19 May 2013

HARRYHAUSEN WEEK: RELEASE THE KRAKEN

You can just about watch an era snuff itself out with Clash of the Titans, the final film for producer Charles H. Schneer and effects artist Ray Harryhausen (who also took a producer credit on what is frequently held to be the great labor of love of his career), and the first of those men's collaborations to be produced in the wake of the epochal Star Wars. There obvious (and infamous) attempts to adjust for that mammoth box office hit, which inspired so many cash-in attempts across so many genres, but the heart of Clash of the Titans was still pretty unabashedly old-fashioned, and when it passed, so did a much more playful, swashbuckling age of light cinematic entertainment. It was the latest and last in a cycle of films that the Harryhausen/Schneer partnership had been releasing for 23 years: episodic fantasy films based on classical mythology, either explicitly Greek (as in 1963's Jason and the Argonauts), or Arabian with a monstrous dose of Greek to it (as in 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, less so its two sequels from the '70s). Clash of the Titans, written by Beverly Cross and nurtured for many years until it was finally produced, is taken from perhaps the granddaddy of all Greek myths: the story of Perseus, rescuer of the princess Andromeda and slayer of the fearsome gorgon Medusa. It has as sprawling a plot, and as many stop-motion creations, as any of the Harryhausen fantasy films, and a vastly more impressive cast; it is in every way a career-capper, a work of the grandest ambition, and it only spoils things a little bit that it's not very good.

After all, lots of Ray Harryhausen films aren't very good, when you filter the Harryhausen out of them. At any rate, Clash of the Titans isn't the worst movie he was associated with (at a minimum, It Came from Beneath the Sea is stupider and First Men in the Moon is leagues more boring), and where it counts, it could not possibly be a bigger triumph: the stop-motion animation with which the great artist ended his career includes some of the most astounding work he ever did, including my single-favorite monster in the Harryhausen bestiary. That is, after all, the biggest reason anybody could have for wanting to see the movie. It's also the only reason that actually pays off, is the problem, and while none of the myth films of Harryhausen's career exactly had a robust, unimpeachable script, the storytelling is Clash is really quite tepid, and it is made far worse by the reasonable-in-1980 decision to cast up and comer Harry Hamlin as Perseus. Say what you want about Kerwin Matthews and John Phillip Law, for I will probably chortle as you say it and encourage you to go on, but at least they both had a certain fusty quality to their cardboard acting that adds to the nobly old-fashioned kiddie matinee feeling of their films. Hamlin is simply a bad actor, totally undone by the script's requirement that he play a stagey ancient Greek hero, lucking his way into a register of intense, constipated seriousness that sometimes is exactly right, though never enough to pull your eyes away from his feathery '80s hair. He's a hugely ineffective hero, that is to say, and his lead performance is a handicap that Clash would have a hard time recovering from even if it didn't have massive script problems along the way.

How about that script, anyway? "Taken from" the Perseus myth, I said, but "borrows character names and a couple scenes from" is closer to the mark. We'll keep it short: Perseus is the exiled heir to the throne of the ruined kingdom of Argos, destroyed in anger by Perseus's godly father Zeus (Laurence Olivier), when the boy's human grandfather sent him and his mother off to sea in a wooden casket to die horribly. 20 years on, Perseus wants to restore his position, but he gets sidetracked by stories of the beautiful Andromeda (Judi Bowker, bad enough to make even Hamlin look good), princess of Joppa. Joppa, the Israeli seaport, where Assyrian designs are all over everything, and Greeks wearing Roman headpieces walk the streets. Where the minor Greek deity Thetis (Maggie Smith) is worshipped above all else, and that's where the problems start. See, Thetis has a bit of a beef with Zeus, thinking that the leader of the gods is too quick to abuse his power and play the hypocrite when it comes to protecting his demigod children. She's particularly offended that Zeus hasn't been similarly indulgent to her own mortal offspring, Calibos (Neil McCarthy), Andromeda's former fiancé, now a horrible devil-lizard monster because of Zeus's whims. Thus, prodded own by Andromeda's mother, Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips), who idiotically praised her daughter's beauty above Thetis herself in Thetis's temple, the goddess orders that Andromeda be sacrificed to the dreadful Titan, the Kraken, the same beast that razed Argos. Perseus isn't terribly keen on this idea, but he's able to trick the cannibalistic Stygian witches into telling him how to stop the Kraken: by showing it the severed head of Medusa, which can turn any living being into stone (the film misidentifies Medusa as being a Titan, thus feebly justifying the title).

Okay, that sounds like the Perseus myth, but only because I cleaned up the plot in transcribing it. In point of fact, Clash of the Titans is a monumental fetch quest, in which Perseus is spurred on by the old actor Ammon (Burgess Meredith), in the role of the old man in the cave who gives the hero advice one dungeon at a time, and whose absolute all-time favorite gambit is the "Impossible! ...unless..." trick. And the "...unless..." invariably sends Perseus off to find some damn thing: the winged horse Pegasus, the stygian witches, the shores of the underworld. That the film is episodic is unfortunate, but not fatal; that it uses the most obvious framing device in the whole world to make really certain that we notice the clunky "The princess is in another castle" transitions between episodes, now that's fatal.

Clash of the Titans is thankfully busy enough with incident that it doesn't drag - it's Harryhausen's longest film, but it clips by well - but it never builds up any kind of dramatic flow or stakes, and while the story is interesting in the most primal way (myths, after all, hold up because something in our lizard brains responds to the simple characters and elemental, otherworldly setting and incidents), it's not terribly compelling on any level besides, "ooh, spooky! ooh, exciting!". Both of which, to its credit, the film nails: indeed, the Hades sequence, with its terrific skeletal ferryman and misty settings and just-out-of-sight monsters is pretty great PG-rated horror, from a time when PG let you get away with a lot more (including naked boobs and ass, both of which are found here). It's a good popcorn movie, as long as you don't need to have remotely credible characters with your popcorn: in the whole cast (further including Claire Bloom and a non-speaking Ursula Andress as goddesses), only Meredith and Phillips can really be accused of "acting", while the particular brand of non-acting perpetrated by the distracted, patrician Olivier and the empty-headed narcissist Smith is especially grating.

The visual effects are clearly the only thing here that's worth bothering with, and even they're wildly inconsistent for a Harryhausen film: for the first time (owing to schedule or budget or age, I do not know), the animator worked with a team of assistants, and it's tempting to blame them for the problems, but I don't know if that's fair. Anyway, Pegasus is almost totally without merit on the level of animation, and the giant vulture that spirits away Andromeda's spirit to be tormented by Calibos is pretty shaky itself, in addition to be consistently over-lit for the scenes it occupies. Meanwhile, the matte work used to composite even the very best animation in with the action is absolutely shocking: the worst of Harryhausen's career, even going back to the days when he had pocket change to make B-movies at Columbia.

But the good stuff is fucking marvelous, and makes up not just for the weak effects, but the movie as a whole. Calibos, when not being played by a human in wide shots, is a great demonic monster, especially his writhing tail; the Kraken, though not at all the giant squid monster described by Norse myth (and thus no better suited to ancient Greece than the obvious reference to Caliban from The Tempest is), is a pretty fantastically-designed creature, with tentacle-like arms and a meaner version of the face of the Ymir from Harryhausen's 20 Million Miles to Earth. There's a battle with giant scorpions that suffers badly from being awfully ill-matted, but given the incredible quality of the arthropods' design, and their nightmare-fuel movements, it's really hard to complain.

But I've saved both the best and the worst for last.

On one hand: Bubo. A tetchy Athena (Susan Fleetwood) doesn't want to give her precious owl to Perseus, despite Zeus's command, so shoe commissions Hephaestus (Pat Roach) to fashion a clockwork metal owl. And he sucks. He is the absolute worst ever. A blatant rip-off of Star Wars's R2-D2 - the filmmakers have always denied this - the beeping little comic relief thing is introduced by comically falling off a tree branch, hitting his head and looking around groggily. No doubt about it, the animation of Bubo is terrific, and full of personality. That makes it worse. The only thing that could make the thing palatable is if the film hated him as much as I do, but that's not the case at all: the film loves Bubo, and keeps giving him stone-faced, anti-funny business to do, constantly trusting that we are adoring his scrapes and antics, however much they might be ruining any kind of mood the film is able to scrounge up.

On the other hand: Medusa. The best depiction of Medusa, for my money, in any artform. A decaying perversion of the female form, like a mermaid with a snake's tail and rotting skin and a perpetual look of evil rage, she is terrifying, and the animation is easily the most complex in Harryhausen's career: everything on her moves, constantly, subtly, precisely, and in a room lit by torches (firelight is much harder in stop-motion than any other kind of lighting), and for once, the matte work is even top-notch. Frankly, I suspect the reason that so much of the effects work in Clash of the Titans is shabby is because Harryhausen and his team spent so much time and money getting Medusa right, because she is perfect in every way, a blast of horror perfectly executed and impossible to forget. The sequence in which she appears is an unmitigated triumph, it makes even the worst parts of the film worth sitting through to get to them (and I am anyway exaggerating how bad the movie really is: frequently dysfunctional, but virtually never unpleasant), and a finer climax to a life's work could not be imagined. There's more bad than good in Clash of the Titans overall, but Medusa is essential viewing, pure and simple. By the logic that dodgy genre movies and die on their monsters, it just doesn't get better than this.

2 comments:

Malte said...

I was about to say that the Bubo shout-out is the only bearable part of the remake, but having just rewatched that scene it's awful too.

Regular GeoX said...

Not gonna lie: I haven't seen this movie since I was, like, eight, but at that time, the clockwork owl was my favorite thing in it. I believe this was a prefernce widely shared by my peers. That is all.