Written by George Lea
Monsters are a part of my existence, and have been since before I can recall. My earliest memories are of fascination with the beasts of mythology and fantasy; of cartoons, comics and toy-lines.
Anyone who knew me as a child, and knew me well, would never think of buying me human or heroic characters from any toy line that happened to snare my interest; only the most elaborate, grotesque and horrific monstrosity in the range that would excite and engage imagination to the degree that I’d spend hours at a time alone, conjuring the most esoteric stories and scenarios for them.
Much of the writer I am today was kindled during those moments of sacred self-communion; where new stripes and species of monster were born in my imagination, and now find themselves in the pages of my own work.
Much of that, I would hypothesise, derives from my input as a child; being a child of the mid 1980s, my media experience was predominated by the monstrous, from the villains, mutants, demons, aliens and absurdities provided by toy lines such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Mighty Max etc to the comics and cartoons derived from them, not to mention the advent of VHS tapes, which allowed vast quantities of previously unobtainable media to be consumed again and again…almost every story, every book, comic, film or cartoon I consumed contained some manner of monstrosity; something titanic, deformed or inhuman.
Alongside the idiosyncratic entities created for toy lines and saturday morning cartoons, I naturally gravitated towards the ancient mythologies from which many of them were derived; it was often the case that, rather than renting children’s books from the local library, I would instead stuff my satchel full of books on ancient Greek and Nordic mythology; on the stories of the Aztecs and Incans, the native Americans, African tribes and the various traditions of China, Japan and Egypt.
My imaginary world thus became a playground of the most bizarre and fantastical beasts; the Titans of ancient Greece, such as Typhon, Scylla and Echidna, the animal-headed Gods of the Egyptian pantheons such as Walpur, Set, Anubis, Osiris; the vaguely horrific entities of fairy tale and folklore, such as the child-devouring Baba-Yagga, the demonic Spring Heeled Jack, the liminal Grufflehog, Greast Beast of Le Gevaudan as well as epic monstrosities such as the Hydra, Niddhog the dragon, Biliku the giant spider and more than I can realistically catalogue or recall.
Of them all, one of the earliest I can recall making a profound impression is the animated statue of Talos, as rendered in Ray Harryhausen’s epic cinema adaptation of Jason the Argonauts. Like all of Harryhausen’s stop motion creations, Talos is a unique beast; not only a special effects extravaganza for the era (the notion of having live action human beings interacting with a stop-motion animated entity was ambitious, to say the least), but also an entity invested with such incredible character by his position and framing.
Though unable to appreciate it as a child; only understanding in the most inchoate fashion that I found the creature simultaneously terrifying and mesmeric, that is part and parcel of how Harryhausen managed to create such iconic entities as Talos, the Kraken, Medusa, the Hydra and numerous others; not merely by creating aesthetically stunning and technically miraculous entities, but by investing them with far more than mere monstrosity; making them characters in their own rights, whose performance is as significant as those of their live action counterparts.
The threat and dread of Talos is built up in the film long before the monster itself physically occurs; from vague prophecies spoken to protagonist Jason by his patron Goddess, Hera, to musical cues and a particular framing of the beast when it appears to be little more than an inert statue, there is something sinister about the entity and its environment from the moment the Argo is forced to land on its shores.
Crouched atop an immense tomb, Talos initially appears as little more than a truly titanic, bronze statue of a muscled warior, a sword clasped in one hand, its head helmeted, eyes dark and empty. The image itself is immediately unsettling, if only owing to its true immensity (a factor which is emphasised whenever it is framed in context with the human characters or aspects of the island’s geography).
Initially seeming little more than a piece of impressively sinister architecture, the first clue we have that it might be something more is a sound that occurs when a couple of human (well, demi-god, in Hercules’s case) characters are inside the tomb, rifling through its contents (purportedly a treasure horde of the Gods, that it is is Talos’s purpose to guard).
A raspy, high-pitched metallic shriek, that we will become intimately familiar with by the scene’s end. Here, for the first time, without context or explanation, it is bizarrely chilling; the shriek of a strange animal, the protest of an ancient, breaking down machine.
The sound draws Hercules and his companion out into the open air, where they cast about for a time, looking for some clue as to the sound’s source, until their attention and the camera focus on the statue of Talos.
Which slowly turns its head with a now familiar metallic shriek, glaring at them with black, empty eyes.
The moment of realisation is stunningly rendered; a slow, patient build of tension to a subtle but terrifying pay off, the statue becoming fully animated, clambering down from its mount, seeming to take a moment to assess its surroundings as though newly woken (a fantastic example of the amount of character that Harryhausen invests in all of his monstrous creations).
From that point on, the scene becomes one of escalating carnage as Hercules and his companion race to warn their ship mates of the impending danger, Talos striding in their wake, emerging from behind mountains in scenes that are fanastically framed so as to elicit audience reactions of fright and tension, urging the eponymous Argonauts to take ship and flee.
The carnage the creature wreaks is immense, the human characters standing little chance against something so titanic and with its endurance. Managing to all but destroy the Argo, it requires a small moment of divine intervention from Hera for Jason to learn of Talos’s one weakness; a small valve on his heel that, when turned, spills out the creature’s burning blood and renders it inert.
Arguably the most dangerous of the creatures that Jason and his crew face, even in death Talos is invested with incredible threat and character; after Hercules manages to turn the valve (a feat of strength that almost breaks him), the creature thrashes and roars, clutching at its throat as though unable to breath as cracks run throughout its brass skin. Crashing to the ground, the creature eventually crumbles apart, revealed as littl more than a hollow statue. Even in death, the thing causes calamity, crushing one of Jason’s crew and sending the rest scattering.
The whole sequence is emblazoned in my memory in the way that only childhood experience can be; its details, its atmosphere, its rhythms. As such, it is part and parcel of the state of my own mind; the shape of my own imagination. The framing and technical structure of the sequence is what lends Talos life; what invests the creature with more than mere monstrosity or special effects-inspired awe. The monster exercises a strange fascination over the audience eye, even upon a present day viewing; the stop motion nature of the creature, far from rendering it crude, lending it a particular, other-worldly and distressing quality that makes the far too fluid, too clean and slick computer generated creations of the present day seem flimsy and insubstantial by comparison.
Talos, despite being an entity that ostensibly occurs in a mythological action adventure, is one of the most threatening, strange and impressive creatures I have ever encountered in cinema; one whose lessons I bring to bear in my own work; in terms of the framing and presentation of the otherworldly, the impossible and bizarre; how monsters of its ilk can be made either epic or risible by such small technical details.
As an adult, the scene not only has a certain nostalgic resonance -evoking dim and distant echoes of those earliest exposures-, but also awes in terms of its staggering technical achievement; far and beyond any wizardry of framing, camera work and shot composition, the stop-motion nature of the monstrosity meant that even the slightest, subtlest movements, gestures and expressions had to be painstakingly animated over a matter of weeks rather than days or hours; that, combined with the creature’s interaction with live-action elements (such as the Argonauts themselves), its island environment and even other models in the form of a small-scale Argo that it plucks up from the ocean and smashes to splinters, makes it one of the most impossibly brilliant monstrosities set to the screen.
A truly beautiful monster, and one that it is my personal pleasure to open this series with.
This article originally appeared in Dark Moon Digest Issue #27.
George Lea inhabits a state of being slightly removed from the standard that can occasionally be accessed via the UK Midlands (most notably the town of Tamworth). In between his work as a carer for people with mental disabilities, he spends time baking elaborate cakes and scribbling down the insanity that swills around inside his head. He’s of the opinion that if anyone got a good look at that stuff, it would be akin to when one of H.P. Lovecraft’s characters stares into the face of an Elder God. He’ currently involved with the photographer Nick Hardy in a joint project entitled “Born in Blood,” a collection of images and short fiction exploring psychological disease, on the heels of his last collection, Strange Playgrounds.