by Jim Ridley
If you grew up with after-school sci-fi matinees on Channel 5's "The Big Show," a totem of ’70s childhood in Middle Tennessee, you quickly learned to watch for the name Ray Harryhausen. It guaranteed sword-fighting skeletons, swaggering giants, death-dealing saucers, rampaging dinosaurs, irradiated octopi waging three-tentacled war on San Francisco — each given life and breath by hand through painstaking stop-motion animation. To incorporate these beasts into live-action film, Harryhausen used a process that came to be known as "Dynamation," splitting the background and foreground of the image and placing his creations in between to give the appearance of interaction.
Judge Harryhausen's creations against Jurassic Park-caliber CGI, and they look as antiquated as Méliès' rocket trip to the moon. What's missing from the digital effects that followed, however, is the artisanal spirit that informs his creatures. Each looks and moves like the product of a single guiding vision, as if lovingly handmade — which they were. Harryhausen exercised such control over his projects that he's one of the few technicians in movie history who was more the auteur of his films than the director or screenwriters.
Harryhausen died May 7 in London, and on what would have been his 93rd birthday, June 29, The Belcourt is launching a three-weekend tribute to the late special-effects wizard. It starts with a double feature of two Harryhausen favorites, 1956's Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 1957's 20 Million Miles to Earth (which features perhaps Harryhausen's best-loved creation, the scaly humanoid giant known as the Ymir).
The next weekend, July 6-7, brings a double feature of the two movies considered Harryhausen's best: the glorious 1958 The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1963's Jason and the Argonauts. The series closes July 13-14 with a double bill of his early hit The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and his slightly more obscure Jules Verne adaptation Mysterious Island, with a special free outdoor screening of his 1981 swan song Clash of the Titans July 13. For more details, see the Belcourt site.