Dinos vs Dialogue, In One For The Prehistory Books
DIRECTED BY VIRGIL W. VOGEL/1957
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 23, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
You don’t have to squint too hard, or at all really, to see the brazen lift this film is of any number of antecedents, from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World to any filmed variation on the conceit of a land of prehistoric creatures curtained off from modern civilization. Here, producer William Alland’s iteration reflects the intrepid spirit of the post-war 50s in pushing its characters to plow through frozen seas, foggy storms, and an inert iceberg of dialogue to find low-budget adventure: the Navy has sent a geographical mapping team by boat to the frozen tip of the globe to investigate a mysterious “body of warm water surrounded by a desert of ice.” The team is essentially interchangable with other Alland outings, most notably Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its several gill-themed sequels: a stone-faced captain, a hot-shot pilot, several anonymous crewmen, and a smarty-pants gal scientist to give all the military-science jargon some skirted subtext.
The crew hits some tough ice, a contingent forges ahead via helicopter, they pass through a dense fog, and are attacked straightaway by an angry pterosaur – an apparent flying sentry at the edge of prehistory. The chopper’s grounded, they can’t radio a soul, and the fog is lifted to see the full expanse of the utterly painted background – a long, unashamed look at what we should want to expect if we came to this movie at all: a cheap but comfortable adventure into the unpeopled corners of B-movie prehistoria. What follows is the slow unveiling of the extent to which Universal-International dollars can stretch to meet the imagination of the twelve-year-old target demo.
Par for this sort of movie, the acting is earnest enough, even when weilding the flattest of dialogue (“So you’re a geoscientist…”). Nobody is above the expected range, and nobody suffers from outright awkwardness beyond the trappings of the time. Keenest of the lot is Henry Brandon – best known as Scar in The Searchers – as a threatening “caveman” who turns out to be the sole survivor of a failed mission ten years prior, played as a sort of John the Baptist of Mars, one part crazy Gilligan’s Island recluse, one part all-experienced guide through the swampy terrain – and a clear link in the chain connecting Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and John C. Reilly’s solitude-warped soldier in Kong: Skull Island.
To the delight of those of us who chew up such frugal world-building, the movie checks in periodically with the two monitor lizards on the call sheet, wide lenses rendering them humongous as they tear at each other in super slo-mo and sound effects. Real lizards are the open cheat in this sort of fare, counterintuitively false in their expense-sparing, no-frills frills, but there’s some actually good photography on these writhing beasts, which lashes them believably to the dumb, brute fury of “monster on monster” skirmishing required for your Saturday rain delay distraction, their quasi-reality helpfully ratcheting up the accompanying horror of the presumed mindlessness of imaginary prehistoric creatures…
But it must be said, with none of the necessary fantasy fun of a Harryhausen beast. They’re more like glorified Wild Kingdom B-roll, but these Unknown lizards are beacons of believability compared to what follows, a man in a hard plastic T-rex suit lumbering with sagging jaw across a trickling baby pond, its short reach matching that of the low production value, all of its obvious lack exacerbated by the widescreen approach that makes every budgetary shortcut a big tug on our suspended disbelief. Note: if you’ve ever wondered what stock footage looks like in CinemaScope, here’s your film.
With caveats of choice in full play, all of it works – and if not, then Tom Weaver and David Schecter’s cordial commentary, with some archival musings by director Virgil Vogel, are there to take you by the hand through the production deets, with a quiver of anecdotes to boot. The movie looks good on this Kino Lorber Blu-ray, if you can forgive the odd hubris of CinemaScope used in service of a man-in-monster-suit flick.
The images used in this review are credited to DoBlu.com.