Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Goodbye, Ray Harryhausen

A part of me wishes I hadn't agreed to see Iron Man 3 this evening, at least after reading the announcement of Ray Harryhausen's passing earlier this morning.  At first, I just wanted to dig into my DVD collection of his films and spending several hours marveling at his amazing work.

But then, I realized that spending the evening watching a big budget, CGI blockbuster is a tribute, as most of the people working on the effects team are likely Harryhausen fans as well, and spending time watching their work is a living testament to the monsters he created.

And it's no wonder so many effects artists are still inspired by his work.  Ray Harryhausen didn't make monsters, he brought them to life.  In all his films, the creatures were as real as their human counterparts.  They had personalities and motivations, they felt sorrow and pain.  They weren't rubber suited actors, or real animals filmed in a way to make them look gigantic.  Harryhausen's monsters delivered performances so touching and nuanced that one suspects their creator was an actor at heart.

It's not hard to see this in the films he's left behind.  Who can forget the death of Medusa in the original Clash of the Titans, the skeleton from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad that practically cackles during the fight, or the agony endured by the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth? These are unforgettable moments in cinema, which (to paraphrase Tom Hanks) are as defining as Citizen Kane or Casablanca.

I'm sure a lot of people are sharing their favorite Harryhausen moment, so here's mine.  It's the Children of the Hydra, from Jason and the Argonauts.  Damn, I still get chills just thinking about it.

This wasn't the first time Harryhausen used skeletons in a film, but it was (in my mind) his most effective.  Grown out of the ground by an evil priest, the skeletons are almost robotic as they advance on Jason and his men.  At least until the scream like bats out of hell and attack, which is.....

Oh, just watch the YouTube clip.  Enjoy, because it is amazing work.

Though the craft of stop motion (Harryhausen called his technique of combining human and monster actors Dynamation) has been replaced by computer generated effects, any special effects artists still works under the shadow of Ray Harryhausen.   Because no matter how often this scene has been homaged in films, such as Army of Darkness or the remake of The Mummy, no one has made it more effective.

Goodbye, Mr. Harryhausen.  I never had the privilege to meet you in person and tell you how much your films meant to me as a child, and continue to hold a place in my heart many years later.  And that's probably a good thing, as I'm sure I would have come off like a rambling idiot.  But I will miss you, as the world has become a duller, less wondrous place without you.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Saturday at The H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival

Saturday was a day full of cosmic horrors at The Hollywood Theatre, as day two of the Lovecraft Film Festival continued to spread cosmic horror across Portland. After catching a couple of films in Shorts Block 2, it was time for The Cabal Cut of Nightbreed, Clive Barker's first studio effort. Marred by studio dictated changes, Russell Cherrington has shown this restored version of Barker's film around the world, and the Lovecraft Festival is its final US screening.

As Cherrington mentioned during his introduction, the film is rather shoddy in picture and sound quality, as he culled footage from two work prints to restore the film. But it's an amazing work, as Barker's vision is intact and on screen for the first time. The focus is more on the residents of Midian and their plight once the humans (in this case, a town full of rednecks) discover their hidden world.

The film could still use a bit of trimming (Cherrington says he didn't use all the footage of the rednecks arming themselves, and I think he could have left a bit more out of the film), but the film is powerful and quite compelling. One can only hope Cherrington is able to secure the funding needs to clean up the print and restore Barker's original vision for film lovers and genre fans. The film screens again in just over one hour, with a special mystery guest in attendance.

Next up was a long short, Transcendent, directed by Mars Homeworld. This is an impressive film, a black and white silent film that follows Mary (Cassie Mosher) as she leaves the normal world behind to discover her true destiny. But, as this film is based loosely on Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmith, this hero's journey has a rather dark, yet uplifting, ending.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit. The soundtrack by Mars enables the film to tell the story without dialog, yet this technique doesn't come off as a gimmick. The film looks beautiful and the long running time (for a short film) feels appropriate. It does dragged a bit in the middle, but that is a small quibble. The film is gripping, beautiful and worth seeking out.

Just a moment of disclosure here. I did get to interview Mars, Mosher and prop maker Skinner before I saw the film. While I appreciate their willingness to talk with me, I was a bit worried about a potential conflict of interest, so I want to let my readers know about the interviews. Expect to see them in a future post, and I stand by my review of the film. It's quite good and worth seeking out.

I wish I could be as positive with my final feature viewing on Saturday, 2012's The Thing on the Doorstep. An updated version of the Lovecraft story of the same name, this film shows the limitations and hazards of bringing such short stories to the screen.

I won't waste much time to summarize the plot. The story is Daniel Upton's statement about the events leading up to his murdering his friend, Edward Derby. The being Daniel killed, however, was possibly body possessed a darker force introduced into Edward's life by his new bride, Asenath Waite.

I suspect most horror fans know this story, but if you don't, expect spoilers for the next four paragraphs.

Okay, the film is rather long and padded, as the filmmakers tried to bring a direct adaptation of Lovecraft's story to the screen. But this is not the film's fatal weakness, but rather trying to keep Lovecraft's intent in a feature set in modern times.

First, as in the original story, the audience is told the force possessing Asenath, her father (or possible an older relative) was upset by the fact that he had to possess a daughter, not a son, as the male brain is superior. Yea, right. You'd think a dark wizard would appreciate possessing a gender less driven by testosterone and more able to focus on their studies, rather than a young male with more on his mind than academic studies.

It's an antiquated view of men and women that has no place in a modern adaptation of the story. But a bigger problem is when Daniel's wife discovers Asenath (really Edward) bound to a chair in the attic.

Though Daniel's wife is a phsycologist or councilor, the fact that she doesn't call the police is a major plot problem. As neither Edward or Asenath are her patient, the idea or patient/client confidentiality doesn't hold. Even if it did, she is under an obligation to report this incident as it indicates a clear danger to Asenath. But a greater flaw in the script is that this moral/profession dilemma is never addressed, and Edward just asked his wife to let him try and sort things out. And, of course, the scene is never referenced again.

Despite some good performances and film making, I gave up after the previously mentioned problems with the script. One could have solved these problems (maybe Asenath is dying, explaining the hasty reason for the marriage on her part, and the scene in the attic is explained away as an extreme BDSM game), but it's a weakness the screenwriters either didn't see or care about, and one I couldn't forgive.

But despite a weak finish, the after party at Tony Starlight's was a blast and I'm looking forward to all the fun and I sanity I can handle in day three. But work at 6:30 on Monday....

May blessed insanity claim me before that.