Dinosaurus! (1960)

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Alive With Thrills!

Whilst blasting the sea bed to deepen the harbour on a Caribbean island, Bart Thompson and his crew uncover two frozen dinosaurs which have been perfectly preserved for millions of years. The dinosaurs are removed from the water and placed on the beach to thaw out before being transported off to a museum. Whilst on the beach, the dinosaurs are struck by lightning during an overnight thunderstorm and are reanimated. With two dinosaurs unleashed upon the unsuspecting local population, matters are made worse with the reanimation of a caveman as well.

 

From the team of producer Jack H. Harris and director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. who had previously worked together on cult classic The Blob, Dinosaurus! comes with a bad reputation and most of it is thoroughly deserved. It’s a juvenile flick which has little redeeming quality but did the rounds quite often on television as a time filler many years ago due to its simplistic nature. Now it has faded into obscurity and that’s maybe for the best! Dinosaurus! came very late to the table after the giant monster fad of the 1950s. This would have worked better in black and white and about five years earlier where viewers may have been a tad more kind to it but in a new decade and in glorious colour, the bar was raised. The same formula which had worked so well in the past was well and truly worn out.

It does help that if you are trying to convince viewers of the idea of giant monsters of some kind, in this instance dinosaurs, then how you bring them to life should be the priority. The combination of tatty plastic model work and crude stop-motion animation will have you running for the nearest Ray Harryhausen flick. There are some awful special effects on show here, ranging from the clay T-Rex squishing a yellow toy bus full of passengers right down to the ridiculously unexciting finale featuring the T-Rex squaring off against a steam shovel on the edge of a cliff. The low budget and rushed production combination really show whenever these dinosaurs are on screen. The brontosaurus fairs a little better but that’s only because it’s not around as long as the T-Rex. You’d expect the dinosaurs scenes to more entertaining than the rest of the film and they are but only mildly.

The combination of green screens (or whatever they used back in the day), miniature sets and all sorts of other fancy camera tricks really shows up the cracks in the effects department at every possible opportunity. Hardly a scene goes by without some ropey special effect coming into play. Even the actors look like talking in front of huge projectors in specific scenes. Day-for-night photography ruins a lot of the night scenes and watching the dinosaurs interact with the humans is laughable – the first unlucky local who gets attacked by the T-Rex looks like he’s being tickled rather than eaten alive.

If the presence of two dinosaurs wasn’t enough to make the island panic, there’s also a caveman running riot. This is how the film deals its comedy hand – having the caveman be domesticated by the annoying child star. Watch as he tries eating with a fork, wonders what a mirror is and, in the film’s worst scene (and it takes some topping believe me!), the caveman tries on a dress. I’m being a little hard on this whole sequence to be honest. Gregg Martell does a wonderful job of portraying a man who has been taken out of his element and is struggling to cope with a world that is alien to him.

The problems extend to the rest of the film so don’t think that it just the effects that are stinking up the joint. The acting is really wooden right across the board with the exception of Martell (who just grunts anyway) and there’s a whole bunch of stereotyped characters waddling around the film from the corrupt local businessman to comic relief sidekick and straight-laced white man hero. The irritating child actor wines and whinges his way through every scene he’s in. You’ll be wishing he turns into dino chow at some point but films in the 60s weren’t that cruel. The narrative is a real slog to get through and the film doesn’t really do much in its running time when you look back on it.

 

Dinosaurus! is feeble 60s ‘entertainment’ at its most primitive and basic. It just about manages to tick off a couple of genre boxes within its running time and, despite being squarely aimed at the younger audience, even youngsters would find Dinosaurus! both boring and a laugh at the same time.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Land Unknown, The (1957)

The Land Unknown (1957)

DEEP IN THE ANTARCTIC WILDERNESS!

Four members of a major Antarctic expedition find themselves stranded in a remote area when their helicopter is forced to land inside a volcanic crater some 3,000 feet below sea level. They find themselves trapped in a tropical environment which has survived from the prehistoric era and is home to a variety of large carnivorous dinosaurs. It is here where they encounter Dr Carl Hunter, the lone survivor from a previous expedition that went missing years earlier and were presumed dead.

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is one of the most famous literary texts of all time. It has been adapted time and time again for film and television and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come. Published over one hundred years ago, the book tapped in man’s fascination with the Earth before we arrived on the scene as a species and just what things had been like during the time of the dinosaurs. The book influenced many others including Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot. The birth and development of film as an art and entertainment form at the turn of the 20th century gave rise to a number of films which brought this world to life. From 1925’s The Lost World right up to King Kong’s exploits on the island, exotic and tropical lands beaming with dinosaurs had become the norm. The Land Unknown was a little late to the genre party but it came amidst a flurry of atomic monster movies or alien invasion films during the 50s.

Despite’s it’s obvious flaws, The Land Unknown is a solid, imaginative sci-fi film which brings to life a prehistoric valley filled with hot geysers, tropical flora and deadly dinosaurs with reasonable success. This must have been one expensive film to make back in the 50s, with these elaborate and intricate tropical sets looking vast in scope (and miniaturised versions for the dinosaurs to stomp around in too). Some of the detail will be lost through the black and white film but you still get the idea. You would assume that this is where the majority of the cash went, though rumours are rife that the budget mainly went on the mechanical dinosaur and so they couldn’t shoot in colour as was originally planned and had to cast B-rate actors instead of the A-list celebrities that they wanted.

From what I can see, the T-Rex is just a guy in a suit stomping around miniature sets and not a mechanical creation, the plesiosaur is a wind-up bath toy (I guess this was the expensive dinosaur that blew the budget) and the other dinosaurs are simply normal lizards standing in for dinosaurs. On their own, the effects don’t hold up very well but taken into consideration with the scope of the film, it’s nice to see a bit of variety in the monsters and the way that they’re presented. Had they all have been brought to life in the same manner, there would be problems. After all, not every film could afford to splash out on expensive stop motion effects like King Kong or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. There’s some decent rear screen projection in some sequences, particularly that of the T-Rex chasing one character. But in other scenes, specifically the water-based ones with the plesiosaur, the rear projection is blatantly obvious. The effects are laughable and cumbersome today but understandable given the time period.

The Land Unknown does have a fair bit going for it so it’s not all cheese. The initial set up is well done and pacey enough to get us right into the heart of the action as soon as feasibly possible. The scene in which the characters inadvertently discover this world on board their helicopter is well-crafted and the descent down through the misty volcano is rife with tension and suspense. Though the cast isn’t very big, there’s enough of them to interact with the hostile environment on a regular basis. The Land Unknown has plenty of decent ideas but either no creative way to show them or simply no money to put them into practice. When the dinosaurs aren’t on screen, the film drags its feet through the swampy mud like no man’s business and even when they are on screen, they don’t do much except chase people and roar.

Where The Land Unknown veers into slightly more dangerous territory is with its portrayal of Dr Carl Hunter, a survivor of a previous expedition who has been marooned in this place for ten years. Though he’s supposed to attract our sympathy for surviving on his own for so long when the rest of his team died, it turns out that he’s a homicidal rapist who just wants to get rid of the three men and be alone with Maggie (played by Shirley Patterson).

 

The Land Unknown is a high concept film with a budget that doesn’t even come close to realising the potential. There are hints of a great film in here with the imaginative setting and effective recreation of a prehistoric ‘lost world’ but with all of the money being spent on one silly dinosaur, the producers and director were always going to be up against it.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing From Another World, The (1951)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Where Did It Come From? How Did It Get Here? WHAT IS IT?

Scientists at an Arctic research station discover an alien space ship buried in the ice along with its frozen pilot. They take the body back to the base but when it thaws, the crew find themselves struggling for survival against not only a massive alien life-form hungry for human blood, but the science department who insist that the creature must not be harmed so that they can study it.

 

One of the earliest and most influential science fiction films to come out of the 1950s, The Thing From Another World is the one that most critics credit for the rise of the ‘alien invasion’ flicks that were to follow in number. It’s the prototype for the ‘base under siege’ formula that has been replicated so often in films since. Not only that but it’s a damned fine film on its own merits, forgetting the legacy that it has built for itself in the meantime. In a paranoid era of Cold War and the worries over nuclear weapons, the film taps into this vein of unease and plays off it. The final lines of dialogue “Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies” are a chilling reminder of the 50s and of the fear that people had. What would come out of the sky? Nuclear missiles? UFOs? Giant monsters?

Based on the classic novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World is light years ahead of its 50s compatriots. Coming before the slew of sci-fi films that were to follow gives this an original slant and it isn’t bogged down by clichés. In fact rather the opposite as the film establishes many genre staples that we’ve come to know and love (or hate) today. You’ve got to remember that science fiction as we take for granted today was still in its infancy during this era. Whilst horror dominated the 30s and 40s, science fiction took off after the Second World War and never looked back. The Thing From Another World laid down an early benchmark for the genre to follow. We’ve obviously got the ‘base under siege’ plot and alien invasion theme with isolation being a key factor, right down to the meddling scientists who believe that they can reason with or understand the creatures they come across (before meeting a horrible demise).

One of the most positive aspects to The Thing From Another World is how pacey is it. This is spot on and the film is tightly edited, flows smoothly and contains enough peaks and troughs to put people through the emotional ringer. It doesn’t really waste too much of its screen time trying to explain anything or do anything which doesn’t further the story or add some tension. I’ve only got to rack my mind at a handful of other 50s sci-fi films to remember how slow, drawn-out and sluggish they were, taking a lifetime to get to where they needed to be.

Despite being based on the novella, the film ditches most of the material, keeping only the wintry setting and the idea of a crashed spaceship (John Carpenter’s later remake was much more faithful to the source material with its assimilations and overt paranoia). I can understand the cost necessities of trying to create a complex film like that back in the 80s but they could have done a bit better than their eventual output: a big stuntman with a boiler suit and a large head piece. Still, the sets used for the Arctic are quite convincing and it’s good to see the film actually shoot some footage ‘outside’ as opposed to many other films at the time which just kept its horror based indoors. Though they’re still on a soundstage, at least some of the shots look like they were filmed in the snow.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is the alien itself. Special effects (and budgets) in the 1950s would never have allowed for the film to stay faithful to the source material, portraying the alien as a shape-shifting assimilator with all of the gooey transformations and absorptions that followed. So what we eventually get is just a big guy in a suit. It’s a tad feeble at first but once the initial disappointment has been overcome, the director (be it the credited Christian Nyby or Howard Hawks, the producer whom everyone thinks really directed this because it has plenty of his style in it) certainly does his best to create the illusion of an alien life form. The first glimpse we see of the creature tossing the huskies away during a snowstorm is chilling and there’s another infamous shot of the creature when it bursts through a door and is set on fire by the crew, all set within a dark environment and only illuminated by the raging fire which is engulfing it. Keeping it relegated to the shadows is a smart move because it does make the creature all the more scary when it eventually attacks. Of course when the creature is seen in close-up, you’ve just got to laugh a little bit – and the notion that this is a killer vegetable that craves human blood is also a bit comical. Credit to the film for making this idea pan out with deadly serious consequences.

On a final note, that title intro is still fantastically creepy to this day.

 

It might seem harmless and hokey nowadays and its shock value had diminished greatly over time, but The Thing from Another World is a landmark science fiction film which is perfectly accessible for any generation of science fiction fans and a completely different type of film from it’s superior remake in 1981.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Keep, The (1983)

The Keep (1983)

THEY WERE ALL DRAWN TO THE KEEP. The soldiers who brought death. The father and daughter fighting for life. The people who have always feared it. And the one man who knows its secret… THE KEEP Tonight, they will all face the evil.

In 1942, a detachment of the German Army is sent to guard a mysterious Romanian citadel located on a strategic mountain pass. When soldiers begin to be mysteriously murdered, the SS arrives to deal with what is thought to be partisan activity and take over proceedings. Enlisting the help of a Jew to help translate inscriptions, what they actually find is an evil force trapped within the keep which will do anything in order to escape.

 

Director Michael Mann has helmed some fantastic films in his career including Manhunter, Collateral, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider amongst others and has been consistently ranked up there as one of the greatest directors of the past couple of decades. Like many famous directors (Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott, with sci-fi horror Alien, spring to mind), Mann has his early roots firmly in horror. The Keep was only his second feature film and his only real foray into the genre.

Originally clocking in at over three and a half hours long before producers told Mann to cut it down, The Keep is the perfect example of style over substance – an art house horror film which has been cruelly held back from realising its potential. Adapting from books come with their problems to begin with but when a director’s original vision is then restricted even further, the end result is not a true reflection of what could have been. The Keep is very much the personification of that. There is a huge swathe of ideas floating around here and lots of sub-plots which begin to develop but are cut short or are simply thrown in without any explanation whatsoever. I’m guessing the original cut explained a lot more because The Keep finishes with lots of unanswered questions and answers a lot of questions that were never asked in the first place.

Case in point being Scott Glenn’s mysterious stranger character who arrives in the town shortly after the evil inside the keep has been released. We kind of get the idea of who is he and what he’s doing (and these ideas come to fruition in the finale). But he’s a sketchy character who has no real story and feels tacked on in the current cut of the film. He shows up and has sex with Alberta Watson’s token female character (poor lass has just survived a rape by some German soldiers to boot!) and we’re meant to just shrug our shoulders and go with the flow? There’s also lots of slow-motion sequences, loud music, fancy purple lights and about a year’s supply of artificial fog in the finale where Glenn doesn’t say anything, allowing his facial expressions and actions to tell us the story. It’s all very interpretative and gets the audience to join the dots themselves rather than being spoon fed…well, just about! Those who prefer spoon feeding from their horror films won’t like this at all. Glenn’s character isn’t just the only underdeveloped aspect to the film but it’s the most blatant.

Apart from the long-winded “what the hell is going on?” narrative, The Keep’s other underlying problem is finding a protagonist to sympathise with. That’s the problem with a lot of these horror films based around Nazis – who are we meant to root for? Yes, some of them may be written more appealing to the viewer but at the end of the day, they’re still Nazis and it’s difficult to get on their side. You’d think Ian McKellen’s Jewish scholar would fare better but he’s pretty unlikeable: a bitter, selfish old man who is harsh even to his close friends and daughter. She’s not exactly the main focus of the plot either. So do we sympathise with the demon Molasar in this case, the evil spirit waiting to be unleashed from his tomb? It’s a puzzling scenario which isn’t helped by a rambling narrative that never knows which direction to go.

So despite the muddled script, it’s to Mann’s credit that he manages to keep The Keep so gripping. I can’t put my finger on it because there’s not a lot of action, many scenes lack dialogue and rely on imagery and audio alone and there are too many plot holes lying around which throw you off track. But there is something that prevents you from switching off. The Keep is like few horror films I’ve ever seen before in that watching is almost like experiencing the keep for yourself. It’s a visually impressive film, with some fantastic cinematography, striking imagery and a superbly ominous atmosphere assisted by a creepy and haunting soundtrack. The dimly-lit, smoke-shrouded sets are the stuff of bad dreams. One particular scene featuring Gabriel Byrne’s SS commander staggering around a large room full of his dead soldiers is one of the most nightmare-inducing scenes I’ve seen. The first appearance of Molasar, the evil presence, is impressive, with the creature being made up of smoke and lights and backed by chilling music. The synthetic score by Tangerine Dream goes against the grain when it comes to soundtracks: it’s not there to accompany the scenes with music cues but rather act as an extension of the mood, acting as ambient noise. It’s a superb soundtrack though one which isn’t readily available to purchase.

I’ll say one thing for Mann and that’s he always assembles a fantastic cast. Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, Scott Glen, Robert Prosky (you may not recognise the name but you’ll recognise the face) and Jürgen Prochnow are all on hand. It’s a male-heavy film as the nature of the war setting naturally calls for. I’m sure if this was remade nowadays, there’d be a female SS commander or something similar. Byrne is the evil Nazi, Prochnow the more reasonable one, Prosky a local priest and Glen is the Van Helsing-like hunter. Most of them are wasted in the roles but at least they add some much-needed star power. One appearance I chuckled at is that of German actor Wolf Kahler as some lowly SS soldier who has a brief cameo role. He’s been demoted since his face was melted away in Raiders of the Lost Ark!

The Keep is a genre from which Mann never returned to and it’s a pity. Whilst this is largely an incoherent mess of ideas, its potential is breath taking and the surreal atmosphere and art house audio and visuals will leave an indelible mark upon you. Stylish but unsatisfying, it would have been interesting to see Mann’s three-hour director’s cut of the film and whether that just prolonged the confusion or sorted it out.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆