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.