Stop-motion animation has become an all-but-lost art form in today’s digital landscape. While some filmmakers insert small sequences of the tangible special effect into their movies, it’s no longer the dominant technique it once was. Ray Harryhausen mastered this painstaking process by creating some of the most detailed and vibrant creatures in fantasy cinema. Via Vision Entertainment has brought together seven classic titles for their epic box set release of the Ray Harryhausen Ultimate Collection, out now on Blu-ray.
- It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
- Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
- The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957)
- The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)
- Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
- Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
We begin with two milestones of 50s science-fiction cinema, first with the sea-born terror of It came from Beneath the Sea, in which a giant radioactive octopus wreaks havoc on America’s Pacific coast. A product of the ‘Atomic Age’ and quite the shocking display of casual sexism, this straight-up creature feature really delivers the goods via the titular ‘IT’, during the underwater beast’s attack on San Francisco; the details of which look amazing. Even with the slightly jerky effect of stop-motion animation, the effect blends in relatively well with the landscape. Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers doesn’t opt for strings like the cheaper sci-fi pictures, instead Harryhausen’s technique gives the alien invading vessels a lot of dimension and free movement as opposed to more stagnate positioning in the sky. The film itself feels very standard and borrows from the more acclaimed, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Our characters are a nice counter to the gung-ho military attitude as they initially exercise caution in light the alien being’s arrival, but don’t dismiss the idea that they do not come in peace, and of course they don’t.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad introduces us to the famed Cyclops creation in an exotic yet, very Americanised, adventure in which Captain Sinbad must help an evil wizard return to his island home in order to help a shrunken princess, thus preventing a war between nations. More a fun-park attraction than a movie, the array of effects and visual tricks and the very fanciful story serves as a nice time capsule of the time and the big screen splendour it caters for hasn’t been lost. In fact, the now widespread adoption of ‘home theatre’ has given the genre a second life, as is the case with The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, which really plays a lot with size and scale. Kerwin Mathews, who portrayed Sinbad, is now the travelling Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, who becomes shipwrecked on an island inhabited by tiny people. Much like all the films inside this set, there’s much variety and plenty of colourful characters during Gulliver’s adventure.
I couldn’t have been more thrilled with Jason and the Argonauts, which I would tap as the champion of this set. The action literally never stops moving as we follow the legendary Greek hero on his quest for the Golden Fleece. Under the watching eye of the sky and thunder god Zeus, Jason and his brave fellow adventurers encounter giants, monsters and the famed skeleton army, which Sam Raimi took inspiration from for the climactic battle in Armies of Darkness. Todd Armstrong as Jason gives the film so much energy with his enthusiasm and heroic deeds, capturing the spirit of this sprawling journey through ancient mythology. Harryhausen’s effects are at their peak with not only the stop-motion but the use of miniatures. I think the best sequence in the film is our heroes trying to outwit the nightmarish Harpies, which must have been a frightening sight for young audience members back in the day.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is a decent follow up to the first film, although a little on the lacklustre side and the whitewashed cast of Middle-Eastern characters does come off as rather distasteful. However, Tom baker as the main villain, Koura is quite good in the role, as is John Phillip Law as Sinbad. In terms of animation, we meet the Hindu god, Kali, via a rather spectacular sword duel followed by a narrow escape from a centaur, who battles a griffin which mirrors the famous fight between King Kong and a Tyrannosaurus. Capping off the set is Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which by now has us edging close to the 80s and it certainly shows in terms of style and future sophistication in regards to special effects.
VIDEO AND AUDIO
Sourced from Columbia Pictures, the HD masters used for the first generation Blu-ray releases, hold up remarkably for all seven films. The coloured features especially look the best as they were made utilising state of the art colour processing and techniques of the time. It Came from Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers both come with colourised versions and they look pretty decent, despite the very obvious appearance. Unlike the real thing, there’s significant less colour and tone definition, but the novelty works for the type of films they are. With the exception of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, six out of the seven films come presented in some very epic Dolby 5.1 tracks that certainly match the grand spectacle of these fantasy adventures. Bernard Herrmann’s score for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is easily my favourite and sounds amazing in surround sound.
You certainly get your money’s worth with this collection as there are commentaries with Ray Harryhausen himself and even Peter Jackson, who gives his thoughts on Jason and the Argonauts, plus a variety of other names, including special effects artist Randall William Cook. Featurettes and retrospective documentaries make a good portion of the bonus material, and they’re definitely the most interesting, especially if you’re new to this genre of filmmaking. There’s even a small piece on the ‘Colorization Process’ and an interview with Harryhausen by John Landis. While much of this material is over ten years old, it hasn’t lost an ounce of value and I’m glad Via Vision made the effort to port this treasure trove of extras, which I imagine would have been expensive. Many box sets generally get a more streamlined presentation these days, but in this case, the packaging is particularly impressive with a 7-disc Blu-ray case that slips perfectly into a thick card box, complete with a removable lid. Picture a pack of cigarettes, but unlike the horrific health warning, the artwork is a vibrant display of the many monsters and mythological beings that appear throughout the films.
I feel well travelled having made my way through this adventure-filled collection and to top it off the set is a wonderful display piece. While this summer hasn’t been the hottest, which is probably best in light of last year’s devastating bush fires, I feel these seven movies have a very seasonal quality, best watched during the warmer months.
RAY HARRYHAUSEN ULTIMATE COLLECTION
(1955-77, director: various)