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March 5, 2012

Movie Review: Ray Harryhausen Box Set (2005)

Before the advent of computers and CGI, movie makers used a variety of approaches to achieve animated special effects. One approach was stop-motion animation, a time consuming process where miniature models were filmed a single frame at a time with slight movements to the models in between the frame shots. It was pioneered by a man named Willis O'Brien and first used in the films The Lost World (1925) and the classic King Kong (1933).

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As he sat in a theater watching King Kong, a young boy named Ray Harryhausen was so amazed by the images he saw that he decided that he would dedicate his life to bringing this amazing art form to the silver screen. And the rest, as they say, is history. His list of credits include some of the most beloved sci-fi and fantasy films of all time, including Mighty Joe Young (1949), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and the original Clash of the Titans (1981).

There were a few different Ray Harryhausen box sets available to choose from when I was on the hunt for a showcase of his work but being one of the worlds biggest 50's sci-fi geeks, this was my first choice, and I must say, a wise choice it was.

This box set features 3 of his most under-rated works, It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) and my personal favorite of the bunch, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

None of these movies were big-budget extravaganza's, in fact they were typical of most 50's sci-fi films of the time, done on a shoe-string budget and minimal resources with the hopes of quickly cashing in on the drive-in movie craze of the time. But while the other films of this era were putting guys in hokey rubber masks and clanky robot outfits, Harryhausen was creating amazing movie characters that even 50 plus years later, movie-monster geeks like me are still talking about. All three of these films were elevated from run of the mill drive-in fare to timeless classics of the genre, at it was all accomplished by the skillful hands of Harryhausen.

It came from Beneath the Sea stars Kenneth Toby (who also starred in the classic The Thing from Another World, 1951) and centers around a giant 300 foot long octopus that terrorizes ships, subs, buildings and basically anything that gets in its way.

Earth vs the Flying Saucers stars Hugh Marlowe (who also starred in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) and is about a government scientist trying to figure out how to stop a world-wide flying saucer invasion. Harryhausen did all of the flying saucer effects and in his defense, had nothing to do with the horrible robots featured, which kind of detracted from the wonderful work he did on this movie.

20 Million Miles to Earth stars William Hopper ( best known for his portrail of Paul Drake in TV's Perry Mason). This one is about a monster that is brought back to Earth after a space ships return from Venus. The space ship crashes in the ocean and the container holding the baby monster is found by a young boy who trades it to a doctor for some pocket change. The baby beastie soon turns into a gigantic menace and goes on a rampage, as monsters often do.

As a kid I can remember sitting with my dad and watching this movie and listening to his story of how he had snuck into the theater as a young boy himself to watch this movie. And like the others in this box set, it was fun to watch back then and its a blast to watch today.

This set has become one of the most cherished pieces of my sci-fi collection, with each movie being lovingly restored to a condition that is most assuredly slicker then the original. And along with its original black and white version, each disc also has the colorized version (for those of you that are into that kind of blasphemy). As a bonus the set also includes a collectible scrapbook which features some amazing poster-art, behind the scenes photos and rare story-board drawings.

This is a big win for Harryhausen fans and for fans of the old cold-war era sci-fi movies as well. Sure, the story-lines are hokey and the acting only fair at best, but these movies have what none of the others do, they have Harryhausen's genius written all over them.

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