A happy one hundredth to Harryhausen

 

From facebook.com

 

I’ve just discovered that today would have been the 100th birthday of filmmaking and special effects titan Ray Harryhausen.   Without the presence of Harryhausen’s movies in my childhood, I suspect I would have developed into a very different, though possibly much more normal, human being.  Anyway, to mark the great man’s centenary, here’s what I wrote about him on the sad occasion of his death, back in March 2013.

 

This week saw the passing of the movie special-effects veteran Ray Harryhausen.  Younger filmmakers have been swift to pay tribute to Harryhausen, as they should do – the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Nick Park and Terry Gilliam owe him a huge debt in terms of inspiration.

 

Ray Harryhausen wasn’t just a special-effects technician – he was a special-effects titan, a man who turned the process of stop-motion animation into an art-form and became arguably the greatest backroom wizard in cinematic history.  Harryhausen discovered his vocation when, as a kid in 1933, he was taken to a screening of King Kong.  Obsessed with the movie, the young Harryhausen learned how the special-effects man and stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien had used small, intricately-jointed models of Kong to bring the ape to life.  Slowly, methodically, incredibly painstakingly, O’Brien made slight adjustments to those models in between shooting them one frame of film at a time.  The result of these countless tiny adjustments was that when the footage was played back you had Kong moving onscreen with life-like fluidity.

 

Harryhausen was soon making his own stop-motion models and eventually he became apprenticed to O’Brien.  Before they won an Oscar for 1949’s Mighty Joe Young – a sort of King Kong-lite, about a giant gorilla who instead of swatting biplanes at the top of the Empire State Building rescues children from burning orphanages – O’Brien advised Harryhausen to work on giving his creations characters, not just mechanical movement.  He even suggested that the the budding animator go and study anatomy.

 

Harryhausen took O’Brien’s advice and he strove to invest his animated figures with soul.  As a consequence, in this modern era of CGI-drenched fantasy movies, critics commonly complain that today’s computer-generated monsters ‘lack the personality’ of Harryhausen’s creatures.  At the news of Harryhausen’s death, the author and critic Kim Newman tweeted: “It now takes 500 pixel-wranglers to do what Ray Harryhausen did better singled-handed.”

 

My childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and early 1980s coincided with the final decade of Harryhausen’s film-work – Golden Voyage of Sinbad appeared in cinemas in 1973, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1977 and Clash of the Titans in 1981.  Such was the success of Golden Voyage of Sinbad that his original Sinbad movie, 1958’s Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, was subsequently re-released, so I saw that on a big screen too.  Meanwhile, Harryhausen’s earlier movies from the 1950s and 1960s, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1959), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years BC (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), had become fixtures on TV.

 

For some annoying reason, ITV insisted on showing many of these films on weekday afternoons, so that they started while kids like myself were still at school.  I remember on one occasion I lied to my teacher so that I could get out of school early, run back to my house and catch the beginning of Jason and the Argonauts at half-past-two.

 

Though I liked monster movies, I quickly became critical of how their special effects were done.  I hated films where the giant creatures were clearly men in suits, stomping on model cities composed of shoebox-sized buildings, as was the case with the Japanese Godzilla movies.  I was also unimpressed by dinosaurs that were glove-puppets (see 1974’s The Land that Time Forgot) or magnified real-life lizards (as in 1960’s dreadful remake of The Lost World – “It’s a mighty tyrannosaurus!” cast-members would cry at the sight of something that was obviously a blown-up iguana with additional warts and frills glued onto it.)

 

But Harryhausen’s creatures were different.  Their shapes were uniquely monstrous, so that they couldn’t have special-effects men operating them from the inside, and they moved with a strange, graceful autonomy.  Furthermore, his dinosaurs were recognisable dinosaurs – brontosaurs, allosaurs, triceratopses – which was important when you were ten years old.

 

The movies were sometimes less-than-great in other departments.  Most notoriously, One Million Years BC, which Harryhausen made for Hammer Films, wasn’t scripted with much attention to paleontological science.  It had Raquel Welch and other Playboy Bunny-like cavewomen in fur bikinis living alongside dinosaurs in the Calabrian Stage of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Nonetheless, Harryhausen’s work elevated such films into the realms of low art.

 

© Hammer Films / Seven Arts

 

Harryhausen came to Edinburgh a dozen years ago and gave a talk at the (now closed) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  Recently, a literary magazine called the Eildon Tree had published a story of mine that was about growing up in a small town in the 1970s and being dependent on the local fleapit cinema for escape into more exciting and more glamorous worlds.  Because of the story’s theme and setting, Harryhausen’s Sinbad movies got mentioned in it a few times.  So not only did I attend Harryhausen’s talk, but I brought along a copy of the magazine in case he was doing a signing session afterwards.

 

Although he was over 80 years old by then, Harryhausen was sharp-witted and good-humoured and he remained in good form despite some stupid questions from the audience.  (“Why didn’t you make a movie about the Loch Ness Monster?”)  The next day, Peter Jackson was flying him to New Zealand so that he could visit the set of the first Lord of the Rings movie, which was maybe why he was so jovial.  There were a lot of kids present and they were entranced by the jointed monster-models from various films that he’d brought with him.

 

Afterwards, a long queue of people assembled before Harryhausen’s podium with movie memorabilia for him to sign.  He observed drily that much of that memorabilia consisted of posters for One Million Years BC, in which Raquel Welch was displayed prominently in her fur bikini – so much for stop-motion animation.  Finally, it was my turn.  I handed over my copy of the Eildon Tree, open at the page where my story started, and asked if he could autograph it.

 

“It’s something I’ve had published,” I explained.  “It name-checks your Sinbad movies.”

 

Harryhausen looked at me, chuckled and said, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

That didn’t just make my day – it made my month.

 

Anyway, to finish, here are my five all-time-favourite Ray Harryhausen monsters.

 

© Morningside Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

The Cyclops in Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

With its single eye, horn, squashed nose and fang-filled maw, the Cyclops in Harryhausen’s original Sinbad movie was a Satanic-looking thing.  During the scene where he lashed one of Sinbad’s crew to a spit and started to roast him over a fire, I seem to remember him licking his lips with hungry anticipation.  So evil did the Cyclops seem, in fact, that my ten-year-old self was quite pleased when Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) finally thrust a flaming torch into his eye and blinded him, and then the bastard plunged over a cliff edge to his death.

 

© Morningside Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Talos in Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Everybody raves about the fight with the skeletons at this film’s climax, which is indeed spectacular.  But it’s the earlier episode on the Isle of Bronze where the massive statue of Talos comes to life and goes lumbering after the crew of the Argo that’s my favourite part of the film.  In particular, the moment where Talos awakens is wonderful.  Hercules stands with the supposedly lifeless and inanimate Talos looming high in the background – but suddenly Talos’s head creaks around to look at him.  It’s the stuff that childhood nightmares are made of.  But I mean that in a good way.

 

© Morningside Productions / Warner Bros – Seven Arts

 

Gwangi in The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

“Not as good as The Valley of Gwangi,” was my disappointed reaction after watching Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993.  The earlier film, which has cowboys discovering a lost valley in Mexico where prehistoric life has somehow survived to the present day, was originally an unrealised project by Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien.  The scene where the cowboys, on horseback, manage to lasso an allosaurus — the Gwangi of the title — is a brilliant cinematic moment that’s been stuck in my head ever since.

 

© Morningside Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Kali in Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The second of the Sinbad movies has John Philip Law in the title role.  He’s up against a villainous sorcerer, played by Tom Baker, who was subsequently picked to play Doctor Who on the strength of his performance here.  Baker’s villain, like Harryhausen himself, specialises in bringing inanimate objects to life.  In the film’s best scene, he animates a statue of the many-armed Hindu Goddess Kali, equips her with half-a-dozen swords and sends her into battle with Sinbad and his men like a giant, whirling lawnmower of death.

 

Medusa in Clash of the Titans (1981)

Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s final film and also one of his most underrated.  Indeed, I’ve read that the hostile reviews given to Clash were one reason why he decided to retire at this time.  (“An unbearable bore of a film,” bitched Variety, “that will probably put to sleep the few adults stuck taking the kids to it.”)  Actually, in the years since, it’s become one of his best-remembered pictures and a little while ago it was remade, though inevitably with loads of crap CGI.  Its highlight is the scene where Perseus blunders into Medusa’s darkened lair, which is grotesquely populated by the figures of her turned-to-stone victims, and tries to outwit the serpent-haired, serpent-tailed and asthmatic-sounding monster.  And with that memorably scary sequence, the great Ray Harryhausen bowed out of film-making.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

Cinematic heroes 1: Jon Finch

 

© Goodtimes Enterprises / Anglo-EMI Film Distributors

 

The film and TV actor Jon Finch died seven-and-a-half years ago.  At the time of his passing, late on in 2012, he hadn’t worked for several years and had lived quietly in the English town of Hastings and his death had apparently gone undiscovered for some time.  Word of his funeral wasn’t announced until January 2013.  For that reason, obituaries for him in the British media were intermittent and patchy.  I decided to pen a few words of tribute on this blog and the resulting post seemed to rank high on Google searches about Finch – as I’d said, obituaries for him were intermittent and patchy.  Gratifyingly, a number of people who’d known Finch over the years came across my post and left comments on it.  In fact it was one of this blog’s most commented-on entries.  (And I’m kicking myself that, because this blog had to recently get a post-hacking reboot, those comments from Finch’s friends have now been lost.)

 

Anyway, I thought I’d revisit, rewrite and update what I originally wrote about Finch in 2013 and repost it.  Annoyingly, though, I still haven’t managed to see 1973’s The Final Programme

 

Jon Finch began his career in television, went into films and ended up back in television.  For a couple of years in the early 1970s, while he was doing film-work, he had the opportunity to become massive, but that didn’t happen.  Finch, who valued his privacy and had a low opinion of the celebrity circus, may well have preferred it that way.

 

He began acting on television in 1964, appearing in ITV’s notoriously dire soap opera Crossroads.  In 1970, like many a British TV actor at the time, he got his break in movies thanks to Hammer Films – who were always looking for cheap acting talent to appear in their low-budget but cheerfully sensationalist horror movies.  He duly provided vampire-hunting support to Peter Cushing in Roy Ward Baker’s okay The Vampire Lovers and appeared in Jimmy Sangster’s dreadful Horror of Frankenstein.  Then Roman Polanski hired him to play the title role in his version of Macbeth, released in 1971, and suddenly Finch’s career trajectory had become exponentially steep.

 

Polanski’s take on Shakespeare’s Scottish play was bloody, dark and bleak – everything that a good production of Macbeth should be, in my opinion.  In this film, what works in favour of Finch as Macbeth, and of his co-star Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, is the fact that they’re both so young.  The audience therefore feels they have little power over their destiny.  Rather, they’re swept to their tragic ends by dark forces both political and supernatural.

 

Polanski’s Macbeth got an unsympathetic appraisal from many critics, who couldn’t see beyond the film’s high level of violence and who linked it with what Polanski had gone through in August 1969 – when his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were slaughtered at his house in Beverly Hills by acolytes of hippie-cult nutcase Charles Manson.  New Yorker critic Pauline Kael even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had orchestrated.  In fact, the film’s screenwriter, celebrated theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, is reputed to have challenged Polanski about the amount of blood displayed in this scene, to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

From Roman Polanski, Finch moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and landed the lead role in 1972’s Frenzy.  Although Frenzy hardly represents Hitchcock at the peak of his artistry, it’s by far and away the best of the director’s last clutch of films, which include Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969) and Family Plot (1976).  It also shows Hitchcock at his most disturbing.  The murder sequence involving Barbara Leigh-Hunt, who plays Finch’s ex-wife, is the most brutal thing he ever did, and the potato-truck ride (where serial strangler Barry Foster tries to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from a corpse he’d concealed earlier inside a huge sack of potatoes) is gruelling too.

 

Playing an innocent man accused of and hunted down for Foster’s murders, Finch bravely refrains from making his character sympathetic.  Indeed, he’s something of a shit and has a violent streak, and for a period at the start of the film we think he really is the strangler.   By the time it becomes clear that Foster is actually the culprit, Hitchcock – a master manipulator of his audience’s emotions – has presented him as a chirpy, likeable chap.  Thus, we find ourselves siding more with him than we do with Finch.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Having worked with two of the world’s greatest directors, Finch seemed destined for international fame and indeed he was soon offered the chance to replace Sean Connery in the James Bond series.  Finch, however, declined and the role went instead to the somewhat less invigorating Roger Moore.  Around this time he also turned down the role of Aramis in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) which, tantalisingly, would have seen him acting alongside another actor with a low opinion of movie stars and movie stardom, Oliver Reed.

 

In fact, in 1973, Finch did play a vaguely James Bond-like character when he took the role of Jerry Cornelius in Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, which was based on the first of the four Cornelius novels written by Michael Moorcock, set in a surreal, 1960s-esque and science-fiction-tinged world where the fabric of reality is beginning to fray.  I’ve never seen The Final Programme, though from all accounts Fuest did a pretty cack-handed job of it.  In stills, though, Finch at least looks the part of Moorcock’s enigmatic hipster-cum-secret-agent hero.  Moorcock himself disapproved of the film adaptation, although he liked Finch’s performance and paid tribute to him on his website / discussion forum Moorcock’s Miscellany when he heard of his passing: “I was very fond of Jon and was sorry we lost touch…  He was genuinely modest.”

 

Towards the end of the 1970s, Ridley Scott lined Finch up to appear in his ground-breaking sci-fi horror film Alien.  Finch was supposed to play Kane, a character who doesn’t last long in the movie’s script but is certainly pivotal to it.  He’s the unfortunate crewmember who goes exploring the mysterious crashed spaceship and ends up with an alien egg inside his chest.  Two days into filming, however, Finch became too ill to work – either from bronchitis or from complications caused by his recently-diagnosed diabetes, depending on which story you believe – and was replaced by John Hurt.  Thus, he missed appearing in the infamous ‘canteen’ scene where Kane expires and the alien makes its first appearance, one of the most (literally) explosive scenes in horror-movie history.

 

From there on, it was through his television work that Finch remained in the public consciousness.  In the late 1970s, he appeared in the BBC Television Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of all the Bard’s plays.  Though they were criticised for their staginess and the generally conservative manner in which they were brought to the screen, the adaptations certainly couldn’t be faulted for the top-notch acting they contained.  In Richard II (1978), Finch played Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi’s Richard and John Gielgud’s John of Gaunt.  With Bolingbroke elevated to monarch, he then played the title role in the sequels Henry IV Part One and Part Two (1979), with Anthony Quayle as a jovial, red-cheeked Falstaff and David Gwillim as Henry’s offspring, Prince Hal.  (In reality, Gwillim was only six years younger than Finch.)

 

Still picky about his roles, he passed on the opportunity to play Doyle in Brian Clements’ hugely popular espionage / action series The Professionals (1978-81).  Ironically, the role eventually went to Martin Shaw, who’d played Banquo to Finch’s Macbeth.  On the other hand, out of loyalty to Hammer, he starred in the first episode of the studio’s 1980 anthology series The Hammer House of Horror, in which he played a modern-day composer haunted by a witch who’s popped forward through time from the 17th century (a role performed with memorable relish by Patricia Quinn).  And for a quarter century he gave guest turns in popular shows like The New Avengers, The Bill, Maigret, New Tricks and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

 

Frustratingly, Finch’s role in a 1994 episode of Sherlock Holmes, a combined adaptation of two of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, didn’t see him appear alongside Jeremy Brett, the actor widely regarded as the screen’s best-ever Holmes – Brett had to be written out of most of the episode due to health problems.  However, as a villain, Finch did get to face up to the almost-as-good Charles Gray, playing Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

 

Finch’s final appearance was a film one, in Ridley Scott’s 2005 crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven, so at least he got to work with that director nearly three decades after his gig in Alien fell through.  Thereafter, he kept a low profile in Hastings, in declining health but seen now and again in some of the local public bars.  I wonder if the regulars in those Hastings pubs were aware that old ‘Finchy’, as he was known, had once headlined films directed by Hitchcock and Polanski and had come within a whisker of being 007.

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Productions

The land of thieves and phantoms

 

© Prana Film / Film Arts Guild

 

My previous blog post was about disgraced spin-doctor Dominic Cummings.  This post is also about a bald, sinister and shadowy figure who doesn’t take well to being exposed to the light.  I’m talking about Count Orlok, the central character of the classic 1922 German chiller Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

 

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was famously the cinema’s first (surviving) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), although the filmmakers sneakily tried to duck copyright responsibilities by changing the character-names and localities – retitling Dracula as Orlok, for instance.  In the event, Stoker’s widow successfully sued them anyway.  Nosferatu is one of those films I’ve seen so many clips of over the years that I’d assumed, wrongly, that I’d seen all of it.  When I came across a remastered version of it on YouTube the other day, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen it in its entirety.  So I immediately made amends.

 

Nosferatu is an immensely atmospheric film and the technical aspects of it that have become dated in the century since its making just seem to add to its strange atmospherics today.   For one thing, there’s the over-expressive silent movie acting.  Gustav von Wangenheim as the estate agent Hutter, who corresponds to Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s novel, grins disconcertingly like a young Brian Blessed – although as the film progresses and he’s dispatched to Transylvania, ‘the land of thieves and phantoms’ as he calls it, to facilitate an unusual property deal, he predictably gets less to smile about.  Meanwhile, Alexander Granach as Knock, who stands in for the novel’s lunatic and vampire-minion Milo Renfield, is unnervingly off the scale in his manic-ness.

 

© Prana Film / Film Arts Guild

 

Then there’s the special effects, which involve Keystone Cop-style speeded-up footage and crude stop-motion animation.  Viewed today, they give the film’s events a discomfortingly bizarre quality.  Whether it’s the beetling movement of the vampire’s black coach, drawn by black-draped horses, or a coffin lid shifting jerkily of its own volition, such things look like they’re happening in another, spectral world.

 

One supreme moment of oddness comes while Hutter is journeying through Transylvania and a ‘werewolf’ is glimpsed prowling through a forest.  This is presumably meant to be Count Orlok in lupine form though it’s obviously a hyena the filmmakers must have procured from a circus or a zoo.  A hyena loose in an Eastern European forest should seem ridiculous in 2020 but, like so much of Nosferatu, it just seems strange.  (A werewolf, incidentally, featured in the original first chapter of Stoker’s Dracula, which was excised from the completed novel.  In 1914, this missing chapter was published as a self-contained short story Dracula’s Guest.)

 

If Nosferatu has a glaring technical problem, it’s the preponderance of day-for-night shooting.  This means that Orlok greets Hutter in the courtyard of his Transylvanian castle seemingly in broad daylight and thereafter he’s often seen stalking around in what is supposed to be darkness but is obviously sunlight (and even casting a shadow).  The sun is commonly supposed to be fatal to vampires, but it doesn’t have to be – in Bram Stoker’s novel, it’s stated that sunlight merely weakens Dracula, depriving him of his supernatural powers but not destroying him.  However, Nosferatu ends with Orlok disintegrating as he’s struck by an early-morning sunray, so the day-for-night shooting makes a nonsense of the vampire mythology that the film’s set up for itself.  (The remastered version of Nosferatu I saw was very cleaned-up and I’d heard that in the original version the night-set scenes had been ‘tinted’ to make them look darker.  But I’ve checked older uploads of Nosferatu on YouTube too and the day-night issue is still problematic.)

 

While I’m on the subject of illogicality, I should say I don’t understand the mindset of the crew of the schooner tasked with transporting some crates of soil, among which Orlok has concealed himself, to Wisborg, Hutter’s hometown in Germany.  They already know that a mysterious ‘plague’ is ravaging the coastal area that they’re sailing from.  And before they set off, they notice that the crates are swarming with rats as well as being full of soil.  So why do they accept this potentially lethal cargo?

 

On the plus side, of course, Max Schreck’s performance as Count Orlok is still utterly memorable.  Devoid of any of the gentlemanly or aristocratic suaveness that later actors like Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman would bring to the role of Dracula, Schreck’s Orlok is a pure creature of the night – bald, pale, sporting rat-like incisors and pointed ears and wielding clawed hands that resemble clumps of albino carrots.  He’s not entirely hairless, having some shockingly unruly tufts of ear and eyebrow hair.  (There are no vampire brides in this version of the story.  Orlok, like many a bachelor living alone, obviously neglects his facial grooming.)

 

When he’s wearing a crumpled hat and trying to act the welcoming host to Hutter, he’s ghoulish enough.  When he appears in his full, thirsty, vampire-ish form, for example, on board the schooner, he’s the stuff of nightmares.  Also interesting is how he’s much more supernaturally powerful than the average movie vampire – Knock and Ellen (Greta Schröder), who’s Hutter’s wife and the film’s equivalent of the book’s Mina Harker character, sense and react to his presence long before he even sets sail from Transylvania to join them.

 

Knock is particularly interesting as, unlike other Renfields and other minions of Dracula in other films, he never actually crosses paths with his master.  In the plot, his function is really to serve as a scapegoat for the slayings that occur in Wisborg after Orlok arrives.  The townspeople believe that Knock, who’s just escaped from the asylum he was incarcerated in, is the real vampire and a mob of them pursue him through the streets and the surrounding countryside.  Indeed, you’d feel sorry for him if he hadn’t throttled an asylum attendant during his breakout.  The chase provides Nosferatu with some of its most memorable images – Knock perched gargoyle-like on a vertiginous rooftop, for example, or the mob racing towards a figure they believe is him in the middle of a field, only to discover that it’s a scarecrow (which they tear to pieces in a rage).

 

To audiences in 1922, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror must have seemed sensational.  Jaded, hardened film-watchers a century later won’t find it a symphony of horror, of course.  But with its strange images and sequences, the film still has a way of getting unsettlingly under your skin.  You’ll feel you’ve at least experienced a symphony of haunting Germanic weirdness.

 

© Prana Film / Film Arts Guild