I’ve written quite a bit on Ray Harryhausen over my time at HCF, be it an attempt at an obituary or reviews of films and a documentary, but quite frankly it’s not something that I’m going to tire of any time soon. This means that I jumped at the chance to attend a cinema showing of the recent 4k restoration of one of his [one always thinks of these films as ‘Harryhausen films’ because in a way he was the auteur behind them even though he was never the actual director] key films, the first of his movies to be in colour, and the first to depart from a modern day setting. I was especially keen seeing as the only Harryhausen film I’d previously seen on the big screen was his last in 1981 Clash Of The Titans at age 10 [which I then went back to see twice, bought the tie-in novelisation, graphic novel adaptation, soundtrack, you name it], and also because I missed out on Indicator’s now sold-out Blu-ray set of the three Sinbad films, though thankfully they’ve just come out as single editions. The press invitation mentioned a screening of the classic fantasy adventure followed by a presentation by writer John Walsh on his new book Harryhausen: The Lost Movies – but the Sunday afternoon in London Town turned out to have some surprises in store and this Harryhausen fan ended up grinning from ear to ear.
Now despite not living in London I thought I knew my London cinemas fairly well, but the Regent Street cinema was new to me, which is shameful because a quick couple of clicks revealed to me that it was the first cinema in the UK to show a moving picture in 1896, and a 2015 restoration has really made its auditorium look like one of considerable vintage. It’s beautiful. Something that I also found hugely pleasurable was how full the screening was. Generally releases of very old movies don’t tend to pack ’em in by my experience, but despite it being a most lovely temperature outside, many decided to come and see this 1958 movie including even some kids, and that really warmed my heart seeing as we seem to live in a time when vintage films are shown far less on TV and attract less interest, especially from the younger set. My generation was probably the last to regularly enjoy – to the point of talking about them in the playground the next day – things like the Tarzan and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. I noticed quite a few Forbidden Planet bags accompanying people. The guy sitting to my right [we bonded because we both really disliked It: Chapter Two which was the last movie at the cinema that we’d both seen] told me that Walsh had been signing his book in the shop beforehand. Duh? I never knew anything about that. Never mind. 3 0 Clock was soon upon us and Robin Osmari introduced the screening and said that not only would there be a Q and A session after the book promotion but that Ray’s daughter Vanessa would be present at all of this! If only I’d known before, because I’d have spent some time thinking up some unusual questions, but boy did it make for a great surprise.
The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, my full review of which you can read here, proved to be even more exciting and charming on the big screen. It looked gorgeous and for the first time I realised how visually impressive it was aside from the special effects. Now talking of special effects, I was slightly concerned how good all those scenes with blue screen would still look. The recent Blu-ray of Jason And The Argonauts is often magnificent looking, but the quality lessens a little during all those stop-motion sequences with backgrounds looking just slightly less sharp. This is unavoidable with digital restorations of course, it just can’t be helped. The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad unsurprisingly had the same issue but something about it being on a cinema screen meant that it didn’t stick out nearly as much. A few shots of the shrunken Princess Parisa had some wobbly blue outlines that I hadn’t noticed before, but considering how old this film is one would have expected far more flaws to show, and the increased detail meant that I was able for the first time to truly appreciate things like the amazingly mobile dolls that Harryhausen built and animated for the scenes where the Cyclops is picking up and dropping people. For many years I was convinced that they were actual actors! Everything was extremely bright and colourful, and they’ve even been able to make all that tinny post-dubbed dialogue sound reasonable, as well as somehow mixing Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic music score so that it sounded like a much more recent recording while never drowning out the words – though thankfully it did drown out most of the coughing I could not help but utter because I was able to time it right [yes, I know this film that well]. I’ve got a nasty cold you see, and I do apologise to anyone who was irritated. Anyway, back to the film, and quite frankly they’ve done a magnificent job here – and I’m not afraid of criticising restorations if I think they haven’t been done well [I could write a whole article on how badly Sergio Leone’s movies have been handled].
The lights came back up and Robin also came back up to welcome John and Vanessa. This was the section about the book, beginning by showing the posters for each Harryhausen film, leading to an amusing moment where somebody said how Fright Fest audiences tend to cheer at their favourite posters – so some of us [me included I’m not sorry to say] responded by cheering at the One Million Years B.C. poster featuring Raquel Welch. Then, each decade that Harryhausen worked in received an introduction from John before we saw video pieces – and by god what video pieces they were. Being the owner of one book about Harryhausen and having read another, I knew a bit about Harryhausen’s unrealised work, and had seen a few of the stills showing planned scenes for films that were unshot, but there were quite a few I was not at all familiar with, while I had no idea that, for example, Perseus in Clash Of The Titans was originally going to decapitate the Medusa by throwing his shield like a frisbee until star Harry Hamlin threw such a wobbly that they decided to re-shoot with the sword death that we now see. It was speculated that this incident might have limited his Hollywood career which didn’t really take off. Interesting. Nor did I know that he was asked to do the effects for The Land That Time Forgot – which ended up using mainly puppets. I’d seen the test footage from a planned version of The War Of The Worlds of a tentacled Martian coming out of a spaceship somewhere before, but how amazing was it to see, for example, Ray himself being carried off by one of The Elementals, a scene that was later adapted into what is probably One Million Years B.C.’s most famous sequence?
Apparently the number of unfilmed Harryhausen projects totals 80! Of course we should be grateful for the riches he did leave us, but gazing on some of the concept art for various planned monster movies, plus a dark comedy, made me wish so much that somebody would go and make these films NOW. Sadly today’s superhero-saturated climate means that things like freakin’ SINBAD GOES TO MARS may not appeal as much no matter how much they may stir my imagination, though of course dinosaurs are still popular, and John and Vanessa seem positive that Force Of The Trojans, which was originally intended to follow Clash Of The Titans, will eventually get made. I seem to recall reading a while ago that it could be done as an animated movie, and I think that will be the way to go. It’s far far better than us not getting to see it at all. Despite us being given one reason, I’m still not entirely clear why Force Of The Trojans wasn’t made back in the ’80s, though I know that Ray was badly hurt by all those bad reviews Clash Of The Titans unfairly received. This section concluded poignantly with Ray’s own words over a very appropriately chosen musical cue from the Clash Of The Titans score, a moment when I’m sure most of us had a lump in our throat.
Connor Heaney, Collections Manager of the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation which looks after and promotes Ray’s enormous archive which has recently gotten much bigger with the discovery and restoration of a huge number of models, then joined the other three to tell us of some exciting events for next year [a trip to Edinburgh is somehow now on the cards] and then answer questions from members of the audience. Intelligent things were asked and even two young boys participated, one of them showing a wonderful interest in the craft of stop-motion. John Stevenson, director of Kung Fu Panda and Sherlock Gnomes, was also present and asked a question. Did Yours Truly participate? Well, the dire state of his voice held him off, and then, when he decided to say something that seemed like a both worthwhile and fun thing to ask, somebody else asked the same question – which I won’t be so rude as to state. The cheek of it! Things finished up in the auditorium just after 6, and the chat relocated to the bar. Doc so wanted to be a part of it, talking Harryhausen with other fans and John, Connor and no less than the great man’s daughter. But he was in bad shape. He’d barely slept the previous night due to constant coughing as soon as he lay down, didn’t want to give his cold to the people he hadn’t already done so in the auditorium, and thought that his continual snuffling would have put folk off from chatting to him anyway. And the trains were up the creek for what would already be a long journey home. So he felt that it was better to bail.
But maybe there will be a next time. Plans are afoot to get other Harryhausen films into cinemas next year, and other exciting things are sure to happen [and hopefully not all of them in Edinburgh] seeing as it will be 100 years since the birth of Ray. The cult of Harryhausen shows no sign of dying and we’re told that this book [which was popped through my letterbox on Friday] has already sold far better than expected, and that interest in his work seems to be increasing. That can only be a good thing in these days of CGI dominance and the older ways of doing things being severely diminished. Yes, CGI does often look good, and some great movies like The Lord Of The Rings trilogy would not have been able to get made without it, but a viewing of something like my previous cinema watch It: Chapter Two [that film again] shows that quite often it can be lacking, and all throughout that movie I kept thinking of scenes that would have been better off if done with practical effects. Of course the likes of Laika are still carrying on the art of stop-motion and, while l can’t imagine that too many folk today would have the patience to toil on it for over a year, often taking one day to do just one second’s worth of animation, at least they could maybe find a way to synthesise stop-motion with computer techniques rather like ‘go motion’ in the ’80s? Yet Harryhausen’s effects never overwhelmed the story, and so I’d also like to see a return to the innocent, un-cynical, adventurous spirit of films like Jason And The Argonauts, the Sinbads and Mysterious Island. Despite my negative tone about such things two paragraphs above, the more I think about it maybe there is a good chance that this could happen. After all, things like the Pirates Of The Caribbean pictures aren’t really that different even if they’re rather more ‘knowing’, something which might be necessary these days. As was mentioned at this event, The Dark Crystal, replete with puppets no less, has returned – and that wasn’t even commercially successful in 1982`- so you never know!
In any case, it was a truly lovely and rather inspiring Sunday afternoon spent at the Regent Street Cinema, an afternoon that ended up being far more than just finally seeing a childhood favourite on the big screen.
Check out the trailer for the book Harryhausen The Lost Movies here.
And the Forbidden Planet signing here.
And peruse the Harryhausen Foundation website here.