From the Vault: Monsters and Aliens of Harryhausen -

From the Vault: Monsters and Aliens of Harryhausen

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From the Vault: Monsters and Aliens of Harryhausen

The Movies of Ray Harryhausen

By Tim Janson     November 11, 2012

It’s a testament to Ray Harryhausen’s incredible talent and creativity that he has become such a Hollywood icon with a relatively small body of work.  He worked on less than 20 films in terms of providing the visual effects yet those films have become some of the most beloved sci-fi and fantasy films ever made.  Ray learned the process of stop-motion animation from the great Willis O’Brien who created the animation for King Kong.  Ray not only learned the craft, but took it to its most vaunted heights in films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and Clash of the Titans.
This week in From the Vault, we take a look at three of Ray’s films from the mid-1950s, the early part of his career where he began to experiment and home his skill.
Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers
Columbia Pictures 1956
Cast: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Grade: B-
Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is pure 1950's B movie fare. The plot and acting are campy, the budget is minuscule, and it's filled with 50's sci-fi clichés, but the film had one thing going for it, and that was the stop-motion wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. The thin plot centers around Marlowe's character of Dr. Russell Marvin, a scientist working with the U.S. Army. Martin is launching rockets into space to begin gathering information for man's eventual travel into space. However, almost as soon as the rockets reach space communication is lost and the rockets come crashing back to Earth. Marvin and his wife, Carol (Taylor) have also had an encounter with a flying saucer and they soon put one and one together and determine the aliens are shooting down their rockets. The aliens relate their tale to Marlowe when they explain they have come to Earth to take a nutshell. Dr. Marvin and a group of other scientists rush to complete a weapon that they hope will disrupt the alien's gravitational fields. This all leads to an all-out battle in Washington DC with some of the Capitol's most well-known landmarks being destroyed. 

Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers is a fairly slow moving picture up until the final fifteen minutes. Saucers are seen flying casually around, barely creating a panic as if people see them every day. Occasionally they land and unload a group of plodding aliens in suits who shoot out death rays as soldiers. It's Harryhausen's effects that are the star of the film. His saucers have a spinning action with the top of the saucers moving one way and the bottom moving the opposite which truly made them appear as if they were flying, compared to the usually ship on a fish line type of movement. The explosions and destruction of the Washington Monument and Capitol building are the landmark scenes from the film.

The movie doesn't have the all-out death and destruction of War of the Worlds and it certainly didn't have the same caliber of acting, but it also didn't have nearly the budget of that film either. While the film was shot in just a few weeks, Harryhausen continued to work on the effects for months afterwards. This isn't a great film from a plot or acting standpoint. There's little in the way of character development and the science is laughable by today's standards. It's still an entertaining film for those that appreciate Harryhausen's unique talents.


It Came from Beneath the Sea
Columbia Pictures 1955
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Grade: B-
It Came from Beneath the Sea comes in between The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers. This is a product of when the 1950's paranoia over nuclear testing was at its highest. The result was a plethora of films featuring all manner of radioactive-spawned giant monsters.  In this film the threat comes from a giant octopus, driven out of its deep sea home by atomic bombs tested at sea.

The first to encounter the creature is a U.S. Navy nuclear sub, commanded by Pete Matthews (Tobey). The sub doesn't know exactly what they've encountered but a piece of the creature was caught in the Sub's propellers. The hunk of octopus is taken to be analyzed by two marine biologists, Prof. Lesley Joyce (Domergue) and Prof. John Carter. They determine that the piece belongs to an octopus but one that has grown to enormous proportions.
The creature soon makes attacks on other vessels, sinking an entire merchant ship, and leaving only a handful of shocked survivors. While the Navy at first dismisses the professor's findings, they soon cannot deny the truth and decide to take action. The film's climax comes with the memorable octopus attack destroying the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Like all of these films, it's the masterful stop-motion effects that are the real star. While the film itself took only a few weeks to shoot, Harryhausen worked on the effects for months afterwards, painstakingly filming the creature's movement's one frame at a time. Yes, perhaps it looks dated next to today's slick CGI effects but there's a certain admiration you have to have for Harryhausen's work. He knew these were low-budget B features but that never stopped him from delivering 100% effort.

It Came from Beneath the Sea is slow in developing.  It takes a good 25 minutes or so before we even get a good look at the creature and the film only runs about 79 minutes. There is a melodramatic love triangle going on between the three leads. Matthews is the tough captain while Carter is the somewhat sheepish scientist. When Professor Joyce tells carter that Matthews kissed her, all he can manage is, "Did you enjoy it?"

Tobey was a great character actor who made over 300 film and TV appearances in his fifty year career. He was a regular in the 1950's TV show "Whirlybirds" and also appeared in such shows as I Spy, Lassie, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Ironside, and Emergency, usually playing some sort of authority figure. His final role was in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1994. He was a strong, macho leading man. Domergue's Prof. Joyce was every bit as tough as Matthews. Domergue was no stranger to Sci-Fi roles, seemingly always playing the role of a scientist. She also starred in This Island Earth and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.



20 Million Miles to Earth
Columbia Pictures 1957
Cast: William Hopper, Joan Taylor
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Grade: B+
In 20 Million Miles to Earth, Ray Harryhausen combines the space them of Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers” with the creature feature theme of “It Came from Beneath the Sea” to make one of his best films.  A U.S. Space mission to Venus is on its return voyage when it is hit by a meteorite and crashes off the coast of Italy.  The surviving crewmen are rescued but a specimen they brought home is lost at sea.  The specimen canister washes ashore where it is found by a boy and turned into a scientist named Dr. Leonardo.  The alien egg hatches into a tiny, reptilian like creature but it doesn’t stay tiny for long.
The Ymir, as it’s referred to, begins to grow at an accelerated rate due to Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere.  Dr. Leonardo attempts to cage the creature but it soon grows too big and strong to be contained and escapes.  The creature continues to grow, going on a rampage throughout Rome.  The climax come as Ymir battles the military at the Roman Colosseum, throwing stones and tearing down pillars of the ancient structure before it is finally killed.



Once again Harryhausen’s effects are the star of the film and the producers knew it as well.  The film was shot in Rome partly because Ray wanted to vacation there.  This was Harryhausen’s best effort to date.  Unlike Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came from beneath the Sea, this time we got an antagonist that had a personality.  Ymir displayed emotions and expressions that made you root for him.  Ymir was kind of Harryhausen’s version of King Kong.  A misunderstood monster that only became violent when provoked or attacked.

The cast is the best of any of these three films although once again the need to include a sappy love sub-plot drags the action down.  But Ymir is the star.  Harryhausen thought so much of Ymir that he would essentially re-use the same model to create the Kraken in the 1981 classic, “Clash of the Titans”.


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blankczech 11/11/2012 6:04:07 PM comments on this article, yet.  I guess that means most of the people who visit the mania website are too young to be affected by Harryhausen's work.  In my opinion his movies don't stand the test of time very well. There was a certain pathos to many of his stop action creations...even though they were supposed to be monsters (monstrosities) they were more cool than frightening.  These iconic creatures have spawned some expensive collectibles, for instance If you want a blu ray copy of Mysterious Island one of his better efforts it will cost you $100, an action figure of the Cyclops from Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is quite a bit more.

monkeyfoot 11/12/2012 8:13:36 AM

I did grow up watching Harryhausen films over and over on late night and Saturday matinee TV. I love me some RH. He was the FX master for everything genre film I loved as a kid.

It's true that to generations raised now on CGI and modern special effects these techniques can look antiqued but hopefully they will appreciate their mastery. You can realize that the original Universal Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy or the original King Kong do not have the technical cleanness of modern FX and that the style of storytelling is different then how they would be done now. You should be able to understand that but still enjoy the great work that went into them. You should look at them in perspective of their time.

But sometimes this is not the case. A couple of years ago we had an intern in our office who was a huge Star Trek fan. He said he had every single episode and movie on hard drives and could quote facts I never even knew. But he had never heard of Forbidden Planet and that it was a major inspiration for TOS. I told him the plot could be used for a modern ST movie and it would still work perfectly. I showed him some clips on Youtube and said he really needed to see the whole thing. He just laughed and said it looked silly.



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