The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen (2015)

9 Dec

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Featuring four of Ray Harryhausen’s best known films, this box set is a solid introduction to his work.

Boasting a great score by Bernard Herrmann and some striking colour photography, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958) is a lot of fun. Harryhausen’s work here is the main draw, but there is a lot to recommend here. Usually Harryhausen’s creatures are the most lifelike characters in his films, but 7th Voyage actually boasts some acting to write home about. Lead Kerwin Matthews boasts an old school charisma that works for Sinbad, and is a fine foil to the fantastical creatures he has to overcome. The other cast members
are fine, but, as the other films in this set show, the lack of a strong human protagonist detracts from the enjoyment. Onto the real reason we are all here: the monsters. The Cyclops, two-headed Roc and the dancing snake woman are terrific. The dragon which guards the villain’s castle is not as interesting (he’s just chained to a wall), but he does get to briefly throw down with the Cyclops. The stand out set piece is Sinbad’s sword fight with a skeleton — staged in depth, with both combatants moving through the environment with few bad composites, it is the best part of the film. While the special effects are a little crude in comparison with Jason & the Argonauts, the film overall feels a bit more atmospheric and exotic than Jason (especially in the striking location photography). The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is definitely the most underrated film in this collection, and well worth a look.

Jason & the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) is one of the classics of the Harryhausen canon and it is easily the standout of this set. A follow-up to his first Sinbad adventure, it is basically everything you liked about The 7th Voyage of Sinbad but bigger and better. As the titular lead, Todd Armstrong looks like a Greek statue, but with half the charisma. Of the cast, Nigel Green stands out as Hercules, a man whose great strength is outweighed by his ego. The script is a major help here, with a strong sense of humour offsetting the portentous exposition one usually gets in fantasy films of this kind. The monsters are all terrific, and together are probably the best showreel for Harryhausen’s work. While the fight with the skeletons is rightly celebrated, it is the sequence with the giant statue Talos which is the standout. Particularly noteworthy is the moment when the statue’s head turns to face his foes. The film’s other creatures are not nearly as memorable. The hydra is well animated, but the showdown with Jason is unimaginative — Armstrong just runs around and swings his sword a bit — and then stabs it in the heart. The finale with multiple
skeletons is still jaw-dropping. The only real flaw is that the ending feels like the set-up for a sequel that was never made.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (Gordon Hessler, 1973) is chiefly memorable for a scene stealing performance from Tom Baker as the villainous Prince Koura (in the role which got him the audition for Doctor Who). Once again, Harryhausen’s creature work is terrific, but the rest of the film lacks a certain energy. It features the Keanu Reeves of 70s genre cinema, John Philip Law, as Sinbad. He’s not terrible, but he’s not as charismatic as Kerwin Matthews from 7th Voyage. The film is not nearly as well directed as the previous two — once again, as with Law’s performance, Gordon Hessler’s work is not bad, but it never rises above the merely workmanlike.

Sinbad & the Eye of the Tiger (1977) is the final title in the Sinbad series, and is a rather sorry end to the series. On the acting front, Patrick Wayne steps into Sinbad’s sandals and makes you wish for the magnetism of John Philip Law. Directed by blacklisted actor Sam Wanamaker, this movie is the very definition of diminishing returns. As usual, Harryhausen’s work is the main attraction, but it is hard to maintain interest when everything else is so dull.

The special features, including interviews with Harryhausen and documentaries detailing there production of his most famous films (including his work outside of this box set), make up for the mixed quality of the films.

 

By Tim George

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