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STOP-MOTION UNDERDOGS

 

If you think of stop-motion animation in classic fantasy films, you think of Ray Harryhausen.  Even folks who know the name "Harryhausen" only from that restaurant in Monsters Inc. know the films themselves: Jason and the Argonauts, 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the rest.

 

But though the late great Harryhausen was a force unto himself, several other stop-motion animators had little triumphs of their own.

 

Let's take a look at these unsung triumphs.  We'll stay in the Harryhausen era (roughly 1950-1980), but we'll only list stop-motion creations from this era not created by Harryhausen himself.



MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949).  Let's start here, skipping pre-Harryhausen films like The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), or The Mascot (1934).  Actually the young Harryhausen (age 28) assisted his mentor Willis O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young's effects.

 

As in King Kong, O'Brien animates a gorilla, though this time a life-sized rather than a giant one.  Joe is smoother than Kong, very expressive and sympathetic in his features.  Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, you can't believe he's not real and alive.  The film seems aimed at kids but is actually emotionally intense and dramatic.

LOST CONTINENT (1951).  From B-movie specialist Sam Newfield comes Lost Continent, the picture with the worst stop-motion animation on our list.  For a few minutes, in the distance, you can see some shakily animated triceratopses and brontosauruses (i.e. apatosauruses).  Why so shaky?  Because it was animated two frames at a time rather than the usual one.

 

Sometimes it's worth watching poor-quality stop-motion like this just to appreciate the virtues of the good stuff.   Edward Nassour, perhaps the least distinguished stop-motion animator on our list, later worked on Beast of Hollow Mountain.  The movie's hero is played by Cesar Romero, later the Joker from TV's Batman.

JOURNEY TO THE BEGINNING OF TIME (1955/1960).  Perhaps the least famous movie on our list, this Czech children's movie depicts a group of boys on a boat ride down a river that takes them ever backwards in time.  They meet animated prehistoric mammals and dinosaurs on their way backward towards creation.

 

While never excellent, the animated creatures are good fun.  Two dinosaurs have a fight probably inspired by King Kong's famous battle with the T-rex.  Even in its American translation, the movie has a wistful and nostalgic mood.  The director is most famous for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956).  Bad movie, good T-rex.  It's basically a conventional Western set in Mexico, but inside a certain Mexican mountain lurks a live T-rex who attacks our hero at the conclusion.  The dino is on screen for about 10 minutes.

 

Why does the T-rex look so amazing?  First, it's in color, which is rare for B-movies made in the 50s.  But second, it's only partly stop-motion and mostly "replacement" animation.  Instead of a single model that is manipulated ever so slightly from shot to shot, an entirely separate model is used from shot to shot, which extends prep time but which allows precise detail.  This means they made hundreds of models!  Henry Lyon, the model maker, did virtually nothing else.

THE BLACK SCORPION (1957).  Lots of excellent stop-motion action here.  It's dozens of giant scary scorpions attacking a Mexican town, as the handsome Richard Denning and gorgeous Mara Corday struggle for survival.

 

It's probably the most underrated of the Big Bug films of the 50s.  Stop-motion effects run throughout the film.  Historically, The Black Scorpion is notable for being Willis O'Brien's last credited work.

MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1958).  Compared to the giant scorpions of The Black Scorpion, the giant beetles of Green Hell are mightily disappointing.  They look OK here and there, but they get surprisingly little screen time.  Mostly, their wings flap back and forth (very quickly) while the beetles chase herd animals over hillsides in Africa.  A huge percentage of the movie is stock footage of animals or people wandering around African countrysides.

FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958).  Perhaps the most bizarre stop-motion creatures on our list are the flying brains from Fiend Without a Face.  This British movie keeps you waiting a long time, but then it rewards you with an incredible extended battle between the brains and the heroes.  Gore is surprisingly explicit.

 

If I had to vote for best stop-motion animation of the 50s, I'd vote for this one.  German co-animators Florenz Von Nordoff and Karl-Ludwig Ruppel did the effects; they have only a few other film credits between them.

TOM THUMB (1958).  We're talking toys rather than beasts here, but in two standout musical sequences that total about 20 minutes, little Tom plays and dances with a box of kooky constructs come to life.

 

As in Beast of Hollow Mountain, it's partly stop-motion and partly "replacement" animation, as separate models are used in nearly every shot.   Wah Chang (who later worked on Dinosaurus!) was the main animator, under George Pal's supervision.  You'll notice a slight rippling effect from the replacements, but also greater detail.  The most famous sequence features the catchy theme music.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959).  Pete Peterson, the animator, had worked with Willis O'Brien on The Black Scorpion.  Here, he creates a giant sea dinosaur obviously inspired by the "rhedosaurus" from Harryhausen's Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.  It's sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion.

 

All the pieces for a great B-movie seem to be in place, but the behemoth lacks personality.  Compare it to Harryhausen's movies, or to O'Brien's before him, and you'll see how some animators manage to impart emotions to their creations while others cannot.

DINOSAURUS! (1960).  If you can handle some condescending scripting wherein all herbivore dinosaurs are automatically friendly and all carnivores are automatically evil, and if you can handle a little native boy who speaks broken English, then you can enjoy some good (if never great) fights between an apatosaurus and tyrannosaurus.

 

It's the same director as The Blob.  Stop-motion effects are about half the film's appeal, with the other half being a resurrected caveman encountering the modern world for the first time.

One of the stop-motion co-creators, Wah Chang, started as a Disney animator in 1940 and later designed the dinosaurs for the Land of the Lost TV series.

GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (1960).  Here's another one that I don't recommend but I include for completeness.  It's historically interesting for being a very rare (maybe the only?) Italian peplum film that uses stop-motion rather than puppets or rubber costumes for monsters.


The dragon is actually a puppet in some scenes but stop-motion most of the time.  Either way, it looks mostly like a toy.  The hero, Goliath, is played by the very likeable bodybuilder Mark Forest.

JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962).  Here's another non-Harryhausen film directly inspired by a Harryhausen film.  In this case, the inspiration was the incredible 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  The same guys - Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher - play the hero and the villain.

 

But, alas, there are no Harryhausen-animated cyclopses or skeletons here.  Not only do Jack the Giant Killer's animated serpent and dragon move jerkily, they don't even look good as models.  It's too bad, really, because the entire rest of the movie is exciting.  Many accomplished animators were involved (including Wah Chang and Jim Danforth) but perhaps too many cooks spoiled the broth.

JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET (1962).  For about one minute starting around 35:00, a stop-motion dinosaur with one eye livens up this dreary space fantasy produced in Denmark.  It looks like Barney (you know, from the toddler TV show), but at least it has some energy.  John Agar, who once made John Ford movies like Fort Apache, is the hero.  The animators are Wah Chang and Jim Danforth once again, but I suspect both were pleased to go uncredited.

7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964).  Tony Randall, before playing Felix on the Odd Couple TV show, played the cheerfully enigmatic Confucian magician Dr. Lao in this underrated George Pal production.  Lao assumes different forms to impart different lessons to the various people he meets in an Old West town.  It's probably Pal's most imaginative film.

 

Randall, with some weird makeup, gets combined with stop-motion when he takes different forms.  At one point he conjures a fierce medusa that anticipates Harryhausen's medusa from Clash of the Titans.  Wah Chang and Jim Danforth, with several helpers, did the animation and effects.

MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967).  Unlike all other movies on our list, Mad Monster Party? is stop-motion start to finish.  It's a quirky and sometimes twisted parody of classic monster films, with a stop-motion Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more, even an Invisible Man and a Blob.

 

It's an early Rankin/Bass production before the duo made Frosty the Snowman, The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, Thundercats, and everything else.  It looks like it's for kids, but only adults (especially adult monster movie fans) will get the references.  Boris Karloff plays "Boris von Frankenstein."  The top credited animator is Tadahito Mochinaga who also co-created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the 1964 TV special.

THE EQUINOX (1967/1970).  Producer Jack H. Harris (most famous for The Blob) refashioned this one in 1970, but the raw student-made 1967 version is better.  Actually both versions are good, since they both feature three amazing stop-motion sequences where the young protagonists encounter monsters from another dimension: a tentacle beast, a gorilla beast, and a red devil.

 

The whole film is tense, but the extended stop-motion sequences are the main draw.  Jim Danforth, the veteran animator of the group, had worked on 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.  He worked with co-animator Dave ("David W.") Allen on Flesh Gordon a few years later.  Dennis Muren, the co-director, later worked on Star Wars and E.T.

WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970).  Here I must write a few words of heresy.  I think that Jim Danforth's dinosaur effects are as good as Harryhausen's.  I won't say "better" but I will say "as good."

 

Go see for yourself: the triceratops, the elasmosaurus, the giant crabs.  You can't imagine them any better, could you?  The stop-motion scenes are good and long, and the whole movie is very fun.

FLESH GORDON (1974).  During the filmmaking, there was some conflict between the stop-motion animators (Dave Allen, Jim Danforth, and others) and everyone else; the animators wanted a cool sci-fi adventure, while everyone else wanted a naked sex comedy.

 

If you can handle both things at once, by all means check it out, because Flash's fight with the insect-man is almost as exciting as Sinbad's fight with the skeleton in Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  Oh yeah, and there's a giant stop-motion "penisaurus" too.

THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER (1977).  Much of the movie is a dumb hillbilly comedy, but the "creature" itself is shockingly well animated.  It's a powerful elasmosaurus that menaces vacationers at a Northwestern mountain lake.  The animators are Dave Allen and Jim Danforth once again.

THE ALIEN FACTOR (1978).  A stop-motion alien lizard-worm appears briefly toward the end of the little-seen Alien Factor, so I wanted to include it on the list for completeness.  An alien insect-man and an alien yeti also appear, but played by actors in suits.

 

It sounds pretty dumb, watching three random aliens menacing a small town in Maryland.  But this is one of those sincere low-budget B-movies from the 70s that many fans have come to love.  Animator Ernest D. Farino later worked on The Terminator.

LASERBLAST (1978).  Most famous as one of the first productions from Charles Band (probably the most prolific B-movie and exploitation producer of the 1990s), Laserblast is also known for some fine, if brief, stop-motion aliens that resemble intelligent upright turtles.

 

Again it sounds dumb but looks good.  The aliens misplaced a super laser rifle that gets picked up by a teenage loser.  Can the aliens get their gun back before the teen blows up the whole town?  The animators are Dave Allen and Jim Danforth once again.

PLANET OF DINOSAURS (1978).   A space crew lands on a distant planet inhabited by dinosaurs, including everybody's favorites: stegosaurus, apatosaurus, and T-rex.  All are lovingly animated by Doug Beswick who had worked with Dave Allen on Flesh Gordon and later worked on The Terminator and Evil Dead II.  I like this movie very much.

THE DAY TIME ENDED (1979).  This strange and dreamy Close Encounters imitator depicts a California family getting abducted by mysterious aliens.  Several stop-motion alien monsters, such as the fighting lizard creatures who appear around 49:00, move smoothly and realistically.

 

Dave Allen and Jim Danforth collaborated on the effects once again, assisted by Lyle Conway who later worked on The Dark Crystal and Where the Wild Things Are.  Presumably the lizards were inspired by the fighting "holochess" pieces (animated by Phil Tippett and Jon Berg) from Star Wars.

STARCRASH (1979).  Remember Harryhausen's iron giant from Jason and the Argonauts?  Ever wonder what would happen if someone re-imagined the giant as a female robot with breasts controlled by evil Amazons?

 

Wonder no more, because Starcrash has it.  The Italian animators go mostly uncredited.   Starcrash is a personal favorite of mine.

 

Is that it?  Well, you'll still find notable stop-motion in the post-Harryhausen 80s, most famously in Q (1982) and The Terminator (1984).  But times were changing.  With Tron (1982) and The Last Starfighter (1984), CGI was well on its way.