THE HORROR JAR: The Special Effects of Willis O’Brien

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kong planes

Kong battles planes from atop the Empire State Building thanks to the movie magic of Willis O’Brien in KING KONG (1933)

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at all things horror.  Up today the films of Willis O’Brien, or more specifically, the films in which O’Brien’s amazing stop motion animation effects graced the screen.

With the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, O’Brien is on my mind, because years ago, for whatever reason, a popular triple feature on Thanksgiving day used to be KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and while actor Robert Armstrong appeared in all three of these giant monkey movies, the true common denominator among this trio of films is special effects master Willis O’Brien, who did the effects for all three films.

With that in mind, here’s a brief look at the magical career of Willis O’Brien:

THE DINOSAUR AND THE MISSING LINK: A PREHISTORIC TRAGEDY (1915) – directed by Willis O’Brien. O’Brien’s first screen credit, a five-minute comedy short. He both directed this one and created the stop motion effects.

THE LOST WORLD (1925) – the first film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale about a land where dinosaurs still exist remains arguably the best film version of Conan Doyle’s novel.  O’Brien’s special effects are wonderful and a nice precursor to the work he would do eight years later on KING KONG (1933). The conclusion of the film where the Brontosaurus goes on a rampage through the streets of London is a major highlight.

willis o'brien

Willis O’Brien and one of his friends.

KING KONG (1933) – one of the greatest movies of all time, the original KING KONG is required viewing for all movie buffs. With apologies to actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, who are all very good in this movie, to directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and to screenwriters James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, the reason KING KONG remains a masterpiece, and the reason to see this one over and over again, is the stop motion animation effects by Willis O’Brien.

The special effects in KING KONG are nothing short of spectacular. They hold up well even today. The level of depth on Kong’s island is unbelievable, and the attention to detail uncanny. O’Brien’s team used painted glass plates to create the plush dense forest backgrounds, and many scenes feature human actors and animated creatures in the same shot creating a seamless world that looks as authentic as it is imaginative.

Stop motion effects required the use of miniature models— Kong was 18 inches tall— moved by technicians one film frame at a time, an arduous process that would take an entire afternoon just to complete one second of screen time.

Of course, O’Brien also enjoyed some luck. He feared he would be fired when in test shots he could see the imprints of his technicians’ hands on Kong’s fur. Yet when the producers watched the film they applauded him for his attention to detail for making Kong’s fur move in the wind.

In short, with his animation techniques, O’Brien gave birth to one of the mightiest screen monsters of all time, King Kong, a character who still appears in movies even today.

KING KONG also boasts a memorable music score by Max Steiner.

SON OF KONG (1933) – rushed sequel to KING KONG can best be described as KING KONG LITE. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) returns to Kong’s island in search of treasure and discovers Kong’s less ferocious and somewhat friendly son there.  Light and amusing. O’Brien’s special effects, while not as mind-blowing as his work on the original, remain a highlight.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1049) – Kong creators Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper return with yet another giant ape story, again starring Robert Armstrong, who plays a Carl Denham clone named Max O’Hara. The film is most notable for O’Brien’s protegé stepping up to do most of the stop motion animation effects here. His protege? Ray Harryhausen, who would go on to create the best stop motion effects aside from KING KONG over the next thirty years in a career that spanned from this movie until the early 1980s. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is actually a much better film than SON OF KONG, yet it did not perform well at the box office, and plans for a sequel JOE MEETS TARZAN were never completed.

THE BLACK SCORPION  (1957) -standard 1950s giant monster science fiction film, this time featuring giant scorpions in Mexico City. Decent Willis O’Brien special effects.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) – radiation again is to blame for awaking yet another dinosaur in this typical 1950s giant monster tale. Not O’Brien’s finest hour. The special effects are okay but are clearly inferior to the work that Ray Harryhausen was doing at the time, with films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958).

THE LOST WORLD (1960) – O’Brien’s career comes full circle with this remake of the 1925 silent film, this one directed by Irwin Allen. Okay movie, with a decent cast that included Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, and Claude Rains. This one should have been better, mainly because O’Brien’s work wasn’t even used here!

Huh?

O’Brien was hired to work on the film because Irwin Allen wanted to use stop motion animation effects for the dinosaurs, but budget constraints forced Allen to use real lizards instead, which led to far inferior special effects. As a result, although given effects technician credit, O’Brien’s work on this film was largely restricted to conceptual drawings which were never used.

O’Brien passed away on November 8, 1962 from a heart attack at the age of 76.

Willis O’Brien will be forever remembered for creating some of the most incredible special effects in motion picture history for his work on KING KONG (1933).

And you can’t go wrong with O’Brien’s giant ape trilogy, KING KONG (1933), SON OF KONG (1933), and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Should these be playing on a TV near you this Thanksgiving, be sure to check them out.

That’s it for now. Thanks for joining me for this edition of THE HORROR JAR where we celebrated the career of special effects mastermind Willis H. O’Brien, and I hope you join me again next time when we’ll look at other topics regarding horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

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THE HORROR JAR: Movies starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee; And Movies starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

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THE HORROR JAR:  Movies Starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee; and Vincent Price and Peter Cushing

By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome to another edition of THE HORROR JAR, that column where we feature lists of odds and ends about horror movies.

 

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all share birthdays in May:  Cushing on May 26 and both Lee and Price on May 27.  Last year to celebrate this occasion we looked at movies in which all three stars, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price appeared together.  It was a brief list, since it only happened twice.

This year to honor their birthdays we’ll look at movies starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, and movies starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.  This list is brief as well.

Here we go:

Movies starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, without Peter Cushing:

Believe it or not, there’s just one.

THE OBLONG BOX (1969)oblong box poster

Directed by Gordon Hessler

Screenplay by Lawrence Huntington, with additional dialogue by Christopher Wicking, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe

Julian:  Vincent Price

Dr. Newhartt:  Christopher Lee

Edward:  Alister Williamson

Running Time:  91 minutes

Lurid tale about premature burial, voodoo, and revenge in this story about a vengeful brother who goes around terrorizing the countryside while wearing a red hood.  Vincent Price plays the lead, the man who tries to control his lunatic brother but constantly does more harm than good.  Christopher Lee is solid in a supporting role.  This film would have been so much better had Lee been cast as the evil brother Edward.  Still, as it stands, this flick is a heck of a lot of fun.

 

Movies starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, without Christopher Lee:

PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972)

Directed by Robert FuestDoctorPhibesRisesAgain-poster

Screenplay by Robert Fuest and Robert Blees

Dr. Phibes:  Vincent Price

Captain:  Peter Cushing

Darrus Biederbeck:  Robert Quarry

Running Time:  89 minutes

Sequel to THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) isn’t as good as the first one but comes darned close!  Barely counts as a Price/Cushing pairing, since Cushing’s role is only a cameo.  Blink and you miss him.  Once again, Price steals the show as Dr. Phibes.  Robert Quarry adds fine support as Phibes’ rival.

 

MADHOUSE (1974)

Directed by Jim ClarkMadhouse poster

Screenplay by Ken Levison and Greg Morrison, based on the novel by Devilday by Angus Hall

Paul Toombes:  Vincent Price

Herbert Flay:  Peter Cushing

Oliver Quayle:  Robert Quarry

Running time:  89 minutes

Price, Cushing, and Quarry are reunited in this effective yet flawed thriller about a horror actor (Price) making a comeback in the midst of a series of murders which seem to implicate his famed alter ego from horror movies of old, Dr. Death.  An odd movie.  At times, it’s really good, but at others it’s aimless and without direction.  The best part is finally, at long last, both Price and Cushing have sizable roles, Price as the haunted horror film star, and Cushing as his friend and screenwriter. They get to spend considerable screen time together.

 

And just for fun, here’s a reprint of last year’s list of the two films which starred all three, Price, Lee, and Cushing:

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)

An Amicus Production

Directed by Gordon Hessler

Screenplay by Christopher Wicking, based on the novel The Disoriented Man by Peter Saxon

Dr. Browning:  Vincent Price

Fremont:  Christopher Lee

Benedek:  Peter Cushing

Running Time:  95 minutes

 

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983)

Directed by Peter Walker

Screenplay by Michael Armstrong based on the novel Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers

Lionel Grisbane:  Vincent Price

Corrigan:  Christopher Lee

Sebastian Grisbane:  Peter Cushing

Lord Grisbane:  John Carradine

Running Time: 100 minutes

Sadly, neither of these movies is very good.  But you can’t beat the cast!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael