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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Month of AlloSundays: The Land Unknown (1957)

Screenplay by Laszlo Gorog; Adaptation by William N. Robson; Story by Charles Palmer
Directed by Virgil Vogel

Jock Mahoney:  Commander Harold "Hal" Roberts
Shawn Smith:  Margaret "Maggie" Hathaway
William Reynolds:  Lieutenant Jack Carmen
Henry Brandon:  Doctor Carl Hunter

I've always thought the Allosaurus was the best dinosaur. It's the eye ridges, and the fact that they've got three claws on each hand instead of two (which, when I was a kid, somehow meant that they would make better pets than a T-Rex). I was also apparently some kind of dinosaur hipster when I was in grade school--sure, there's a lot of great stuff you can say about the Stegosaurus or Triceratops and I will admit that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is incredibly impressive, but the part of me that roots for the underdog in books and movies and that likes obscure music, books and films just really digs the Allosaurus. It's the middle child of dinosaurs; not as big as a Rex, not as well-known, and even its name makes me think the poor things got ripped off. It translates as "Other lizard", which means that even the scientists that found and named it were expecting something better. That just makes them more irresistable as far as I'm concerned. And when I got a Neopet fourteen years ago (!), it was no contest. They had a species that looked like an Allosaurus and I couldn't pick anything else at all. I named the little dinosaur JoeMeek (even near the beginning of the site's history, "Telstar" was taken) and I've enjoyed having a pet online ever since. Undoubtedly I would not have stuck with a hobby that can be described as "pretending to own fish" if not for Grarrls' significant resemblance to my fave rave dino species.

Which is kind of an odd start to a movie review, admittedly, but there's a point to it. I leave for B Fest in two weeks and two days from this writing, which means that there's three reviews to file before I go to Chicago and see my friends from years gone by, demonstrate generosity, forge alliances, and yell as many jokes as I can think of at the movie screen while watching dire-ass films for a solid 24 hours. And by sheer coincidence I've got three movies on DVD that feature an Allosaurus as the monster (or lead monster in a film that has more than one). Therefore I declare January 2015 to be my Month of AlloSundays. Faithful readers can expect another two films featuring the best dinosaur, with Ray Harryhausen providing what I think is his single best animated creation in two weeks and something decidedly less impressive but still nifty in seven days. I'm also rather tempted to steal Nathan Shumate's old gimmick and let a site mascot have the last word.

Fans of Fifties movies look forward to seeing the CinemaScope logo at the start of a film; it's one of the ways film studios tried to differentiate their product from the stuff people were seeing on television, which in that decade was a massive problem for Hollywood's bottom line. In order to entire suburban homebodies out to watch a film various tactics were used--the most famous is probably 3-D, but color film went into widespread use as a way to make movies look more impressive in theaters, and the use of screens significantly wider than they were tall was another way to show audiences that the films were epic in scope, unlike the stuff you'd watch on a dinky little 14" screen back in the living room. The Land Unknown is somewhat of a novelty, in that Universal spent enough money on the production to film it in 2.35:1 widescreen, but it's also a black and white movie. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other monochrome CinemaScope films from the period, but undoubtedly there's a couple other hybrids of expansive and cheap lying around somewhere.

The titles play out over the standard Universal Brass and Strings SciFi Suite; there's helicopter footage of a smoking volcanic crater in a wasteland of ice and snow. It doesn't look beat up enough to be wartime stock footage, so I'm assuming this is something that National Geographic or someone similarly interested in cool scenery filmed and Universal appropriated it for the start of the film. But don't worry, there's stock footage of Washington, D.C. the second that the credits wrap up. In a half-full lecture hall, a high-ranking Naval official tells his audience (white guys in either military dress uniforms or business suits) that they're going to be exploring Antarctica. Apparently the Navy wants to have an accurate map of the southernmost continent for military reasons. Damned if I can think of any that would make sense for 1957, but I'm really just here for the dinosaurs. The lecturer mentions a warm-water oasis somewhere in the vastness of the continent that a 1947 fly-over expedition noticed (audiences at the time would know if this was a real thing or not; I'm just assuming it's a total fabrication on the part of the screenwriters). During the lecture's wrapup, the officer mentions the possibility of coal, copper, iron or uranium deposits that could be exploited by anyone who gets there first, and suddenly the "map a place that will kill you in ten seconds" plan makes a lot more sense.

When a woman walks into the lecture hall, every head in the audience turns to gawk at her and the guy presiding over the lecture has to remind everyone what they're supposed to be paying attention to. Some of the military men seem a little abashed, while the others obviously are more interested in ethics in video game journalism. During a break in the proceedings two of the men discuss the XX-chromosome-having new arrival. She's Margaret Hathaway of the Oceanic Press, a presumably fictitious but real-sounding magazine that would be interested in the Naval expedition, even without the possibility of Shoggoths or alien shape-stealing aliens to report on.

Hathaway's going along on the expedition to report on whatever there is to report on, and the officer in charge of the briefing warns her that it's going to be dangerous both from the environment and from being the only woman in a group of eight hundred men, all of whom are thousands of miles from home or from any other females of the species. She takes the warning utterly in stride, and meets the expedition staff (specifically Commander Roberts, who turns out to be a fan of her column for the Oceanic Press and Lieutenant Carmen, a helicopter pilot). Everyone's pretty polite (though the pilot's kind of a leering jerk and everyone acts like this is nothing out of the ordinary) and footage of the Byrd expedition of 1947 gets shown to a room full of people that would presumably already be very familiar with it--though the movie audience in the theater or at home certainly wouldn't be expected to know about it. The exposition is delivered with a heaping dollop of stock footage and Roberts tells his seatmate that the expedition will leave in two months, which get elided through the elegant technique of dissolving from the briefing room to the Northwind, which sets sail for the bottom of the world.

One more helping of stock footage later, the ships are bashing their way through Antarctic ice and the actors are standing on a "ship's deck" set where the film grain doesn't quite match up with the icebreaking footage. Dire romantic banter ensues, with Hathaway complaining that her friend at the rail is too scientific and technically minded, and not emotional enough. The ice is thicker than expected, and the ships are expecting to be two weeks behind schedule (out of a projected four weeks' exploration, filming and map-making time in the South Pole summer). This means that there will be longer helicopter flights than the regulations would normally allow and everyone's going to have to do much more Science Stuff in the shortened time than they expected to be doing. There is absolutely no way this could go wrong at all.

The three principals (Hathaway, Commander Roberts, the helicopter pilot and a fourth dude whose name I didn't catch) head out in an observation chopper to go look at stock footage of seals and fly past some really impressive mountain scenery. Although at least one shot has the helicopter matted in so badly that it's translucent. The penguins are cute, though, and Roberts shows off a weird sense of extremely dry humor by claiming he can tell whether the animals they're looking at from a half mile up are male or female. Back at the base, there's some kind of nasty weather coming in and the expedition commander orders a functionary to recall the chopper immediately. The news of the storm coming in gets to the copter and the pilot starts his return approach just as they reach that "warm water area"; there isn't enough fuel to go around the storm and the ground isn't level enough to land safely (not to mention that there isn't enough food or water for the four people to get back to base camp on foot).

The pilot steers into a fog bank to avoid the worst of the weather (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me either), and then a pterodactyl buzzes the helicopter! The altimeter and temperature gauges don't make any sense (the chopper is supposedly 2500 feet below sea level with a temperature of 91 degrees and rising). The pilot sees the ground seconds before he makes a rough but serviceable landing and shuts the helicopter down. All that the characters (and the audience) can see at the moment are fog and a few trees. Steve (the fourth character in the helicopter) checks the rotor and there's a bent part that needs to be repaired before they're going anywhere--looks like they'll be at the bottom of a massive volcanic crater in the impossibly warm zone until the "push-pull tube assembly" gets fixed. Thank goodness Steve turns out to be a mechanic, or at least knows how to hit the busted part with a rock until it works.

While the pilot and Steve are fixing the helicopter part, Hathaway and Roberts go look around at the unprecedented scientific discovery--a "lost world" in the bottom of a gigantic volcanic crater. Yeah, it's not that surprising to me either. Marvel Comics has the Savage Land and Professor Challenger ran into these things all the time. I think Tarzan had two entirely different "lost worlds" that he came across at various points in his career. I'm a little surprised there was still room in the Antarctic for all the ice and snow. Hathaway backs up to a really boss looking carnivorous plant and utterly fails to notice it trying to grab her with its tendrils; meanwhile, the radio on the helicopter may or may not be working (they're an awfully far distance down for the signal to get out and the aerial took a knock during their landing). Steve breaks the push-pull tube in half while trying to straighten it ("You had ONE JOB" is the kind of thing I'd say here, although it wouldn't help the situation). Oh, and the main expedition will be leaving in several weeks, so if the four people don't figure out a way to repair the helicopter or get in touch with the main base, they could be stuck in the crater for the rest of their lives (which could be weeks or years).

They decide to get some rest and figure out what to do when everyone's a little less tired and freaked out; then a pterodactyl buzzes their camp and that's it for a placid meeting. I like the matte painting here, though it's not realistic--I tend to throw my nitpicking faculties out the window when watching something in the "jungle exploration filmed entirely on a soundstage" genre. Roberts knows enough science to peg the flora and (overheard but barely seen) fauna as belonging to the Mezozoic era. Before much can be made of this discovery everyone hears the search plane over the crater but a frantic radio call remains unheard. While Roberts, Hathaway and the pilot rig up a life raft so they can go exploring in a nearby lake, Steve looks for fresh water and finds a spring that's potable, along with a pterosaur carcass that freaks him right out. He runs back to the group to tell them he saw something that scared the heck out of him and when they all see the giant dead flying reptile Roberts points out that a dead animal is a food source, and whatever eventually wants to eat the carcass would probably be a threat to them as well.

Which is the cue for the standard "monitor lizards battling each other" sequence. I hate seeing them in these Fifties movies because I'm sure the animals were seriously injured or killed just for a B-list lost world adventure movie. As always, I heartily wish the producer that wanted this scene was badly bitten by the animals he requested. There's some rather-good matting in of the human characters to make the lizards look a great deal bigger while they're tussling--no, I don't like the scene, but it's done well on a technical level. While fleeing the victorious Big Damn Monitor, Steve falls in the lake like a dope and then an Allosaurus shows up. While I dug the movie so far, it's when they bring in my favorite dinosaur that I really start to feel well-disposed towards the film. The suit is mediocre-to-pretty-good, and the filmmakers didn't know enough to undercrank the film so the dinosaur looks bigger and more massive while it's moving; I don't care. I'm just happy to see one in a film. The blinking eyelids and moving jaws and tongue are a nice touch. Pity about the ludicrously tiny arms, but you can't have everything.

The human characters retreat to their helicopter and fire it up; the Allosaurus gets slashed by the rotors when it tries to attack them and wanders off sullenly. Alas! Also, the characters in the film call it a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which it clearly is not (note the three foreclaws as well as the eyebrow ridges). I don't know who built that suit but they either didn't care enough about accuracy to make a T-Rex suit or harbored a grudging fondness for the also-rans of the dinosaur kingdom and built an accurate Allosaurus suit, knowing the film producers wouldn't know any better. Either way, I'm just happy it's in the film. Turns out the suit performer was named Tim Smyth, which means I may have gone back in time under an assumed name in order to be in this movie.

After the aborted dinosaur attack, Roberts makes the command decision that everyone's going to condense their base camp and just live in the helicopter until they get rescued or figure out a way out of the cavern. But back at their supply depot, several cans have been opened and emptied. Nobody owns up to eating more than their rations, but Roberts knows for a fact that there were no humans around in the era that this region is stuck in. And for that matter, even if there were they wouldn't have developed the can opener without first inventing the food cannery. There's a distinct lack of those in the immediate area.

While taking stock of the situation, Steve finds a tarsier that everyone admires for being fluffy, small and non-homicidal; shortly after that interlude there's another monitor lizard that attacks the camp (or maybe the same one that won the Lizard Rumble earlier). When she runs off so she doesn't get eaten by the lizard a human arm comes out from behind a piece of scenery and puts her in the world's most quick-acting sleeper hold; the man, dressed in ragged leathers, carries her off to a woven-reed boat and paddles off without giving the audience a look at the kidnapper's face. The three men find the footprints left by the abductor and go looking for Hathaway, who has been taken to a cave by someone who eventually reveals himself as Dr. Hunter, a survivor of a plane that crashed during the 1947 expedition. The film seems to be hinting that Hunter is a caveman right up to the point where he speaks English; it's a pretty neat twist, considering how many times the earlier expedition was mentioned. Hunter has gone a little bit banana-crackers in his isolation, and tells Hathaway that everything in the valley is his, including her. I wouldn't have thought there'd be such an overtly sexist character in the film, what with virtually every other speaking part being a man who says something snide about women at one point. Hunter also tells his captive that one of the dinosaurs in the lost world killed the other three men.

Hunter explains how he's still alive in his Hidden Valley Ranch; he smashes the dinosaur eggs that he finds, and uses a conch shell that the reptiles hate to frighten them away from his swingin' bachelor pad cave. He then puts the super-aggressive moves on Hathaway but gets surprised by the three other men from the expedition showing up and holding him at gunpoint. Serves you right, jerk. Roberts makes an introduction (still keeping his gun out of the holster but not necessarily pointing it at Hunter right that moment), and the survivor of the earlier expedition reveals his name to the group, though there's a little ambiguity about whether or not he really remembers who he is after a decade of adrenaline and terror.

He's got enough of his marbles left to figure out that the wreckage of his crashed plane from the 1947 expedition might have enough useful parts in it to fix the busted helicopter component and he's willing to strike a bargain with the three men--they can have a map to his crashed airplane and whatever they need from the wreckage in exchange for leaving the valley and not letting Hathaway go with them. This proposition is roundly rejected and everyone walks out of the furnished cave.

So all the four members of the expedition have to do is find the crashed plane, not get killed by anything they don't even know is out there, avoid the dinosaurs they do know about, salvage something from the plane wreck to repair the helicopter, and get back out of the lost cavern in three weeks or less in order to get back to the base camp for the main expedition. It's the Fifties, so their survival is never really in question (and the pilot and mechanic are important enough to the escape attempt that they can't get killed until very near the end of it, if at all). The real fun is just in watching them do it and figure out a way out of the impossible and horribly dangerous situation they've gotten stuck in. Oh, and the Allosaurus comes back again, which is great. Apparently the monster suit cost so much to construct that the movie was filmed in black and white--that explains the incongruity of a CinemaScope release that wasn't also in dazzling color.

Truly, we live in an age where B movie fans are utterly spoiled by what is available. I'd never heard of this movie until I got the five-film DVD set "The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Volume 2" for my birthday from a very good friend and fellow B-flick enthusiast. Having no idea what to expect, everything in the film was simultaneously a welcome surprise and a familiar experience. It's never going to win any awards (and the strolling man-in-a-suit dinosaur would look so much better if the crew knew to slow the shots down so it looked more massive), but if you're going to watch something where square-jawed American sailors figure out how to escape a lethal predicament it's a great choice.

And now, as a gimmick at the end of the review, my Grarrl would like to make a quick joke. It's a blatant theft of Nathan Shumate's gimmick from the now-defunct Cold Fusion Reviews; the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound sculpture was his mascot and would get the last word in his reviews.

"I don't know what you were talking about. These effects are AMAZING. It's like I'm really in the movie!"


  1. The ladies have two X's, not two Y's. Also, 50 points for the ethics in journalism crack.

  2. I'm going to edit the review so that you look like you're nitpicking incorrectly, and then leave a comment here so that...damn. My plan is bad. Thanks for the info.