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Monday, April 4, 2011


The year was 1976 when my dad sat me down one Saturday evening and told me to watch a cowboy movie that was playing on one of the local television stations. I had no problem watching a western and enjoyed the shootouts and horse chases these films usually featured. Secretly though, I would much rather have been watching a monster movie. So the movie started and I slowly realized that maybe this wasn't your usual run-of-the-mill western when a tiny, prehistoric horse appeared on my television screen. Twenty minutes later my interest level increased ten-fold when a Pteranodon swooped into the screen and plucked a boy off of his horse. And then a few short minutes later a blood thirsty Allosaurus jumped onto the screen, gobbling up another dinosaur. At that point I was completely hooked. I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen and when the end credits appeared I knew I had experienced something special. For that was the day I discovered the work of special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen.

The film that blew me away, THE VALLEY OF GWANGI, is one of Harryhausen's most impressive works and remains a favorite among many of today's special effects artists. Based on a story by Willis O'Brien, the plot is basically KING KONG (1933) set in the old west, with Gwangi the Allosaurus replacing Kong and his Forbidden Valley standing in for Skull Island. Arguably the film is technically better than KONG as Ray's dinosaurs are some of the most impressive stop motion creations ever put on the screen. Never has his work seemed so alive and fluid. It's hard to imagine these creatures are only inches tall and created by just one man, one frame of movement at a time. The famous dino round up scene where the cowboys try to lasso Gwangi is a Harryhausen tour de force and remains one of the most impressive special effects sequences ever created.

Sadly the film wasn't a hit when first released as it was poorly marketed and featured on a double bill with a biker film. Luckily for Harryhausen and dinosaur fans, the movie is now recognized for the mini classic that it is and stands as one of the greatest special effects films of all time.