The beautifully remodeled auditorium of the Detroit Film Theatre has played host this summer to flying saucers, dinosaurs, animated skeletons and Sinbad the Sailor.
These guests have all been part of the DFT’s summer series of Saturday afternoon Creature Double Features that have paired English and Japanese language science fiction films. Highlights of the double bills have included the stop-motion animation of the legendary Ray Harryhausen and the adventures of the rampaging Godzilla.
These afternoons of excitement have also been a fun change of pace for the DFT, which shows some of the most serious films imaginable as part of its evening schedule. Young children have discovered a unique filmgoing experience that includes elegantly sculpted architecture; an airy, sunlit café where they can enjoy pizza, soft tacos and ice cream; and an adventurous and scenic journey to the subterranean restrooms.
The art of film animation was advanced greatly by the special effects magician Ray Harryhausen, who patiently photographed clay models in different positions to create the illusion of movement. When his name appears in the opening credits of these summer DFT movies, the audience applauds loudly and enthusiastically.
On Saturday, July 21, 2007, Harryhausen’s magic brought excitement to the 1958 film The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Mixed in with the human actors were a Cyclops and—most incredibly—a sword-fighting skeleton. As you watched the movie, you felt the delicious excitement of anticipation as you waited for the next Harryhausen creation to burst onto the screen.
Harryhausen’s animation technique built on the stop-motion animation accomplishments of Willis O’Brien, who did the special effects for King Kong (1933), which I saw at the Redford Theatre just the night before (July 20, 2007). At the showing of King Kong, the Redford audience exploded with applause whenever King Kong pounded his chest in triumph.
Probably the best-known current examples of stop-motion animation are the creations of the Aardman Studios. This film company is responsible for the lovable Wallace & Gromit movies, which have been shown at both the DFT and the Michigan Theater.
In the 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Films, Carlos Clarens talks about the international success of the Godzilla movies and writes that “Japan, the only nation on earth to have actually suffered from atomic warfare, has become the world’s foremost producer of filmic holocausts.”
That was certainly the case in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), the second half of the July 21 DFT double bill. The movie climaxed with an island exploding and sinking into the sea, but not until Godzilla battled it out with a giant lobster, and Mothra the giant moth transported some kidnapped natives off the doomed island.
Part of the fun of watching this movie was the imaginative use of obviously miniature sets. It was almost like we were all children again, building imaginary cities out of building blocks, and then tearing them all down.
The movie also made humorous and creative use of different pop culture trends of the mid 1960s. A rock’n’roll dance contest got the film off to a lively start, and the high tech international intrigue was very much like the James Bond movies of that time.
The Japanese film industry has always been one of the most prolific and creative in the whole world. Its long history of moviemaking has provided the DFT with recent film series that have ranged from the careers of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozo, to samurai and science fiction movies.
The DFT Creature Double Features end next Saturday (July 28, 2007), with a double bill of First Men in the Moon (1964) and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). If you’d like to see where George Lucas and Steven Spielberg got some of the inspiration to create Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, here’s your perfect chance, in the ideal setting.
Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.