Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Seven Best Ray Harryhausen Movies (because we couldn't stop at five!)

Harryhausen and some of his models.
Ray Harryhausen, cinema's undisputed master of stop-motion special effects, worked on his first feaure-length film in 1949. Under the tutelage of King Kong's special effects wiz Willis O'Brien, Harryhausen did much of the stop-motion animation for Mighty Joe Young, which won an Academy Award for its special effects. Harryhausen went on to create an amazing gallery of life-like creatures. In the 1950s, he developed a process called Dynamation which allowed rear-projection footage of live actors to be synchronized and filmed with his stop-motion creatures. The results were some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history.

Ray Harryhausen died yesterday at the age of 92. As a tribute, here are our picks for his seven best films:

1. Jason and the Argonauts. The first 45 minutes establishes the backstory for this version of the Greek myth about the Golden Fleece. It's all quite well done, but once our heroes set foot on the island of Bronze, the movie becomes a magical experience, courtesy of Harryhausen's sensational special effects. Every fan has their favorite Harryhausen sequence, but my top two are both from Jason: the capture of the winged Harpies and Jason's dual with the "dragon's teeth"--or as I call it--the breath-taking swordfight with the skeletons.

2. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. This colorful Arabian nights' adventure has Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) fighting a two-head roc, a dragon, a skeleton, a four-armed siren, and a cyclops. Plus, Kathryn Grant's princess gets "reduced" to palm size by Torin Thatcher's evil magician. The skeleton fight is terrific--though Harryhausen one-upped himself with the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts.

Battling the giant crab in Mysterious Island.
3. Mysterious Island. Union soldiers escape from a Confederate camp, steal a hot air balloon, and wind up on the title island in this adaptation of Jules Vernes' novel. On the island, they encounter a giant crab, giant bees, a giant chicken (actually a prehistoric bird), and a squid-like creature. This film also features Capatin Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, and an erupting volcano.

4. First Men in the Moon. This entertaining tale of a Victorian space voyage to the Moon is a questionable choice on this list--if one goes strictly by the quantity of Harryhausen's special effects. There are few spectacular set pieces in this H.G. Wells fantasy, but the film is well-made and nicely acted, almost on par with Mysterious Island.

5. One Million Years B.C. Raquel Welch in a fur bikini made the movie famous, but Harryhausen's dinosaurs are what make it memorable. The battle between the Ceratosaurus and the Triceratops is a highlight, although the winged Pterosaur that snatches Raquel is almost as impressive.

The grown-up Ymir.
6. 20 Million Miles to Earth. A spaceship returning from Venus brings back a specimen, a small reptilian creature called a Ymir. Unfortunately, the Ymir starts growing...and growing...and then goes on a rampage. The climax finds the 20-foot tall Ymir in a showdown with military forces atop Rome's Colosseum.
7. It Came from Beneath the Sea. A giant octopus wreaks havoc, culminating in an incredible sequence where it destroys San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. In his highly-entertaining Film Fantasy Scrapbook, Harryhausen points out that the octopus is actually a sexopus. Due to budgetary constraints, it only has six tentacles!

Honorable Mentions: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers; The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; and The Valley of Gwangi.


  1. Thank you, Rick, for a heartfelt tribute to one of cinema's greatest special effects masters. We have been blessed by Ray Harryhausen.

  2. I'd be disappointed if you stopped at five.

  3. Great choices here. "Jason and the Argonauts" is undoubtedly his best film...but "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" had some amazing characters as well.

  4. Every film he worked on was a good one. They were films first, now they're masterpieces. Harry, you'll be missed, but thank you for giving us such great films, and great memories.