Ray Harryhausen Syndrome


This is a blog post I wrote back in 2010, but I thought it was worth of a revamp/repost in lieu of the upcoming Kong Skull Island. It concerns a medical condition certain movie lovers are afflicted with – Ray Harryhausen syndrome.

Essentially Ray Harryhausen syndrome causes the viewer to sympathise with the monster in fantasy films. The first cases of this condition occurred in 1933, with the release of the legendary King Kong. Despite crushing, chomping and hurling natives of both New York and Skull Island to their deaths, a giant gorilla still elicited more sympathy than the human characters as he is gunned down by biplanes. When my eldest son used to cry every time he watched King Kong (he first saw it at the age of four), which led me to believe he was already afflicted with Ray Harryhausen syndrome. My younger son has also displayed similar tendencies.

Of course, this condition gets its name from the late, great king of stop motion animation himself, who pioneered extraordinary visual effects in films such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts. Inspired by King Kong, Ray Harryhausen continued with stop motion well into the 1980’s (including the original Clash of the Titans). But whist stop motion has since been replaced by CGI, his creations have amazing charm, however savage. This perhaps explains why some viewers watching Jason and the Argonauts cheer the Titan Talos as he picks up Jason’s ship in his hands, hurling the occupants into the sea. It also explains why you might feel a teeny bit sorry for the terrifying Cyclops in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

This trend isn’t just limited to Ray Harryhausen pictures. Anyone who has delved into creaky 50’s monster movies or the many Japanese Godzilla films will also understand what I’m talking about. Even the ill-judged 1998 Hollywood version of Godzilla tries to evoke the spirit of Kong in the giant lizard’s dying moments (the more recent Gareth Edwards version proved much more satisfactory).

In all Harryhausen’s films, viewers know from the outset that the hero will eventually defeat the monster, but there is always a tinge of sadness when he does. It’s an ironic feeling shared by many of Harryhausen’s successors, including George Lucas. In Return of the Jedi (a film clearly designed by sufferers of Harryhausen syndrome given its surfeit of amazing creatures), the Rancor monster is a brutal and savage beast that almost eats Luke Skywalker. Yet when the Rancor meets its inevitable demise, there’s a little moment where his keeper starts crying.

More recently, filmmakers such as Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro have exhibited signs of Ray Harryhausen syndrome. The first Lord of the Rings film has a sequence where our heroes fight a cave troll whose slow death has tragic echoes of Kong. On the DVD documentaries, Jackson admits to having written a whole back story for the troll, saying his mother had cooked him a nice dinner which now – alas – he won’t be home for.

As for Del Toro, one only has to watch the monster fests of the Hellboy films, particularly the second one. Two scenes in particular – the Troll Market and the big tree monster – resonate with the glee Del Toro has for his subject matter. The ending of the latter scene, where the villain laments the death of the monster as it was the last of its kind, is again a clear indication that Del Toro is afflicted with Ray Harryhausen syndrome.

Even Pixar have acknowledged this condition in the superb Monsters Inc. The entire premise of the film – that scary monsters are (in most cases) good – is put across with a conviction that only those most afflicted with Harryhausen syndrome could possibly deliver. The moment where the Abominable Snowman laments that he isn’t referred to as the Adorable Snowman or the Agreeable Snowman underscores this point, and one scene is even set in a restaurant called Harryhausens.

In the Harry Potter stories, Hagrid is another character clearing suffering from Ray Harryhausen syndrome. His love of terrifying savage beasts is comical, but is not just played for laughs. The saving of Buckbeak in The Prisoner of Azkaban is an emotional high point, though my personal favourite “Harryhausen” moment comes in The Half Blood Prince during the delightfully absurd giant spider funeral.

There are exceptions (such as the Jackson/Del Toro examples listed above), but generally monsters created by computers instead of stop motion, animatronics or puppetry do not cause the same emotional response. It’s also worth noting that when monsters cross a certain barrier into horror movie territory, Harryhausen syndrome ceases (Alien and Aliens for instance). For lovers of monsters, Kong: Skull Island promises to be a treat. But I wonder if the CGI beasties contained therein will elicit any sympathy?

So, when watching Kong: Skull Island, please spare a thought for those poor unfortunates who suffer from Ray Harryhausen syndrome. Perhaps some kind of support group should be set up, like Alcoholics Anonymous. “My name is Simon Dillon and I suffer from Ray Harryhausen syndrome. It has been three days since I last sympathised with a monster instead of the hero…”

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