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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Written by Beverley Cross
Directed by Desmond Davis

Harry Hamlin:  Perseus
Judy Bowker:  Andromeda
Burgess Meredith:  Ammon
Neil McCarthy:  Calibos
And the absurdly overqualified Lord Laurence Olivier as Zeus

Creator of Special Visual Effects:  Ray Harryhausen (this title is almost literally true)

I saw this movie for the first time at the Cascade Drive-In, in the suburbs of Chicago, when I was six. In fact, as my memory has it, when my parents announced which movie we were seeing that weekend, I demanded to see it at the drive-in because that was the biggest screen around and I wanted to see all the Ray Harryhausen monsters on the largest screen available.

Looking back at the movie now, it really seems like it's two films stitched together--one movie where people in togas and armor talk a lot in marble rooms, and one where a hero faces the coolest looking monsters in the world for true love and high adventure.

Think on that previous claim (boast?) about seeing the movie on the largest screen in the county for a moment. I don't know how many other first-graders knew who Ray Harryhausen was at Lincoln Elementary but I'm betting that number could be counted on one hand by a careless buzzsaw operator. I've been watching monster movies as far back as I can remember (thanks to Son of Svengoolie on channel 32 back when I was in grade school, and then the VHS and DVD revolutions, as well as the occasional anomaly in Hollywood that results in Kevin Bacon fighting killer worms on the big screen).

Zeus, ruler of the pantheon of Greek gods, couldn't keep his junk in his toga on a bet. And so it came to pass that he seduced Danae, daughter of the king of Argos, who kept his daughter locked in a tower cell so her beauty wouldn't distract the world. When she wound up having a child, the king put her out to sea in a tiny, coffin-sized boat with her infant son Perseus to go with her, and clean the stain on his city's honor. He didn't consider himself a killer for doing this; specifically he left the matter in the hands of the gods.

Zeus has a little alcove with lots of small, arch-covered niches. Each has a baked-clay statue of a notable mortal; for three decades this image has stuck with me as the Platonic ideal of the way to imagine a divine figure interacting with the mortal world. When the whim strikes him, Zeus takes hold of a representative statue and places it safely away (in the case of Danae and Perseus) or crushes it to fragments in his bare fist (in the case of the king of Argos, whose city winds up scoured down the bedrock by the monstrous Kraken--always be careful about leaving things up to the divine will because gods are willing to slaughter every living thing in a city, or a nation, or a world, in a fit of pique). I've been an atheist since I was thirteen, and I'm pretty sure one of the reasons that the idea of godly intervention in the world fills me with horror can be traced back to Zeus and his action figure collection. If an infinitely powerful psychotic bully can murder you with magic and get away scot-free, that's a horror story; it's not a moral lesson on any level.

Skipping ahead twenty years or so, Perseus and Danae landed safely on an island (thanks to a few nudges from Poseidon--always nice to have the god of the oceans on your side if you're in a tiny boat); he is well-muscled, handsome, brave, honest, and probably going to make one heck of a lawyer in Los Angeles some day. And Zeus is pissed of at Thetis' son Calibos, who has hunted the area of land he was given as a "nice job winning the birth lottery" present, killing everything in the Wells of the Moon up to and including all but one of Zeus' herd of sacred flying horses. Instead of killing Calibos, he decides to show either mercy or even greater ire towards the poor son of a bitch, transforming him into an ugly, brutish, cloven-hoofed and horned monster who will be shunned by humanity and cast out to live in swamps and bogs. When another goddess tries to comfort Thetis, saying that Zeus could always change his mind some other day, Thetis is having none of it--among the things Calibos has lost due to his deformity is a marriage to Andromeda and the divine right to rule over two kingdoms of ancient Greece.

And that's another scene that burned itself into my memory as a wee sprat--the shadow of the Calibos statue writhing in pain as Zeus turns him into a beast instead of a man (the Tim of 2013 also noticed that Calibos is the only brown-skinned person in the movie, which makes me want to apologize for not being smart enough to pick up on the "dark skin and nappy hair = monster" element when I was younger, and not empathetic enough to hate on the filmmakers for it. On this rewatch I was struck by how cheap the animation looked on DVD, but that might have been because the home format was much less forgiving to the effects than 35mm and a big wide far-off screen were.

The gods are not done screwing with Perseus; Thetis teleports him to Joppa, a city that worships her more than any other god or goddess, and Perseus is a little bit brain-fogged when he wakes up in the middle of an ampitheater and Ammon the playwright first scares the hell out of him with a few dramatic tricks and then gets the story out of what the heck happened out of the young demigod. Also, I hate to be cruel because I genuinely love this film, but Harry Hamlin looks like an utter doofus in his closeups during this sequence. In the morning, Zeus grants Perseus three divine gifts--a sword that cuts through marble like it was paper, a shield (presumably made of the same material as the sword), and a helmet that makes him invisible. Apparently even the god above all other gods can't simply restore Perseus to his rightful city, but if Thetis is going to put him in danger, Zeus is going to tilt the situation in his favor.

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons in middle school with a guy who went on to write and direct the video game God of War 2; in it, apparently Perseus is a level boss using an invisibility helmet to screw with the player's avatar. He got Harry Hamlin to voice the character as another nod to this film, which means I'm not the only young nerd to remember this scene (especially the completely boss footprints appearing in the sand of the stadium floor).

Ammon hips Perseus to the problems the city is facing (as does a conveniently placed Exposition-Spouting Soldier common to movies of this type)--Calibos still claims his right to marry Andromeda, and asks a difficult riddle to anyone else who wants her hand in marriage. If you get the answer right you can marry the princess and if you get the answer wrong you're burned at the stake. Perhaps I am stating the obvious here, but nobody's figured it out yet.

And as a kid, I knew this was the part where everything was starting to get going. We had a hero introduced, a mortal villain and a series of ticked-off gods to oppose him, some magic tools and an old mentor to help him on his quest, and from this point it's just one damn thing after another until the movie runs out of awesome. And it's a really good thing he has the aged playwright as a spare brain--

With the passing of three decades, now I see the second and third acts as kind of a Candyland game where Perseus has to check off a bunch of stuff from his list and go across the entire game board before he can kill the giant monster and win the girl. We get setpiece after setpiece in this vein (he tames Pegasus so he can follow the giant vulture that carries Andromeda off to the swamp where Calibos lives in order to cheat and get the answer to the riddle, which means that he has to find the flying horse and lasso him; this sequence is unfortunately quite not up to the standard of the other effects in the film). Once he gets to the swamp he's enough of a moron to get spotted by Calibos and his hench, and he's got to fight his way out. When I was a kid I didn't even notice that every shot with Calibos' full body was stop-motion and only the insert shots of his head and torso had the physical actor. Harry Hamlin's in the whole fight, though, and it's a nice rousing scene. He figures out the answer to the riddle (Calibos' signet ring, a gift from his divine mother), and then takes the answer, the ring and Calibos' severed hand back to the $64,000 Question Riddle Answer Contest auditorium.

Calibos, for his part, is pissed like you wouldn't believe that he got spied on, the riddle answer stolen, beat in a fight and his hand severed. He prays to a statue of Thetis--which responds to him with a simple but effective technique of projecting a film of the actress' face on the blank white marble--and she basically says that she's doing everything she can to help out but Zeus is more powerful than she is and able to check all her moves in this conflict. She also asks if Calibos wants justice for the wrongs done to him, or revenge.

When I was six I didn't really even know the meanings of those words, but hearing the difference in the middle of the film started me wondering about how close they were in effect and whether you got only one or the other when you tried to hit someone back. I also had more than a little sympathy for poor Calibos here--yes, he was a bullying jerk but he got turned into a monster and had his damn hand cut off! I've always had sympathy for the underdog, like most people do, I guess. And watching Calibos clench his teeth and choke out the wrongs that have been done to him put me at least a little bit on his side.

Jump cut to the wedding between Perseus and Andromeda; Andromeda's mother performs the ceremony herself, crediting Perseus with saving her kingdom from despair (hey! Giving credit where it is due!) and then saying her daughter is the most beautiful woman in the world, and even more lovely than Thetis herself (no! Don't insult the city's goddess while you're standing under her statue, you fool!). The statue's head falls off, and then the same projected-image of Thetis' face lets Queen Cassiopeia know what time it is. When a goddess starts her address to you with "Vain and foolish mortal", that's not a good sign. She sets an ultimatum:  Either Andromeda gets fed to the Kraken in thirty days or the beast will perform its unique style of urban renewal on Joppa.

I've never liked bullies. This sequence gave me chills when I was watching it at the drive-in, because one thing I knew even at six years old is that the people that try to keep you miserable and afraid act like they've got every right to act that way. The opening eyes of Thetis are the same as the expression on the face of every schoolyard terror.

Perseus and Ammon put their heads together to figure out what they're going to do with the next month, hopefully winding everything up with "kill the Kraken before it can eat Perseus' wife" on day thirty. And here's where the Candyland section of the film goes into overdrive. The Kraken is a monster older than the world, immortal, huge, and impervious to anything that Perseus might throw at him. He's not much for thinking on his own, which means paying a call to the three Stygian witches for some advice (Ammon:  "There's no way to kill the beast known to man...but there might be a way known to woman"; thanks a lot, aged mentor figure). On the way to the witches' shrine he gets a robot owl named Bubo as a consolation prize for losing his invisibility helmet in Calibos' swamp like a complete moron.

This damned owl. Apparently ancient Greece had a Taiwanese knockoff of R2D2 or something. At the time I did not find the robot owl to be charming, and now I like to think that Hephaestus built it so that Zeus would stop telling him to make things for Perseus and he could get back to his regular work load. They have a toy Bubo now that's apparently life-size, so people who want to do a Clash of the Titans costume for Halloween can pick one up. Even if I had the build to be Perseus, I wouldn't include it as part of the costume.

Perseus snags the crystal ball that the three witches share in order to see, and learns that the head of Medusa will remain powerful enough to kill the Kraken even after her death. He and his backup adventurers travel across the Styx to the Isle of the Dead in order to slay her, wrap her head in a poison-blood-proof cloak, and get the heck back to Joppa in time to save his wife from becoming a Kraken snack.

This sequence is a contender for Best Thing Ray Harryhausen Ever Did. Even with the passage of three decades, it is a complete masterwork. Watching the Medusa slither around her statue-filled labyrinth, taking out soldiers with arrows poisoned with her own blood or turning one poor doomed bastard into a statue as he sprawls on the ground is bone-chillingly terrifying. The dim light and deep shadows in the maze add to the mood immeasurably, as does the sound design. Harryhausen decided that his Medusa would have a rattlesnake tail, and the arrythmic buzz sounds like the Boogeyman shushing a terrified child. There is suspense and doom in this scene that is all the more impressive when one realizes that Harry Hamlin and the other actors did all their scenes alone and the monster was animated over the course of a few months by one man, fitting it seamlessly into the film. It's also completely horrifying to see the gaze of the Medusa in the movie--breaking one of the rules of cinema, she looks directly into the camera (and at the audience!) as she activates her death gaze. Just a little nightmare fuel to come back to you from time to time randomly over the rest of your life if you see it young, like I did. There's also a special bonus monster in the scene; Medusa's guard dog is a two-headed wolf the size of a dwarf pony and it puts up a decent fight before Perseus manages to overcome it.

After using the brightly polished inside of his shield to safely see where the monster is coming from, Perseus liberates Medusa's head from her neck (her horrifically toxic blood dissolves his shield at this point, so Hephaestus is probably stealing glances at the forge-room door wondering when Zeus is going to come in and tell him to make some other thing for his idiot son). He wraps the head up in a poison-proof cloak (courtesy of the Stygian witches) and makes his way back for Joppa.

On the way back to Joppa, Calibos shows up to screw with Perseus again; he sneaks up on the sleeping party and stabs the cloak containing the Medusa head. The cursed blood causes a trio of scorpions to grow to the size of a small sedan or so. And so we're treated to another bonus sequence of Harryhausen monsters, with the two surviving soldiers getting taken out by a scorpion sting and a backstab from Calibos; Perseus himself manages to survive using only a tree limb as a weapon until he can get his sword in hand, and then takes care of things (including Calibos, who brought a whip to a gladius fight). And at this point, poor Perseus has been whipped, strangled, beaten and exhausted. He's out of food and Calibos scared off everyone's horses while they were fighting the scorpions. As a kid, I still knew that the good guys were going to win, but I couldn't imagine how. After all, there wasn't anyone around to tell Perseus that things were impossible, but there just might be one way to do the next thing on the Candyland board.

It turns out to be that stupid owl again; it frees Pegasus from a cage in Calibos' camp and leads him back to Perseus. Now it's time for Perseus to beat feet (or let Pegasus do it for him; the thirty days are up and Andromeda is being chained to the rock that Joppa will be using for Kraken meals. As the sun sets on day thirty, Poseidon releases the monster and we get a fantastic sequence of it emerging from the water and bellowing at the people of Joppa. And then that damned robot owl shows up again to annoy the Kraken. Unlike the audience, the Kraken can take a swat at Bubo. And when he connects, there's nothing the owl can do but get smacked out of the sky.

I had a toy Kraken from the movie's merchandise line when I was six or seven (my parents thought it was a good idea to give me the likeness of a civilization-threatening beast for Christmas), and it would have been great to play Robot Owl Smashing Time with it.

Perseus flies in on Pegasus at the last moment, but while he's fumbling with the Medusa head bag the Kraken slaps him and the horse out of the sky. Bubo proves that the sidekick is better than the hero in this case and scoops the bag up, hands it to Perseus and scoots away before he's in the kill radius of the head. The Kraken is turned to stone and shatters under its own weight; Andromeda is saved; Perseus is the hero-king of Joppa; Zeus looks down fondly from Mount Olympus as his kid does all right for himself. And lastly, Ammon knows he's got material for at least two or three quick epics out of this whole deal.

This was Ray Harryhausen's last movie; stop-motion took too long to animate in the wake of new technologies (for one example, the John Carpenter version of The Thing came out the next year, and used foam-latex makeup and purpose-built remote-control puppets to give a cavalcade of nightmarish creatures that Harryhausen's techniques couldn't duplicate). The world moved on from his style of special effects, and I honestly think that computer graphics can't always measure up to little tiny model creatures painstakingly photographed one frame at a time. There's a solidity to stop-motion models, just because they are physical objects. They need to be lit just like the actors and sets need to be lit, and with enough time and care the animators can give an inanimate sculpture a sense of character--menace, whimsy, joy, pain, sorrow, hunger or delight. Intentional throwbacks like Army of Darkness were made by people who knew this, who sat in the dark and watched the monsters fight heroes, or for their lives. They saw Gwangi. The Ymir. An armada of flying saucers. A six-armed statue of a god or a squadron of skeletons with swords. A Cyclops and a gigantic crab. Dinosaurs and a gigantic octopus. Part of my soul is in the darkness with them. Part of me will always be that six-year-old who can't completely believe he talked his parents into seeing a monster flick at the drive-in, eyes wide and riveted to the screen, awe-struck at what one man gave to the world of art and imagination.
This review is part of a roundtable tribute to Ray Harryhausen. Other entries can be found at:


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