I finished downloading the magnificent soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann for THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD to my digital music player the other day, just a few minutes prior to finding out that Ray Harryhausen has left us at the age of 92. It's impossible to measure the influence that this man's lifework has had on not only the motion picture industry but upon an entire generation of fans, many of whom went on to fashion their own careers in the movie business. Ray Harryhausen was the first special effects technician in film history to rightly earn the distinction of "auteur" because even though other people were credited as director, every film that featured his stop-motion animation effects was, forever and always, a Ray Harryhausen film.
I first encountered the magic of Harryhausen at a very young age. It was a Friday night in the early 1960s in Fort Worth, Texas. I was about five, maybe six-years-old at the time. The local independent television station, Channel 11, broadcast a late-night horror film every Friday night at 10:30 p.m. The show was entitled "Nightmare" and the on-camera host was the same gentleman who donned a fright-wig and played the part of Icky Twerp on that station's "Slam-Bang Theatre", a Monday-Friday afternoon program that featured Three Stooges shorts. I was a die-hard fan of that program, as well as the one that came on after it, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, starring George Reeves. At a very early age, my formative influences were already locked into place: the Stooges, Superman and monster movies. Not a bad combination. I loved them then. I love them now.
One of the things I'm eternally grateful to my late father for is the fact that he would stay up with me on those Friday nights and watch the monster movies with me. I recall seeing THEM! (which scared the hell out of me), GOG and the Steve Reeves HERCULES movie this way and during the same time period, watching THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES.
One of the films I saw on "Nightmare" was THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. I had no idea who Ray Harryhausen was at the time. All I knew was that there was a living, breathing dinosaur (another one of my major childhood (and adult) passions) on the rampage in New York City. Part of my young mind imagined that this was somehow real, a documentary of an actual event. But no, I knew that dinosaurs no longer existed. This was some kind of movie magic that I simply could not fathom (pardon the pun) but which nevertheless held me spellbound until the end of the film.
I watched BEAST again the other day in celebration of Harryhausen's life. I hadn't seen it in years and while it's far from his best work, it is nevertheless a good, solid effort. BEAST was the first film in which Harryhausen provided the stop motion effects entirely on his own. Using only one model, he delivered an unforgettable creature (the Rhedosaurus) that has more life in it than many modern CGI creations. The story is pretty standard stuff: a nuclear blast near the North Pole frees a frozen dinosaur from the ice who then makes its' way down the east coast to New York City. The human players are secondary to the beast but they do okay with what's given them. Genre icon Kenneth Tobey is the military man of action, Paul Christian the atomic scientist who first sees the beast, Cecil Kelloway the delightful (and doomed) paleontologist and the lovely Paula Raymond his assistant (and love interest for Christian).
The film's climax takes place at a deserted amusement park at night where the beast is trapped within the tracks of a roller coaster. Hawk faced Lee Van Cleef is the military sharpshooter who must fire a radioactive isotope into the beast and kill him. He does so, the beast has a spectacular demise and when the monster is dead, the movie is over.
I find it interesting that both Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood killed giant monsters (Eastwood in TARANTULA) in their early film roles before teaming up years later in the classic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. I wonder if they ever compared notes about monster killing? Also of interest is the fact that director Eugene Lourie, who does a competent job with BEAST, went on to make the same movie not once but twice with THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO. Maybe he was seen as the best director to handle this type of material. Either that, or he just couldn't get those big uglies out of his system.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS was independently produced at an astonishing cost of $200,000 before being sold to Warner Brothers where it turned a nice profit for the studio and led to the production of THEM! a couple of years later.
I knew none of this when I was a kid watching this black-and-white monster movie for the first time on a late-night horror movie television show. I only knew that there was wonder and magic on display thanks to the Promethean talents of a gentleman named Ray Harryhausen. Thank you Mr. Harryhausen, thank you so very, very much for your gift not only to me but to a generation of "monster kids." We all love you and miss you but your films will live forever in our hearts and souls.