Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Movie Review: "Clash of the Titans" (1981) by David Pretty

Greetings Heroes and Heroines!  

I'm hella-pissed that home video was still in it's infancy when I was a kid.  Every once and awhile I'd catch a snippet of Jason and the Argonauts or The 7'th Voyage of Sinbad on television and wish that I could watch one of Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion fantasy epics whenever I wanted to.  I was a born long after these amazing films had come and gone from theaters and long before the advent of streaming video, DVD and Boo-Ray.  What was an imaginative kid to do?

Needless to say, when television ads trumpeted that Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen's long-awaited return to fantasy film-making, would appear "only in theaters" on June 12, 1981, I was more jazzed than Dizzy Gillespie.

Since all of the official trailers appear to be on lock-down, here's a fan-made effort that really captures the film's naive sense of wonder... 

Well, after witnessing these fleeting moments of spectacle I was immediately hooked.  I bought the action figures.  I read all the articles in Famous Monsters.  I devoured Alan Dean Foster's novelization.  I cut pictures of the monsters out of the back of a "Honeycombs" cereal box and made up a speculative board game based on the movie.

And, yes, I'm well aware how pathetic that last confession sounded, but you gotta understand that this was way before decent video games and the word wide webz completely annihilated our collective attention spans.   We were definitely hard-wired differently back then.

I was psyched.  Release day came and I rushed to the theater with my cousin.  While watching the film I as thinking: "Sweet, sassy mollassy what an epic!"  I really didn't give a crap about the combined acting pedigree of the "Olympians" or all of the exotic locations on display.  Nope, it was the following two things that blew me away:

(1) Like Logan's Run, Clash of the Titans was made during a far less puritanical era when PG-rated films  could feature a dash of nudity without being tarred with the "Restricted" mop.  When Judi Bowker and Vida Taylor appear in various states of undress in scenes book-ending the film, a fuse instantly burnt out in my 11-year-old brain.

(2) The creations of Ray Harryhausen brought magically to life in front of me were absolutely mesmerizing.

Fast forward more than a few years.  I go to re-watch Clash of the Titans as a warm-up to the remake and I'm aghast at how blatantly crappy many of the film's elements are.  First off, the costumes look like they were borrowed from a High School production of Caligula.   With the exception of the sword and shield of Perseus, the props look like the sort of thing you'd find in a LARP-er's closet.

The exteriors are appropriately exotic but the sets look kinda amateurish.  The matte paintings and composite effects are sometimes laughably bad.  Witness the scene where Poseidon is cranking a winch to open the underwater gate to "Release the Kraken!" (a phrase I highly recommend yelling in a crowded Old Navy store just to watch people's reactions, BTW).  The effects plate featuring actor Jack Gwillim and the crank undulate back and forth on the rock face.   

In fact, it's sad to say but the effects are actually worse than Harryhausen's stop-motion films from the 50's and 60's.  In his defense, it's actually the blue-screen effects that are particularly poor, but I also have to admit that there's nothing going in Clash that surpasses or even rivals the Skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts.   Rumor has it that the film was rushed somewhat and it certainly does have a whiff of slapdash about it.  I'm also told that this was the first film Harryhausen had assistants on.

Nevertheless, there are some spectacular segments here.  Perseus' battle with Medusa is tense and well- choreographed.  The scorpion attack is pretty brutal.  By the time the Kraken shows up a few new classics have been certainly been added to Harryhausen's pantheon of classic mythical beasts.

CGI may have made stop-motion somewhat antiquated by there's an undeniable charm to these effects, a charm that modern films like Coraline and A Nightmare before Christmas are still clearly aware of.  The level of personality that Harryhausen is able to infuse into these miniature rubber puppets moved one frame at a time is undeniable.  I fear this might be absent somewhat from the remake, which looks inexplicably dark and murky.  Hell, the art design doesn't even look like ancient Greece.

The human component here is serviceable.  Supposedly Laurence Olivier was quite ill while making the film. Although his advanced age might not project the image of an omnipotent god, the raw power of his screen presence is more then enough to make you sit up and pay attention.  Maggie Smith, aka Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter fame, gives perhaps the most soulful showing in the film as Thetis, the mother of Calibos.   

Harry Hamlin as Perseus is a tad white bread and frail but he does a great job selling Harryhausen's creatures as if he's really fighting with them on-set.  Judi Bowker sleepwalks her way through the love-interest role of Andromeda, but in her defense, she really isn't given much to do.  Burgess Meredith is quite the treat as Ammon and he seems to be having fun playing a character other than Mickey from Rocky.  But we don't watch pictures like this for the human actors, do we?

All told, Clash of the Titans is one of those films that looks great through the rose-colored glasses of childhood but needs to be given some grace when appraised by modern sensibilities.  It's still a charming film, crammed chock-a-block with the sort of grandiose imagination that technology hadn't quite caught up to yet.

 Tilt: "To Olympus...and beyond!"

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