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Clash of the Titans (1981)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)

Starring: Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, Judi Bowker

Written By: Beverley Cross Directed By: Desmond Davis

The Short Version

Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion swan song may be one of the most beloved bad movies ever made.

You do understand that Clash of the Titans is a really bad movie, right?

Not that it matters; it’s reasonably fun anyway, if you’re wearing the right glasses for it.

Clash of the Titans is one of those pilgrimage flicks that demands to be seen at least once.

If you grew up with this movie, though, you might want to just hang on to your memories; that’s a coin flip.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEEZ WHIZ.

As adults, we know this can’t be good for us.  The kids inside of us don’t care.


Pairs Well With...

PABST BLUE RIBBON.

Cheap retro beer that’s more than up to the challenge of fueling a “bad movie night,” in quantity.

“Call no man happy who is not dead!”


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad movie so readily and easily forgiven by both critics and the public at large as Clash of the Titans.  Designed as a grand visual effects adventure, the movie is built around effects that were long out date when it was released, set atop a frame of misquoted mythology, and played out by a dynamite cast which, with few exceptions, is doing anything but its finest work.

And yet… there is a nostalgic sense of wonder here, and rather like one might regard a kindly stage magician whose tricks have long since been blown, that wide-eyed showmanship does make up for a lot of sins.

When it comes to enjoying Clash of the Titans, the relevant question for most people is simply this: how sophisticated is your palette?  Did you ever grow up, or is there still some Peter Pan left in you, and if so, how much? 

The answer is important, especially if you happened to see this movie as a kid.  If, on the one hand, you did grow up and haven’t either developed a hearty lampoon sense from your college friends or since found your ability to appreciate innocent adventure rekindled by watching movies with your own kids, you probably want leave this one to the loving care of your memory and not come back for a second look.  If, on the other hand, you’re willing to give out an “A” for effort and being into the spirit of things despite the fact that the essay is full of errors and badly misspelled words, then Clash of the Titans may be worth another go, though I suggest that you channel those college friends anyway, have some beer on hand, and be ready to approach it in MST3K fashion.

Free passes also go out to those who are suckers for the stop motion flicks of the drive-in era, because hey, that’s exactly what this one is: a drive-in movie that missed its ideal release date by fifteen or twenty years.

As for me, I fall into the “sucker” category, but I still find that it’s very much worthwhile to have that beer handy, because sentiment aside, this really isn’t a good movie.

Clash of the Titans represents the swan song of Ray Harryhausen.  For those who don’t know their film history, Harryhausen is one of the grand giants in the world of motion picture special effects, most famous for his stop motion animation creatures.  (A later generation might call them “claymation.”  An otherwise impossible monster is sculpted from clay or some other material, photographed, then moved a tiny bit, photographed again, and so on, so that when played at full film speed, it looks like a monster in motion.)  It was a technique that came to revolutionize and define the adventure side of the drive-in movie era, from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to One Million Years BC (though it can be argued that Raquel Welch provided the most talked about visual effects for the latter).  The man is a legend, and deservedly so.  Like most critics and students of film history, I very much admire his work.  But the fact is, the work stopped evolving, and the effects we see in the Reagan-era Clash of the Titans are no different than they were in films he worked on during the Eisenhower administration; indeed, blasphemy though this may be, they can be considered worse.  (Do yourselves a favor, by the way, and try to avoid watching this in high definition.  The lower your resolution, the better this looks.)  Even disregarding the fact that ILM and Star Wars had completely changed the special effects game (though they didn’t do away with stop motion; they just figured out how to do it a lot better) two years before (Clash of the Titans was released in 1981, but it was made in 1979), many of these effects just don’t stand up at all, from the seagull that flies through the opening credits to the people getting washed away by floods that obviously are occurring on a different plane to the recycled Kraken to the truly awful Calibos.  Any one of them would be able to pass on its own, but there are just so many bad effects here that the only hope for enjoying it through adult eyes is to take the “bad movie night” approach and make fun of it as you go.

Though, through your kid vintage eyes, the mechanical owl is still cool beyond belief, even if your adult self is whispering that he’s an R2D2 knockoff.  And the clay statues the gods use to play around with people are awesome, and you wish you had some of your own.

Your kid self also probably remembers the Medusa scene fondly; that hag was creepy.  But it is in fact this scene that ultimately caused to me to suggest that if you already saw Clash of the Titans when you were young, you may want to leave it at that, because this is the scene where the original magic went away for me.  I was expecting to recognize the effects for the cheese they were, to be sure, but this time around, I was also aware of how damn slow the scene is, and from there it was a quick leap to admitting that the entire movie isn’t just slow: it’s paceless.  The script alone keeps Clash of the Titans in motion; the director gives no sense of urgency to anything, and outside of the gods, even the characters – especially our hero – don’t seem to give a damn about moving things along.  Indeed, Perseus as played by Harry Hamlin has to be one of the dullest adventure heroes I’ve ever seen.  (Sorry, folks; without Zeus and that nifty mechanical owl, Perseus really is nothing, though Hamlin himself must have done something right, because this was movie the start of his three year relationship with Ursula Andress, here playing Aphrodite, aptly enough.)

I know that it’s all supposed to be fun, but the director still has to bring something to the table; instead, he expects the audience to do all of the work for him.  For a kid, this is easy enough, but after a while, something’s gotta give.  As it turns out, something does.  It’s a term that no innocent kid should know, but that too many adults do, and that term is “paradigm shift.”  For those of us who can, we stop pretending that it’s fun because it’s a cool adventure, and we move on to admitting that’s it’s fun because it’s so bad that it comes out the other side.

Because really, Calibos may be a terrible stop motion effect on the one hand and a guy with a wretched make up job on the other, but watching the movie freely switch between the two is hilarious.

And because now we actually get it when the gods get angry with each other about everyone having sex with everyone else, and can finally laugh with understanding when Maggie Smith delivers her best line of the movie.

And because now we also understand that the mechanical owl is not only cool, but it also has better comic timing than anyone else in the movie save for Maggie Smith and Burgess Meredith.

And because when Laurence Olivier, who has more than paid his dues with scores of amazing performances that in turn didn’t do as much as they should have to fill his bank account, hams it up for a paycheck, that’s funny, too.

And because it’s funny to imagine how Perseus flirts with destroying the fishing industry of Joppa by tossing Medusa’s naked head into the sea where it can freely stare down all of the fish.

I think you get the hang of it now.  I hope so, because however bad it may be, Clash of the Titans is one of those cinematic cultural landmarks that really does demand to be seen at least once by everyone, and if you didn’t see it before as a kid (or even if you did and insist on doing so again), the “so bad it’s fun” approach really is your best hope for enjoying the experience.

Bottom line, Clash of the Titans really is a bad movie, but it is also an iconic one, and it does deserve to be so.  It’s the curtain call for an era that had already passed well before the film’s initial release, and the swan song for one of the true greats of moviemaking history.  And sometimes, if one is willing to approach things with the proper perspective, being bad isn’t necessarily itself a bad thing.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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