In “King Kong,” Peter Jackson may have crafted the ultimate homage to Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 stop-motion sensation, but what Jackson’s valentine to the great ape lacks is the herky-jerky, handcrafted charm that characterizes the work of Ray Harryhausen, cinema’s other great “Kong” fan. Whereas effects pictures now command the biz’s most staggering budgets, the three early releases reissued in Sony’s tie-in “Ray Harryhausen Gift Set” demonstrate the stop-motion pioneer’s ingenuity in the face of shoestring financing.
These black-and-white classics hearken back to a time when flying saucers looked like floating hubcaps (1956’s “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”) and giant monsters were painstakingly animated frame by frame (1955’s “It Came From Beneath the Sea”).
Despite the films’ lo-fi look, there’s something refreshingly tangible about their primitive effects. As Harryhausen himself put it, “Stop-motion gives that added value of a dream world that you can’t catch if you try to make it too real.”
That Harryhausen used in-camera tricks rather than elaborate digital post-production makes all the difference. Audiences are every bit as likely to bemoan the fate of the Godzilla-like space lizard in 1957’s “20 Million Miles to Earth” as they are Jackson’s computerized Kong. In the case of “It Came From Beneath the Sea,” Harryhausen recalls, “The budget was so low that I found that if I had an octopus, two less tentacles to animate would save some money on the special effects … so I cut off two tentacles and actually we had a sextapus.”
As gift-giving goes, this set makes an odd selection, especially when “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Clash of the Titans” are readily available on DVD. Of “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” Harryhausen freely admits, “it remains for me the least favorite of all our pictures.” Still, it functions as a starter kit of sorts, collecting such filmmaker insights both in Richard Schickel’s excellent hourlong doc “The Harryhausen Chronicles” (included as an extra on all three discs) and the set’s 44-page scrapbook (a reduction of Billboard Books’ definitive coffee-table tome).
The films themselves are clumsy B movies at best, but they endure long after so many similar sci-fi quickies have been forgotten altogether on the strength of Harryhausen’s imagination alone.