Clash of the Titans (1981) Review

Desmond Davis directed Clash of the Titans. You probably didn’t know that, and in fact, ask 10 people who have seen this movie who directed it and the answer will undoubtedly be Ray Harryhausen nine times out of 10. That is the aura of Hollywood’s greatest special effects master, a genius of his craft who can salvage any film with the sheer beauty of stop motion.

Harryhausen has never been matched, and in this, his final animation appearance in a major production, he does it all. The Medusa fight, in which a young hero Perseus (Harry Hamlin) is stalked by the mythical creature, is captivating. Before it starts, the rythmic style of Harryhausen’s work is in shadow, teasing the appearance of the creature. As she appears, the numerous snakes covering her head move about wildly while Medusa herself slithers about. The facial expressions as she sneers her opponents are stunning, breathing life into a model.

In Harryhausen’s own way though, Medusa cannot simply just die. After being decapitated, her body slithers around in a panic, agonizingly meeting her doom as her rattle snake-like tail vibrates for the last time. The famed animator loved these flourishes to finish off his creations, his own personal sign-off to each of his masterful designs.

At this point in his career, there were few things left to do for Harryhausen, and he seems to relish his final chance. He pays homage to his mentor Willis O’Brien with a giant scorpion fight, the latter who handled the stop motion work in The Black Scorpion (1957). He injects a performance into a creature that could have been done via live action, the ugly Calibos. In close-ups, he is played by Neil McCarthy, and in the distance, a complex model recalling Harryhuasen’s work in 20 Million Miles to Earth. His battles with Perseus is stunningly crafted, the miniature model perfectly in-sync with the live action footage.

Clash of the Titans is pure fantasy, but unfortunately sluggish. At nearly two hours, Titans desperately needed an editor, chugging along with extended exposition. Yes, even the special effects sequences become unnecessary, although these are at least fun to watch. The scorpion battle is rather needless filler, as painful as it may be to say that about Harryhausen’s work. Titans grinds to a halt as Perseus and crew search for three witches, and the payoff is hardly worth the wait.

Everything grand about Clash of the Titans, and certainly the only things it is remembered for, happen in the final 45-minutes, where the effects work can take over on an epic scale. No one forgets the Kraken battle, the two-headed dog, or Medusa. Everything else simply seems to fade away, which is either immense credit to Ray Harryhausen, or a slap in the face to everyone else.

Movie ★★★☆☆ 

Clash of the Titan’s gets off to a rough start. The first half hour or so is abysmal. The VC-1 encode causes havoc immediately. The opening shot of the film, draped in a heavy mist, is rendered almost unidentifiable given the sheer amount of noise displayed. This continues on in almost every scene during these early moments, especially terrible in the God’s chamber, such as 13:54. Zeus’ cloak is littered with chroma noise, as is the fog drifting across the set. Even down on Earth, like the 15:51 marker, the sky becomes overloaded with compression artifacts. It is one thing for a special effects shot, double printed in various ways, to suffer from increased grain, like 26:12, but this is digital noise, not natural film grain.

Various problems continue, including extensive mosquito noise visible against the mountains (35:23), and excessive interlacing on the left side of the mountains as Pegasus lands (35:59). After these sequences, Clash becomes unimpressive but tolerable. A few scenes become marginally impressive, at the very least film like and natural. The wedding (at least in close-ups) at 55:40 shows off some decent color, actual image depth, and simple detail. Long shots show extensive noise on the statue in the background, but these are a visual effects element. Close-ups sporadically provide a minimal level of high fidelity detail, such as Burgess Meredith around 58:49, and Perseus at 1:25:46.

The finale, with the Kraken, is wonderful despite an abundance of artifacts during certain shots. The detail of the model is easy to appreciate the glistening water and other texture clearly defined. An odd thing happens during some of the closing moments as well. Back in the room with the Gods, all of that chroma noise has suddenly disappeared. The grain structure appears film-like, natural, and is perfectly within reason.

Clash lacks depth and pop, the black levels never reaching an inky level of impressiveness. Colors are flat and faded, a shame given the fantastical nature of the proceedings. Flesh tones remain accurate at least, and Harryhausen’s creations fare reasonably well.

Video ★★★☆☆ 

Warner presents an adequate DTS-HD 2.0 stereo mix for this hi-def debut. Use of the front channels is excellent, offering distinct positioning from the opening moments as waves crash into the shores. The fight to gain control of Pegasus is excellent, splitting the stereo channels wide around 37:40.

Sound effects come through slightly harsh, and dialogue carries a faded, dry quality to it. The latter is also mixed low, the memorable Laurence Rosenthal score mixed a few notches higher creating a bit of jolt when the action kicks up quickly. That said, the score sounds fantastic despite being confined to the fronts, like everything else spaced well with distinct instruments placed firmly in the proper channel. This is a serviceable effort, free of any extraneous tinkering or needless surround work.

Audio ★★★☆☆ 

Extras are carried over from the DVD, meager to say the least. A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen runs 12-minutes, a basic discussion of the film and his talents. Myths and Monsters is seven sections on the various creations showcased in the film, but are far too short to be of value, and should have been combined.

Extras ★★☆☆☆