Friday, January 21, 2011

“I was partial to tragedy in my youth. That was before experience taught me that life was tragical enough without my having to write about it.”

Ray Harryhausen. If you know anything about special effects, you know about this man. He was THE stop-motion special effects guy of the mid-twentieth century, and made a lasting contribution to cinema. He’s also still alive as of this writing, though he retired from films after his last movie in 1981. That movie? Clash of the Titans.

We are in Ancient Greece during the time of heroes and gods. Our particular hero of the day is Perseus (Harry Hamlin), son of Zeus (Sir Laurence Olivier) and as far as Greek heroes go, a pretty decent guy too. If you happen to lack a liberal arts education, Perseus’ mother was locked up by her husband and Zeus came to her as a golden ray of light or a shower (depending on your fetish, I suppose) and after the kid was born, he and his mother were put out to sea to punish her infidelity. They survive, the husband (and king of Argos) is killed by Zeus and Perseus grows up. Other gods are also present on Olympus, and its fun to note that the original Bond Girl, Ursula Andress, plays Aphrodite (and has all of two lines in this movie).

Zeus shows favoritism to his son, but punishes Calibos (played by Neil McCarthy when not a stop-motion puppet), the son of Thetis, a sea goddess (and played by Maggie Smith) for his wickedness by transforming him into a cloven-hoofed, horned and fugly monster. This is a problem, since before this, Calibos was to be married to the princess of Joppa, Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Put off by his ugliness, she calls the wedding off, and in punishment, Calibos makes her challenge any would-be suitor with an unanswerable riddle. In a fit of godly jealousy, Thetis plucks Perseus off of his own island and drops him in Joppa to see if he’ll get involved. In retaliation, Zeus grants Perseus a Helmet of Invisibility, a Mirrored Shield and a Vorpal Sword +3 against Gorgons. Naturally, Perseus falls in love with Andromeda. Perseus also gets guidance from the old poet Ammon (Burgess Meredith, who completely out-acts everybody else in the film and infuses everything he says with the right blend of gravitas and ham. Its incredible to watch him in this), and Thallo (Tim Pigott-Smith) a Joppan officer who turns out to be a real solid buddy.

The rest of the movie turns into one elaborate quest to get Perseus laid, as he has to find a way to slay the Kraken, a giant fish monster/Titan who will destroy Joppa if Andromeda is not sacrificed to Thetis. To do so, he has to tame Pegasus to fight Calibos and solve the riddle. Visit the Stygian Witches to find out how to kill the Kraken. Find Medusa, fight off her two-headed guard dog Dioskilos, then kill HER without turning to stone. Go for round two against Calibos (and three giant scorpions). Get back to Joppa with the help of Bubo, a clockwork owl crafted by Hephaestus, and THEN use Medusa’s head to kill the Kraken (oh like THAT’S a spoiler).

Directed by Desmond Davis, but really, this is Ray Harryhausen’s baby. Officially credited as Visual Effects (and co-produced), this is a special effects spectacular that is loaded to the brim with lovingly crafted monsters: Pegasus, Bubo, the Kraken, Medusa, Dioskilos the two-headed dog, Calibos, Giant Scorpions and a Giant Vulture. And they really are lovingly crafted. They move with incredible energy and life, with the Kraken being one of the most impressive, but in my opinion, the best one was Medusa. She’s really creepy, imposing and monstrous, but with a definite touch of sadness to her. Its subtle, but even more impressive since this is done frame by frame in a torch-lit dungeon.

Also worth mentioning is the punishment of Calibos, since we don’t see it directly. Zeus takes a clay figure and puts it in his Action Amphitheater Playset (figures sold separately) and the camera zooms in on the shadow cast of the figure as it writhes and warps into its monstrous form. Not exactly the most complicated effect, but easily the creepiest and most evocative of the movie.

Written by Beverly Cross, the film is an interesting mix of faithfulness to Greek mythology and a blatant disregard for it. Pegasus was the mount of Bellerophon, not Perseus (and yes, I was able to spell Bellerophon off the top of my head). Dioskilos is something of a poor man’s Cerberus, and the Kraken here is neither Scandinavian nor a giant squid. Perseus’ origin and Medusa herself though are pretty much spot on.

What the movie lacks in faithfulness to the letter of Greek Myth, it makes up for in faithfulness to the spirit of it. The gods are petty, vain and quarrelsome, and they use mortals like playthings for their own purposes. Mortals are, for their part, extremely flawed and weak, but with spirit, determination and the favor of the gods, they can achieve great things.

The original score by Laurence Rosenthal is a grand, sweeping ADVENTURE! filled soundtrack that perfectly fits the feel of the movie. No complaints there whatsoever.

Clash of the Titans was Ray Harryhausen’s paen and damn did he retire swinging. It doesn’t really hew close to actual mythology (krakens are traditionally giant squids, not Titans and Perseus had nothing to do with Pegasus, among other things) but its such an energetic love letter to mythology that deeply understands the draw of ancient myths (unlike the recent remake, from what I hear) and what they say about the human condition and presented in such a wide eyed, “gee whiz” manner that the camp elements are completely drowned out by the sheer fun of it all. If you hate this movie, clearly you have murdered your inner child and there is no hope for you.

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