I’m back after a busy couple weeks working on “XX Exotroopers”, which I plan to mine for a few “Demo Days” shortly. But first, I’m going to do another tribute to the late, great Ray Harryhausen, and in the process write a little about the inspiration for a major element of my current project. The creations of Ray Harryhausen were very diverse, and I am sure any gathering of fans could argue all day and all night about which ones were best. I personally am especially fond of the occasional sympathetic or at least unaggressive creatures, like the charming Eohippus in Valley of Gwangi and Prince Kassim, the previously-mentioned prince transformed into a baboon in Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger. But there can be no doubt that Harryhausen’s most enduring and famous creations are his walking skeletons, best known from Jason and the Argonauts but also featured previously in 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and the subsequent Eye Of The Tiger. A selection of these creations are featured with Harryhausen himself in the unusual photo above. (Source TechDigest.)
Harryhausen’s skeletons debuted with a single specimen reanimated by the sorcerer Sokurah to kill the title character. While many consider 7th Voyage to be among Harryhausen’s best work, I have never been enamored with it: Strong performances by Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and Thorin Thatcher as the villain are among its redeeming features, but the film is weighed down by an egregiously annoying genie and a storyline that is disorganized and episodic even by Harryhausen standards. The appearance of the distinctly sinister, beetle-browed skeleton is the strongest sequence of the film. In the documentary the Harryhausen Chronicles, Harryhausen displayed the original model, and recounted making it entirely out of hard material with joints corresponding to those of an actual skeleton, rather than from rubber over an armature. As a result, the model remained in strikingly pristine condition, where the vast majority of his and other vintage stop-motion models were notorious for decaying relatively quickly down to bare metal.
Per Harryhausen, the same model used in 7th Voyage was among those used in the final battle in Jason And The Argonauts. This sequence is justifiably Harryhausen’s most renowned, and I would not hesitate to endorse it as among Harryhausen’s best animation, but in my opinion, it was in many ways too much of a good thing, with the action crossing the line from complex to chaotically muddled. In the course of the “Chronicles” interview, Harryhausen made the intriguing remark that the walking skeletons offered a sanitary alternative to the source mythology, in which the revenant warriors are intact enough to be gruesome. His passing remark is intriguing in the context of the evolution of the movie zombie, as it was indeed a very long time before even “hard core” horror movies began showing graphically decomposed undead.
Audiences would receive one more treatment of Harryhausen’s walking skeletons in an early sequence of Eye Of The Tiger. Harryhausen recounted disappointment with this scene, but in my opinion, it is in many respects, an improvement on his previous efforts. The three “ghouls” against Sinbad make for tighter and more focused action (surely in chronically short supply throughout Harryhausen’s career), and their initial appearance in a tent lit only by firelight is impressively atmospheric. One can also see glimpses of grue that might have been in the ghouls’ mummy-like bodies, which to me give an extra touch of realism. I can’t help wondering if the infamous insectoid heads of the ghouls were in no small part a means of backing away from a (literally) fleshed-out corporeal revenant.
In closing, honorable mention is in order for two other appearances of the skeleton in Harryhausen’s work. I was reminded in the course of writing this article that a walking skeleton is featured very briefly in First Men In The Moon, when the Selenites use their technology to view the insides of their human captives. Then there is one of the most intriguing of Harryhausen’s (very!) many unmade projects, titled “Skin and Bone”. This proposed film, based on a 1930’s novel, would have featured a hero who sometimes becomes invisible except for his skeleton. The storyline would presumably have made the animated skeleton a sympathetic character, and focused on misadventures in domestic settings. The possibilities of table etiquette alone are certainly impressive!