As we approach the spooky season, our Digital Content Publisher (and self-confessed Harryhausen fanboy) Phil Hunt revels in the darker side of Ray Harryhausen’s films and explores some of the films that inspired him and the films that he inspired.
It is well documented that King Kong (1933) is the film that ignited Ray Harryhausen’s imagination and set him on the path to become a Titan of Cinema in his own right. But Kong was not his only inspiration. Harryhausen adored movies. In the book that accompanies the exhibition at Modern Two, his daughter Vanessa speaks of her father’s passion for film and his desire to share that passion through movie nights at the Harryhausen home.
The book also includes a fascinating object, a list of films that Harryhausen made for the sculptor Gareth Knowles. Knowles was working with Harryhausen to create the statue of his wife’s ancestor, the Scottish explorer David Livingstone. The list comprises fifteen films that Harryhausen suggested to Knowles as ‘homework’.
The list is fascinating reading. It provides a unique insight into the films that inspired him during his early career (most, but not all, of the films are from the 1930s). King Kong looms so large that it does not need a mention. Even so, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the filmmakers responsible for Kong, feature heavily. She (1935), The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) are all Cooper/Schoedsack productions, the latter featuring visual effects from Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien.1
However, as a lifelong horror film buff as well as ardent Harryhausen fan, it was further down that my interest was really piqued. At number eight on the list we find the splendidly lurid Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Its inclusion is not entirely surprising given that it stars Harryhausen’s favourite actress, King Kong star Fay Wray. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, whose considerably more respectable Casablanca (1942) also appears on the list.
Made before Hollywood was placed under the censorship regulations of the Hays Code, Mystery of the Wax Museum tells the story of Igor, an artist who makes wax models of historical figures. It begins by exploring a theme that must have been close to Harryhausen’s heart, that of art versus commerce. Igor (played by the splendid Lionel Atwill) is visited by a potential benefactor who celebrates his waxwork creations as works of art and offers to submit them to the Royal Academy. Igor is then immediately brought back down to earth by the appearance of his previous benefactor. This crass cigar-chomping character (not unlike a movie mogul) expresses his disdain for Igor’s work and wants to recoup the money he has invested by burning down Igor’s studio (with all his art inside) and claiming the insurance money. A tussle ensues and as a direct result the studio is indeed set ablaze with Igor seemingly trapped inside.
This scene is a horror tour-de-force with Curtiz making the most of the studio’s waxwork inhabitants by cutting to lingering close-ups of wax faces as they melt and wilt in the flames. The fact that the faces we see burning are made of wax does not diminish the disturbing sight of human faces engulfed by flames.
What follows is a slightly uneven film which attempts to balance Wray’s wise-cracking journalist with the more gothic horrors represented by Atwill’s now deranged artist. Nevertheless, it does boast an iconic moment in horror cinema. Wray’s journalist pulls at Atwill’s face only to discover it is a wax mask, which crumbles away, revealing the extent of the burns on his face. This image may well have stayed with Harryhausen as we see traces of it in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), perhaps his darkest film. The character of the Vizier (played by Douglas Wilmer)2 in that film also hides his disfigured face beneath a mask (in this case a golden one) until its reveal at the film’s climax.3
The darker tone of The Golden Voyage is further enhanced by the horror credentials of its screen-writer, Brian Clemens. Clemens is perhaps best known as the creator of The Avengers (1961–69), the iconic British TV series (not the Marvel superheroes) that made stars of Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman and Patrick McNee. Fun fact: Patrick McNee’s great-grandfather was the artist Daniel McNee whose painting A Lady in Grey is one of the best-loved artworks in the National Galleries of Scotland collection.
While The Avengers certainly contained some elements of horror, Clemens’ horror sensibilities were perhaps best demonstrated in a trio of films that he wrote in the 1970s. And Soon the Darkness (1970), Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) are all classics of the genre and well worth a look. Clemens also wrote the TV series Thriller that terrified audiences in the mid-1970s.
But let’s return to that list. At numbers nine and ten we find what I regard as the best two films on the list, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Old Dark House (1932). Both films were directed by the English director James Whale, whose contributions to the horror genre are second to none. In addition to directing the aforementioned classics, Whale also made Frankenstein (1931) (casting the iconic Boris Karloff as the monster) and The Invisible Man (1933). Whale’s films exude a level of control and craftsmanship that is a cut above most of his contemporaries, and are set apart by their wit, humour and humanity.
Watching The Bride of Frankenstein, it easy to see why Harryhausen would be drawn to it. For most of the film we find Karloff’s monster wandering the countryside, a lost soul looking for companionship and finding only fear, hatred and violence. His plight is not unlike that of the Ymir in Ray Harryhausen’s 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Like Karloff’s monster, the Ymir is an innocent creature in a strange and unfamiliar land and is feared, misunderstood and attacked by the people that it encounters.4
In his biography An Animated Life, Harryhausen points to a few key moments in his films that were directly inspired by Whale’s films. In The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen created the character of a ship’s figurehead that is magically brought to life.5 The design of the figurehead finds Harryhausen looking to Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein for inspiration. As the image below clearly illustrates, the design for the figurehead was based on the iconic bride in Whale’s film, played by the wonderful Elsa Lanchester.
In Harryhausen’s following film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), we find another scene imbued with the spirit of James Whale. In Harryhausen’s film, the sorceress Zenobia creates Minaton, a bronze giant, part bull, part man, by inserting a clockwork heart into his lifeless body. For this scene of life created from inanimate material (a theme that naturally runs through Harryhausen’s work), he was thinking about Whale’s Frankenstein and the iconic moment where the creature is given life. However, watching the film now, one can only feel regret that Harryhausen was prevented from creating the scene he had in mind.
This sounds like it would have been another classic nightmarish Harryhausen moment in a career that was filled with such thrills. For while Harryhausen’s films are fantastic fun for all the family, they also frequently provide thrills and excitement verging on the horrific. In fact, the first appearance of the iconic Harryhausen skeleton in the 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) was originally cut from the film’s UK release as censors felt it would be too scary for children. This incident was no doubt in Harryhausen’s mind when he decided that for the next appearance of his skeletons, in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), he would set the scene during the day rather than at twilight as he had planned. He may have avoided the censor’s cuts but that scene still thrilled and terrified audiences the world over.
The key drawing that Harryhausen made for the appearance of these ‘Children of the Hydra’s Teeth’ shows corpses rather than skeletons rising from their grave to threaten Jason and Medea. This drawing is another example of the influence that Gustave Doré exerted on Harryhausen’s imagination as we can see in the Doré illustration from Dante’s Inferno above.
For me, one scene stands above all as the ultimate Harryhausen horror sequence and he saved it for his last film. The scene in Medusa’s lair in Clash of Titans (1981) has everything a horror fan could want. It’s dripping with atmosphere, features a terrifying creature and even ends with lashings of gore (rare in Harryhausen’s films) as blood gushes from the neck of the decapitated gorgon.
Harryhausen designed so many iconic creatures in his career but Medusa is conceived to terrify. Not content with the snakes for hair demanded by the mythological character, Harryhausen gives her a snake’s tail that rattles eerily in the darkness.
When Perseus and his men enter Medusa’s lair, all is shadow and firelight. They know what lurks in those shadows, they know she waits, but where? And then they hear that rattle and the slithering sound that Medusa makes as she pulls herself along the floor with her hands. Even Medusa’s movements are designed to unnerve us, inspired as they are by another horror movie from the 1930s, Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932).
The flickering light, a genius technique that Harryhausen carried forward from his early short film of that most unsettling of fairy tales, Hansel and Gretel, adds so much to the scene. The flickering flame surrounds Perseus with shadows that are constantly moving, nowhere is safe.
Every great horror director knows the power of shadows; F.W. Murnau knew it when he filmed Max Schreck’s sinister shadow climbing the stairs in Nosferatu (1922), James Whale knew it and Harryhausen knew it too. He had used shadow to great effect in the past. In 20 Million Miles to Earth, the Ymir’s first fight to the death is shown only in the shadow on the wall of a barn. In another scene from Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen uses shadow to great effect to show the hideous transformation that Calibos undergoes as punishment by Zeus. The camera moves from the clay figure that represents Calibos in Zeus’s model amphitheatre on Mount Olympus to its shadow, which we see twisting and writhing in torment as the beautiful young man is transformed into something monstrous.
All Harryhausen fans have their favourite scary moment, be it the sound of Talos’s head slowly creaking as he moves for the first time in Jason and the Argonauts, setting his malevolent gaze on Hercules and Hylas, or the Harpies in the same film, or the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth.
It is no accident that among the filmmakers who cite Harryhausen as a major influence, there are more than a few masters of horror. John Landis (who narrates the audio guide for the exhibition) was inspired to become a filmmaker by Harryhausen. He also created possibly the greatest werewolf movie ever made, American Werewolf in London (1981). The film is warm and funny but also genuinely terrifying; it haunts me every time I find myself on the London Underground at night. Joe Dante, whose horror credentials include Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and some appropriately masterful episodes of the Masters of Horror series (2005-06), was equally inspired by Harryhausen.
Sam Raimi (director of the Evil Dead films) paid homage to Harryhausen in his third Evil Dead movie Army of Darkness (1992). Tim Burton, whose films such as Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) are often deeply imbued with his love of the horror genre, loved Harryhausen.6 One of the most important and unique voices to emerge in the genre in the last twenty years, Guillermo del Toro loves Harryhausen so much that he has a life-size statue of him in his home. And the list goes on: Peter Jackson, Richard Stanley, Ernest R. Dickerson and James Cameron have all professed their love for Harryhausen.7
So, come Halloween, why not take Ray’s advice, turn off the lights and sit down with a slice of horror from Hollywood’s golden age8.
1 The list also suggests a couple of films whose subject matter is the creative process and artistic vision: The Fountainhead (1949) and Powell and Pressburger’s sublime The Red Shoes (1948). For my money, The Red Shoes is the finest film ever made about the creative process and obsession and the greatest film ever to come out of the UK.
2 Wilmer, one of numerous actors to appear in more than one Harryhausen film, can be seen without a mask in Jason and the Argonauts as the wicked Pelias.
3 The association between physical disability and monstrous characters is a common trope in horror films. Thankfully, this association is less readily made by modern filmmakers but still persists. Harryhausen himself has always argued that his creations were not monsters but often misunderstood. This attitude has also been a core principle in the work of Guillermo del Toro.
4 The two films also have a tenuous connection. The music for The Bride of Frankenstein was conducted by Constantin Bakaleinikoff, whose brother Mischa provided the music for most of Harryhausen’s black and white films, including 20 Million Miles to Earth.
5 Giving inanimate objects and figures life (or something that resembles life) is a recurring theme in horror films from early cinematic masterpieces like Der Golem (1920), Waxworks (1924) and Frankenstein (1931) through to the uncanny animated films of Jan Svankmajer and The Brothers Quay and modern-day horrors such as the Child’s Play (1988-2019) movies or the living mannequins in Doctor Who.
6 There’s a lovely interview online that Burton conducted with Harryhausen, in which you can clearly see the love and admiration that Burton has for Harryhausen.
7 The early history of the Hollywood horror genre was undoubtedly male dominated and Harryhausen’s interests reflected this. Although opportunities were initially limited, from the 1980s onwards there have been many successful women directors and writers in the horror film industry, a trend celebrated every February by Women in Horror Month.
8 Harryhausen’s list contains another two classics of the horror genre, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Both are well worth a look, Lost Souls in particular. While Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may well have appealed to Harryhausen for the ingenious in-camera transformation that Fredric March (who won an Oscar for the film) undergoes.
Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema (paperback)
Shortlisted for Saltire Society Scotland's National Book Awards, First Book Award 2021
This landmark exhibition book examines 100 objects selected from the Ray Harryhausen archive by the animator's daughter Vanessa. The book is packed with Vanessa’s personal stories from a life watching her father make world-famous films that changed the course of cinema.