioned approach to animation was slowly becoming seen as passe. The acting in his films was usually not the greatest, but this film had a cast featuring some serious actors, including Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith and Clare Bloom, plus Laurence Olivier as Zeus. He wanted to go out on a high-quality note, so he went back to the classic myth of Theseus and threw a Kraken in (which isn’t really a Kraken). It plays loose with the mythology, but has a solid pace and is a great watch. It’s one of the few films based on Greek mythology that’s actually any good, a fact that always baffles me. It was also the only one of Harryhausen’s films to get a PG rating in the US, due to being slightly more violent.
Harryhausen was one the very few auteurs who were not actually a director. Hopefully there might be a return to some of his techniques someday. Each of the three discs, as typical with the Premium Collection, includes postcards. Clash of the Titans has a booklet, which I believe is the same as the one that comes with the US Digibook edition from a few years ago. All of the covers feature the original poster art, and they all come with Harryhausen interview. The featurette with Harryhausen and Bradbury reminiscing about their youth, which comes with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, is the best one.