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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—2 April 2010

A Brief History Of Big F**king Scorpions In Cinema: "As someone who saw the original Clash when it was released, I am jazzed for the new one. You can't go wrong with big f**kings scorpions." So wrote a well-respected director with whom I am Facebook friends, over on Facebook, a couple of weeks back. "He is wise in his generation," I thought to myself. Of all the effects in the 1981 fantasy film Clash of the Titans, the final feature to contain visual effects by the great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, the battle between Harry Hamlin and some giant scorpions was one of my favorites. Because scorpions are freaking creepy even at normal size. As cinephiles know from the opening scenes of Buñuel's L'age d'or, or Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. So enormous scorpions...enormous scorpions really well done...well, they ought to make certain muscles clench, very tightly.

And still there are problems. "He is wise in his generation, indeed," a friend of mine commented when I was discussing the excitement some people were feeling over the Louis-Leterrier-directed remake of Clash that opens today. "How old is this director, anyway?"

I looked at the fellow's page on IMDB. "He was born in 1974," I said.

"Well of course," my buddy commented. "That's puts him at the perfect age to have been excited by Clash." My friend reminded me that, for as many cool things might have been in the movie, seeing is at the age we did—that is, in our very early 20s—and after growing up having thrilled to such Harryhausen-fueled fare, on television and in theaters, as Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, Jason And The Argonauts, and many, many more films, that Clash was in many ways a disappointment. Certain of the shortcuts the film took with effects—having the sometimes animated Calibos being stood-in for in certain shots by a human actor, for instance—brought us down. True, there was a famous Harryhausen octopus in his oeuvre that had fewer than the regulation number of tentacles for budgetary reasons, but in that film (It Came From Beneath The Sea) what tentacles were seen were cherce, as Spencer Tracy might have put it. And anyway, it was a sci-fi film, not a biology lesson. Another of Clash's sins was that damn mechanical owl. Bubo, it is called. Harryhausen insists that it was invented prior to the existence of R2D2 of the Star Wars saga. Perhaps it was. But we—who were still Star Wars fans at the time!—took it as a pander move, the first we had seen in a Harryhausen picture. And perhaps it was just because we were now in our 20s, but the whole thing seemed a bit, well, silly at the time. Which it amuses me to think about now. Because, you know, Jason and the Argonauts was so profound. (Interestingly enough, however, the actual storyline for Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers is relatively adult, and lead actors Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor display some very genuine romantic chemistry before shit starts getting blown up.)

A little while after his "you can't go wrong" pronouncement, our director friend mused, "Of course, if the trailer actually said 'Release the big f**king scorpions!", I would probably be camping outside a cinema now." And later, after seeing the picture itself, he wrote, "...there are more Giant F**king Scorpions than you can shake a stick at. Thumbs up." Ah yes. Back to Big/Giant F**king Scorpions. The first effects guy to give them a shot was Harryhausen's mentor, the great Willis O'Brien, genius creator of King Kong and all those friggin' dinosaurs the big ape fights in the '30s classic. This was in the 1957 picture The Black Scorpion. The giant scorpion "head" that's seen in close-up too many times in the film is pretty risible, as is most of the drama surrounding the effects stuff, but the scorpions themselves kick major butt. Harryhausen doesn't mention his mentor's work, as far as I can see, in his lavishly-illustrated autobiography, An Animated Life. Discussing the scorpion-creation for Clash, he writes, "I had always wanted to design a sequence with scorpions but never had the opportunity, even though they are wonderful antagonists and their crab-like legs and pincers are well suited to Dynamation...We built three 18-inch models embellished only very slightly with larger and therefore more menacing pincers. We studied and photographed the movement of several live ones, but either the lights made them languid or they would do the opposite of what we wanted. In the end I simply used my imagination." When the DVD of the new Clash comes out, its extras will no doubt regale viewers with the details of how the effects were created. And they will be very different from what Harryhausen describes, because rather than working with hand-crafted modles and going through the painstaking process of creating the models' "movements" frame by frame, all the effects here are done with a computer.

And here's my question, which may be answered for me by day's end, if I can squeeze in a screening of Clash: Can computer-generated big f**king scorpions be as awesome as stop-motion ones? The esteemed Jim Emerson would think not, I believe. In our recent point-counterpoint on Cameron's Avatar, he made this observation on the physically generated special effects of the Harryhausen era versus those created in the digital domain:"Of course, even as a kid, before I understood the concepts of miniatures and stop-motion, I could tell those monsters and skeletons weren't quite on the same plane of reality as the human characters.  But I didn't really feel the filmmakers were demanding that I fully buy the illusion; they were enlisting my imagination to complete the effects in my head.  That's where Avatar fell into the uncanny valley for me.  It was just close enough to being photorealistic that I was constantly reminded of its CGI-ness."

Is this the case for you? Does it depend, also, on the generation you're in, what movies you grew up with?

Hahah… This is awesome. Glenn you f**king rock. Why is it only stop-motion vs CGI giant f**king scorpions? What about using actual giant f**king scorpions? I know this old crazy Russian scientist who has a lab near the Indian Point Reactor.
Thoroughly entertaining read. The Black Scorpion was one of my favorite films as a boy—perhaps because it featured a little Mexican boy?—and the trainwreck sequence is one of the best ever! Highly recommended for that scene alone.
Glenn, this is the most quote-unquote FUN post I’ve read from you and loved it. I’m off to find my old DVD copy of Clash. I might even plan a mini giant-f*cking scorpion film festival for next week.
I was just watching something with CGI wolves in it recently, and their ability to accurately mimic real-life motion was basically about as good as Harryhausen’s model of the two-headed Cerberus from CLASH. Great. Fine. 30 years on, and we’ve finally caught up with his ground-breaking work. Now MAYBE we can finally move beyond, if someone’s good enough, but probably not: stop-motion will just always rule so much harder than CGI…neither would ever be mistaken for reality, so it’s just a matter of looking as cool as possible, and model-work wins for me.
“But I didn’t really feel the filmmakers were demanding that I fully buy the illusion; they were enlisting my imagination to complete the effects in my head.” Oh, yeah…that’s great. Agree completely. Plus, the dry, creepy rattlesnake sound effects help in making Harryhausen’s scorpion scene even more chilling. (And a Rosenthal score that’s consistently much better than it’s source material doesn’t hurt either.)

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