Celebrating Ray Harryhausen and lifelong journeys to ‘Mysterious Island’

It was that giant crab that started it.

The fact that it was followed by a prehistoric chicken-bird, a human-sized bee with a honeycomb so large it could trap two people in one of its cells, and a deadly giant cephalopod all in the same film was almost too good to be true.

Of course, none of what happened in the 1961 film “Mysterious Island” was true, but it was riveting to watch nonetheless. Those fantastic beasts didn’t even come from the Jules Verne novel that was the source material for the film.

Michael Callan and Beth Rogan are trapped in a honeycomb by a giant bee in “Mysterious Island.”

Instead, they were from the fertile imagination of Ray Harryhausen who magically brought them to life as a way to improve on the novel’s basic idea of “how to survive on an island” by “incorporating strange creatures” in the movie, as he explained in an interview on the movie’s DVD.

I can’t imagine the film without them.

In celebration of the centennial of his birth (June 29, 1920), it’s fitting to honor Ray Harryhausen, a filmmaker and artist who has inspired me, entertained me and given me giant reasons to return to “Mysterious Island.”

* * *

Although I didn’t know it at the time, “Mysterious Island” was my introduction to Harryhausen. Later, when I understood that Harryhausen was the connection between those creatures and others in films like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), I sought out more of his films. (Didn’t we all?)

The giant octopus from “It Came From Beneath the Sea” was awesome.

“It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) and the very cool giant octopus; “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) and its Cyclops; “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) with such wonders as the Hydra and the living skeletons; “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957) and the Ymir; “Clash of the Titans” (1981) with the triple hit of Pegasus, Medusa and the Kraken; and the dinosaur films like “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) and “Valley of Gwangi” (1969).

Honestly, I love them all. But if there is only one Harryhausen film I can choose, it is and always will be “Mysterious Island” for a personal reason – it’s our family film.

Dad introduced me to “Mysterious Island” as a kid. We watched it over and over and enjoyed it with the same enthusiasm on each viewing. We always did that thing where one of us would look at the other before every key “entrance” (i.e., creature) in the film.

The castaways are attacked by a beast that looks like a giant chicken in “Mysterious Island.” Ray Harryhausen modeled it after the prehistoric flightless bird Phorusrhacos.

Later, when my twin nephews were about the same age as I was when I was introduced to the film (about 8 or so), we all watched it together. Repeatedly. (Clearly, “Mysterious Island” is a film that works best on repeat.)

Multiple generations of our family were swept away to the mysterious island of Harryhausen’s imagination. Dad loved it and so did I. I might have been young, but was still thrilled at turning kids on to a film that I loved, just as dad did for me. Time passed. Great nephews Tyler and Matthew came along. Guess what we watched together?

* * *

The creatures may be a huge part of my obsession with “Mysterious Island” but there’s so much more. The opening credits were set over tumultuous waves as Bernard Herrmann’s booming brass motif (a character of its own) clashed over it all. A daring escape in a hot air balloon during a massive storm followed. (I blame my unfounded fear of hot-air balloons on this film.)

Then castaways. Pirates. “The eyes” on the side of a mountain cave. A romance. A volcano. Captain Nemo (was he good, bad or just ill-advised?). The Nautilus. Did I forget anything? Yes! Harryhausen’s Superdynamation. “Mysterious Island” had it all.

It’s only fitting that the mysterious Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) found his way to “Mysterious Island.”

The list of great things about “Mysterious Island” is long, as are the stories of how Harryhausen inspired generations of filmmakers from Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante to Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to see Harryhausen’s work and not be inspired in some way. I’m not a filmmaker, but I owe a lot of my creativity to Harryhausen.

These maquettes, modeled after Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors from “Jason and the Argonauts,” are part of a collection owned by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who was inspired by Harryhausen. They were part of an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Photo by Toni Ruberto)

I saw how much he meant to others when Harryhausen received the George Eastman Honorary Scholar award in 2004 at the George Eastman House (now the Eastman Museum). Located in Rochester, N.Y., about 90 minutes from Buffalo where I live, I was lucky to have attended with my cousin, Gene. There were other friends from Buffalo there, too.

Being in a room with Harryhausen was unbelievable . When he walked on stage we were giddy like children. Then there was an audible gasp at the recognition of a man who was with him: Phil Tippett, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning visual effects supervisor whose many talents included stop-motion animation. (You can see Tippett was inspired by Harryhausen in his films with directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.) The idea that Tippett traveled from wherever he had been to Rochester in honor of Harryhausen wasn’t lost on any of us.

At left, is my autographed DVD cover of “Mysterious Island.” It inspired the drawing of the crab attack by my great-nephew, Tyler. (That’s us sitting in the first row of the theater watching the film.)

Harryhausen was gracious and cordial. We were blown away that he had brought models of some of his creations including one of my favorites, Medusa. Later he signed autographs. Of course, I brought my DVD cover for “Mysterious Island” to be autographed.

A few years later, great-nephew Tyler was inspired to draw a picture from the film. It was perfect – not only did it capture the spirit of the movie, but our family, too. We’re sitting in the first row of a movie theater and watching the scene with the giant crab.

What else would we be doing?

The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

There is much more information on Ray Harryhausen, including activities in honor of #Harryhausen100, at the website for his foundation. Harryhausen set up this foundation in 1986 to “to look after his extensive collection, to protect his name and to further the art of model stop-motion animation.”

File under animal films: Classic creature movies

It was embarrassing, there’s no other way to spin it. On a recent Friday night, I was hunkered over my tablet like a kid studying for a quiz seeking answers to this question: Is (fill in the blank) an animal?

And that leads to your questions.

1) Shouldn’t an adult already know the answer?

2) Why would anyone research that in the first place?

Blame it on social media. I wanted to take part in one of those fun Twitter questions/polls, but was hesitant to give a “wrong” answer. The topic: movies with an animal in the title – no proper nouns allowed. So  “Lassie” was out, but “Reservoir Dogs” was in.

As a fan of creature horror movies, I had to participate. It would be a chance to draw attention to these entertaining movies.

“Tarantula,” one of my favs, came to mind first but was quickly shot down by doubt. A tarantula is a spider which comes from the arachnid family so does being an arachnid negate it from being an animal?

Once I thought about it, my mental capacity dropped to that of a preschooler. Doubts were everywhere as I questioned each movie title in my head.

“The Fly.” “Deadly Mantis.” “Black Scorpion.” “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” “Giant Gila Monster.” “Attack of the Crab Monsters.”

Is “The Fly” an insect, an animal or both?

What was an animal and what wasn’t? Is an insect solely an insect or an animal, too? I grew more embarrassed with each search, but kept going.

Well there’s a good reason for the confusion – the kingdom Animali is massive and includes mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians and fish for starters. As it turns out, many of my favorite horror movies are animal films. Victory was mine – and I was off to watch “Tarantula.”

Continue reading “File under animal films: Classic creature movies”

Wrapped up in the snugly comfort of classic movies

Ask me why I enjoy watching classic movies and the answer is a variation on a theme: Because classic movies make me feel like I’m wrapping myself in warm blanket or snuggling in a cozy chair.

They are, in a word, comforting.

So I found it interesting over the past few months as social media filled with people seemingly just discovering that movies can bring comfort. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people have sought out movies to ease their worries. But classic movies have done this for me as far back as I can remember.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” starring the perfect combination of Gene Tierney, left, and Rex Harrison, is a soothing, old-fashioned love story.

Rainy days make me want to stay home, pull up a blanket and put on an old black and white movie. If I’m a bit down, a Technicolor film always lifts my spirits. If I’m tense, I watch something soothing like the ethereal “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or the fantasy of “Brigadoon.” Looking for inspiration, I’ll put on a Frank Capra movie. When I get home from a tough day at work, I turn on Turner Classic Movies and I start to wind down.

Often, the comfort factor is obvious as with my favorite romances that have me nestling in all warm and cozy. “Laura” with its beautiful score and Dana Andrews as the hardboiled detective in love with a portrait; “Dark Angel,” a sweet love triangle (yes there are such stories) with Fredric March, Herbert Marshall and Merle Oberon as inseparable lifelong friends who truly love each other; and “An Affair to Remember” where I can watch Nickie (Cary Grant) and Terry (Deborah Kerr) fall in love. (Let’s not talk about Janou; I’ll start to sniffle.)

It may seem odd, but watching Rod Taylor’s adventures in “The Time Machine” makes me feel cozy and relaxed.

Others films I find comforting will seem odd because of their genres, but they have that quality by transporting me to another time (“The Time Machine”), leaving me on the edge of my seat (“House of Wax”), mesmerizing me (“Sunrise”), making me laugh (“You Can’t Take It With You”) and scaring the heck out of me (“The Haunting”).

I’m sure this can be traced to memories of being introduced to classics by my family. I watched old horror films with my dad and any time I see one of the original Universal monsters or a 1950s creature feature, I relax which is a weird reaction to a horror film. Mom liked family-based films with “I Remember Mama” being a favorite. At grandma’s, we watched Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies with the lights off.

[Read my ode to my father at Classic Movie Hub on How movies with dad spawned a classic horror fan]

Continue reading “Wrapped up in the snugly comfort of classic movies”

From architecture to comic books, Guillermo del Toro’s in love with Buffalo

For four days in February, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro was in Buffalo to shoot scenes for his much-anticipated film noir “Nightmare Alley.”

The movie, a loose remake of a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, stars Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara, who were both in Buffalo filming, along with a star-studded cast including Cate Blanchett, Richard Jenkins, Ron Pearlman, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe.

Though his time here was limited, del Toro took part in a press conference at Buffalo’s City Hall, a 1932 art deco structure that was one of the locations that drew him to Buffalo. “It’s a jewel,” he said. “A perfectly preserved  beautiful art deco jewel.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by Buffalo. I was very interested in the architecture and historical significance of Buffalo,” said del Toro, who found Buffalo’s abundance of 1930s and ‘40s architecture perfect for his period noir that is set in the 1940s.

The press conference was held on the first day of shooting. The day before, crew members were in Niagara Square outside City Hall dumping trucks of snow and laying down “snow blankets” to create the illusion of snow for a winter scene. Yes – even Buffalo has days without snow.

But Buffalonians could have saved them time by telling the crew about our lake-effect snow that the very next day brought enough snow that it covered all of their hard work and created the winter scene the filmmakers wanted.

When asked if he was surprised he had to bring in fake snow, del Toro said “Yes, it was like bringing tacos to Mexico. I didn’t really expect that.”

That sense of humor was abundant throughout the press conference as del Toro talked about his love for Buffalo from its architecture to comic book stores. Before the press conference, del Toro had already visited one comic book store and left with a box of goodies. He said he is eager to visit more stores and praised Buffalo’s culture of “small cinema clubs, bookstores, independent movement in music and comics and film. I really think it’s a city that is revitalizing and rediscovering itself,” he said.

Finding the right location

As del Toro was scouting locations for “Nightmare Alley” across North America (Toronto was used as the primary location), he explained how Buffalo fulfilled the multiple challenges he faced.

“I wanted to find a city that was really interesting to visit for an audience and that was a city that they weren’t overtly familiar with. When you look at period films, it’s always New York or Los Angeles – two or three cities in the entirety of America revisited for their significant historical or architectural terms,” del Toro said.

Guillermo del Toro appreciated the fact that he could turn his camera at various angles on a Buffalo street and still not break the film illusion. That’s evident in this WGRZ-TV video showing the period architecture from the steps of City Hall.

In his search, he often found the right type of period architecture, but it would be surrounded by newer buildings, leaving “big gaps of beauty and architectural integrity.”

“Most of the cities in America you cannot turn your camera 45 degrees because you’ll have something ruining the illusion that we need to create and the integrity of the architectural preservation of the city. It is both thematically and visually very important to me to set it here (Buffalo).”

Two of his previous films have had a Buffalo connection. The Gothic ghost story “Crimson Peak” was “set” in Buffalo (though filmed in Canada) in the late 1800s before moving on to England. Del Toro’s Oscar winning film “The Shape of Water” used vintage pieces supplied by local collector Michael Meriso and his CooCooU27 including the dining room set used in the apartment of Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), the movie’s female lead.

This screen shot from “Crimson Peak” depicts Buffalo, N.Y. as the film’s setting around the time of the Pan-American Exposition that was held here in 1901.

In his reading and research on Buffalo since “Crimson Peak,” he said has has been “taken by how many times American history is made in this city and how thriving it was in many ways in different periods and how it is now for me a city that is resurging and rediscovering itself, and an absolutely amazing architectural point of view.”

[Read: The del Toro exhibit: Monsters, outsiders and death … oh my]

When asked if he would return to make more projects in Buffalo, del Toro said “definitely.”

“The great thing about it is, unprompted, I’ve always been fascinated by the city,” del Toro said about Buffalo. “And the thing that you must enjoy because it is true, is the reputation of the city as a place where you can shoot and there is a depth of talent and a depth of crew and a quality. Filmmakers – we talk to each other like high school but much heavier people – we know each other, we talk about it and this city has a pristine reputation.”

“It is true that every day that I’m here, I fall more and more in love with it.”

* * * * *

This is the plot description released by the studio, Searchlight (formerly Fox Searchlight).

“In ‘Nightmare Alley,’ an ambitious young carny (Cooper) with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist (Blanchett) who is even more dangerous than he is. The carnival cast includes carnival worker Molly (Mara), head barker Clem (Dafoe), and Ron Perlman as Bruno the Strongman. Richard Jenkins is part of the high society crowd as wealthy industrialist Ezra Grindle.”




Found! A treasure of classic British films from a ‘Renown’ source

When classic movie fans discover a new source of old movies, it’s like we hit the lottery.

So I feel like I’ve won the big one after finding a treasure of movies from Renown Pictures, a distribution company that specializes in British cinema and television, predominately from the 1930s to ‘60s.

More than 100 of Renown’s titles – mysteries, dramas, horror, sci-fi, detective stories, romance and documentaries– are streaming for free on Amazon Prime.

This artwork – a blue cover and four photos – makes films from Renown easy to spot.

I almost made the mistake of bypassing these films when they first popped up as suggested viewing on my Prime account. They were packaged with the same blue artwork with four black and white photos. The titles, actors and directors were not familiar, so I didn’t pay attention. (Felix Aylmer? Wolf Rilla? Jane Hylton?)

Shame on me and obvious lessons learned: Don’t judge a movie by its cover – or unfamiliarity – because you’ll miss out.

Continue reading “Found! A treasure of classic British films from a ‘Renown’ source”

Screening Room hosts a classic Valentine’s Day movie events

It’s February and you know what that means – lots of hearts and flowers. But if you’re a classic movie fan – or your sweetie is – there’s only one way to celebrate on Feb. 14: watching classic romances at The Screening Room Cinema Café at the Boulevard Mall, Amherst.

The boutique cinema, that has a special fondness for classic movies, has a Valentine’s Day package for two offered for either “Casablanca” or “The Princess Bride.” For $40, you get two tickets, two drinks, popcorn and two chocolate sundaes. It doesn’t get better than that.

Continue reading “Screening Room hosts a classic Valentine’s Day movie events”

‘The Holiday’: a modern rom-com with a classic movie heart

I clearly remember watching the 2006 rom-com “The Holiday” for the first time, not expecting much more than another in a long line of agreeable but often interchangeable romantic comedies.

It would be a nice, but surely forgettable, two-hour escape using the familiar formula: two people meet-cute, fall for each and face obstacles that lead to a “grand gesture” to help them live happily ever.

I was wrong – “The Holiday” is a memorable rom-com that I get more emotionally involved in each time I watch it.

It’s a combination of the great cast (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Jude Law and Eli Wallach – all who have never been more charming on film), relatable characters (we’ve all gone through the same things), a delightful comic touch, a few twists on rom-com tropes and the sense of joy that permeates this deeply emotional film.

Continue reading “‘The Holiday’: a modern rom-com with a classic movie heart”

TCM Cruise memories: Learning Hollywood history from Mitzi Gaynor, Diane Ladd and Cicely Tyson

As we reminisce about the 2019 Turner Classic Movie Cruise, we talk about the great movies (there were nearly 100 shown), the varied entertainment options (trivia, Bingo), the port adventures and the delicious – and seemingly endless – array of food.

There are so many highlights from the TCM Cruise, which sailed from New York City to Bermuda from Oct. 22 to 27, 2019 on the Disney Magic, that it’s hard to choose a favorite. But I believe the memories we especially savor are those of the people: the cherished friends you only see at TCM events; the social media pals you finally meet in real life; and the TCM hosts and staff who make you feel like you’re one of the gang.

Then there are the stars. Is there anything more magical than hearing stories of classic Hollywood as they can only be told by the people who lived it? Not for me.

The 2019 cruise starred a trio of legendary actresses – Cicely Tyson, Diane Ladd and Mitzi Gaynor – who shared pieces of their lives and careers in ways that entertained us, inspired us and touched our hearts.

Through multiple interviews with TCM hosts, the actresses were gracious, giving and hilarious. They exuded strength and independence. There was much laughter, a few tears and moments that made our mouths drop open (in a good way).

Here is a sampling of my favorite moments and memories from the trio during their appearances.

Mitzi Gaynor

The image of Mitzi Gaynor coming on stage in a wheelchair in the Walt Disney Theatre was unsettling, but she quickly put our fears to rest when she told us she had injured herself doing a lift in rehearsals. This spunky 88-year-old is still going strong and nothing seems to hold her back.

TCM host Dave Karger led an hour-long talk with Mitzi Gaynor.

“You people are so beautiful. You people are so real. I love you all,” she said as she came out to a standing ovation, then set the tone for the rest of the interview. “By the way, I’m a widow and I’m very, very rich. Any Capricorn men who are free?”

Continue reading “TCM Cruise memories: Learning Hollywood history from Mitzi Gaynor, Diane Ladd and Cicely Tyson”

Classic films and special movie events in Buffalo for November

November is another full month of movie events in the Buffalo area including the Buffalo premiere of William Fichtner’s “Cold Brook,” to a slate of classic films, a few Oscar winners and a “Twilight Zone” celebration.

Here’s a look.

“Au Revoir les Enfants.” Director Louis Malle’s 1987 film based on his childhood in Nazi-occupied France will be shown as part of Buffalo Film Seminars. Time: 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Dipson Amherst.

“The Bikes of Wrath.” Buffalo premiere of documentary about five Australian friends who set out to bike from Oklahoma to California on the same route traveled in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Time: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 in the Screening Room Cinema Café.

“Cold Brook.” Buffalo premiere of locally made film written, directed and starring William Fichtner. Times: 7 p.m. Nov. 8; 3 and 7 p.m. Nov. 9 and 10; 7 p.m. Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Nov. 12 and 13; 2 and 7 p.m. Nov. 14 in the Aurora Theatre.

Continue reading “Classic films and special movie events in Buffalo for November”

October classic films, movie events in the Buffalo area

In October, the film schedule is full of treats for horror movie fans with  black and white classics, cult favorites and even horror films that make you laugh.

There’s also another multiday film festival and a pretty cool event with some very special guests.

The 14th Buffalo International Film Festival returns Oct. 10-14 in the North Park Theatre. This year’s festival spotlights some notable films that were made in Buffalo or have a local connection including “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, “The True Adventure of Wolfboy” at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 12 and “Clover” at 9:45 p.m. Oct. 12. With films coming from around the world, there are too many to mention here, so check out the full schedule at buffalofilm.org.

If you know the abbreviation MST3K, you are in for a treat. The just announced “Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Cheesy Movie Circus Tour” with Joel Hodgson is coming to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda at 8 p.m. Oct. 22. That’s right – Joel will be here along with Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy. Tickets are $38.50 to $43.50.  There are very cool VIP packages available, too. Here’s a link to the info. Continue reading “October classic films, movie events in the Buffalo area”