Few visual effects technicians in cinema history were more influential and widely respected than Ray Harryhausen. After the announcement of the special-effects guru’s death at 92, a huge outpouring of Hollywood voices were heard, ranging from moviemakers like Steven Spielberg to pop-culture observers like Patton Oswalt. All were unanimous in their praise for Harryhausen as a legend in his time.
Indeed, you could look long and hard without finding another visual effects artist so famously associated with one particular field of innovation. Harryhausen was the acknowledged grand master of stop-motion animation, inventing his own process along the way that he referred to as “Dynamation” for the dynamic movements of his figures. To many, he was the quintessential creator of special effects, movie monsters and fantasy filmmaking for a stretch between 1953 and 1981.
Here’s a look back through the brilliantly fantastical (and often schlocky) Harryhausen film vault to list his six most essential films, in chronological order. All are available on Netflix, either streaming or by DVD.
Although he was involved in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the true arrival of Harryhausen as the special effects guru audiences came to know and love. As the first of the true “giant monsters awakened by nuclear explosions” movies, this popcorn feature was incredibly influential. Harryhausen’s fully articulated “Rhedosaurus” was head and shoulders above anything previously seen, and ultimately more impressive visually than its dozens of imitators, from Them! to The Deadly Mantis. This one film kicked off over a decade of drive-in imitation.
What The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms did for giant monsters, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers did for UFOs and aliens. It’s the quintessential film example of the 1950s flying saucer craze, the kind of movie that seems trope-laden when viewed now but was groundbreaking in its time. Once again, Harryhausen’s work was simply a cut above the countless imitators. His gifts for scale and motion resulted in some of the most iconic images in 1950s sci-fi in this movie, particularly in the scene where a falling saucer collides with the Washington Monument, sending it crashing down.
By this point, studios were basically designing movies specifically as vehicles for Harryhausen’s dynamation, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was one of the high points. He’s all over this thing with creatures of every possible description, including snake women, two-headed giant birds, skeleton warriors and the dueling cyclops and dragon in the film’s finale. If all of that doesn’t sound good to you, then your sense of adventure is dead. The film inspired two eventual sequels, 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, but 7th Voyage is typically recognized as the most influential and well-constructed of the series, an unforgettable childhood matinee staple for an entire generation of future filmmakers.
Directly building on some of the sword-and-sorcery elements of Sinbad, Jason and the Argnonauts is likely Harryhausen’s masterpiece. It contains some of the scenes most strongly associated with him as an effects artist, such as the menacing bronze giant Talos and the seven-headed hydra. Most famous is the sequence where Jason battles an army of stop-motion skeleton warriors in a classic scene. Go back and watch it today to relive a moment that still stands as the apex of stop-motion action cinema. This is the kind of film my father insisted I watch as a kid, and that I still remember fondly to this day. There’s a tangible, physical value to this kind of effects work that comes through in Jason and the Argonauts that is difficult to replicate even with modern CGI or practical effects.
From the undeniable greatness of Jason we turn to One Million Years B.C., which was lighter on the plot and heavier on the Raquel Welch fur-bikini cheesecake. It still features great Harryhausen effects though, with some of the all-time classic dinosaur animation from films of this period. One Million Years B.C. showcases Harryhausen the entertainer, an artist who honestly didn’t care about something like historical accuracy in the course of making a fun adventure movie. Dinosaurs and man living side by side? All Harryhausen cared about was that it was fun to animate.
The original Clash of the Titans represented the swan song of Harryhausen, and in many ways his methods. Audiences and critics now acclimated to the technological leaps of Star Wars were beginning to find the dynamation creatures hokey and old-fashioned, ending plans for a sequel before they really got off the ground. Looking back on the film now, however, 1981’s Clash of the Titans stands as yet another classical adventure that owed what success it had to the tireless work of Ray Harryhausen. It may be seen as a camp classic of sorts today, but in the most loving way possible. Certainly, it’s more fun to see at a screening than the 2010 remake.
Ultimately, that may be Harryhausen’s true legacy. Remake his films all you want, but to make them with the same degree of warmth and singular vision is nearly impossible.