13 April 2010

FD - The Land Unknown

Directed by Virgil W. Vogel
Screenplay by Laszlo Gorog
Based on a story by Charles Palmer

Special effects by Fred Knoth, Orien Ernest, Clifford Stine, Jack Kevan, Roswell Hoffman
Music by Hans Salter

Starring Jock Mahoney, Shirley Patterson, William Reynolds, Phil Harvey
Release August 1957
Universal Pictures, 78 mins.

The trailer's a perfect representation of a 'Andy Movie.' Cheesy glances of affection between the male protagonist and the female love interest who must be a reporter or scientist of some sort; a full on rubber suit Tyrannosaurus Rex with some of the most restricted movements in a suit I have ever seen; and a plesiosaur getting a mouthful of fire. All this against the backdrop of exciting taglines, like 'Beyond Anything You Have Ever Imagined!!!' and 'all the excitement of the ages!' Suffice it to say, The Land Unknown had a lot to live up to. I mean, I hold suitmation effects to a high standard, and if they didn't meet my requirements...

In 2006/2007y, Universal Home Video released a awesome two-volume set (which later became one big box set that contained both volumes) called The Classic
Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. Plenty of lost 'gems' of the B/Z-grade sci-fi era were released, such as The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula, The Mole People, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Monolith Monsters, and more. The Land Unknown was lucky enough to be featured in this collection. It's also lucky that not only did it get a legitimate DVD release, it also looks fine...even after all these years. And by fine, I mean the video presentation looks superb. More on this down the line...

The movie opens innocently enough - a press conference in Washing
ton, D.C. is underway: a expedition to Antarctica is being mapped out. The goal is to explore information passed by previous expeditions - a hot area in the arctic. In attendance is Margaret 'Maggie' Hathaway (Patterson), who is also going to be a part of the mission. She meets Alan Roberts (Mahoney), and they immediately grow a liking to each other (sorta; they have one weird courtship, and their 'romantic' dialogue is truly awful. Bad to the extent I can't figure out if the dialogue from Episode III is better than this). Anyway, old newsreel is being shown to the audience; the men express their unease with a woman on board, and Hathaway makes some side comment about liking to travel with 800 men...

Thus the expedition commences. Everything goes smoothly until (of course) some big bad storm begins to brew, and the group - who are currently in a helicopter - a
re called back, but they get clipped by a pterodactyl and are forced to make an emergency landing. Well, the luck of the Irish must've been on their side, because not only do they land safely, but they land in a below-sea level warm, volcanic crater with inhabitants of the Mesozoic era. As in, dinosaurs such as that lovely pterodactyl that caused the whole mess. Roberts, Maggie, Jack, and Miller spend the time running away from really badly designed dinosaurs and arguing with each other where to go and what to do.

The blossoming romance between Al and Maggie is put on hold when Maggie is abducted by a strange, primitive man. Our team investigates, only to find that the abductor is Hunter, the legendary man whose previous exploration of the area inspired this expedition. Hunter is mad - he's spent years living amongst the dinosaurs, doing anything and everything he needs to in order to survive. Naturally, some sort of conflict arises between the two parties.

But luckily the they unite in the end to fight the forces of Evil and sav
e the day. Not really, but I was less interested in writing 'dinosaurs attack, there's running, then fighting, Hunter gets into the picture, helicopter works again, the day is saved.' Suffice it to say, all the characters get a undeserved happy ending, even the mucho wild Hunter. Although, I was sorta hoping their plane would just randomly start on fire and fall back down into the crater of dinosaurs - 'cuz that would be a great ending.

The special effects range from 'pretty neat' to 'really? ugh.' But on the bright side, the positives far outweigh the negatives. First let's get the complaints out of the way: although it may have to do with the limited budget, optical effects were disastrous. There were perhaps two really well done composites (primarily two shots with the T-Rex and our heroes running for their lives), but the rest was extremely dodgy. The worst offense is the ridiculous composition of the fixed helicopter against a moving backdrop; not a ounce of realism to be had. Another that stands out in my mind is when Maggie was face to face with one of those lizards masquerading as a dinosaur. She does her obligatory hands-raised-up-in-a-scream performance, and we cut to a wide shot with her glued into the bottom right corner, with every ounce of badness in the shot glaringly obvious.

But like I said, the composites were, in the majority, well d
one. They may not match the level of seamless meshing that Toho and SPFX supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya (Ultraman) were able to capture with their special effects films (e.g., Godzilla, Battle in Outer Space), but it gets the job done and sells the scenario without the god-awfulness of the composite taking you out of the experience. I am also a fan of the dinosaur designs, as well as the finished suit products. Before I go any further, I do concede that the T-Rex design is awful; and furthermore, the suit is so bad that it not only doesn't resemble any sort of idea of what the T-Rex is (let alone resemble the poster art), but is nearly impossible to maneuver for the suit actor (credited to Tim Smyth).

I am especially a fan of the (presumably) mechanical plesiosaur; its design is utterly menacing (further complimented by the equally menacing growl sound it's given; the T-Rex has a roar that reminded me of the underwater shot of a blown up Bruce the Shark in the original Jaws, which sorta makes a growling sound), and the way it glides through the water is quite
eerie. Unfortunately the pterodactyl only makes brief (as in mere seconds) appearances.

Set design is also something the filmmakers should be proud of. The ob
viously painted background is quite gorgeous, and the miniature environment compliments the painting splendidly. Although if this flick was shot in color, I'm not quite as sure it would hold up. Frankly, I find that a lot of The Land Unknown's charm comes from the beautiful CinemaScope presentation in black & white - it helps set up a eerie 'mood' of sorts.

Speaking of CinemaScope, Universal has done wonders with the print. Released in their 'Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Volume' pack, the movie looks beautiful. By no means am I comparing the presentation to a full-force Criterion restoration of, say, a Kurosawa movie, but for a meager 1950's sci-fi/dinosaur film....yeah, looks pretty phenomenal. So thank you Universal, and thank you Mr. Cinematographer or whoever chose to film this baby in beautiful TRUE widescreen.

One disappointing aspect I guess I should start preparing myself to experience is the use of lizards to play the part of ginormous dinosaurs locked in combat. From the looks of it, this technique has been replicated in multiple dinosaur movies (including a update on the Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth) as a cheap avenue to get thrilling monster sequences without paying for stop-motion animation (or dynamation).

In regards to the performances, they're about what you'd expect. Actually, I take that back - I went in with low, low expectations, but instead what I got was a group of actors who did their best with what they've been given. Now of course, the character with the most material to work with - and does so splendidly - is Henry Brandon (The Searchers) as the wild and enigmatic Hunter. A man frazzled by his experiences, and his need to learn how to adapt to his really sucky situation with dinosaurs and other beasties - Brandon brings the right amount of off-kilterness on
e would expect from a character like this, but also is human enough that his character is recognizable to the audience, and even invokes some sympathy. The other players don't have anywhere near exciting stuff to do, nor is there anything resembling character development; by the film's climax, the whole ordeal could have been glossed over and nothing would have changed in respect to these characters and the country's awareness to living freakin' dinosaurs.

I mean, c'mon, Toei's Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds put forth more effort than this...

All in all, glad I saw it. I'm a tad disappointed by the lack of anything 'amazing' in the film, but I admire the film for its cinematography and set design. Those were pretty damn nifty. The dinosaur designs were humorous enough to strike up a smile, and somehow...well, they work. It's unfortunate lizards were used as dinosaur stand ins, but with limited time and budget productions like these, I can forgive. Nothing noteworthy by any means, nor a cinematic abomination, The Land Unknown isn't exactly worth a recommendation, but for dinosaur movie aficionados, there's really no harm in checking it out.

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