Book Review: Ray Harryhausen: The Movie Posters by Richard Holliss

Written by Chad Derdowski

Words like “genius” or “literally” are tossed around a lot these days, to the point that they’ve lost most of their meaning and impact. Fans and critics are quick to label anyone with talent a genius and judging by comments on social media, the words “literally” and “figuratively” share the same definition. So while I’m a bit hesitant to use those words to describe a legend like Ray Harryhausen, I literally have no other options. And while I’m at it, I’ll throw in the term “one of a kind” as well, because he literally was – most of his work was done alone, or with minimal assistance. An artist, designer, visual effects creator, writer and producer, Ray Harryhausen was the creator of “Dynamation”, a revolutionary form of stop-motion animation. It is no exaggeration to say that the landscape of special effects were forever changed by the mark he put on it. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, George Lucas, John Lassiter, Guillermo del Toro and countless others cite Harryhausen as an influence on their work.

And that is precisely why it was possible for Titan Books to create Harryhausen: the Movie Posters, an oversized collection of the posters from Ray’s films. (Well, that and the fact that Harryhausen was something of a hoarder, which eliminated much of the need to track down these works in order to collect them in this volume.) This was back in the days when movie promotion was an art in and of itself, before theater displays were reduced to a bunch of floating heads slapped on a poster and hung in the lobby. These were the days when movie posters varied in size and design, with different artists offering varying perspectives on a film. But the creations of Ray Harryhausen were so singularly powerful, they have become iconic, thanks in part to the artwork on these posters.

Think about it for a moment. To truly understand Ray Harryhausen’s work, one must view it as it is intended to be viewed – in motion, of course. But the man’s talent was such that an entire collection of just the posters from the movies he worked on can be collected, including very few actual photos of his models, and you’re reading a review where I rave about it for no less than 1,000 words. Just the posters! And that’s not to take anything away from the talent of the artists; but you can’t watch this book. You can’t see hordes of skeleton warriors do battle with Argonauts or a giant octopus wreak havoc upon San Francisco in a static image. You can’t grasp the love and care and hours of painstaking work that Harryhausen put into his stop-motion creations by looking at an image that someone else drew or painted based on Harryhausen’s creations.

But that’s just how powerful Ray Harryhausen’s work was – so distinct, so dynamic, and so full of movement and life that it must’ve been a treat for fellow artists to follow in his footsteps and create these posters. And make no mistake, my praise for Mr. Harryhausen isn’t intended to diminish the work of anyone else featured in this book. Some of the names of the artists have been lost to the sands of time, but Harryhausen: the Movie Posters still stands as a testament to some of the greats from America and Europe, including Greg and Tim Hildebrandt’s famous Clash of the Titans poster; UK artist Tom Chantrell, who created the unforgettable image of Raquel Welch in the no doubt 100% era-authentic fur bikini she wore in One Million Years B.C.; or Italian artist Anselmo Ballester, who interpreted some of Harryhausen’s 1950’s science fiction films. The images contained in this book offer readers a view of the creativity of interpretation that was afforded to artists once upon a time, as we are treated to promotional posters from England, Belgium, Germany, Spain and elsewhere.

These days, going to the cinema amounts to standing in a line to get a ticket and refreshments, but once upon a time, the movie theater itself was part of the experience. Lavish palaces with lush carpeting and publicity displays have given way to cramped multiplexes; but this collection allows the reader to travel back in time to catch a glimpse of what it must have been like. At 10.3 x 13.1 inches, the handsome hardcover does its level best to create the same type of scope and grandeur that one must’ve felt when viewing these posters in the theater. Posters of all shapes and sizes (well okay, they’re pretty much all square or rectangle) and various styles are included in this book. Not only do we get a trip around the world, we get a trip back in time, and we get a trip through time, watching styles change and evolve as tastes and promotional styles change.

Look, it’s awesome. I don’t really know how else to say it. This book is awesome and it’s filled with a ton of absolutely incredible artwork that should appeal to any fan of film, even if you’ve never seen a Ray Harryhausen film. It’s written by Richard Hollis and features brilliantly reproduced artwork from nearly 200 pages of posters from 16 different films, a good majority of which fills the entire page. It’s also got an introduction from John Landis and a little section at the back about The Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, as well as a chapter about the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, a film I just watched last week and you should probably check out as well.

The film posters included in this book, if you’re curious, are Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Animal World, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, the 7thVoyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, First Men on the Moon, One Million Years B.C., The Valley of Gwangi, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and Clash of the Titans.

I know this is supposed to be a review of a book, but it is nearly impossible to talk about these posters without talking about the work that inspired them (and I think I’ve done a fairly good job of telling you how much I loved turning these pages). If you need further testament to the talents of Ray Harryhausen, I’ll reference that 2011 documentary, which I watched with my seven-year-old son, who is just becoming interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of film. A child who’s grown up on modern Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was nevertheless glued to the screen watching Ray Harryhausen’s creatures come to life. Though he doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe it, he recognized “that stuff looks really good”, even when compared to the CGI masterpieces of Avatar or Infinity War. Because it does look really good. Because even though stop-motion technique may be a thing of the past, because even though it may be too expensive and may not offer the luxury and detail that CGI facial mapping offers, it is an artwork unto itself, and Ray Harryhausen was (and still is) the master of that art. And it didn’t take a team of artists and computer wizards to do it; it took the mind, skill, and talent of one man. One man, whose talent and inspiration brought out the best in a group of artists who created a whole bunch of totally awesome movie posters.

And hot damn, are they awesome!

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