Four generic science-types do generic science-y stuff on the wandering planet Nova in this bargain basement sci-fi yarn released through independent Lippert Pictures (The Lost Continent, Rocketship X-M) in the summer of 1955. The eponymous King Dinosaur and his prehistoric pals are a sad sack indeed, a menagerie of decidedly normal animals that only show up to threaten our intrepid astro-nots in the final reel. Essentially just 62 minutes of utter disappointment hiding behind an exploitable title and keen ad campaign, King Dinosaur‘s singular claim to fame is the man who made it all happen – Bert I. Gordon – who not only directed the picture (his first feature in that capacity), but produced, co-wrote, and devised the visual effects for it as well. Gordon’s career would soon come to be dominated by films built around the optical enlargement (and occasional reduction) of both man and beast, leading to at least a few honest B-grade classics along the way. One wonders what might have been lost had King Dinosaur not been there to provide the dubious springboard.
Fortunately we have King Dinosaur, though unfortunately it’s still King Dinosaur.
Written by Tom Gries (The Hawaiians) from a story by Gordon and co-producer Al Zimbalist (Robot Monster, Cat Women of the Moon, Monster From Green Hell and so on), the sum total of King Dinosaur‘s narrative impetus is related in a single slogging 10 minute montage at the start of the show. The key points are hit upon swiftly – the newly-discovered planet Nova has wandered into our solar system, and scientists are naturally eager to investigate. What follows is padding upon padding, with Hollywood narrator extraordinaire Marvin Miller (the voice of Robby the Robot) doing his best to make a stock footage history of an entire space program seem exciting (“Switch on for jet engine test number eighty-seven!“) while the cast silently fidgets with test tubes and technological whatsits. With more than a sixth of the running time already over and done library footage of a V2 rocket test is rolled out, and the film finally migrates to the pristine and distinctly Californian countryside of planet Nova.
While the departure from stock footage hell is welcome, I can’t say that it improves things much. The band of interchangeable explorers (Will Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, and Patti Gallagher, all making the best of the barren material) disembarks from their ill-matted spaceship and romps around in the woods, looking at dirt and occasionally saying science-like things (“An active volcano! This planet is quite young, Pat!“). Drama arrives courtesy of a handful of animal interjections – a python that harmlessly wanders the camp at night, another snake that stupefies one of the female scientists with its horrible tree-sitting, and an unfortunate alligator, which is fallen on and then pretend-fought-with by one of the male leads. More enticing for aficionados of Gordon’s peculiar brand of effects madness is a Jerusalem cricket the size of a Volkswagon bug that appears half-way through the picture, threatening a pair of scientists in truly dreadful traveling matte fashion. Like most of the rest of Nova’s indigenous wildlife, it is shot on sight.
And so the first three quarters of King Dinosaur go. With just fifteen minutes to spare the band decides to cart itself to a desolate, vulture-infested island, and the film’s prehistoric miseries finally begin. While wandering one of the island’s canyons the explorers find themselves at the mercy of one of history’s top predators – a ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, here played by an agitated green iguana with a small horn glued to its snout.
Yes, kids, this is yet another in the long line of dinosaur films that relies on animal abuse for its effects thrills. Nova’s rather Earthly dinosaur king is man-handled into battle first with a young alligator, and later with a tegu, two manufactured conflicts that obviously injured their unwilling participants. When the astronauts seek shelter in a nearby cave the animal wrangler is there, shoving the distressed star iguana’s head into the cave’s miniature entrance. It’s lamentable stuff through and through, to the point that I was actually relieved when the explorers finally escaped, leaving the animal violence (if not the animals themselves) behind.
The final few minutes of King Dinosaur are perhaps its greatest asset, a fever-dream sequence that has the explorers planting an atom bomb (it was handy) on the island and fleeing from a series of increasingly unconvincing horrors. A bus-sized armadillo sends them into hysterics while stock footage of a pursuing mammoth (courtesy of Hal Roach’s One Million B.C.) is made to look a cool hundred or so feet tall. As the explorers reach their dinghy they look back in stark terror at an insert shot of a mata mata turtle creeping along a riverbank. Louis Palange and Gene Garf’s score builds to absurd degrees of overstatement, and the iguana looks on, seemingly wondering at just what the hell is happening. Our “heroes” eventually reach shore, seeking the shelter of a dirt pile just moments before all stock footage hell is unleashed afresh. A mushroom cloud bursts onto the screen, blasting Nova’s prehistoric island (and the Nevada test site…) into oblivion. “We sure have done it,” one of the men says before cracking a smile. “We’ve brought civilization to planet Nova!”
One would be tempted to parse that final statement for meaning if the film were any more interesting, but in the case of King Dinosaur there’s little to do but chuckle at the blind stupidity of it all and move on to better things. Gordon did, after all. His next film, The Cyclops, would repeat some of King Dinosaur‘s regrettable animal abuses, but is still a hoot compared to what preceded it. King Dinosaur went on to be plundered for stock footage (along with One Million B.C.) by the amusing Mexican lost world production La Isla de los Dinosaurios in 1967, and doubtless bored fervent young genre fans half to death in television syndication. There’s really not much else to say. King Dinosaur is the pits.
There are a few DVD iterations of King Dinosaur out there, most notably a cramped (particularly during the “dinosaur” scenes) widescreen offering from VCI and an open matte edition from Retromedia. The screenshots in this review are from the latter, which is mastered from an old tape source with analog glitches to spare. The film doesn’t deserve much better. Buy at your own peril.