While this movie came out in the 80’s, it’s really not an “80’s movie.” It’s timeless, like all of Ray Harryhausen‘s films- which means they transcend their cheesiness and sentimentality and inhabit a world of their own, filled with a childlike sense of wonder. Directors like Spielberg and Lucas recaptured and updated that sense of wonder we had as children when they created Raiders and Star Wars, but Harryhausen never bothered to update things for newer generations. He didn’t need to.
In fact, when Clash of the Titans was made, he raised more money than he’d ever had for his classic films like the Sinbad movies, or Jason and the Argonauts with its infamous fighting skeletons. Did he use it for updated effects? Hell no! He spent it on getting good actors. So we get to see the likes of Lawrence Olivier amongst his stop-motion masterpieces, and it elevates the movie to classic status. People may remember Mighty Joe Young lovingly, but it has always been in the shadow of King Kong; sharing the same writer and having better effects doesn’t matter. He’s second banana.
Clash of the Titans was my childhood introduction to Greek and Roman myths, and it sets a straightforward and fun-loving tone almost from the beginning. If sacrifice is your thing. On a rocky coastline, King Acrisius is locking his daughter Danaë and her baby boy in a coffin- to be tossed into the violent sea. We then rise to the heavens above Mount Olympus, where the gods are watching. Zeus, played by the incomparable slummer Lawrence Olivier, is incensed at this murderous behavior and demands retribution. He has Poseidon release the Kraken, a huge sea beast, to wipe the city off the map. And he crushes the little terracotta figurine of the king, which is like a heavenly voodoo doll.
The sea-goddess Thetis and the other goddesses give us a little backstory- Zeus was giving Danaë the pork thunderbolt, and the baby is his son, Perseus. He has the sea deposit the coffin on a safe island so the boy can be raised in peace. All’s going well for little Perseus, who grows up to be 80’s has-been Harry Hamlin, until Zeus gets vindictive with Thetis’s son, Calibos. He’s a vain and cruel hunter who’s captured almost all the flying horses of legend. He’s destined to marry the beautiful princess Andromeda, until Zeus steps in and turns him into a deformed demon-lizard man. That usually cancels such engagements, even in the days of yore.
Thetis gets a little revenge of her own, and puts Perseus’s little figurine far from home in the city of Joppa, where Andromeda lives. Calibos has put the city under a curse since his fiancée spurned him; new suitors must answer a riddle, and if they fail, they are burned at the stake. Also the town is swarming with biting flies, driving down property values. The homeowners association is furious. Luckily Perseus shows up in Burgess Meredith’s abandoned amphitheater, and is taken in by the old playwright.
As is common when you sleep over at a lonely old man’s place, Perseus wakes up to find a sword someplace it doesn’t belong. Luckily for him, this is a gift from the gods, and not Burgess Meredith’s grizzled member. They also find an invisibility helmet and a magic shield that Zeus talks through, telling him to fulfill his destiny. Perseus decides his destiny is to find Andromeda, because when you’re a young man trapped on an island with your mom for 18 years, when you hear about a beautiful princess who might burns you at the stake, you beat invisible feet to her door.
Like any good stalker, he sneaks right into her bedroom. There he finds a giant buzzard who carries her spirit away in a cage. To follow, he needs the help of Pegasus, the last of the flying horses. That’s easy enough, they just throw a rope around his neck and give him a drink of water, and he’s Perseus’s new pal. No wonder Calibos caught all the rest of them so easily.
On the back of Pegasus, he tracks Andromeda to Calibos’s swamp lair. He puts on the helm of invisibility and finds out the next day’s riddle. Unluckily for him, Calibos sees his footsteps and tracks him. They do battle, and Perseus cuts off his claw-like hand to present to Andromeda. Nothing says I love you like throwing your deformed fiancé’s severed hand at your feet, that’s what I say.
Sadly, this doesn’t go down well with Calibos’s mom, Thetis. At the wedding ceremony, Casseopeia is dumb enough to say the princess’s beauty surpasses even the goddess Thetis, and this hubris offends the Olympians. A new curse is placed upon the city: in 30 days, Andromeda will be sacrificed to the Kraken, as a virgin. Get it, Perseus? No 30 days of marital bliss followed by tossing your new wife to the sea beast.
To defeat the Kraken, Perseus and a few pals seek out the Stygian Witches. On the way there, Zeus finds out that his son lost his magic helmet, and demands that Athena give him her beloved owl. Instead, she has Hephaestus make a mechanical one, and sends him down to assist. Bubo the Clockwork Owl is one of the most memorable parts of the film. He may be a little flying R2D2 ripoff with his piccolo voice and comic relief, but he’s cute and pretty cool-looking. I still want a robot owl to do my bidding, thanks to Mr. Harryhausen’s fantastic imagination.
These smart old Stygian broads live in a cave and have no eyes, sharing a Lalique crystal instead. Perseus has Bubo steal the old ladies’ eye so he can blackmail him. Sounds like a real ass, doesn’t he? Don’t feel sorry for these old biddies, they like to nosh on human flesh. So it’s okay to steal their eyes. They tell him that only the power of another titan can stand up to the Kraken, that of the gorgon Medusa- the hideous snake-haired woman who was cursed when she did the nasty in Aphrodite’s temple with Poseidon.
So, off to Medusa’s digs- some abandoned ruins protected by gigantic two-headed wolf. When your gaze turns people to stone, you don’t need a guard dog. But maybe she gets lonely. Medusa is no slouch- she’s also an archer, so when you’re hiding behind an Ionic column, she can wing you and make you see her snaky visage. The battle with the gorgon is one of the best of the film, which is one stop-motion set piece after another. She’s not the scaly maiden we’re expecting, but a huge snake-woman with tricks up her sleeve. But Perseus is pretty crafty, himself.
Once they have gorgon’s head, there is still Calibos to contend with- now with a trident hand. He creeps into their camp one night and stabs the Medusa head bag (full of heady goodness) with it. Her blood is poisonous, we’ve been told- but little do we know it gives birth to giant scorpions! I wish my blood did that, I’d never have to give blood again. What’s your blood type? Scorpion A positive, thank you very much. Yeah, just me and Medusa have this. Makes transfusions a real bitch, I gotta fly to ancient Greece.
The scorpion battle is another favorite, because Calibos is such a total bastard during it. When you release a trio of giant arachnids upon a group of sleeping enemies, you could just hang back and watch the ensuing mayhem. But not our favorite tailed fiend. No, he starts strangling them with his whip, and stabbing them in the back with his awesome fork-hand. Now that’s a villain for you. When he meets his deserved demise, his groans echo with a lovely reverb to denote his passing.
Now all that’s left is to defeat the Kraken- and he is one mean sumbitch. Towering over the battered coastline, he approaches poor Andromeda, who is chained to the rocks. Sort of like King Kong, these giant stop-motion critters don’t know what to do when presented with a sacrificial maiden, giving our hero plenty of time to fly in on their magic horse do some derring-do. The end is suitably epic, with the gorgon’s head doing its creepy glowing eyes and writhing hair act. Pegasus and Bubo both join in the fight and have us wondering if they’ll survive. Andromeda and Perseus give the finger to Mount Olympus (or at least Thetis, anyway) who has to bite her tongue because Zeus is reveling in his son’s glory.
This movie still great fun for young and old. It follows a predictable heroic story but injects it with some fantastic ideas that work even if the effects look terribly dated in this computer-generated age. The creature design is amazing, from the gold and silver owl to the Kraken’s six-armed monstrosity. Seeing memorable actors play the gods of Greek myth helps things along; they relish their roles, and play them straight. Zeus is a childish horndog, the goddesses are vain and proud, and Harry Hamlin is suited to the part of a plucky young hero getting by on his wits, with a little help from his immortal Dad. Burgess Meredith is always likeable, and Bubo the owl mugs for the camera just enough to stay appealing and not become annoying.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: High
Gratuitous Boobs: Danaë (front) and Andromeda (side) plus beefcake Hamlin for the ladies
Could it be made today? Troy did away with the gods and flopped; so, maybe!
High Points: Mechanical owl, Lawrence Olivier, cool monsters
Low Points: Snake boobies! Ow, my eyes.