In anticipation of the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake, I sat down and watched the 1981 original to enjoy Ray Harryhausen’s still very impressive stop-motion effects. Then I began to fondly recall all of the other mythological and prehistoric beasts that he’s brought to life and thought, hey, I should do a quick top ten list to celebrate my favorite Harryhausen creations!
Now, choosing ten creatures, aliens, monsters, and/or dinosaurs from Harryhausen’s impressive filmography was not an easy task. I found myself really hard-pressed to limit my choices. So before I list them off, here are some honorable mentions that didn’t make the final cut:
THE MINOTON – A golden, mechanical Minotaur that was created by the evil Queen Zenobia to be her “hired muscle” in SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER. The poor Minoton does not get to do a whole helluva lot, and ends up getting crushed by a huge stone while serving his creator.
THE DRAGON – Though it defeated the mighty Cyclops in battle, this four-legged, fire-breathing menace from 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD has since been forever eclipsed by his one-eyed opponent. While the dragon’s design is nothing new, Harryhausen’s work on this mythical beast is nothing short of fantastic!
THE KRAKEN – Oh yeah, I can hear the complaints now. “The Kraken didn’t make it into your top ten? Are you serious?!” Sorry gang, I really enjoy seeing this big boy make his grand entrance in CLASH OF THE TITANS, but a huge favorite of mine he is not.
KALI – Egads! Another one that should have made my list, but didn’t?! This multi-armed menace from THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD gives the heroic sailor and his crew a lot of trouble! Their battle is one of the greatest sword fights ever rendered on film!
THE YMIR – Yes, the star of 2 MILLION MILES TO EARTH didn’t make the list either, though he originally was going to. This has to be the most tragic creature that Harryhausen ever brought to life. It comes to Earth only to be poked, prodded, and attacked by just about everyone it encounters, until it eventually flips out and has to be put down. Poor Ymir, we hardly knew ye.
So if those are just the honorable mentions, then what fantastical creatures and beings made the final cut? Well let’s take a look!
In the 1950s, alien invasion films were a dime a dozen. This era in sci-fi film making resulted in numerous classics like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and numerous Japanese space epics, such as THE BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE and THE MYSTERIANS! One of my absolute favorites from this time period though is EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, which featured some of the coolest flying saucers ever put on film!
The most impressive thing about the alien ships in the film is that they are in constant movement. (Oddly enough the aliens themselves, realized by men in goofy costumes, are far less interesting than their ships.) These aren’t hubcaps or pie tins on fishing line, these are mechanical harbingers of death that rotate in the air and deliver mass genocide with their satellite dish death-rays!
While the destruction caused by the aliens’ death rays is impressive, the real showstopper is the climax where the alien ships begin to fall out of the air when humanity rallies against them with a secret weapon. Seeing saucers crash into the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument is more than worth the price of admission, and easily earns the film’s flying death machines the number ten spot on this list!
9. THE RHEDOSAURUS
Movie of Origin: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
Trivia Facts: This movie was based off of a Ray Bradbury short story entitled “The Fog Horn.” Also, the Rhedosaurus made a small cameo in 1977’s PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS, where it is killed by a very hungry T-rex!
When you think of atomic monsters, Godzilla is usually the first cinematic beastie that comes to mind. However, the Big-G and other gigantic atom-age monsters owe a lot of their existence (and success) to the star of 1953’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS! A (fictional) species of dinosaur known as a Rhedosaurus is awakened from suspended animation after an atomic bomb is tested in the Arctic Circle.
Eventually the mighty reptile makes its way to civilization, and throws a prehistoric tantrum when it realizes that us puny humans are now the dominant species on Earth. The dinosaur’s rampage finally comes to end at Coney Island, after scientists blast the creature with a gun that fires a special “radioactive isotope.”
The Rhedosaurus is one of the first giant monsters from Earth’s past to terrorize modern man, following in the footsteps of its forefathers: The totally pissed off Brontosaurus from the original (silent) THE LOST WORLD, and the immortally beloved giant ape KING KONG.
The Rhedosaurus was one of Harryhausen’s first creations and though it lacked the personality of some of the other creatures he brought to life, it still gets big points for being a huge inspiration to the original creators of Godzilla!
Let that sink in for a minute: Had Ray Harryhausen never created the Rhedosaurus, we may never have had Godzilla! Scary stuff!
8. THE GIANT OCTOPUS
Movie of Origin: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955)
Trivia Fact: To save money, Ray Harryhausen only gave the aquatic horror from this film six appendages instead of eight.
One of the earliest memories I have from my childhood is watching all sorts of awesome classic creature features during TNT’s Summer “MonsterVision” marathons, way before Joe Bob Briggs arrived on the scene with his drive-in totals and his awesomely busty sidekick, “Honey, the Mail Girl.”
IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA was one of the usual suspects, and I loved to watch Harryhausen’s “hex-topus” trash San Francisco and violently slap fleeing citizens into the pavement with its mighty tentacles. For the uninitiated, IT is a classic tale of nature running amok, due to mankind’s careless attempts to further scientific knowledge.
Atomic bomb tests at sea have polluted the food source of a giant cephalopod, and have chased the creature from its territorial waters. Now angry as hell, with a massive hunger to boot, the tentacled terror begins pulling ships beneath the sea and eventually besieges San Francisco, where it wrecks the Golden Gate Bridge!
After its daring attack, the Kraken-sized octopus slumbers in San Francisco Bay where it is killed by a specially designed torpedo. IT features some of Harryhausen’s best work, which belies the limited budget he had, and has some amazing scenes of death and destruction.
Decades later, film makers still have yet to create a giant octopus film that comes close to this Harryhausen epic with all their fancy CGI technology. (Ok, I’ll admit that I found DEEP RISING enjoyable, and the Kraken in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels was pretty awesome!)
Sorry foolish mortals, but you cannot outdo “The Harryhausen” with your soulless machines!
Movie of Origin: CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)
Trivia Fact: CLASH OF THE TITANS was the last film that both Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer worked on.
Seeing as how the idea for this top ten list was inspired by the remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS, you knew that something from the 1981 flick was going to pop up here. Out of all the mythological beasts from the epic original, none impressed me more than Medusa. With her constantly writhing head full o’ snakes, her scaly reptilian boobs, rattlesnake tail, and deadly bow & arrow, she was a real terror to behold!
Having watched the original recently, I found it to be a bit long and dull in some parts, and though there are all sorts of beasts in this film (a giant Vulture, Pegasus, Calibos, giant scorpions, the Kraken, et al.), Medusa’s portion of the film stands out as the most interesting and atmospheric of the bunch. Medusa is one cold, calculated witch, and proves to be the most menacing monster in the film!
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is probably my all-time favorite Harryhausen flick and boasts one of his most famous and memorable creations: The bronze giant known as Talos. This colossus resides on Crete and is, at first sight, completely harmless. But all that changes when a greedy Hercules decides to steal some treasures from the pedestal that Talos is resting on.
Said treasures belong to the Greek gods, and as soon as Herc grabs a few items, the mighty Talos awakens and chases after the would-be thief and his shipmates. Jason and his crew quickly set sail in the Argo, but are unable to escape in time as Talos blocks their only route and shakes their legendary boat to pieces.
With nowhere to run, Jason and his brave men battle and defeat Talos after discovering its (literal) “Achilles Heel.” Afterwards, they must rebuild their ship, and head back on course for the legendary “Golden Fleece!”
Talos is remarkable to watch, but believe it or not, good ole Ray Harryhausen manages to deliver far more impressive stop-motion monstrosities as this film goes on. You’ll be seeing some of them further along, so keep reading!
Movie of Origin: THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969)
Trivia Fact: “Gwangi” is a Native American word for “lizard.”
Dinosaurs and cowboys make for a pretty good combo in THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, which succeeds where its predecessor, THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN failed. GWANGI is a total blast and features a variety of cool creatures, ranging from the adorable Eohippus, to the mighty and vengeful T-Rex. The movie starts off a bit slow, but really picks up once a group of cowboys discovers a hidden valley, blows open the entrance with dynamite, and blindly charges into a prehistoric landscape full of dinosaurs.
The biggest and baddest of the thought-to-be-extinct denizens is a T-Rex (or is he an Allosaurus?) named Gwangi, and they manage to capture the ornery carnivore in one of the most astonishing moments in Harryhausen history. (The famous “Roping of Gwangi” sequence!) They bring the dinosaur back to civilization to be put on display, but Gwangi breaks free, and goes on a rampage until incinerated within the confines of a church.
Cripes! When will people learn that showcasing a giant creature for profit is just a plain old bad idea?!
4. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG
Movie of Origin: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Trivia Fact: Though Willis O’Brien gets top-billing for the effects, Ray Harryhausen did nearly all the stop-motion effects in this film!
With the success of KING KONG, it wasn’t too surprising that other giant ape films would follow. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG differs from most of those though, because this isn’t the usual story of a creature kidnapped from its home and exploited for money. (Though that naturally does happen when Joe is put on display at a nightclub, where he plays tug-of-war with a group of circus strongmen.)
Joe is brought over from Africa, willingly enough, by a woman named Jill Young who raised the gorilla since it was a baby. He proves to be quite docile, until one night when a trio of drunks abuse the poor ape, causing it to go well… apeshit!
Joe trashes the nightclub, and fights a pack of lions (what club keeps real lions on display?!) until Jill finally arrives to calm him down. Seeing as how Joe could very well be a menace to society, an order is given to have him “put down.” Jill tries to sneak him back to Africa with a little help from some friends, but the plan gets botched and soon Joe is on the loose in L.A.!
Luckily, Joe comes across a flaming orphanage, and rescues all the children from the burning structure, thus putting him in the good graces of the law. Unlike the primal fury exhibited by Kong, Joe is quite gentle and Harryhausen does an incredible job of giving this tamer ape some real character and emotion.
And though it wasn’t a financial success in its day, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG has definitely withstood the test of time and is, to me, just as much a classic as the original KING KONG!
3. THE CYCLOPS
Movie of Origin: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958)
Trivia Fact: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD was the first feature film utilizing stop-motion animation to be in color!
Out of all the monsters in Harryhausen’s “Sinbad Trilogy,” the most memorable one for me is the Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. This single-eyed mythical beast resided on the island of Colossa, and guards a magical lamp that contains a genie. Sinbad the sailor ends up crossing swords with the mighty Cyclops because an evil wizard named Sokurah steals said lamp and turns to Sinbad and his men for protection.
The brave sailors escape, but have to return to that accursed island because Sinbad’s love interest, the beautiful Princess Parissa, was cursed, and a major ingredient for the cure resides high in the mountains of the dreaded isle. Sinbad manages to blind and defeat one Cyclops, but luckily there was a spare elsewhere on Colossa.
However, this second Cyclops doesn’t fare much better as it ends up taking on Sokurah’s dragon (one of the honorable mentions at the start of this article) and perishes. Poor Cyclops… he was probably only one more day from retirement.
2. THE HYDRA
Movie of Origin: JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1966)
Trivia Fact: JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS was the first “A-List” Ray Harryhausen film, as all his previous movies were double-billed with other “B” movies.
Out of all the Greek myths, one of my favorites was Hercules’ battle with the Hydra! Finding that two new heads grew in the place of each one he took, ole Herc was stumped (pun intended!) until his nephew Iolaus said “Hey uncle, use a torch to burn the stumps after you chop off a head.” And thusly, Hercules completed his Second Labour.
Imagine my delight when I saw JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS for the first time and saw the multi-headed nightmare come slithering out of a cave to stop the heroic Jason from claiming the Golden Fleece!
Harryhausen’s Hydra is yet another testament to his amazing skills, as all seven heads and the creature’s tail are constantly moving in some of the smoothest stop-motion animation you will ever see! Although Jason doesn’t start lopping off heads, creating an even bigger threat for himself (not to mention a lot more work for Ray Harryhausen), his duel with the Hydra is still extremely satisfying to watch.
1. SKELETAL WARRIORS
Movies of Origin: THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINAD (1958) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1966)
Trivia Fact: It took Ray Harryhausen a whopping four months to fully animated the skeleton battle in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS!
Many of you already “have a bone to pick with me” over some of my choices I’m sure, but very few of you can deny the awesomeness of the amazing re-animated skeletal warriors seen in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS! In 7TH VOYAGE, the evil Sokurah animates a skeleton that was hanging from the ceiling of his dungeon/workshop of mystical wonders.The skeletal fiend then grabs a sword and shield, and gives Sinbad a lot of grief. However, as it is a skeleton under the control of a magician, it isn’t too bright and ends up falling to its doom, off the top of a staircase that leads nowhere! (Ouch, not a good sign when your undead minions die due to bad evil lair designs.)
While that was indeed an impressive display of visual effects for its time (Hell, I still think its incredible!) Ray Harryhausen totally outdid himself eight years later with the “children of the Hydra’s teeth!” Jason and two of his men, Castor and Phalerus, are cornered at some seaside ruins by King Aeetes, who suddenly produces a bag of Hydra teeth which he sews across the ground.
The teeth burrow in and seconds later, skeletons armed with swords and shields pop up and begin battling the trio of heroes. Castor and Phelerus fall in battle, and the beleaguered Jason is forced backwards toward the edge of a cliff. Seeing that he has no chance of victory, her takes a leap of faith and lands safely in the sea below, while his undead attackers simply vanish, never to be seen again.
Up to this point, Ray Harryhausen’s work has been great, but animating over half a dozen skeletons and having them interact on film with flesh and blood actors must have been a daunting task. Thankfully Mr. Harryhausen managed to pull off the effect nicely, resulting in a fantastic battle to the death that will live on in our minds and hearts for many years to come.
Well that’s my personal top ten list of my favorite Ray Harryhausen creations! Feel free to comment below: Tell me about your fave Harryhausen creations, and share your own top ten lists!