Hammer’s 1970 follow-up to the creature classic One Million Years B.C. (itself arriving on Blu-ray from Kino later this year) will reach Blu-ray from Warner Archive in February. A new master of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth‘s international theatrical version has been minted just for the occasion, which should please fans of the film’s kitchy blend of Academy Award-nominated special effects and anachronistic prehistoric cheesecake.
From Warner’s announcement:
After Raquel Welch conquered the screen in One Million Years B.C., Hammer Studios followed up with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, written and directed by Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment) and based on a story by J.G. Ballard (Crash). Victoria Vetri stars as Sanna, rescued from ritual sacrifice by Tara (Robin Hawdon), a member of a rival tribe. Her survival coincides with the mysterious formation of a new “fire” in the sky: the moon! Sanna’s old tribe blames her for this affront to the sun; Sanna flees their wrath and Tara follows. Their shared adventures loom as large as the giants who once ruled the earth!
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth will receive a BD50 treatment with DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio and English SDH subtitles. The film’s theatrical trailer is the only slated extra.
A trio of naval researchers and an intrepid journalist find themselves lost in a prehistoric oasis after their expedition crash lands while investigating a mysterious warm water region in Antarctica. There they must contend with voracious dinosaurs, killer plants, and one crazed survivalist, all while trying to repair their helicopter before the endless darkness of the Antarctic winter closes in.
An alternately memorable and dull exercise in the sort of Mesozoic “lost world” archetype pioneered by Doyle and Burroughs, and summarily exploited by countless pulp authors of the Amazing Stories era, Universal International’s ambitious sci-fi / fantasy romp The Land Unknown is a film that never quite adds up to the sum of its parts. Penned by frequent television scribe Laszlo Gorog (The Mole People) and directed by former editor and Universal regular Virgil Vogel (Invasion of the Animal People), Land was conceived as a big-deal color affair (a rarity for the William Alland-produced sci-fis), but was produced in more cost-effective monochrome after the pre-production on the expansive prehistoric sets and effects apparatus exceeded the bean-counters’ expectations1. The resulting film, granted a little extra panache by way of Ellis Carter’s (a veteran of Republic serials) stark CinemaScope photography, makes fair use of its considerable effects flash, but is bogged down too early and too often by Gorog’s torpid dramatics. Out of all the science fiction thrillers produced during Universal’s mid-century ‘Golden Age’, this may be the one with the most lost potential.
That’s not to say that The Land Unknown doesn’t have its commendable qualities. With regards to the shear expanse of its fantasy world building it is one of the more impressive of its type and time, fondly recalling the endless studio jungles of RKO’s King Kong. Universal International’s largest production stage was transformed into a convincing primordial forest for the picture, and granted plenty of oppressive tropical atmosphere by a dense and perpetual haze of effects fog. The human cast’s Naval helicopter (seen both full-size and as an impressive large-scale miniature) makes for a tasty juxtaposition, an alienated artifact of the modern industrial age, slick and angular and brazenly artificial, lost in the film’s nightmarish prehistoric enclave.
Less effective than the setting, though certainly memorable in its own right, is The Land Unknown‘s modest menagerie of monsters, realized by effects technicians Jack Kevan, Orien Ernest and Fred Knoth with a considerable assist from the fine special photography of Clifford Stine (Earthquake) and Ray Binger (The Hurricane). A scale Elasmosaurus that terrorizes the (perpetually unprepared) survivors from its lake abode is the most technically ambitious of the lot, a distant forebear to Bruce the Shark that must have been a devil to operate in its own right, though the rigidity of its mechanics prevent it from being as threatening as was perhaps hoped. Providing a lamentable counterbalance are a pair of dueling monitor lizards (billed as “Stegasaurii” in the trailer), whose interjection of real animal violence only serves to provide a cruel and tasteless distraction from the production’s legitimate merits.
Easier to appreciate is The Land Unknown‘s star critter, an anatomically dubious Tyrannosaurus brought to bumbling and improbable life through a rare Hollywood application of the man-in-suit technique2. Like the Elasmosaurus, Rex is a technically ambitious creation, but fails delightfully in both its design and execution. In close-ups the beast’s considerable noggin fares quite well, with its blinking, strangely insectine eyes and massive jaws decked out with sharp and imposing teeth. Full-body shots reveal it to be comically outsized however, absurdly out of proportion with its stubby legs and abbreviated tail. Stine and Binger’s effective process work may put Rex into reliable contact with the human players, but the overwhelming unbelievability of the thing prevent it from being much more than an utter, if lovable, dud.
Still, Rex fares better in any of its appearances than Gorog’s writing, which shambles from one bland development to the next once the film’s promising concept is established. Beef-cake star Jock Mahoney (Tarzan the Magnificent) is a fine choice in so far as the film’s few action-oriented set pieces are concerned, but is given the dubious task of reciting flavorless chunks of scientific exposition and romantic gibberish (the two are often, and dreadfully, one and the same) in the considerable expanses between. William Reynolds (The Thing that Couldn’t Die) and Phil Harvey (The Monolith Monsters) are reliably on board, as a hunky pilot and an unstable technician respectively, while character player Henry Brandon lends some color to the character of Hunter – the alternately crazed / pitiable survivor of a previous Antarctic expedition. As dull and forgettable as the rest of the scripting may be, it’s Gorog’s writing for co-star Shirley Patterson (as Shawn Smith) that proves most disappointing. After a promising introduction as the strong-willed and liberated (“I always like meeting men,” she seductively smirks as she is introduced to the rest of the crew) reporter attached to document the expedition, Gorog proceeds to dismantle the character into little more than a series of predictable tropes. Patterson screams, faints, is fought over by Brandon’s survivor and Mahoney’s crew, and is proven time and again (with much more screaming and fainting) to be too stupid to be trusted to look after herself. Career be damned, by the final reel Patterson’s go-get-’em reporter has devolved into submissive marital fodder for Mahoney’s hero – score one more victory for bare-chested machismo.
Despite the irksome sexual politics, animal violence, and numerous other faults besides, I can’t say that I honestly dislike The Land Unknown. The mechanical monster unleashed by Kevan and his associates are fun and memorable even as their lesser qualities fail them, the jungle sets remain impressive in both design and scope, and that helicopter is one sweet looking piece of machinery. The Land Unknown just never adds up to much more than a handful of promising elements and a lot of forgettable filler. Rex deserved better.
Screenshots were gleaned from Anolis Entertainment’s limited (1000 units pressed) Region B-locked Blu-ray of The Land Unknown, which was released in August of last year. There are a few issues with the HD master used, which was licensed through Universal. Grain textures are obliterated into a bizarre and shimmering noise at a few specific points (the monitor lizard sequence a good example, though only a handful of shots are effected in total), and there appears to have been some sharpening applied otherwise. The overall appearance is quite strong, however, with healthy contrast and crisp detail. Improvement over past editions is considerable both in those respects and in motion, and the 2.35:1-framed transfer (supported by a strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode with minimal artifacts) plays quite well overall. I doubt The Land Unknown will ever have cause to look much better, and fans should be reasonably pleased.
Audio is provided via 2.0 monophonic options in both original English and German dub, both effectively rendered in DTS-HD MA. The English sounds quite good to these ears. Music and effects remain robust throughout, and I noted no significant damage or distortion. The German track is rougher all around, with notable high-end distortion and persistent background noise, and sounds quite flat in comparison to the English option. Optional German subtitles are offered in support of the feature. There are no English subtitle options. Supplements are limited a trailer for the film (English and German, both digital recreations), a considerable HD image gallery, and an HD gallery presentation of the original German film program. The package looks quite nice, with both the on-disc menus and packaging itself built attractively around various key art and still imagery for the film. Anolis’ limited Blu-ray of The Land Unknown is still available through Amazon.de and other outlets, though the price is relatively high (around EUR 20 as of this writing).
Note: The image of the disc menu below was taken with my digital camera and not captured directly from the disc, and as such is not entirely accurate to the appearance of the menu in playback.
1 Interview with actor William Reynolds, from I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-fi Films and Television. (Tom Weaver, 2008).
2 With regards to dinosaurs and their ilk, I can think of only two American productions that applied the technique prior – 1940’s One Million BC, which was so proud of it’s man-sized monster that it obscured it almost entirely with shrubbery, and 1948’s wondrously inept Unknown Island, a two-strip color spectacle whose wobbling, drunken theropods are among the least believable to ever grace the silver screen.
Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel Voyage au Centre de la Terre has been adapted many times for screens both large and small, most often quite badly, but despite some considerable liberties taken with the source material this big-budget adaptation from 20th Century Fox remains the best of the bunch. The (very) big brother to Irwin Allen’s alternately lamentable / lovable sci-fi fiasco The Lost World, Fox’s 1959 production of Journey to the Center of the Earth fills the CinemaScope screen with vivid color spectacle and A-list talent while one of Bernard Herrmann’s best fantasy scores rumbles forth in 4-track stereo. It remains a damn fine show more than half a century on, bolstered by an intelligent, often playful screenplay that still holds up (from Charles The Lost Weekend Brackett and Walter Gaslight Reisch) – it’s no surprise the film made a small mint upon release, and continues to generate royalty checks for its then-young star Pat Boone.
Though substantially altered in its details the narrative here is familiar enough: When the recently-knighted Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, displaying the same charismatic misanthropy that would mark his performance in Kubrick’s Lolita) receives a celebratory paperweight – an unusually heavy chunk of igneous rock – from his star pupil Alec (Pat Boone, whose heart-throb appeal is plundered early and often), he suspects there’s more to the thing than meets the eye. A chance encounter with an overfed laboratory furnace reveals the suspicious rock’s secret. Within lies a plumb-bob upon which is etched the last words of explorer Arne Saknussem, who therein claims to have reached the center of the Earth!
Thus is launched the Lindenbrook expedition, an effort by the Professor and his loyal underling (Boone is, amusingly, billed above Mason) to follow in Saknussem’s footsteps and reach the furthest recesses of the inner Earth. After joining forces with Madame Carla Göteborg (the lovely Arlene Dahl as the freshly widowed wife of a rival scientist), Icelandic strongman Hans (legitimate Icelander Peter Ronson), and his devoted duck Gertrude, the expedition makes its way down into an extinct volcanic crater and through the cavernous interior of the Earth, threatened all the while by hazardous geology, dinosaurs, and a devious heir to the Saknussem legacy who wishes to claim the center of the Earth as his own…
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a matinee-style programmer done in atypically grand style, and one of the few honestly BIG science fiction spectacles of its day (along with Forbidden Planet and the productions of George Pal). While some of the set design is suspect (director Henry Levin and director of photography Leo Tover keep those early cavern interiors dark with good reason) the overall scale of the thing, particularly when the ruins of Atlantis and the expansive mushroom forest make their appearances, and the caliber of the talent involved more than make up for it. Boone no doubt set his young idolaters’ hearts a-twitter, both with his early crooning and later clothing-impaired antics, but for me this has always been Mason’s show. The actor was arguably at the height of his potential here, with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest under his belt and Kubrick’s Lolita within sight, and had already proven his Verneian mettle as the quintessential Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just a few years earlier. Perhaps more important than Mason alone is the convincing tit-for-tat relationship that develops between him and his co-star Arlene Dahl (one of Minneapolis’ own, for any locals reading) – this drama has always worked for me, even as a kid who was accustomed to patiently waiting out the “boring parts” to get to the sensational trappings.
Of course Journey to the Center of the Earth has sensational trappings in spades, including such suspense staples as the ledge walk (soon to be appropriated by Irwin Allen, who evidently thought it the epitome of screen thrills), the giant rolling boulder, and the collapsing rock bridge – this was one of the earlier big-budget efforts to co-opt such B-grade cliffhanger devices, before Lucas and Star Wars made the practice an industry standard. The special effects production is top-notch throughout, with the matte artist(s) proving especially deserving of commendation (the early vistas of Icelandic mountains and later revelation of a vast underground sea are both breathtaking stuff), though, as ever, there is at least one point of contention. Like One Million B.C. and the Flash Gordon serials before it, Journey to the Center of the Earth relies on the deservedly criticized slurpasaur technique to bring its various dinosaurs to life. In this case its a gaggle of rhinoceros iguanas and one rather irate tegu pulling monster duty, though at least the former are cast as morphologically similar Dimetrodons – in the annals of slurpasaur history they are easily some of the most convincing. Fox obviously deemed the monster efforts of Emil Kosa Jr., James B. Gordon and L. B. Abbott to be “good enough” in this respect, as the trio were tasked with the process again just a year later, for Irwin Allen’s The Lost World.
Slurpasaurs or no, Journey to the Center of the Earth‘s tremendous entertainment potential remains, and with a host of wonderful performances, a taught script, and superb production design on its side it stands firmly as one of the best of its type. This is a film that’s captivated me since before I can rightly remember, Pat Boone, dinosaurs, ducks and all, and is more than worthy of recommendation if for that reason alone.
The screenshots for this article were gleaned from Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth, a welcome reissue that benefits very nicely from 20th Century Fox’s fresh 4krestoration of the film. The new master loses the considerable noisiness of Fox’s first HD attempt (the same used for their DVD more than a decade ago), and adds substantially more information at the edges of the CinemaScope frame as well (AR is spot on at 2.35:1). The overall appearance is darker and richer, with precise, saturated colors and subtle grain textures, and in motion it can be very impressive indeed! The matte work and trick photography play better than ever here, even as a wayward technician’s hand or two find their way into the iconic Dimetrodon scene, and that old school Fox production value shines. Technical specs appear sound – Journey to the Center of the Earth receives an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 29.3 Mbps, and unlike the reissue of Fright Night, I noted no significant encoding artifacts.
A very brief comparison between the two discs, old above and new below:
Audio is offered up in two flavors, 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround, both in DTS-HD MA (for whatever reason the film’s 4.0 mix is missing in action). Herrmann’s bellowing score fares well across both, and the extra LFE bump it receives in the 5.1 rendering gives it a positively otherworldly presence. Dialogue and effects can sound quite flat at times in comparison, though that’s endemic to the original production. A set of optional SDH subtitles support the dialogue, and are a welcome addition – I don’t believe Twilight Time’s original release had them. Supplements get a bit of a boost by way of a fresh commentary track, featuring actress Diane Baker as well as historian Steven C. Smith (author of A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann) and filmmaker and TT co-founder Nick Redman. Otherwise the disc sports a theatrical trailer (in standard definition) and a robust isolated score track, accessible through the “setup” options or from your remote. The dual-layer BD50 disc appears to be all region compatible (it played just fine on both my Region A PS3 and Region B secondary deck), and arrives with newly commissioned booklet art and a set of reprinted liner notes from Julie Kirgo.
One would love to see this restoration trotted out again once native 4k discs arrive, but barring that, it’ll be tough to top this edition from Twilight Time. It looks great and sounds pretty damn good as well, and fans of the picture are encouraged to indulge. Journey to the Center of the Earth is a limited production run of 5,000, and is available now through ScreenArchives.com.
Note: Unlike the other shots which accompany this article, the menu image below was taken with my digital camera during playback, and not captured directly from the Blu-ray disc.
Playing as a sort of matinee ready follow-up to 20th Century Fox’s successful production of Journey to the Center of the Earth from 1959, Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is big, colorful, and dumb in more or less equal measure. The screenplay by Allen and frequent collaborator Charles Bennett (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), freely adapted from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel with some allusions to First National’s classic silent version thrown in for good measure, may propel Doyle’s early-century action into more modern times, but the film’s effects production remains positively prehistoric. This is perhaps the slurpasaur epic, second only to Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. in its wholesale embarrassment and abuse of large lizards and others of their ilk. It really is a dreadful show by most measures, a fact only compounded by a stirringly awful turn from Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), but Winton C. Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography and Allen’s own sense for pure stupid spectacle (this may be the genesis of his go-to suspense setup – the ledge) keep it from being a total bore.
The tale begins in London where, shortly after bopping bothersome American newsman Ed Malone (David Hedison) over the head with an umbrella, the imminent and irascible Professor Challenger (the wonderful Claude Rains, horribly miscast) heads to a meeting of the resident Zoological Society to make a shocking announcement: He has discovered an unscalable plateau hidden deep within the forests of the Amazon, a plateau populated by the living descendants of animals thought extinct since the Jurassic Age. In other words, “Live dinosaurs!”
With nothing to show for himself, his photographs and journals having been lost in an accident on the return voyage, Challenger proposes that a new expedition be mounted to his lost world, to be manned by himself, the ZSL’s own Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn, well chosen as Challenger’s condescending professional rival), and two unbiased volunteers. Stepping up to that challenge are Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie!), a renowned big game hunter, explorer, and philanderer and, much to Challenger’s chagrin, reporter Ed Malone, whose boss immediately fronts $100,000 for the expedition’s expenses. With the money and team in order the trip into the Amazon begins, where its roster of personnel quickly bloats beyond all recognition. Aside from the necessary addition of helicopter pilot Gomez (Fernando Lamas!) the expedition takes on useless and slimy local profiteer Costa (character player Jay Novello, wasted in his role) as well as Roxton’s headstrong love interest Jennifer Holmes (a dreadful Jill St. John) and her brother David, the two children of Malone’s wealthy news-baron employer.
Gorged on superfluous humanity, the Challenger expedition hobbles its way to the isolated plateau and, with its helicopter destroyed by a wandering brontosaurus (amusingly, it’s identified by Challenger regardless of his never seeing it), quickly becomes stranded there. Taking refuge in a spacious cave, the team members set out to investigate their surroundings and happen upon an example of the native wildlife of rather a different sort than dinosaurs – the beautiful Vitina Marcus as a mini-dressed tribeswoman. Unfortunately her existence suggests that more of her kind are living on the plateau, and soon the expedition finds itself contending not only with dinosaurs and other giant flora and fauna, but a tribe of monster-worshiping cannibal natives as well…
While several oft-omitted elements of the original novel found their way into this The Lost World in heavily adapted forms, including subplots involving diamonds, capture by natives, and even a dramatic conflict between Roxton and Gomez (in the novel this was the method by which the expedition was stranded, and was replaced by a brontosaurus in the 1925 film – this The Lost World keeps both), those hoping that Allen and Bennet’s writing might stick close to the source should look elsewhere. Indeed, the closest Allen’s production comes to honoring the author’s intentions is to put his name above the title card, which summarily bursts into flames. Perhaps the most grievous wound inflicted upon the material, the inclusion of Frosty the poodle in the character roster excepted, is a love triangle revolving around the dull Jennifer Holmes and the backwards sexual politics that come with it. The Lost World, like many before and since, is another of those films in which a woman tries to prove herself in “a man’s world” only to be happily put in her place by the final reel. The overtly objectified Vitina Marcus doesn’t escape either, being so much eye-candy that the film neglects to even name her. After an attempted rape by the sleazy Costa is thwarted young David pulls Marcus aside. “We’re not all like that,” he assures, before losing all credibility with his follow-up. “You know, you’re kinda nice!”
Ultimately more problematic than their politics is the fact that Allen and Bennet have chosen to populate their The Lost World with a full cast of unlikable characters (not to mention that damned dog). It’s impossible not to like Claude Rains’ as Professor Challenger, miscast though he is in the role of the boorish and confrontational zoologist, and at least Gomez is granted a justifiable reason for being such a jerk. Otherwise this is pretty rough going, compounded by the lackluster quality of the writing itself and Allen’s own uninspired direction. Seemingly at a loss for blocking the action in any interesting way, Allen resorts time and again to having his cast wander into single and double-file lines to fill out the frame. Winton Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography helps to distract from at least some of the deficiencies – Hoch had worked with Allen previously on The Big Circus, and would go on to photograph Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Five Weeks in a Balloon as well as episodes of several of Allen’s television series. More than just an award-winning director of photography, Hoch had helped to develop the three-strip Technicolor process as a lab tech in the 1930s. When it came to color on film he obviously knew his stuff.
Like the majority of Irwin Allen productions the issues of writing and characterization are all secondary to the spectacle of the thing, and The Lost World has spectacle to spare. Aside from the expected encounters with dinosaurs and cave-people Allen also treated audiences to one of his first daring ledge-walks (watch out for those obvious fall-away rocks!) as well as a climactic volcanic eruption and a gaggle of man-eating plants. Though Willis O’Brien receives credit as an effects technician (just what he contributed, if anything, is unclear – sadly this appears to have been his final on-screen credit) his time-consuming stop motion animation process went unused here, and the dinosaurs were instead brought to life through the dubious slurpasaur technique. Used to reasonably good effect in Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth and here managed by the same studio effects techs (L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr.), The Lost World features monitor lizards, iguanas, alligators, and geckos in a variety of rubber appliances. Though close inspection reveals the detail with which the technique was carried out (a lot of work went into matching colors, scale patterns and so forth) it never goes so far as to actually work. Convincing an audience that a Nile monitor topped off with a floppy triceratops’ frill and a stegosaurus’ back plates is anything other than what it looks to be is a losing battle.
The dependence on slurpasaur effects is perhaps the show’s greatest handicap, particularly for modern viewers with higher sensitivity to animal cruelty. There’s little doubt that at least some of the costumed reptiles were outright killed for the production. One is sunk into a bubbling pool and doused with smoldering lava-substitute, while an homage to the star dinosaur battle from One Million B.C. concludes with technicians lobbing the participants over a cliff. These scenes were enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth even as a child, and certainly haven’t grown on me since then. Allen either thought differently or was too much the penny pincher to care, and trotted out this dinosaur footage at every opportunity during his television career. It appeared in everything from The Time Tunnel to Land of the Giants, and Allen even re-cast Vitina Marcus in her familiar cave-girl role for Turn Back the Clock, a season one episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that replays the events of The Lost World wholesale.
So what are we left with after all this? A well-shot but poorly conceived adaptation of a classic novel that’s loaded with unlikable characters and largely dependent on animal abuse for its thrills. This is one of those cases where I should by all rights hate the film, big and stupid and reprehensible as it can be, but for some intangible reason I don’t hate Irwin Allen’s The Lost World at all. Contemporary audiences apparently agreed. Though it received only middling critical attention the modestly budgeted The Lost World made a mint for both Allen and 20th Century Fox upon its release, fast-tracking Allen’s far more substantial (if no less dumb) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and setting the stage for his successful stint as a producer of 60s fantasy television.
The screenshots for this review were gleaned from the Rimini Editions Blu-ray of The Lost World, which was released in France in November of 2014. Aside from a few dupe shots and occasional damage the transfer offered looks quite nice indeed, with robust color, a natural filmic texture, and a decent level of detail besides (for those curious, the disc is sourced from the same HD transfer which is available domestically through Vudu). The single-layer BD25 encode (Mpeg-4 AVC at middling average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps) supports the ‘Scope image surprisingly well, and I noted no artifacts – Allen’s premiere camp opus has never looked better. Note: Per the usual at ExB, these Blu-ray screenshots were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC Media Player and converted to .jpg at a quality setting of 93% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
Audio is available in French DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic or original English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereophonic (the film’s alternate 4-track mix is unaccounted for here), with optional French subtitles (they play by default for the English track, but can be deselected via your remote control). The French dub is pretty dull and flat all around, with the film’s score sounding especially lifeless. The original English track expands significantly in comparison, again, particularly with regards to the score – Sawtell and Shefter’s accompaniment for the Challenger expedition’s approach to the plateau is absolutely lush. Supplements include a pair of French-only video featurettes (the 16′ Dinosauria!, an interview with paleontologist Jean Le Loeuff, and the 22′ Le Monde Fantastique de Conan Doyle, which has cinema historian Christophe Champclaux discussing the author’s impact on film, but with only a late token nod to the Allen production) as well as a rough 52′ presentation of the 1925 silent version of The Lost World (SD, looking much like the public domain copies I grew up on) and an original theatrical trailer (SD again). While more with regards to the Allen production would have been nice (like an HD upgrade of the production sketches included on the American DVD) I can’t argue that it honestly deserves it, and that anything at all was included is much appreciated.
Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is as big, dumb, and wonderful as ever on this latest revisitation, and those looking to see the film in the best of possible presentations (I’d ask why, but this is my fourth copy of it…) need look no further than the Rimini Editions Blu-ray. Though marked with an ominous B, this appears to be all region compatible, and played just fine (feature, menu, supplements and all) on my Region A-locked Playstation 3. The disc is readily available from Amazon France and elsewhere, though I’d recommend shopping around – Amazon.it and Amazon.es often have it for less.
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.
“It resembles a Tyrannosaurus Rex, of Earth’s prehistoric age!”. . . Or not.
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.