The Land Unknown (1957)
"Behind a barrier of Antarctic ice... a paradise of hidden terrors!"
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 the planet 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 prehistoric 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 - as a result, 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 which are then photographically enlarged. 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). There's a nice contrast between the educated man reverting back to being primal again whilst other characters ponder how evolution has led man to Shakespeare and Mozart. It's an interesting concept and one which the film doesn't do a lot with for obvious reasons.
The Land Unknown is a high concept film with a budget that doesn’t even come close to realising the potential it has. 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. It's an A-movie with Z-grade dinosaurs and that's a real shame.
The Land Unknown
Director(s): Virgil W. Vogel
Writer(s): László Görög (screenplay), William N. Robson (adaptation), Charles Palmer (story)
Actor(s): Jock Mahoney, Shirley Patterson, William Reynolds, Henry Brandon, Douglas Kennedy, Phil Harvey, Kenner G. Kemp
Duration: 78 mins