Hiroshima, meet Ray Harryhausen: in the Cold War years when both the dread and shame of the Bomb haunted America’s linoleum-lined skulls, pulp movies famously explored what it’d feel like to be attacked and overrun by giant, powerful, crazy shit: mutant bugs, aliens, irradiated adults, mythic gargantuas. Stop-motion animator Harryhausen was such an instrumental visionary in this era that he’s since acquired the mantle of auteur, despite never having directed a film. These two iconic nightmares, emanating like smellable fear from the smack-middle of the ’50s, take a simple tack: Imagine our real, complacent, black-white-and-gray Eisenhower world, and then picture its outrageous and irrational destruction—in the first case by a nuclear-test-created behemoth octopus that tears down suspension bridges, and in the second by the classic titular alien spacecraft, which don’t threaten ominously like the one we saw five years earlier in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but laser-incinerate the Capitol building without any debate at all.
Nothing about these two indispensable windows into middle-class postwar discomfort was labor-intensive except Harryhausen’s work. (The scripts were written, it seemed, by studio loiterers, including Hal Smith, famous for years of baritone cartoon voice work for Hanna-Barbera and Disney; he was the original Owl.) Harryhausen’s vivid, alarmingly tactile puppet manipulations are best remembered by an entire generation of postwar psychotronic-movie geeks (like Tim Burton, here gushingly interviewing the aged Harryhausen in DVD supps) as one of the preeminent moments in pop culture, when frame-by-frame F/X—so simple and manual in process, so damnably magical in the viewing—rejiggered one’s burgeoning view of the world. Unlike CGIs, Harryhausen’s homely behemoths obey the same laws of movement that constrain the actors, and inhabit the same space, turf, gravity, and sunlight. Their three-dimensionality is not illusory, and their hesitant, abruptly animalistic, unblurred motions remain qualmy and loaded with frisson. Just ignore the opportunity provided with these lavish DVD packages—each with a second disc of interviews and memories and storyboards and archival effluvia—to toggle between the remastered black-and-white and the moldy-beige Colorized versions; either visit the limbic system of 1955-’56 America for real, or stay home.