, , , , , , , , , , ,

So, I’ve had Ray Harryhausen on the brain lately, though he’s never very far from my mind because I follow the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation‘s account on Twitter.

A few weeks ago, they were tweeting about a number of Harryhausen’s movies that would be airing in the UK over the bank holiday weekend. One of the films was “It Came From Beneath the Sea” — a fabulous sci-fi thriller from 1955 which features an amazing giant octopus created by Ray.

It also happened to be a film I had never seen. So that was my Tuesday night sorted out! Side note: I watched the colourized version, and while I normally don’t like to see the colourization of black and white films (or photography for that matter), this movie definitely benefited from the addition of colour!

The four-year anniversary of the animation legend’s death was earlier this month, and while I was programming some tweets for the day, I reread my previous post, “Creature Feature: Ray Harryhausen’s Mythical Menagerie“. Then a friend sent me a link to a Harryhausen article on one of my new favourite blogs: Wolfbane Blooms. A few days later, Wolfbane Blooms posted yet another Harryhausen article that really piqued my interest: “The 10 Best Ray Harryhausen Monsters“.

A list. You KNOW I love lists! And monsters. And Ray Harryhausen. Sooo… surely you know what’s coming now: My own top 10 list! Now, since Ray didn’t like using the term “monster” for his creations, I’m not going to limit my list to only the “monsters”. After all, not all of his creatures were baddies!

Ray Harryhausen is responsible for so many great creatures, from a gorilla (Mighty Joe Young, 1949), to dinosaurs (One Million Years B.C., 1966), to UFOs (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 1956), to Medusa (Clash of the Titans, 1981).

Allosaur from “One Million Years B.C.” (1966)

But despite the large selection, making my top 10 list wasn’t very difficult at all. Unlike my Twilight Zone Top 10 list that became a Top 25 list because I was having so much trouble narrowing them down!

Are there any other Ray Harryhausen fans reading today? As with all lists, I fully expect there to be many, many differences of opinion, but as I’ve said before, the differences are sometimes more fun than the similarities. There wasn’t a lot of overlap with the Wolfbane Blooms list, and honestly, that made it all the more fun to comment on.

If you are a fan of Ray’s dynamic Dynamation creations, feel free to share your own favourites in the comments below!


10. Kali
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was the second of three Sinbad films that Ray Harryhausen worked on, and it is chock full of creative creatures. One of the most impressive is Kali — a six-armed, sword-wielding animated statue of the Indian goddess.

Its design is impressive enough when standing still. But all the more so when it comes to life and swash-buckles with our hero, even going up a set of stairs, which must have been an absolute nightmare to animate.

9. Centaur
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

This centaur is a great example of Ray Harryhausen’s creative genius. There aren’t too many ways that you can make a creature like a centaur original or different: It’s a half man, half horse. Not much you can do to that. But not only does this centaur have a primitive and barbaric quality to him, he’s also only got one eye — a cyclops!

I’m not entirely sure why the Centaur made my list instead of a few other creatures who I really do enjoy equally as much. Like the snake woman from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, or the tiny bat-like/humanoid Homonicus in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Ray Harryhausen with the Snake Woman model from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958)

My #9 slot was a toss-up between these three, but for reasons that even I’m not quite certain of, the Centaur won the spot!

8. Cyclops
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

I’m a sucker, really, for any mythological creature. So when I first saw Harryhausen’s impressive one-eyed inhabitant of the Island of Colossa, I knew it would be hard to top this.

When Sinbad and his crew land on the Island, they encounter an evil sorcerer named Sokurah, who is being chased by the giant Cyclops. Sinbad rescues him, but in the melee, Sokurah loses his magic lamp — you guessed it — to the creature.

It’s an excellent film, and we get to see the Cyclops more than once throughout. And it makes a truly fantastic sound, which only adds to the charm of the creature — almost like an elephant growling.

For some reason, the Cyclops always reminds me of Frankenstein’s monster: It’s not evil by nature, but when mankind gets involved, it forces the creature to defend itself. Maybe it’s that sympathetic quality that I find so endearing about Harryhausen’s Cyclops.

7. Harpies
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jason and the Argonauts is my favourite Harryhausen film, and these screechy winged terrors are just a triumph of ingenuity and creativity. You can tell that Ray really put a lot of thought into his Harpies.

In Greek mythology, harpies were half human, half bird creatures of the female persuasion. They were referred to as the “hounds of Zeus” because their purpose was to torment those whom the gods wished to punish. In the film, the Harpies have been sent to blind and torment King Phineus of Thrace. In exchange for information, Jason captures the Harpies, thus ending the King’s torture.

Concerning the Harpies design, said Harryhausen in the book “Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life”: “In the legend, they are described as having the face of a woman and the body of a vulture, with their feet and fingers armed with sharp claws. As always, I had to take some liberties with this description, making them bat-like to give a more practical and menacing appearance.”

6. Dragon
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Another impressive creature from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the chained dragon. The dragon guards the lair to sorcerer Sokurah’s cave on the island of Colossa.

One of the best scenes of any Harryhausen film is the guard-dragon vs the Cyclops. (see video embedded below). When Sinbad and Parisa try to escape the dragon’s lair, they’re quickly chased inside by the irate Cyclops. In an effort to save their lives, Sinbad pits the two monsters against each other, loosening the dragon’s chain enough that it can break free and battle the Cyclops.

Once again, it’s possible that I feel bad for the dragon, who at first is chained so tightly to the wall that he can barely move. Plus, and please forgive me, Mr. Harryhausen, as I’m sure you were going for a menacing creature of destruction… this dragon is just so cute! I’m sorry, I don’t know what it is about him, but I just want to kiss him and love him and squeeze him and call him George.

I don’t know, to me, the dragon has a wonderful “faithful dog” quality about him. And he kills the Cyclops, so he’s pretty bad a** too. But at the end of the day, the main reason he made my list is because, simply put, he is a dragon. A dragon. Who doesn’t love a dragon?!

5. Dioskilos
Clash of the Titans (1981)

Regular readers already know that I’m a fan of werewolves, and close friends know that I’m a fan of real wolves in general. If you crossed the two — werewolves and real wolves — you might be left with something a lot like Dioskilos.

In Clash of the Titans, Dioskilos is the two-headed dog who guards Medusa’s lair on the Isle of the Dead. He’s certainly based on Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of the Underworld in Greek mythology. According to the snippet of an interview with Ray Harryhausen included in the video below, Ray felt that three heads would just look too clumsy, so he “Cut one head off.” Which I think was a brilliant move because it sets Ray’s creation apart. And the hell hound is certainly frightening enough with just two heads!

4. The Figurehead
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

If any of Ray’s creatures could give me nightmares, it’s this one. There’s just something supremely unsettling about an inanimate object suddenly coming to life. To me, that’s infinitely more terrifying than any living monster could ever be. I mean, how do you kill something that’s not even alive?

In an effort to retrieve a map in Sinbad’s possession, the film’s antagonist — the evil magician, Prince Koura — uses his black magic to bring the ghoulish figurehead to life. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but watching this wooden lady slowly pry herself from Sinbad’s ship is a masterful piece of animation, and a sure-fire way to give a little kid nightmares. And for that, Mr. Harryhausen, I thank you.

I could only find one video clip of the figurehead (what??), and unfortunately WordPress wouldn’t let me embed it. But you can click through to the video clip here.

3. Hydra
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

In Greek mythology, the hydra has nine heads. But the beast in Revelation has seven, so I’m fine with the fact that Harryhausen chose to go with two fewer than the myth specifies.

In the myth, the second labor of Hercules was to kill the Lernean Hydra. A task that became infinitely more difficult when Hercules discovered that whenever he cut off one head, two more would spring up in its place. Hercules (with the help of Iolaus) eventually kills the not-so-immortal-after-all beast by essentially cauterizing the tendons in each of the hydra’s necks once the heads have been lopped off.

Harryhausen goes off script. In Jason and the Argonauts, the Hydra is the guardian of the Golden Fleece (the prize that Jason has been seeking) — and it’s Jason who slays the beast by stabbing it through the heart. Oh, and then fire rains down from the heavens, engulfing the Hydra’s body in flames. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty darn cool!

This is one of, if not THE, most impressive of Harryhausen’s model creations. The animation on the Hydra is incredible. Each of those seven heads moves totally independent of the others, not to mention it has a massive articulated tail that might as well be another head as far as animation difficulty is concerned. But I haven’t even told you yet about the best part of this sinister serpent. Stay tuned for it in my #1 pick…

2. Medusa
Clash of the Titans (1981)

Is there any mythological creature more recognizable than Medusa? She was a monster known as a Gorgon, with live snakes for hair, and a gaze that could turn mortal men into stone. One incarnation of the myth paints Medusa as a victim of the goddess Athena: A once beautiful woman turned into a hideous monster by a vengeful god.

We don’t know the background origin of Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa in Clash of the Titans, and frankly, she’s just so amazing that I don’t even care. I’d just like to reiterate that these are all stop-motion models, posed by hand, hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of times. Medusa is an absolute marvel, showcasing the talent that a then 60+ year-old Harryhausen possessed.

From the swaying snakes on her head, to the rattle on the tip of her tail, no detail has been overlooked. The way Medusa moves is mesmerizing. And her glowing eyes (which also blink — are you kidding me!?) command attention. At least until Perseus swiftly severs her head with a sword.

1. Skeleton Army
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

And finally, my #1 pick! Any regular readers probably knew that the Skeleton Army from Jason and the Argonauts was going to top my list. And if you didn’t, well you should probably go read my other Harryhausen post!

We actually see this creepy skeleton design a few years earlier in 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. But Harryhausen really kicks it up a few notches for this film by having seven skeletons instead of just one.

“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958)

One of the coolest things about them though, is where they come from. And here we circle back to what I said in my #3 pick, the Hydra. Unbeknownst to Jason, after he slays the Hydra, Aeetes orders his men to collect the Hydra’s teeth. When the teeth are tossed on the ground, the skeleton army is born: Hence their name, The Children of the Hydra’s Teeth.

The battle with the skeleton army is the climax of the film, and it’s an absolute wonder of animation. How Jason and the Argonauts was completely snubbed by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for even a nomination in special effects is beyond me!

Harryhausen describes the complicated logistics of filming the iconic scene (also from “Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life”): “Each of the model skeletons was about eight to 10 inches high, and six of the seven were made for the sequence. The remaining one was a veteran from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”, slightly repainted to match the new members of the family. When all the skeletons have manifested themselves to Jason and his men, they are commanded by Aeetes to “Kill, kill, kill them all”, and we hear an unearthly scream. What follows is a sequence of which I am very proud. I had three men fighting seven skeletons, and each skeleton had five appendages to move in each separate frame of film. This meant at least 35 animation movements, each synchronized to the actors’ movements. Some days I was producing less than one second of screen time; in the end the whole sequence took a record four and a half months.”

No matter what your favourite creature, I think we can all agree that Ray Harryhausen had a creativity and skill unlike any other. He was a true pioneer in the world of animation, yes. But part of why I enjoy highlighting his work, and talking about his accomplishments, is because first and foremost, the man was an artist. He worked in many mediums, but a true “artist” isn’t defined by any medium or style. Being an artist means you have a unique vision, a natural talent, and the passion and desire to see the most incredible musings of your mind come to life, be it in 2-D or 3-D. Ray was a rare breed who worked equally well in both.

In Twilight Zone’s “A Game of Pool”, Jonathan Winters’ character Fats Brown says, “As long as people talk about you, you don’t really die. As long as people speak your name, you continue. The legend doesn’t die because the man does.” If this sentiment were ever to apply to anyone, it’s Ray Harryhausen, who lives on through his magical creatures and has, in a sense, achieved the immorality which eluded them in his wonderful tales of adventure and lore. ♦