Saturday Monster Matinee: Virgil Vogel’s ‘The Land Unknown’

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.

An example of the weirdness exhibited in the background texture of some shots. Click for uncompressed PNG.
An example of the weirdness exhibited in the background texture of some shots. Click for uncompressed PNG.

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 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. 


Blu-rayPack001 Blu-rayPack002 Blu-rayPack003

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.

MOSS Swap Meet: The Hell (1982)

Do you like movies about hell? Sure, who doesn’t!

This month a certain Mysterious Order is engaging in a review swap meet, and you can find my entry cluttering up the hallowed halls of Teleport-City. It’s about pain and suffering and filial duty, but mostly it’s about a giant man-eating hell-ogre with ping-pong balls for eyes. It’s Law Chi’s inimitable The Hell, and you’ll find it at the other end of this link.


Byzantium (2013)

Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (based on a script by Moira Buffini that doesn’t feel stagy at all despite being based on her stage play) is the kind of film that really needs quite a different writer than I am to be properly appreciated. A shot-by-shot analysis combined with a deep thematic exploration seems rather appropriate, but that’s neither a thing I do, nor a thing I’m particularly good at, nor a thing I am even usually interested in.

What I can do, though, is to swoon a bit about what I think is the best film I’ve seen to have come out in 2013. I might throw around words like masterly, even. Now, before anyone thinks I have been struck by a case of director fandom, I’m not even that much of an admirer of the body of work of Neil Jordan as a whole, because for every properly brilliant movie he makes (like Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves, obviously), there are two pieces of self-important dross that just aren’t as clever as they think they are in his filmography. And don’t even get me started on the waste of properly sexy history that is The Borgias or his other vampire movie, the execrable Interview with the Vampire. This fluctuation between the horrible and the sublime makes the director much more difficult to adore than someone who makes mediocre and brilliant films in equal measure. On the plus side, one gets the feeling that Jordan’s failures have never been caused by a lack of ambition or an inability to change.

Be that as it may, with Byzantium, Jordan takes not a single false step throughout nearly two hours of film – and this is a film that really needs the time it takes – with moment of subtly breathtaking filmmaking followed by moment of subtly breathtaking filmmaking followed by moments of not at all subtle yet still breathtaking filmmaking. This is a film that not just oozes style in a very deliberate way, knows which shots to frame like a painting and which ones not to, builds a non-realist mood of contemporary grime with as sure a hand as it does provide some beautifully gothic excess; it is also a film that does nothing of it without a reason. In fact, there’s a calm purpose to every shot and every camera movement, all of it not just made to impress with its beauty but always bearing the weight of character, theme, and mood without ever making it look like a weight.

At the very same time, Byzantium never uses its visual style to overwhelm its actors, always giving them as much space as they need. And, given how great Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton and their supporting cast are, one can’t help but imagine them paying the film’s care back in style. While some of the basic character set-up might seem a little obvious, even clichĂ©d, on paper, the actors as well as the script provide subtlety and life quite on the level with what Jordan is doing around them, with so many suggestions of complexity I soon forgot that not every idea here is new to vampire media of any kind. It is, after all, not just the ideas which matter but also how you bring them together and execute them.

Thematically, Byzantium is as rich as its visuals and its acting are. This is, of course, in part a story about growing up given an ironic twist by the nature of its main characters, as well as a story about the need to change even when you are supposedly changeless. Yet there are also undercurrents of moral failures perpetuating themselves cyclically, of the impossibility to keep one’s hands clean when one wants to survive as a monster or as a human being until one doesn’t even want to keep one’s hands clean anymore, as well as an exploration of the lies people tell themselves about their natures to be able to live with themselves. There is, obviously, also a feminist and even a class-conscious aspect to a story that shows the vampires as a boy’s club that really doesn’t want any of those icky girls in them, particularly not ones from the lower classes. Which somewhat comes with the territory of a group whose members have been born centuries ago and clearly want and need to control their environment as far as possible. In this context, the film’s women can’t help but represent change and a different way of life – everything the male vampires fear – to them, quite independent of who these women actually are, and how much of the way theyhave to lead their lives is a survivor’s reaction to the pressures coming from the men around them. One of the really masterful aspects of the film is that it contains all this and more and never feels overloaded or as if it were trying too hard.

Another aspect of Byzantium I particularly admire is its willingness and ability to change from its semi-realist mode into Gothic fullness and back again without selling any of it short. In fact, the film achieves some of its greatest impact by the collision of the two modes, and by never quite keeping them apart for long, as if both ways at looking at the world were in the end just sides of the same coin.

Quite surprisingly in a film this unashamed of its Gothic melodrama, it also has a sense of humour about it all, a sense of humour which – again – never diminishes the rest of what’s going on, particularly since it has a wonderful grip on the closeness between humour and horror, and a cast willing and able to sell this, too.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

ć€§è›‡çŽ‹ / King of Snake (1984)

King of Snake coverAfter producing a few fantasy efforts like Tsu Hong Wu and Monster From the Sea in the decade prior, the middle 1980s saw the Taiwanese film industry make one more go at that particular brand of giant monster cinema indigenous to the Japanese islands. With Toho in the midst of their own daikaiju resurrection at the time the genre may have seemed a safe bet to producers, but 1984’s King of Snake doesn’t look to have made much of an impact either domestically or internationally, where a pair of VHS releases in Japan (where the film’s SFX production generated some small interest) are the sum total of its reach. Like any number of cheaply licensable features from Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and elsewhere, King of Snake was swallowed up by Joseph Lai’s infamous IFD and regurgitated in cinemas and on video, in this case as 1988’s inept gweilo epic Thunder of Gigantic Serpent.

Oddly enough, it’s as the foundation for Thunder of Gigantic Serpent that King of Snake has gained the most notoriety, with its more or less competent giant monster effects providing a bizarre counterpoint to Thunder‘s bottom dollar action scenes. Beyond Thunder‘s modest cult reach King of Snake has remained rather obscure, and not without good reason. King‘s off-balance blend of giant monster rampage, children’s fantasy, and violent mob action have effectively left it a film without an audience, at once too grim for the young and too childish for the old – pity the poor souls tasked with advertising it when new.

Penned by Yiu Hing-Hong (Bruce Lee Against Supermen), King of Snake begins with a successful test of the new R19 process (a big plexiglass box with some wires in it), whose developer (Danny Lee!) hopes to put it towards ending global hunger. The military has its own ideas however, and the General overseeing the project (Paul Chang Chung, The Fast Fists) quickly shifts the project towards militarization. The lead scientist resigns in outrage, while the other researchers begin using the R19 process to make everyday things gigantic – something that’s bound to go well for everyone in the end. Unfortunately for all involved the mob has its eye on the R19 project as well, and soon a gaggle of hitmen descend upon the research lab in an attempt to snatch the device for themselves. A firefight ensues and most of the lab staff are killed, but the R19 device is successfully kept out of mob hands.

All is not well, however. The R19 box quickly finds its way to the curious Ting Ting (a very young Tracy Su Hiu-Lun, You and Me), a girl whose best friend is an intelligent, head-nodding rat snake. Ting Ting decides the box will make the perfect home for her slithery little buddy Mosler, and is even more thrilled when it balloons the critter into a beast a dozen or so feet long. The monster Mosler helps Ting Ting win in competitions against the local boys and even saves her from a burning building, but mob goons on the hunt for the R19 soon come a-knockin’. After beating up Ting Ting’s parents (nothing says “children’s entertainment” like seeing your dad with a gun in his mouth!) and kidnapping the girl the mob sets an electrified trap for the incensed Mosler, but all doesn’t go to plan. The current causes Mosler to grow positively tremendous, and soon the Godzilla-scale snake is trampling everything in its path in pursuit of its beloved Ting Ting…

Mosler and his giant monster antics are easily King of Snake‘s most commendable feature, and offer plenty of reasonable miniature and composite effects shots for those SFX traditionalists out there who are looking for a quick fix. King‘s distinct tokusatsu feel arrives courtesy of effects supervisor YAJIMA Nobuo, a soon-to-be Toei effects director who had been working on television and film projects for the company since the 1960s (including planning on SATO Hajime’s unrealized monster project Devil Manta). While his work here is hardly tops for his career, it’s generally not bad. Say what you will for Mosler himself, but his rampage arrives with plenty of explosive glitz and some decent miniature construction besides, with only an ill-advised model train being truly embarrassing. Less encouraging is King of Snake‘s reliance on stock footage at a few key points, where cropped footage from Gorath and scope material from Tidal Wave and Mothra (this film is native 1.85:1) is crudely incorporated. The climactic jet assault on Mosler is limited by this issue as well, as Yajima’s perfectly competent miniature effects are needlessly fluffed with incongruous scope footage of tanks firing.

While the SFX aspect of King of Snake is fun enough, it takes up far too small a chunk of the running time. The rest is devoted to the film’s bland scramble of plot, which splits its time pretty evenly between dull romantic walk-abouts, mob violence, and Ting Ting’s home life before devolving into extended scenes of the kidnapped girl repeatedly calling out to her serpentine savior. All those plaintive cries of, “Mosler! Mosler!” aside it’s really not that bad. It’s just neither engaging or amusing, which leaves King of Snake feeling a pretty tiresome slog whenever its eponymous star isn’t smashing into something.

And that, I imagine, is a big reason why King of Snake has remained so obscure in the nearly 30 years since it was made – aside from the monster kicks there’s really not much entertainment value here. It almost pains me to say this about the awful retrofit granted it by Joseph Lai’s IFD, but it’s loads more fun, presenting all the neat monster stuff as-made while replacing much of the mob drama with dreadful, hysterical white-guy crime drama all its own. Thunder of Gigantic Serpent is a great time for those with a taste for such things, but King of Snake is pretty “meh” regardless. At least the score is kind of interesting, though not for any legitimate reason. True to form for so many Taiwanese films of the time, King of Snake appropriates music from all over the place, including Once Upon a Time in the West, Big Trouble in Little China, and even Gerry Anderson’s UFO!

King of Snake has no official domestic video release, and the long out-of-print WOO Video VHS tape remains the best quality presentation of it around. That tape arrives with no English option and hardcoded Japanese subtitles, but presents the film at its intended 1.85:1 in a decent video transfer. A later edition from AVA Nippon is more common, but seems to suffer from some generational degradation in comparison to the WOO Video. Those interested in either should keep an eye out on Yahoo Auctions Japan. The WOO Video edition goes under the titleÂ ć€§è›‡çŽ‹: HONG KONG掩棊たćșæ›Č (King of Snake: Overture of Hong Kong’s Collapse), while the AVA Nippon has it renamedÂ ć€§è›‡ć€§æˆŠ (Python Wars). The source transfer is the same for each (only the video-generated title before the show is different), and the images above are taken from the WOO Video edition. A cropped and English subtitled version from a far worse source is shared below, for those crazies among you who don’t want to spend your time and money tracking down 25 year old Japanese video tapes. In this case I really can’t blame you.

ëč„ìČœêŽŽìˆ˜ / Bicheongoesu: The Flying Monster (1984)

posterFlyingMonsterThis article was originally published as “The Flying Monster” at Wtf-Film in August 2010, and now seems as good a time as any to resurrect it. There is still no official copy of the film to recommend to those curious, but a trailer has been made available online by the Korean Film Archive (who also hold the film’s surviving 35mm elements) and a clip is available on Youtube.

If there’s one thing that I always find myself thinking in the midst of a Korean monster movie experience, it’s that whatever is on screen is certainly not what I was expecting. From the unnecessary rectal bleeding of Yongary, Monster From the Deep to Pulgasari’s unintentionally ironic anti-oppression narrative to Craig Robinson and Robert Forster’s supporting roles in the awful Dragon Wars and so on, there’s always something there to defy my assumptions about what should or should not be happening at any given time. 1984’s The Flying Monster, directed by veteran Jung-yong Kim, happily carries on in that tradition though, as ever, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The story, such as there is one, concerns a monster-obsessed paleontologist who, after his theory of monster resurrection (or something) is ridiculed by mainstream science, escapes to the Korean coast. There he spends his time wandering around and making goofy faces, looking for monster eggs so that he can destroy them before they hatch and cause trouble. A young female reporter poses as a maid to gain access to the paleontologist and finds herself growing unexpectedly close to his daughter, who is still very sad about the loss of her mother some time before.

Things become a bit complicated when monsters come crawling out of the woodwork, sinking ships, squishing people and stomping all over who-knows-what city. Eventually the monsters are all defeated (I think), and the paleontologist, his daughter and the reporter head off to make a happy family of themselves.

The Flying Monster seems to have been aimed at children, though I can’t be certain as I don’t understand a lick of Korean. All I know for sure is that its dramatic aspects are very, very strange. Interjected into the story described above is an entirely pointless subplot about what can best be described as a hillbilly, a robustly proportioned sleaze-ball in overalls and a dirty t-shirt, who keeps trying to molest the female reporter, at first by wallowing on her while she’s on a bus and later making a pass at her as she sleeps, for reasons unknown, in a tent on the paleontologist’s front lawn.

But even the supposedly normal central plot is handled in ways that just aren’t normal at all. Worthy of special notice is a bonding moment between the reporter and the paleontologist’s daughter in which they dance, awkwardly and at length, to Tony Basil’s Hey Mickey!, which I can only assume is used here without license (this doesn’t look like the kind of film that had the money to pay for pop songs, but I could be wrong). Then there is the later moment in which the reporter is, somehow, knocked unconscious. The paleontologists’s daughter responds by filling her mouth with water and then spitting it into the reporter’s mouth. Adorable!

With regards to the monster stuff, of which there is much, The Flying Monster is quite the misnomer. Rather than there being just one monster to contend with there are many, which rise from the sea and fall from the sky and creep up from pretty much everywhere else imaginable. There is no rhyme or reason to the attacks themselves, which arrive out of the blue and are over just as suddenly. A monster appears, stuff is smashed, and the military swoops in to blow the monster to smithereens – rinse and repeat. Involvement by the cast is minimal, for reasons that will become obvious momentarily, and generally amounts to someone ‘seeing’ a monster and reacting inappropriately. The reporter and the paleontologist’s daughter are prone to smiling at them, while the paleontologist himself huddles in a monster’s footprint and sleeps for a couple of scenes.

As for the footage itself, I’m not convinced that there is a single frame of original special effects material in the entire movie, a few terribly brief shots of full-scale monster feet excepted. The majority of the material looks to be sourced from various Tsuburaya series, notably Ultraman, The Return of Ultraman and Ultraman Ace (a cursory glance at some monster lists helped me identify Pestar, Seamons, Seagorath, Terochilus, Bernstar and Velokron, though I know there are others I’m missing). Perhaps the strangest of the lifted material is anamorphic footage of the gold and green dragon fight from the Taiwanese fantasy effort Monster From the Sea, which had already been repurposed for both Sea God and Ghosts and Fairy and the Devil.

No real attempt is made to merge the stock monster material and the newly produced drama, and the whole mess spliced together with wild abandon.  There is no segues between the two material extremes – one moment people will be talking about this or that, the next some god-awful thing is sucking on a fuel storage tank.  Taken as a whole the experience is more than a little off putting, like being trapped watching television with someone who keeps flipping channels between daytime soap operas and tokusatsu re-runs.

While released to VHS in the late ‘80s in its native Korea, The Flying Monster has had no representation on domestic home video, ever. Surprising, I know. Given its status as an international licensing nightmare, plundering three series’ worth of Ultraman monsters and Taiwanese dragon footage of uncertain ownership, not to mention its oddball usage of Hey Mickey!, I doubt that’s going to change anytime soon. Even if it were to suddenly become available I would be hard pressed to recommend it. The Flying Monster is for die-hard kaiju completists only.


ă‚Šăƒ«ăƒˆăƒ©Q Episode 1: ギメă‚čを怒せ! / Defeat Gomess!


Legendary prehistoric monsters interrupt a tunneling operation in this, the first episode of Tsuburaya Productions’ seminal tokusatsu television series Ultra Q (ă‚Šăƒ«ăƒˆăƒ©Q). Tsuburaya’s series may not have been the first to bring giant monster thrills to Japanese television screens (it was preceded by the obscure 1960 series Monster Marine Kong / æ€Ș獣マăƒȘンコング), but it was certainly the first to do so with a cinematic flair to rival its big-screen Toho-produced contemporaries. Ultra Q was the most expensive Japanese television project of its time, and unlike its Ultra successors (which filmed in 16mm color) it captured its ambitious special effects thrills in crisp and stylish 35mm monochrome. The result is one of my favorite shows of its type, a series in the vein of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits (another longtime personal favorite) whose subject matter always caters to the fantastic, and is often downright monstrous.

Produced 12th but aired on Janurary 2, 1966 as Ultra Q‘s introductory episode, Defeat Gomess (ギメă‚čを怒せ!) follows regular series protagonists – pilot, sci-fi writer, and mystery-hound Jun, co-pilot and understudy Ippei, and news photographer Yuriko (SAHARA Kenji, SAIJÔ Yasuhiko, and Ultraman‘s SAKURAI Hiroko respectively) as they investigate the strange goings-ons at a rail expansion project. One worker (ÔMURA Shinkichi!) has been driven to hysteria, claiming to have seen a monster in the tunnel the project is excavating, and a gigantic egg has been unearthed as well. A child privy to paleontology and local folklore, producing an ancient scrawl as evidence, offers the answer. The egg belongs to the prehistoric bird Litora, a creature destined to defend against the beastly Gomess, who has now been unearthed by the excavation. As the monstrous Gomess terrorizes the construction project, trapping Jun and Yuriko in the tunnel before digging its way outside, Ippei and the child make a desperate effort to awaken Litora, that it might fulfill its fateful purpose.

With only 24 minutes at its disposal Defeat Gomess! gets to the point and fast, tersely developing its mystery before devolving into wholesale monster mayhem. I certainly can’t complain. While Ultra Q had excellent talent at its disposal, frequently featuring cameos from notable Toho players in addition to its main cast, the real star of the series is its ambitious effects work – Defeat Gomess! is a prime example. In addition to some fine process photography to provide the necessary scale, the relatively small size (by daikaiju standards) of the episode’s warring monsters led to some impressive large-scale miniatures of the construction site, all of which are properly demolished in the ensuing scuffle. The monsters are accomplished through the usual methods of suitmation, wire-work, and puppetry, and to as good an effect as in the films of their time. Gomess may prove a sticking point for some, though I love him to bits. The role saw classic Godzilla performer NAKAJIMA Haruo donning some familiar digs – a heavily reworked version of the King of the Monsters’ ’64 suit, out on loan from Toho. Decked out in tusks and horns and with a new scaly hide in place of its trademark dorsal spines, Gomess has gone on to become an iconic character in its own right, memorable for its status as the first Ultra-monster if nothing else. The critter was written to reappear in the later Ultra Q episode The Rainbow’s Egg (è™čăźć”), but the unavailability of the source Godzilla suit – which had been returned to Toho by that time – led to the scrapping of that idea in favor of the new monster, Pagos (another refurbished suit, this time a reworking of the oft-reused Baragon).

Defeat Gomess! premiered to good ratings, raking in 26.5% of viewers in the greater Kanto area and 32.2% in Tokyo itself. I don’t find it unreasonable to imagine that a young KANEKO Shusuke may have been watching, every moment of Ultra Q‘s monstrous shenanigans indelibly imprinting itself on his 10 year old mind. The notion of monsters steeped in local lore and fated to do battle is a fixture of his ’90s Gamera series and his 2001 Godzilla outing as well, and one wonders if that notion might not have found its germinal inspiration right here.

Ultra Q was extensively restored and released to Blu-ray by Tsuburaya and Bandai Visual in 2011-12 in both original black and white and new colorized form – transfer and restoration was handled by Point.360, while the colorization was done by Legend3D (formerly Legend Films). The results of each speak for themselves, and are sampled in alternating fashion below. Individual volumes of Ultra Q on Blu-ray are now available in Japan, with the final two (of eight) releasing later this month.

Supplements on Volume 1 include the documentary Challenge to the Year 1966 (mostly in English!) on the series’ restoration and colorization, as well as textless opening credit montages for the three episodes (b&w or color), and teleplays for each presented as HD image galleries. Audio is Japanese in original monophonic or remixed stereo, both in uncompressed LPCM. Each episode is available in monochrome or new color, and encoded in Mpeg-4 AVC with average bitrates hovering between 26 (monochrome) and 30 (color) mbps. No English audio or subtitles are included on the dual-layer all region disc, and the volume commands a typically high price point (around $45).

A recent American DVD release from Shout! Factory, which licensed the series from Chaiyo by way of Golden Media Group, utilizes older masters of dubious quality and includes none of the Tsuburaya-produced supplemental content, but is both cheaper and subtitled.

The Harryhausen Legacy: Mysterious Island (1961)


1961â€Čs Mysterious Island begins with one of the great scenes of fantasy-adventure cinema. Imprisoned by Confederate forces in the midst of the Siege of Richmond near the end of the Civil War, Union Captain Cyrus Harding and his underlings, freed slave Corporal Neb and the cowardly Herbert Brown, decide to make a daring escape by the unlikely means of an observation balloon. With Union war correspondent Gideon Spillet and Confederate operator Pencroft in tow the men escape their cell and commandeer the balloon, only to launch themselves into the midst of ‘the greatest storm in American history’. Aloft for days and trapped on a steady course Westward, the escapees are savaged by weather and circumstance until the balloon itself finally gives way, ripping under the pressure of gale-force winds and plunging its crew towards the tumultuous Pacific and a mysterious, uncharted speck of land.

Buoyed by the descending bass and percussive clash of one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest fantasy scores, I remember thinking that this sequence was the most suspenseful, thrilling thing I had ever seen when I first chanced upon the film as a young child. The idea of these men, casting themselves out into the elements toward some unknown, foreboding locale was harrowing stuff, and as their epic adventure unfolded I was filled with dread excitement. As they dangled from the balloon’s rigging over a seething sea I wondered with fatal curiosity, how would they survive, and who among them? And what if they did make it to that strange island. What then?

Of course Captain Harding and his rag-tag band of castaways do make it to the island, and what follows is a potent mix of survival adventure, science fiction, and fantasy that thrills me just as much today as it ever has. Mysterious Island may follow the Vernian adventure on which it is based with only a middling accuracy, condensing and consolidating its events in an economical fashion and taking some pretty judicious liberties with it along the way, but it’s tough to complain when such diversions include the lovely Beth Rogan and her abbreviated lace-up goatskin dress (the height of Victorian fashion, I’m told). Oddly enough it’s one of the film’s many deviations from source that has gone on to make the film so beloved as it is – a sci-fi plot thread that could almost be of Bert I. Gordon’s invention, but which is elevated to the level of pulp genius under the creative auspices of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Though with some obvious variation, Mysterious Island actually follows the basic circumstances of Verne’s story quite faithfully. Captain Harding and his fellows find themselves castaways on an uninhabited volcanic island, and are forced to allay those philosophical differences that plagued them in the civilized world so that they might join forces to survive. Through human ingenuity the five manage to scrounge together a rather satisfying existence, feasting on the island’s often bizarre fauna and taking up permanent residence in a comfortable cliff-side cave they call Granite House. Along the way they are aided by unlikely coincidences, like the discovery of a trunk loaded with supplies – tools, weapons, and even a copy of The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. After a brief tangle with cutthroat pirates ends in the inexplicable destruction of the pirate vessel the source of the coincidences is revealed. The island is the home port of none other than Captain Nemo, who was thought lost in a maelstrom some years before. With his submarine Nautilus inoperable Nemo was forced to continue his mission for global peace from the confines of the island and its surrounding waters, stalling his terrorist action against the world’s military fleets in favor of eradicating of the root causes of human strife through scientific invention.

Though ostensibly escapist adventure, there are some underlying themes in Mysterious Island that, though largely ignored today, must have held broad appeal in a time of Cold War and civil rights unrest. Nary half a decade after Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education Mysterious Island prominently features an African American (a freed slave fighting for the Union, no less) with the same rights and privileges as his white peers – a fixture of Verne’s novel granted a newfound timeliness in the film adaptation. Indeed, the screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur also simplifies the politics of the Civil War, purposefully conflating its noble struggle to free men with the contemporary Civil Rights Movement. In the context of an ongoing Cold War, Mysterious Island offers the hope of reconciliation among political ideologies by virtue of the relationship between Captain Harding and Confederate soldier Pencroft, each of whom begin the film as a prisoner of the other only to set aside their philosophical differences for a greater good. So, too, does the character of Nemo offer hope, in converting a destructive weapon (the submarine Nautilus) into a tool for peace – if contemporary science could create the atomic and hydrogen bombs that threatened the world, then perhaps it had the power to save the world from them as well.

All that said, Mysterious Island is still ostensibly an escapist adventure with overtones of fantasy and science fiction, and that which lends it thematic weight also serves as a catalyst for some of its most exciting moments. Captain Nemo’s efforts to eradicate human suffering through science have left his island teeming with an assortment of gigantic flora and fauna, from harmless overgrown plants and oysters to the giant crabs, honeybees and flightless birds that threaten the existence of Harding and his castaways. It’s a plot thread concocted purely to take advantage of the talents of effects artisan Harryhausen, who had more or less perfected his stop motion process (now touted as Dynamation) with the color spectacle The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In 1961 Harryhausen was at the top of his game, precisely blending live-action back and foreground plates with his meticulously crafted stop motion armatures to create spectacular special effects scenes that even the more obscenely budgeted epics of the time couldn’t match.

In Mysterious Island his work feels like a response to the big bug pictures that had been so popular in the years just prior, with Harryhausen answering the poor travelling matte grasshoppers of Beginning of the End and the monolithic composited arachnid of Tarantula! with a few gigantic creepy crawlies of his own. In the film’s most famous sequence, stills of which populated no end of children’s monster books in my youth, Harding and his crew are forced to do battle with an enormous land crab – a scene which concludes with the castaways dining on the beast after it falls into a hot spring. Truer to the giant bug pedigree are a host of car-sized honeybees, which trap young heartthrob Michael Callan and hottie Beth Rogan in the mother of all honeycombs. Later on Harryhausen takes a moment to reference both Verne’s giant squid and his own past work, as a walk on the sea floor leads to a life-and-death struggle with a colossal chambered nautilus. More than just an homage to the sensational squid attack from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, itself entering film history in Disney’s spectacular adaptation, the creature design closely resembles that of one of Harryhausen’s own creations – the mammoth city-smashing cephalopod of 1955â€Čs It Came From Beneath the Sea.

Aside from Harryhausen’s considerable stop-motion talents, Mysterious Island also serves as a colorful showcase for all manner of practical visual effects techniques. Filmed partly on gorgeous coastal Spanish locations and partly on the sound stages of England’s Shepperton Studios, Mysterious Island bridges the considerable gaps between A and B and expands its fictional locale with exceptional matte paintings, composite and miniature work. Indeed, the epic balloon escape that so thrilled me as a child is accomplished through a succession of opticals and process shots, the transparency of which do nothing to impede the experience. With modern expectations in mind there is the temptation to label such vintage effects methods as crude or unrealistic, but as I grow older I become more acutely aware of just how overrated realism is in cinema – especially with regards to such overtly fictional stuff as this. While there’s a concerted effort by the technicians to ensure that the various mattes and miniatures match to the scale sets and locations the effects themselves are more suggestive than literal, the cinematic equivalent of the illustrated plates published in the stories and novels that came before. As such I’d suggest that those tempted to question the methods by which human conflicts with gigantic arthropods and impossible transcontinental balloon trips are related are perhaps missing the point of the experience, and would do well to occupy their time elsewhere.

For my money Mysterious Island is fantastic, beautiful stuff, and a pitch-perfect example of the lost art of fantasy filmmaking as it once was. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than fifty years since it originally premiered, but the taught direction of Cy Endfield (Sands of the Kalahari, Zulu) and a screenplay that’s both wittier and more substantial than I remember have certainly helped it to age more gracefully than it might have otherwise. Much as the novel from which it was (freely) adapted has become a classic of literature, Mysterious Island deserves its place as classic of cinema escapism. For those keen on the rousing genre excursions of old it’s an absolute must-see.


Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)

A long time ago, a secondary world fantasy continent was kept under the thumb of the exceedingly evil followers of the Book of Vile Darkness, a tome made of bits and pieces of an evil necromancer. This reign of terror ended when a new order of knights, the Order of the New Sun arose, blessed by the powers of the god of light. The knights freed the lands, and, while they didn’t manage to destroy the Book, they did force its few remaining followers to split they book apart and hide it away.

During the course of the following centuries, with their goal fulfilled, the Order of the New Sun descended in importance and power. At the beginning of the film, none of its knights have been blessed with godly powers for eight hundred years, and the Order has been reduced to a handful of people. Just after young Grayson (Jack Gerges) has been initiated into the Order – of course without any resulting supernatural powers – a band of evildoers slaughters what’s left of the order and kidnaps Grayson’s father. Our hero doesn’t know it, but it’s all part of a plan to find the remaining pieces of the Book of Vile Darkness, and create it anew.

Grayson barely makes it out alive, and swears to do anything to rescue his father. “Anything” in this case means the young man goes undercover with a small party of evildoers led by the witch Akordia (Eleanor Gecks) who are out looking for the cover to the Book. Soon, Grayson’s virtues are put to the test, his oath of chastity threatened by a certain witch, and he just might realize he carries rather more darkness inside himself than he expected. On the positive side, Akordia grows rather fond of him, which just might become helpful when Grayson’s plans start going awry.

It’s a bit ironic that the third Dungeons & Dragons movie, which was after all produced for our dear friends of SyFy by the same companies who made the – not quite as horrible as the first one, yet still pretty bad – second D&D film, and even was directed by the very same Gerry Lively, turns out to be rather fun. On paper made-for-TV movies are a step down from direct-to-video films, after all, even though the borders between both have begun to dissolve increasingly in the last decade or so.

It’s best I’ll qualify the word “good” here right at the beginning, for The Book of Vile Darknessis certainly made for an audience willing and able to suspend their disbelief regarding a fantasy world full of characters dressing like (good) LARPers, sometimes cheesy melodramatics that fit the generally melodramatic acting style (which again fits D&D, and I do mean that as a compliment), and dialogue that can be sharp and funny, yet at other times sounds as tinny as an old shellac record. I guess if you can say the film’s title three times without giggling or rolling your eyes, you’re a) like me and b) perfectly able to actually enjoy this.

Personally, I find myself enjoying the seriously played cheesiness of the whole affair in particular, and see the melodramatics as a way for the film to demonstrate how seriously it takes itself. In fact, I don’t think secondary world fantasy can work on the movie screen without a film treating all its sillier elements with dignity and quite as a matter of fact; irony does not build worlds. Why, yes, of course evil people dress in black, have sex, tattoos and piercings and like long philosophical speeches about the appropriateness of their alignments! And make no mistake here, writer Brian Rudnick does clearly know how D&D’s alignment system works and just as clearly realizes how much of a shame it were if he didn’t use it. Having respect for one’s source material is of utmost importance for a movie like this.

The film’s core character developments are deeply grounded in the alignment system, but they’re also constructed flexibly enough to produce Book of Vile Darkness’s main message, namely that your “virtue” isn’t much of a thing to be proud of if you never had any reason not to be virtuous; it’s also a nice change for the fantasy genre in its incarnation on screen that Book does seem to realize not all evil aligned people would be raving maniacs, nor see themselves as “evil” as much as following a violently libertarian philosophy (the jerks!). So, just like real libertarians.

Obviously, Book of Vile Darkness is rather darker than its predecessors, with a hero who will even stoop as low as murder by poison (including a use of a Bag of Holding right out of a slightly out of control tabletop session) – clearly, he’s Chaotic Good at best – and a pleasant sense for the bizarre. The latter is demonstrated via elements like a prehensile eyeball (which is awesome, if I even have to explain that), an – decidedly creepy looking – undead child nourished by negative emotions and evil yet poisoned by love and compassion, or the Book of Vile Darkness (do I love writing the phrase? Yes I do.) needing to be written with the pain of someone with a pure heart. If you have played less RPGs than I have, you’ll also find scenes like the one where a helpful prostitute brings Grayson (a stupid name for a hero, but what can we do?) into an RPG-typical shop for magic items that is about as mystical as a supermarket rather strange. Yes, I’ll take that Bag of Holding, this Ring of Force, and of course that evil looking armour. It is, as our American brethren would say, awesome.

I was also positively surprised by some of film’s effects: the red dragon our evil party of adventurers fights is particularly great, as is the undead child, but spell effects and digital matte paintings are also much better than I would have expected. There’s nothing half-assed about the film in this regard.

Nor is there much half-assed to find in The Book of Vile Darkness as a whole. Lively and Rudnick go about their job of creating a low budget sword and sorcery movie with an enthusiasm and a care you don’t always find in the genre, turning what could be as perfunctory as the second D&D movie, or as embarrassing as the first one, into a whole lot of fun.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?