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. 


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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.

In den Klauen der Tiefe:
The Mole People (1956)


The Mole People is reviewed from Anolis Entertainment’s region B-locked Blu-ray, released on April 17 of this year. The disc is limited to 1000 copies and can be found at and elsewhere.

From over-achieving B’s like Tarantula!¬†and¬†The Monolith Monsters to outright classics like¬†The Incredible Shrinking Man and¬†It Came From Outer Space,¬†there were an awful lot of very good sci-fi thrillers¬†produced under the banner of Universal International¬†through the late¬†1950s.¬†One would be hard-pressed to cite 1956’s¬†The Mole People as one of them. Produced on the fast and cheap,¬†The Mole People‘s limp tale of lost world misadventure has exactly one ace up its sleeve – its¬†eponymous monsters, the memorable work of make-up artists Bud Westmore and Jack Kevan (The Creature From the Black Lagoon). Wisely trumped up to the nth degree by the company’s keen advertising department, which churned out¬†some terrific art for the cause,¬†the fantastic critter design should have been¬†enough in its own right to hook¬†the intended crowds of teenagers and grade-schoolers. Universal must have¬†turned¬†a small fortune on¬†The Mole People‘s slim pickings.

And slim they are indeed. Penned by Laszlo Gorog (Earth vs. The Spider) and helmed by veteran editor turned freshman director Virgil W. Vogel (whose résumé boasts such disparate works as Touch of Evil and Invasion of the Animal People), The Mole People distills an already rote exercise in fantasy action and adventure to a torpid lump of patience-defying essentials. The yarn begins in an anonymous gravel pit in Asia (specifics are overrated), site of an archaeological dig to uncover the the long-lost secrets of the Sharu dynasty, unheard of since the time of the Biblical flood (established historical fact in so far as The Mole People is concerned). Leading the effort is one Dr. Bentley (John Agar, The Brain From Planet Arous), who has unearthed evidence of something hitherto unheard of Рa post-flood history of Sharu and his civilization!

Doc Bentley and a cadre of co-archaeologists (including an excitable Nestor Paiva, an expendable Phil Chambers, and a very bored Hugh Beaumont) follow their new evidence to the last known location of their lost kingdom, the summit of an inhospitable mountain nearby. There they find the remnants of an ancient temple, but before any meaningful research can be done tragedy strikes! Chambers slips through a hole in the temple’s unstable floor and plummets into the untold depths below, leaving the rest of the team no recourse but to don their¬†climbing gear and descend¬†through the darkness after him. What they find is more or less predicable – hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth Chambers has reached the end of his contract. A rock slide traps the rest in the abyss,¬†but their desperate search for an alternate means of exit instead leads them¬†right into the heart of the Sharu dynasty, paler for all their millennia underground and¬†still partying like it’s 3000 B.C. Now numbering just 150, the kingdom subsists wholly on mushrooms cultivated and harvested by their subhuman slave race (guess who!) and sacrifices any superfluous citizenry in the “fire of Ishtar”.¬†Bentley and associates aren’t exactly welcome in Sharu’s domain, with the high priest Elinu (Alan Napier!) taking particular exception to their threat to his (very) narrow world view.¬†But the archaeologists¬†carry with them a god-like power – the very fire of Ishtar itself! – a power the scheming Elinu will stop at nothing to possess!

SidePoster1The Mole People owes a substantial debt to the wealth of lost world fiction that had come before it (certain elements are lifted straight from the work of H. Rider Haggard, such as the archaeologists presenting themselves as¬†gods a la King Solomon’s Mines), though it lives up to almost none of them. One might¬†complain about the overall lack of production punch, with some anonymous darkened tunnels, a handful of sparse sets, and a couple of tremendously unconvincing matte paintings comprising the sum total of the lost Sharu empire, but¬†The Mole People‘s low budget trappings are only amplified¬†by the¬†impoverished writing. Laszlo Gorog’s script must have run a dozen or so pages too short, as the finished film feels remarkably padded even at a¬†brief 77 minutes. A dubious scientific lecture¬†eats up half of the first reel, and the later descent to find Chambers’ fallen archaeologist seems to run¬†almost in real time.¬†Inaction remains the order of the day throughout.¬†The film’s few horror moments are legitimately good –¬†a shock close-up of Westmore and Kevan’s mole man design, a monster attack on one of the explorers, and several shots of men dragged beneath the earth – but there’s just nothing for them to punctuate. Bentley and company sit around and talk or wander aimlessly through tunnels, and high priest Elinu’s evil scheming amounts to a minor effort to steal John Agar’s flashlight (the fire of Ishtar!). The eventual¬†uprising of the inhuman slaves against their masters feels less of a climax than an inevitability, and with so little of worth¬†backing it up¬†any significant¬†impact it may have had is woefully undermined.

With so much of the script working against them it’s a wonder that any among¬†The Mole People‘s generally good cast is able to shine at all. Alan Napier is the most radiant of the lot¬†as the requisite villain type, and his performance is the only from the main cast that might be called passionate.¬†His careful, curious handling of the flashlight, and the forbidden power Elinu thinks¬†it contains,¬†is the performance highlight of the film, an inspired take on an insipid plot development and a fine testament to the professionalism of Napier as an actor. Nestor Paiva is one of those rare talents the nature¬†of whose performance¬†quality¬†seems to forever¬†elude me. His turn here as the dubiously ethnic, sweaty, uncomfortable, and flighty LaFarge is all of the above and with un-traceable accent to spare – I honestly can’t tell if it works or not. As for the rest, passable seems the operative word. One can’t help but pity career also-ran Hugh Beaumont, whose indifference towards¬†the production appears equal to the production’s indifference towards him. With few lines and only scraps of action, one can hardly blame him for standing around looking bored. Star John Agar always seemed to get the short end of the critical stick, but his turn as archaeologist Bentley offers nothing to sway his detractors. Agar dutifully recites Gorog’s goofy and utilitarian¬†prose (“In archaeology all things are possible!“), but there’s no sign of the charismatic, promising young actor who can be glimpsed elsewhere. His delivery here is ill-paced and as dull as the proverbial dishwater, and only serves to bog down a production already awash with¬†mediocrity. Most unfortunate of all may be second-billed Cynthia Patrick, who received the biggest role of her brief film career with¬†The Mole People.¬†Patrick makes her appearance half way in, the resident freak in Sharu’s court (flesh tone, how ghastly!), and is shuffled through a painful by-the-numbers romance with Agar’s archaeologist before falling in with the mole man crowd. Universal gave the actress precious little to do in her brief stint as a contract player, and one doubts this felt like much of a step up, or even a step in the right direction. After leaving the studio Patrick went on to freelance a bit in television, but soon abandoned show business all together¬†in favor of¬†a more reasonable profession – real estate.

SidePoster2I hate to sound overly critical of¬†The Mole People, a film I’m genuinely quite fond of (honest!), but its more lamentable qualities are just part and parcel of what it is, and quite impossible to ignore. Still, out of all that rough more appreciable moments do arise. The opening titles are some of the best of their kind, rising from a smouldering pit as Heinz Roemheld and Herman Stein’s evocative theme blasts, and are worth seeking out the film for in and of themselves. The film’s horror moments are sparse, but are very well handled when they do appear¬†(kudos to Westmore and Kevak’s convincingly grotesque creature design). Even the generally underwhelming production design has successful¬†moments. The Sharu slave grounds are atmospheric and unsettling in their design, and their first wide reveal¬†makes for¬†one of¬†The Mole People‘s most¬†indelible moments.¬†Then there is the film’s oddball opening, half a reel of padding by way of a¬†some laughable “scientific” exposition.¬†The eccentric mini-lecture entreats audiences to consider, of all things, a variety of hollow earth theories, notably those forwarded by¬†John Cleves Symmes, Jr. and self-proclaimed messiah and Koreshanity founder Cyrus Teed (a fascinating character in his own right), and is delivered by The Mole People‘s most unlikely cast member – Dr. Frank C. Baxter, a PhD in English here appearing as¬†himself. Though doubtless lost on most modern viewers, Baxter was himself something of a celebrity at the time¬†The Mole People was produced. His¬†Shakespeare on TV program was a popular success in the early ’50s and netted several Emmys, but¬†his greatest public exposure arrived via a recurring¬†role as Dr. Research, the host of a series of pseudo-religious science documentaries produced by Frank Capra and Bell Laboratories (AT&T). If his¬†The Mole People¬†appearance is any indication then Baxter must have been quite a character – his enthusiastic and strangely expressive approach to the film’s hollow earth babble is far more interesting than than any of the¬†information espoused.¬†It’s all rather compelling in its own odd way, and the sequence makes for¬†one of¬†the film’s¬†more bizarre assets.

The Mole People will never be remembered as a good film, or even as a good example of the Universal brand of sci-fi / horror. While there are certainly a few captivating moments that emerge from the rough, one will have¬†to weed through a good deal of¬†dull, lethargic mess to appreciate them. Even from¬†one who genuinely¬†likes the picture, The Mole People¬†makes for a tough recommendation. Though obviously a must for classic monster fans, who¬†should¬†find Westmore and Kevak’s work more than worth the price of admission, others should perhaps prepare themselves for just how tiresome 77 minutes can be.

The Mole People, under the title In den Klauen der Tiefe, is the second of Universal’s golden age sci-fi thrillers to see blu-ray release from Anolis Entertainment (The Monolith Monsters was released in March, with¬†The Land Unknown to follow later in the year), and while it’s far from the top-list of desirable Blu-ray titles even in its own genre I’m still damned happy to have it.

Those familiar with Anolis’ earlier release of¬†The Monolith Monsters will know what to expect here. The single-layer disc presents a robust progressive Mpeg-4 AVC encode of the film, average bitrate 30.7 Mbps, which dutifully supports¬†The Mole People‘s modest visual charms. The Universal-supplied master presents the film at a ratio of 2.00:1, and while the image can appear a little too tight in places (a more open 1.85:1 framing would have been preferable in this case)¬†I can’t say it detracted from my viewing experience in the least.¬†The Mole People¬†progresses well beyond past editions in its HD debut, adding significantly to the left and right of the frame and making impressive gains with regards to contrast and detail.¬†There is a heavy grain structure throughout (the elements look a good few steps down from the OCN) that is well supported by the HD encode, and there is significant minor damage in evidence – speckling, scratches, even reel change markers. A perfect scan from pristine elements it certainly isn’t, but improvements are quite substantial over¬†past SD editions, and one doubts if¬†The Mole People will ever appear on home video in a¬†superior¬†condition. One point worth noting: The title card on the master sourced reads¬†In den Klauen der Tiefe as opposed to¬†The Mole People, though the rest of the credits remain in their usual English.

Anolis provides audio in two flavors – original English and German dub, each presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 (mono for English, stereo for German). The tracks sound quite flat in both instances,¬†but sound perfectly¬†faithful to the original recordings. Optional German subtitles are also available. Supplements are limited to a pair of trailers (a digitally-created German one, and the original American, both in SD) and an HD image gallery. Anolis Entertainment’s blu-ray of¬†In den Klauen der Tiefe / The Mole People is locked to Region B, comes packaged in a slick black case, and is limited to a run of just 1000 copies. While a swift sell out is unlikely for such a marginal title I recommend those interested pick it up sooner rather than later – another blu-ray release seems unlikely in the near future.

DVD / Blu-ray comparison shots
DVD shots appear first, and have been upscaled to 1920×1440 for ease of comparison. Blu-ray shots were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93% using¬†the ImageMagick command line tool. No filtering has been applied.


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Das Geheimnis des Steinernen Monsters: The Monolith Monsters (1957)


The Monolith Monsters is reviewed from Anolis Entertainment’s region B-locked Blu-ray, released on March 28 of this year. The disc is limited to 999 copies and can¬†be found at and elsewhere.

1957 seems to have been¬†a good year to be a dangerous rock in cinema. In June¬†Columbia unleashed¬†The Night the World Exploded, a shoestring¬†Sam Katzman / Fred F. Sears thriller that found¬†the Earth in mortal danger from the sudden appearance of a¬†dangerously¬†unstable element buried within its own crust. Interesting in concept (particularly in its¬†overtones of ecological awareness) but bland in its execution,¬†Night¬†would¬†be outdone at practically every level by competitor Universal International’s¬†The Monolith Monsters, released in December of the same year. Easily the most Arnoldian of the Universal shockers¬†not directed by him (Jack Arnold does receive a story credit), long time second unit man John Sherwood’s picture finds one of Universal’s many stock desert communities¬†beset by one of the more bizarre¬†among the decade’s otherworldly menaces – an extraterrestrial¬†crystal growing kit of¬†immense proportions.

A quintessential example of the ’50s monster mystery movie, and about as by-the-books as they come, credit is due to writers Norman Jolley (I’ve Lived Before) and Robert M. Fresco (Tarantula!) for working up a better screenplay than a production like¬†The Monolith Monsters really called for. The narrative centers around the town of¬†San Angelo,¬†a rural¬†patch of civilization with little but a salt mine, a one-page daily rag, and a few hundred decent and law-abiding all-Americans to its name. Just beneath the postcard surface something sinister is brewing. A local geologist with the Department of the Interior is killed, seemingly turned to stone, and his office all but destroyed. A farmhouse is found crushed, its two adult occupants¬†in the same state as the geologist while their¬†child, wandering¬†and catatonic, is found to be slowly petrifying from the hand up. The only clue comes in the form of¬†rocks, slick black and strangely alien, tons of which have mysteriously appeared at each scene.

PosterInsertGeologist Dave Miller (Grant Williams, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and his old professor Flanders (Trevor Bardette, Gun Crazy) investigate, and make a startling discovery. The strange rock that litters the scenes of destruction is indeed alien, borne to Earth on a meteorite, and possessed of a remarkable ability Рwhen it comes into contact with water it grows (to towering height where quantities are sufficient). In the process it absorbs the silica from everything it touches, turning human beings to stone and leaving its surroundings desolate and lifeless. With her disease progressing the young girl (in the care of lovely school teacher Lola Albright, Kid Galahad) is rushed to a research hospital, where the race is on to find a cure. Meanwhile San Angelo is beset by torrential rain. In the desert the extraterrestrial monoliths begin to grow, tumble, shatter, and multiply, making slow yet irresistible progress through a winding canyon, threatening to bury San Angelo and all that lies beyond it under a mountain of petrifying stone!

While one could hardly call¬†The Monolith Monsters the most original of ’50s sci-fi thrillers in so far¬†as its narrative is concerned (this is rooted firmly in the tradition of Warner’s Them!¬†and Universal’s earlier¬†Tarantula!), it remains a more than capable representative of its type. Jolley and Fresco’s screenplay keeps the action moving at a healthy clip and with almost no waste¬†– if a seemingly minor trapping is introduced, you can bet it figures into the film’s conclusion somehow.¬†With no villains to clutter up the proceedings¬†the characters are all a¬†likable lot, and intelligibly written besides. Some of the peripheral players are more interesting than the main cast, including the late, great Les Tremayne (War of the Worlds) as the editor, proprietor, and sole reporter for San Angelo’s daily paper and William Schallert (The Man From Planet X) as a slightly neurotic scene-stealing weatherman.¬†Attention is even paid to legitimate¬†scientific process, a rarity in sci-fi,¬†with Dave and Prof. Flanders methodically going about the task of uncovering the monoliths’ mysteries. The pair chip away at samples, test, re-test, and (gasp!) even do math. It’s a refreshing change¬†of pace¬†for a genre too fond of leaving even the softest of hard science on the cutting room floor.

Poster_3shtThe meteoric menace is itself one of the decade’s highlights, and brought to memorable geologic life by Universal’s accomplished effects department (including ace effects photographer¬†Clifford Stine and¬†Earthquake‘s Frank Brendel). The revelation of the rocks’ titanic potential is handled¬†with good suspense and style to spare, with Dave and Prof. Flanders rushing to a rain-drenched crater after accidentally growing a mini-monolith in their lab sink – there, battered by torrential rainfall, they see the rocks eerily growing in silhouette. The special effects are limited to a few brief scenes, but are generally very well handled. The monoliths sprout from the ground, angular and weird, and then collapse, taking a few neat miniatures and plenty of desert with them. While others will doubtless disagree I always found them quite imposing and even a little frightening, a thoughtless, unmotivated natural process rumbling destructively through the countryside. It’s an aspect that connects¬†The Monolith Monsters with the earthquakes, tidal waves, super-storms and volcanoes that would clutter up cinemas during the disaster craze of the ’70s, though¬†none of those distinctly Earth-bound events have an ounce of the out-there appeal¬†of this film’s monoliths.

The Monolith Monsters isn’t a perfect film by any means, and those repulsed by plot holes may find the inevitable feel-good conclusion too convenient by miles, but it remains one of the better of its¬†type and¬†time and easily bests most of the Universal sci-fi horrors to come (lovable as¬†Monster on the Campus,¬†The Thing that Couldn’t Die and the rest may be). This is damned fine stuff as far as I’m concerned, and the eponymous monsters well worth the cost¬†of admission.

Anolis Entertainment, who have been responsible for a host¬†of groovy German genre releases over the years (including some world’s best tokusatsu special editions), have granted¬†The Monolith Monsters an unlikely high definition debut with this limited edition Blu-ray, and while I couldn’t be happier I must admit it’s not for everyone. The disc is locked to Region B and carries a hefty price tag – a little over¬†$30 from, and slightly less from some other outlets.¬†Anolis released a comparatively loaded DVD edition as part of their¬†Galerie des Grauens¬†series, but much¬†of that supplemental content (including a pair of audio commentaries and a full-frame German kino-version) has not been ported over to the new issue.¬†The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of trailers (American and faux-German – the film did not have a theatrical release in Germany, but was something of a television staple in the ’70s), a neat HD gallery of stills and advertising material, and a cool HD copy of the US pressbook (put together in such a way¬†that you can actually read the thing if you want, which is a hoot).

The feature presentation, courtesy of an HD master provided by Universal Studios, will be a bone of contention for some.¬†The new master improves quite drastically over Universal’s own domestic DVD edition, with broader contrast, significantly boosted detail (Tremayne’s suit!),¬†and a lovely undisturbed grain structure. Largely unrestored with some occasional¬†instability, flicker, and light damage (dust, specs, and scratches here and there), this edition of¬†The Monolith Monsters¬†nevertheless looks¬†very¬†strong in playback, and the comparison shots below should make the improvements obvious. The disc¬†is only single-layer, but that’s more than sufficient for this 77 minute feature. The encode is quite robust – Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 34.1 Mbps – and artifacting is not an issue.

Visual improvements aside the release has courted some controversy due to it’s aspect ratio – 2.00:1,¬†which is as Universal’s master presented it.¬†The Monolith Monsters was filmed¬†flat and protected for both theatrical matting and later open-matte¬†television presentations,¬†but just how wide it was intended to be projected theatrically is beyond me. 2.00:1 was one of Universal’s in-house ratios at the time, and the placement of the film’s credits (quite tight, and pushed slightly towards the top¬†in the frame) suggest that cropping to such a wide ratio may indeed have been expected. In practice this will all be a matter of taste, I expect. The new master shows considerably more information at the sides of the frame, particularly the left. The opening credits appear to be a bit squashed vertically, but this does not appear to effect the rest of the film. All in all I don’t think the material suffers in the least from the wider¬†framing, but others will surely disagree. Those who prefer the old open-matte¬†presentation will have to hang on to their VHS / Laserdisc / DVD (alas, I once had all three!).

Audio is presented in two flavors of 2.0 monophonic DTS-HD MA – original English and German dubbed. The former sounds¬†very¬†good, and while I was expecting the kind of flatness that marred Universal’s¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla blu-ray it never really materialized. The mix is¬†surprisingly vibrant nearly 60 years after the fact, and those classic Universal genre cues expand beautifully. The German dub sounds quite strange in comparison, with significantly flatter background music – the new dubbed dialogue and sound effects seem almost as though they’re floating over the older material. Optional subtitles are povided in German only.

There will be some gnashing of teeth over this disc’s aspect ratio, and still more¬†with regards to the price. Despite some reservations with regards to each I¬†still made the jump, and¬†was pleasantly surprised by the end results. It turns out¬†The Monolith Monsters plays just fine at 2.00:1 (who knew?), and the blu-ray improves so dramatically over what’s come before that yeah, I think the lofty price point¬†was worth it. I’m so happy in fact that I’ve already ordered Anolis’ second limited Universal sci-fi blu-ray –¬†The Mole People shipped yesterday, and should arrive¬†in a couple of weeks. With no sign of these films¬†reaching domestic blu-ray anytime soon I’m glad I picked them up, and those considering the same are encouraged to do so sooner rather than later. While a swift sellout is exceedingly unlikely, those 999 copies aren’t going to last forever.

The comparison DVD shots below were captured as uncompressed .png in VLC media player, blown up in Gimp (to 1440×1080 and 1920×1080 respectively, to simulate upscaling the DVD in both cropped and uncropped ratios), and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93%. Blu-ray shots were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

DVD (open) / DVD (cropped 16×9) / Blu-ray





















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Blu Notes: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963) & King Kong Escapes (1968)

Note: This article is concerned with the Blu-ray editions of¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla and¬†King Kong Escapes as opposed to the films themselves. While no coverage of the films currently exists at ExB, old articles about each can be had at Wtf-Film. You’ll find them here and here respectively.¬†

Well this is a bit of a surprise. After so many years without decent home video representation who would ever have thought we’d be sitting around discussing new blu-ray editions of the two Universal-released Toho-produced¬†Kong¬†pictures? The fact that this pair has made the leap to HD home video in the US is obviously just an advantageous move on Universal’s part, what with¬†Godzilla ’14 little more than a month away, but I can’t be bothered with cynicism at a time like this. The American cuts of¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla and¬†King Kong Escapes¬†are two long-time favorites, and I’m just happy to have them in HD regardless of the circumstances. Let me have my fun.

John Beck’s heavily Westernized cut of¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla¬†receives a modest and bare-bones blu-ray debut, with only a pop-up menu available for navigation and language selection options (the film starts immediately after the requisite company logos and anti-piracy statements). Though only single layered the 1080p transfer receives a technically sound encode, Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 32.3 Mbps, and while it has its problems it remains a huge improvement over Universal’s nearly decade-old DVD.

Working with the same master, but with some extra attention paid to color timing, Universal’s blu-ray of¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla¬†tends toward a darker overall appearance in comparison to the older DVD. While some may find it pesky I barely noticed myself. The additional color balancing work was unmistakable, however, and is much appreciated. Though there are subtle improvements throughout I found it most noticeable during Kong and Godzilla’s first meeting, a scene which has always looked rather sickly and hazy in past editions – the colors here finally ring true. Detail takes a huge step forward, allowing better appreciation of both the intricate miniature setups and of the suit work (one of the series’ best Godzilla designs, and that ratty love-it-or-hate-it Kong). Beyond the possibility of some minor edge enhancement there looks to have been little if any untoward digital manipulation of the image (sometimes a little neglect is a good thing), but it just wouldn’t be Universal if all was well. Despite looking pretty good in other respects and presenting with only minor print flaws,¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla is an exceedingly noisy transfer at times. I didn’t find it especially troubling in motion, obvious as it can be in spots, but those viewing on larger screens may find it a more damning issue.

DVD (upscaled, top) vs Blu-ray (bottom):KKvGDVD KKVGBlu

Audio comes in one flavor only – 2.0 monophonic DTS-HD MA English. Where compressed tracks served to obfuscate certain issues with the film’s original mix this track lays it all bare. Certain among the stock music cues (notably the one that accompanies the main titles) can sound¬†very¬†flat, while others (as from Heinz Roemheld’s¬†The Monster That Challenged the World) can sound quite vibrant. The clumsiness of some of the new sound effects editing is now readily apparent as well. That said, this is precisely what the English mix for¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla should sound like, so I’ve no complaints. Optional subtitles are available in two varieties – English SDH and French. Otherwise there’s literally nothing else on the disc to discuss.¬†King Kong vs. Godzilla¬†was released April 1st, is all region compatible (it plays just fine in my region B secondary deck), and has an SRP of $19.98.


King Kong Escapes follows in much the same vein, and presents the film on a bare-bones BD25 with only a pop-up menu for navigation (again, the film begins immediately after the logos / warnings). The encode is once again Mpeg-4 AVC, though this time at a fractionally lower average bitrate of 32.2 Mbps. For whatever reason King Kong Escapes shows a bit more in the way of artifacting than does the earlier film.

There was less wrong with¬†King Kong Escapes on DVD to begin with, so many of the blu-ray’s improvements are quite subtle – like truer colors (particularly flesh tones) and tighter contrast. Detail improves mightily in most respects, and it’s easier than ever to admire the intricacy of the film’s effects work (there’s a lot of it in this film to enjoy). Texture still isn’t quite settled, with at least as much noise here as grain, but the issue isn’t as pronounced as on King Kong vs. Godzilla. Overall the image looks fairly good, particularly in motion, though the framing is worth mentioning – King Kong Escapes looks to be cropped more tightly here than on the older DVD, leading to some loss of image information at the edges of the 2.35:1 frame.

DVD (upsacled, top) vs Blu-ray (bottom). Note the framing:KKE_DVD_Framing KKE_Blu_Framing

Audio is again English only in monophonic DTS-HD MA 2.0, but I have no complaints. The original score goes mostly unmolested in the dubbed version (less a few cuts during the final reel), which is great – it’s among the very best of Ifukube’s¬†tokusatsu work, and it packs some decent punch in this track. The rest sounds just fine, including the slightly alienated post-dubbed dialogue. I can never get enough of Paul Frees in any capacity, and his Dr. Hu/Who is a killer (when the madman is exasperated at the end of the show, Frees dubs him as though he’s been up drinking all night). Optional subtitles are once again available in English SDH and French, and that’s it for this bare-bones disc.¬†King Kong Escapes¬†was released on April 1st, is all region compatible, and has an SRP of $19.98.

I’d say “good enough” is the operative phrase for each of these releases, and the benefits of the blu-ray iterations versus the older DVDs are more than enough to make up for their other limitations. These get an easy recommendation for fans, particularly if you can find them going for cheap.

More screenshots. These were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem Movie Player with no filters applied, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93%.

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