In this 1974 television interview (including film clips from ONE MILLION, B.C. and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS), Ray Harryhausen demonstrates of the basics of the stop-motion special effects technique and explains how the special effects sequences were dreamed up for his movies.
See one of the greatest sequences ever crafted by stop-motion magician Ray Harryhausen: the skeleton battle from the climax of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
SCARY MOVIE V opened this week! Yeah, us neither. So instead of delving in depth into this weekend’s big release (takeaway: A HAUNTED HOUSE was much funnier), Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons deliver a quick capsule review, and then Lawrence French joins them for a fiftieth anniversary discussion of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen’s epic fantasy (actually directed by Don Chaffey), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Featuring such wondrous creatures as winged harpies, a deadly hydra, and an armed troop of bloodthirsty skeletons, the film stands at the pinnacle of Harryhausen’s career, and well worth discovering if you’ve never seen it before. But if you’re still faltering: SCARY MOVIE V sets a baby on fire. So there’s that.
Plus: What’s coming to theaters this weekend.
The concept of a single artesian working away in monkish solitude might seem quaint by today’s standards – think of the end credit roll on Avatar with its thousands of digital effects technicians – but Ray Harryhausen was able to create a wonderful world of monsters and myths using nothing more than his hands and his imagination. Sony has long recognized the treasure trove they have with their Harryhausen catalogue and are lovingly upgrading the home video versions to meet the digital standards of a new century. The new Blu-ray release of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS features what has to be the finest transfer of a Harryhausen film ever, in any format.
Although THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD may rank as the critical (and my) favorite among Harryhausen’s films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is still his personal favorite. The film is fine vintage Harryhausen, with its roots in classic mythology and its effects state of the art, for the time. Harryhausen manages to tell an epic tale on a low budget in less than two hours without sacrificing grandeur. There are some pacing problems, but there is also some of Harryhausen’s best work, including the giant Talos and the Hydra which guards the Golden Fleece. Most people agree that the skeleton fight at the end of the film is the finest stop motion sequence in cinematic history.
In case you feared another Blu-Ray fiasco like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD transfer – wherein the grain was so pronounced that it looked as if the film was made in a blizzard of black snow – you can relax. On the new JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS disc, the picture is sharp and vibrant, with the day-for-night scenes – most notably, the Harpy sequence – properly color corrected as they were first seen theatrically in 1963. For those who were lucky enough to see the film in the theater as I did in 1963, this comes close to recreating that experience.
As with the picture, the sound mix has been vastly improved and is presented in HD DTS 5.1. For the purist, the film is also offered in its original mono. However, in 5.1, Bernard Herrman’s music has never sounded so good.
This new Blu-Ray package is a little skimpy on bonus features, recycling earlier DVD extras; however, it does feature two commentary tracks: the first by Harryhausen and writer Tony Dalton; a second with director Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and special effects artist Randall William Cook THE GATE). For serious students of Harryhausen, neither audio commentary provides much in the way of new information (like which actor actually dubbed Todd Armstrong’s voice) but they are fun and entertaining.
Harryhausen and Dalton in their audio commentary take us through the film with the ease of a couple of old friends. Harryhausen at 90 sounds somewhat frail, but still has the mind of a master craftsman as he pulls the curtain open and reveals how many of the effects were created. His behind-the-scenes recollections create a fascinating guide of how to create a masterpiece with a smallish budget.
Jackson and Cook alternate between geeky reverence and interesting analysis of Harryhausen’s animation techniques. Both have a genuine love for the film while still being objective enough to point out its shortcomings. Most interesting are their personal antidotes including the revelation that Cook discovered a trove of Harryhausen’s animation dailies, which Jackson has had transferred to high quality digital masters. They hint that some, or all, of this material could be seen in a documentary that Harryhausen and Dalton are planning for the near future.
Features ported over from the DVD include the Skeleton Fight Storyboards, a John Landis’ interview with Harryhausen, the Ray Harryhausen Chronicles and The Harryhausen Legacy. Unfortunately, the special features are presented here in standard format, not remastered for high definition.
To say that Ray Harryhausen is unique among filmmakers is putting it mildly. No other behind-the-scenes movie technician has achieved the same iconic status. His vision and artistry have inspired succeeding generations of filmmakers, including most of the “A” list directors working in Hollywood today. He set the standard for what great special effects should be, no matter what the budget.
This JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS Blu-ray stands as a fitting tribute to a master. Hopefully, Sony will follow with other special editions of Harryhausen’s work especially MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.
Tuesday, July 6 sees no new theatrical horror, fantasy, or science fiction titles making their home video debut; fortunately, that is no reason for fans of cinefantastique to despair: the 1963 classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, is arriving on a brand new Blu-ray disc that improves on the picture and sound quality of the previous DVD release. Not only that, the Blu-ray is loaded with no bonus features, including an audio commentary with Ray Harryhausen.
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is a sort of precursor to CLASH OF THE TITANS (1980) – both films are based on Greek mythology – but JASON is the better effort, despite the larger’s bigger budget and cast of stars. The writing, directing, and acting are reasonably strong, creating a fairly serious work, and Harryhausen offers up some of his most imaginative monsters, including a giant walking statue, a multi-headed Hydra, and the famous skeleton battle, which outdoes the earlier skeleton duel in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Sony’s 1998 DVD featured a full screen and a widescreen transfer (one on each side of the disc), but supplemental material was limited to a brief interview with Harryhausen, conducted by director John Landis. The new Blu-ray, also from Sony, features a new transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.66, for a sort of compromised widescreen look. (For technical reasons, Harryhausen preferred to shoot in standard format; to get a widescreen transfer requires cropping the top and/or bottom of the image.) The disc, which is region free, features DTS audio and Dolby Surround. The old Landis-Harryhausen interview is ported over. Additionally, there are these new bonus features:
- Commentary with Harryhausena nd historian Tim Dalton
- Commentary with Peter Jackson and William Randall Cook
- Skeleton fight storyboards
- Harryhausen legacy featurette
- Harryhausen Chronicles feature narrated by Leonard Nimoy
- John Landis interview with Harryhausen (from DVD)
Fans of the classic British television series DOCTOR WHO will be pleased to see several old episodes from the 1960s and ’70s released on DVD this week:
- UNDERWORLD and THE HORNS OF NIMON with Tom Baker
- THE TIME MONSTER with John Pertwee
- THE SPACE MUSEUM with William Hartnell
EYEBORGS makes a direct-to-video debut on DVD and Blu-ray. This flick is from the director of PYTHON, the 2000 stinker starring Robert Englund, but advance word suggests that this new film is quite an improvement.
GOD OF VAMPIRES is another DTV title making its debut. This American film follows a hit man contracted to take out a Chinese crime lord – who turns out to be a vampire.
GAMERA VS. BARUGON, the second film starring the giant flying fire-breathing turtle, arrives on DVD. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 did a good job on this one, back in the 1990s. After that, it’s hard to imagine watching the film without Joel and the ‘bots.
Fans of Japanese gore films can rejoice in the release of the ULTIMATE MACHINE GIRL Collectors Tin, a three-piece set dedicated to the low-budget revenge flick, about a girl who loses her arm when she is brutally attacked – then replaces it with a machine gone and goes after her attackers. At the very least, it’s no more ridiculous – and probably a good deal less so – than PLANET TERROR.
If you’re too cheap to shell out the dough for a single title, here are some bargains for you: a Blu-ray two-pack of PRACTICAL MAGIC and WITCHES OF EASTWICK and another Blu-ray two-pack of DR. GIGGLES and OTIS.
If that’s not enough value for your money, there are two DVD box sets coming out that offer 25 titles a piece – although, in spite of th word “classic” being used in both cases, quantity rather than quality is what’s really selling.
25 SCI FI CLASSICS includes no classic titles that I can recognize, but there are a few cult items (Roger Corman’s THE WASP WOMAN) and some star names that might just peak your interest (Charles Bronson in ONE STEP BEYOND, Peter Graves in KILLERS FROM SPACE, the latter of which was derided in an episode of THE FILM CREW).
25 HORROR CLASSICS is also short on true classics, although this set at least include WHITE ZOMBIE (with Bela Lugosi), which is a great, if slightly creaky, black-and-white horror from 1932. Also included are ICE FROM SPACE, starring Paul Newman (a TV-production, I believe) and Lon Chaney in FRANKENSTEIN. (This is presumably the notorious live television production, in which a drunken Chaney believed he was doing a rehearsal.)