Many women have played a role in my life, but I cannot understate how transformative this one was. Meet Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon from the 1981 film Clash of the Titans. In a fantasy filled with Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion marvels, including giant vultures, a owl made of brass, and Pegasus the flying horse, the horrific Medusa is the crowning achievement.
If you remember only one thing about the movie, it's her.
Snarks are quick to attack the "old" Clash of the Titans for its grainy inferior film stock, slow pacing, obvious sets, and chroma effects. This isn't revisionist history - we knew it back then! The flick looked cheap compared to Star Wars. But it created a mood of weighty dread from the very first scene, when a king sacrifices his daughter and grandson to the sea, only to piss off Zeus and be crushed to death while his entire city is destroyed by the Kraken. A couple minutes later, the 20-year-old daughter, having washed up to an island paradise, breast-feeds the infant Perseus. Yep. I love Star Wars and all. But Clash of the Titans has nudity!
Anyway, there's a twenty minute stretch (starting when Perseus first sees the Island of the Dead) that left the young me with a permanent scar from its intensity. Spoilers, but in that time, everyone from Perseus' party is slain, as well as a two-headed wolf, three truck-sized scorpions, the lecherous, treacherous fiend Calibos, and Medusa herself ... and Perseus got to ride in Charron the undead ferryman's boat across the river Styx. What a colossal reel of movie magic!
Even tonight, as I watched the DVD, I saw right through the obvious claymation effects and grainy film stock, and remembered the absolute terror my preteen self felt when Perseus huddled behind the marble pillar ... the camera zooming in on his face three times ... as the snarling monstrosity that was Medusa slid past the stone statues of her former foes, eager to kill him -- and then his brass gladius swung out and decapitated her; a weak scream escaped her now gaping throat as claws flailed about, fingernails scraping the marble pillar on the way down. Her rattlesnake tail continued to shake involuntarily as her torso slumped to the floor, oozing a thick toxic blood that melted Persius' magic shield. The head, with angry eyes still open, rolled near Perseus, and he collected it by the snake-hair without daring to look at her face (as any D&D player will tell you, a Gorgon's eyes can petrify you even after death). Taking a moment to gather his strength, our hero, played by the chiseled-jaw that was young Harry Hamlin, emerged from the red ruins of Medusa's lair into the stark sunlight. Slogging through the ruins of a former temple of Aphrodite, he held aloft Medusa's decapitated head to the world.
A mere man had conquered one Titan, and would use its head to conquer another. I'll never forget how I felt the first time I sat through that scene, the anxiety and fear, the relief and joy; and I relive those emotions each subsequent time. Very early in my life, I decided I needed to share my imagination, my stories to the world. I would reproduce in my audience the same emotional reactions I felt.
Whether I succeeded or not, only you can say. But this cursed old woman, this former beauty of the Ancient Greek world, a priestess to the Goddess of Love who was struck down and turned into a monster ... this lady had a far greater influence on me than did any Shakespeare sonnet or Dr. Seuss book. She was horrific, violent, and awesome, and her death was a triumph of good over evil, of humanity over the inhuman. Big hand for Medusa please! She was a wonderful influence!
P.S., We may see the CGI, oversimplified movies of today and be dismissive, but there are 10-year-olds out there watching them right now and being inspired to create art. They have the same discovery emotions with what we consider crap that we had on what (admittedly) was kinda crappy in its own right. Tell me your folks didn't see you watching the original Clash of the Titans and shake their heads at the junk you wasted your time on. (My grandfather did just that with this very movie once.)
The new version of Clash of the Titans much maligned (and a mistake, in my eyes; the sequel, though, is quite worth a look). Us graybeards will never look at it favorably or see any value in it. Its okay to snark and dismiss the source material. Just don't dismiss the fun feelings kids have for their entertainment! Kids will have seen the new Clash of the Titans and ended up being inspired ... and you never know what that will lead to.