Music Monday – Space-o-Saurus Edition

Either you love or hate 1977′s Planet of Dinosaurs, and those in the latter camp likely hold more against the picture than just its amateur production values and dubious performances. Kelly Lammers and John O’Verlin’s ultra-low-budget synth score has earned plenty of ire in its own right, and seems almost to have been calculated to etch itself indelibly upon impressionable minds. Indeed, in the now decades since I first saw the picture I’ve never forgotten a note of it.

Whether the electronic tinkerings of Lammers and O’Verlin evoke fond remembrance or send you crawling up the wall, this Music Monday is for you. Needless to say Planet of Dinosaurs has never had an official soundtrack release, so the track today is sourced straight from the long-OOP Goodtimes DVD – the sample is of the traveling march composed for the film, a track that was the next best thing to nails on chalkboard to my poor mother. Enjoy it, loathe it, torment your friends… and be sure to check out the film here.

Music Monday – Don’t Give a Damn About Dinosaurs Edition

What can I say – I love John Scott’s score to Amicus’ minor 1977 Burroughs adaptation The People That Time Forgot. The sequel to the swell The Land That Time Forgot largely eschews the narrative of the eponymous Burroughs source story and filling in the spaces with some nonsense about a living volcano and an inordinate amount of explosive pyrotechnics. Provided expectations are checked it can be a whole heap of fun. John Scott’s score is of higher stuff than the film (best remembered these days for star Dana Gillespie’s gravity-defying prehistoric top) really deserves, and its moody themes have stuck with me since childhood.

I had a time deciding which track from the score to share here today, but ultimately settled on Court of Nagramata, a set of cues that concludes with the memorable March of the Nagas, a rousing number that was bouncing around my young mind for days after I first saw the film. The complete John Scott score to The People That Time Forgot is available on CD through the composer’s own JOS records, and can be purchased through Amazon.com or ScreenArchives.com.

King Kong

written by Delos W. Lovelace
conceived by Edgar Wallace and Marian C. Cooper
originally published in December 1932
reviewed copy published by Tempo Books,
a subsidiary of Grosset and Dunlap, in 1976
with illustrations by
Richard Powers
the novelization of King Kong is available in innumerable editions through Amazon and other booksellers.


King Kong is here reviewed as part of MOSS’ May-long Hairy Beasts celebration. Be sure to check out our contribution from earlier in the month – the El Santo saga Santo vs. Las Lobas courtesy of Denis’ weekly The Horror!? column.


Something of an anomaly from a time in which the movie tie-in wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous a phenomena (a difficult past to imagine now that even hollow Hollywood extravaganzas like Battleship are granted novelizations), Delos W. Lovelace’s brisk prose adaptation of the quintessential monster fantasy is, if nothing else, proof positive of the great lengths to which producers Cooper, Schoedsack and Selznick went to familiarize the public with their epic Depression-era production. Lovelace’s King Kong, originally published in late 1932 (well in advance of the film’s March ’33 premiere), wasn’t the great ape’s only contemporary foray into print media either, but while the abbreviated two-part adaptation serialized by Mystery Magazine in February-March of 1933 is now all but forgotten Lovelace’s Kong lives on, having been reprinted time and again, typically in timely association with the latest big screen Kong adventure. Case in point is the copy reviewed here, a mass-market paperback scale-down of the hardcover The Illustrated King Kong from Grosset and Dunlap, originally published to coincide with mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis’ unsatisfying 1976 iteration.

While I picked up my copy of the Lovelace Kong longer ago than I can remember, to the best of my knowledge this marks the first time I’ve actually read the thing. That’s not to say I haven’t been tempted, but having never been without a copy of the film on video (be it VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, or Blu-ray) that temptation was always tempered by the fact that it was just darned easier to watch Kong than read him, even with the big-print of the paperback scarcely filling two hundred pages. And then there was the persistent question – just how much can a Kong book possibly have to offer when the film is so indelible, so familiar?

And indeed, the narrative of Lovelace’s Kong is as familiar as one might expect, deviating little from the screenplay that serves as its foundation. The tale begins with adventurer and filmmaker Carl Denham stalking about downtown Manhattan on a desperate hunt for a pretty (and unrepresented) face for his latest production, a mysterious bit of documentary-fiction whose South Seas subject Denham keeps a closely guarded secret. He finds that face in the beautiful Ann Darrow, a down-on-her-luck performer he rescues from hunger (and certain arrest) after he sees her snatching an apple from a street vendor’s stand. After feeding her, clothing her, and assuring her of his honest intentions (“No funny business!”), Denham whisks Ann off to the tramp freighter Wanderer and sets off, with dependable Captain Englehorn, handsome first mate Jack Driscoll, and three times the ship’s usual crew, for an uncharted speck of land far west of Sumatra…

With rare exception Lovelace’s Kong emulates its cinematic equivalent to a prosaic T in so far as its human drama is concerned. Sure, Ann and Jack’s “I guess I love you” romance is moved ahead in the schedule (and up from the deck to the crow’s nest for good measure) and ethnic stereotype Charlie (the Wanderer‘s Chinese cook in the film) is now a more politically correct old codger named Lumpy*, but substantive differences are few and far between. Ann Darrow makes screaming screen tests while Denham rattles on about Beauties and Beasts (“I’m going right into a theme song here!”) until the Wanderer encroaches upon a mysterious fog bank and Denham’s elusive shooting location is finally revealed – Skull Mountain Island**, a rocky outcrop covered in dense tropical foliage and whose only populated area is cut off from the rest by an immense and ancient wall. The fair-haired Ann inevitably catches the eye of the Island’s native populace, who were in the midst of an ancient sacrificial rite at the time of the Wanderer‘s arrival. They eventually kidnap the unsuspecting beauty with the intention of making her the latest offering to their prehistoric god – a new bride for the mighty Kong.

It is in the story’s comparatively dull buildup to its fantastic adventure across Skull Mountain Island that Lovelace’s Kong shows its weaknesses most. Part of the trouble obviously lies in the familiarity of the drama, but the greater problem rests with Lovelace’s prose itself – this is where the briskness of the novel becomes a bit of a distraction. Technically speaking there is nothing at all wrong with Lovelace’s writing, but all the grammatical proficiency in the world can’t make up for the fact that it’s such slight, barren stuff. The film relies (and beautifully so) on the artifices of its medium, the performances, the photography, the score, the fantastical set and effects design, to build atmosphere and evoke emotion in the viewer. Lovelace finds no literary substitutes for the same, and the novel Kong, bereft of all but the sparest of descriptions and characterizations, suffers greatly for it.

That said, Lovelace’s word-pinching ways aren’t enough keep the story’s most attractive element – its lengthy diversion into the prehistoric jungles of Skull Mountain Island – from being anything less than enjoyable. Indeed, this is where those already familiar with the film (are any of you not?) will find the most to love.

As with the earlier drama, the majority of the Wanderer crew’s death-defying trek through the hostile territory beyond the wall is by the book (or film, as it were), with the sailors menaced not just by the furious Kong, but by the uncharacteristically aggressive advances of two of the Island’s herbivores – a Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus respectively. The major difference arrives at the end of the Brontosaurus attack, after one unfortunate straggler is chased up a tree by the brute, at which point the crew reaches the edges of a tar pit and catches sight of a trio of Triceratops, themselves in pursuit of Kong. The great ape holds his own, bashing in one of the beasts’ heads with a massive slab of slate, but the Wanderer‘s intrepid adventurers don’t fare so well when the remaining pair turn their frustrations towards more defenseless prey. Only a single sailor falls victim to the expected violence – being crushed beneath one of the monsters and eventually gored. The rest are chased towards an enormous ravine-spanning log, and lost cinema history.

Produced, but cut from the film prior to release for whatever reason, the long lost Spider Pit Sequence has become the Holy Grail for fans of monster cinema – and it’s alive and well, if a bit dulled by the paucity of verbiage, in Lovelace’s Kong. With a charging Triceratops at one end of the log and the enraged Kong at the other, the crew of the Wanderer find themselves with no escape but into the dark recesses of a primordial hell below:

“Two of the men lost their holds. One grasped madly at the face of a prone comrade and left bloody finger marks as he went whirling down into the decaying silt at the bottom. He had no more than struck when the lizard flashed upon him. [...] The second man did not die in the fall. He was not even unconscious. He landed feet first, sinking immediately to his waistline in the mud, and screamed horribly as not one but half a dozen of the great spiders swarmed over him.”

The horror of the spiders over and done with, Lovelace’s Kong returns once more to the familiar. Driscoll and Denham survive the onslaught, though on opposite sides of the ravine. While Denham heads back to the wall for help from the Wanderer‘s surviving crew Driscoll silently stalks Kong, witnessing his battles against various Jurassic-age monstrosities on the way to his lair high on Skull Mountain. Aside from a particularly romantic retelling of Driscoll and Ann’s harrowing escape from Kong’s clutches (arguably the most successful part of Lovelace’s novelization, and in welcome possession of the sort of emotional hooks that are in such scant supply elsewhere) the rest of the novel Kong plays in the predicted fashion, albeit less the tragic undertones that make the film’s final moments so unforgettable.

If it sounds as though I’m being too harsh towards Lovelace, I really don’t intend to be. I have no qualms with his style of writing in and of itself, and there are plenty of bloated modern efforts that would do well to take his frugal sense to heart. It just never works well enough with the material in question to make it anything but ordinary, and as such Lovelace’s Kong never excels beyond the low expectations these film-to-book adaptations typically command. Ultimately this is far more interesting as an artifact of early tie-in marketing than as literature, and unless you’re one of those obsessed with all things Kong (I’ll admit I’m guilty, at least so far as the ’33 film is concerned) there’s very little to recommend here.

* Peter Jackson’s 2005 Kong wisely took this change to heart, before unwisely offing the character mid-way through.
** Just ‘Skull Island’ in the film, I know. Lovelace, and perhaps the script from which he worked, preferred this less concise delineation.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

dir. Henry Levin
1959 / 20th Century Fox / 129′
written by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett
from the novel by Jules Verne
director of photography Leo Tover
original music by Bernard Herrmann
starring Pat BooneJames Mason, Arlene Dahl, Peter Ronson, Thayer David, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Alan Caillou, and Gertrude the Duck
reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight Time
Journey to the Center of the Earth
 is out on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, and is available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel Voyage au Centre de la Terre has been adapted many times for screens both large and small, most often quite badly, but despite some considerable liberties taken with the source material this big-budget adaptation from 20th Century Fox remains the best of the bunch. The (very) big brother to Irwin Allen’s lamentable yet lovable sci-fi fiasco The Lost World, Fox’s 1959 production of Journey to the Center of the Earth fills the CinemaScope screen with vivid color spectacle and A-list talent while one of Bernard Herrmann’s best fantasy scores rumbles forth in 4-track stereo. It remains a damn fine show more than half a century on, bolstered by an intelligent, often playful screenplay (from Charles The Lost Weekend Brackett and Walter Gaslight Reisch) that still holds up – it’s no surprise the film made a small mint upon release, and continues to generate royalty checks for its then-young star Pat Boone.

Though substantially altered in its details the narrative here is familiar enough: When the recently-knighted Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, displaying the same charismatic misanthropy that would mark his performance in Kubrick’s Lolita) receives a celebratory paperweight – an unusually heavy chunk of igneous rock – from his star pupil Alec (Pat Boone, whose heart-throb appeal is plundered early and often), he suspects there’s more to the thing than meets the eye. A chance encounter with an overfed laboratory furnace reveals the suspicious rock’s secret – within lies a plumb-bob upon which is etched the last words of explorer Arne Saknussem, who therein claims to have reached the center of the Earth!

Thus is launched the Lindenbrook expedition, an effort by the Professor and his loyal underling (Boone is, amusingly, billed above Mason) to follow in Saknussem’s footsteps and reach the furthest recesses of the inner Earth. After joining forces with Madame Carla Göteborg (the lovely Arlene Dahl as the freshly widowed wife of a rival scientist), Icelandic strongman Hans (legitimate Icelander Peter Ronson), and his devoted duck Gertrude, the expedition makes its way down into an extinct volcanic crater and through the cavernous interior of the Earth, threatened all the while by hazardous geology, dinosaurs, and a devious heir to the Saknussem legacy who wishes to claim the center of the Earth as his own…

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a matinee-style programmer done in atypically grand style, and one of the few honestly BIG science fiction spectacles of its day (along with Forbidden Planet and the productions of George Pal). While some of the set design is suspect (director Henry Levin and director of photography Leo Tover keep those early cavern interiors dark with good reason) the overall scale of the thing, particularly when the ruins of Atlantis and the expansive mushroom forest make their appearances, and the caliber of the talent involved more than make up for it. Boone no doubt set his young idolaters’ hearts a-twitter, both with his early crooning and later clothing-impaired antics, but for me this has always been Mason’s show. The actor was arguably at the height of his potential here, with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest under his belt and Kubrick’s Lolita within sight, and had already proven his Verneian mettle as the quintessential Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just a few years earlier. Perhaps more important than Mason alone is the convincing tit-for-tat relationship that develops between him and his co-star Arlene Dahl (one of Minneapolis’ own, for those of you locals reading) – this drama has always worked for me, even as a kid who was accustomed to patiently waiting out the “boring parts” to get to the sensational trappings.

Of course Journey to the Center of the Earth has sensational trappings in spades, including such suspense staples as the ledge walk (soon to be appropriated by Irwin Allen, who evidently thought it the epitome of screen thrills), the giant rolling boulder, and the collapsing rock bridge – this was one of the earlier big-budget efforts to co-opt such B-grade cliffhanger devices, before Lucas and Star Wars made the practice an industry standard. The special effects production is top-notch throughout, with the matte artist(s) proving especially deserving of commendation (the early vistas of Icelandic mountains and later revelation of a vast underground sea are both breathtaking stuff), though, as ever, there is at least one point of contention. Like One Million B.C. and the Flash Gordon serials before it, Journey to the Center of the Earth relied on the deservedly criticized slurpasaur technique to bring its various dinosaurs to life. In this case its a gaggle of rhinoceros iguanas and one rather irate tegu pulling monster duty, though at least the former are cast as morphologically similar Dimetrodons – in the annals of slurpasaur history they are easily some of the most convincing. Fox obviously deemed the monster efforts of Emil Kosa Jr., James B. Gordon and L. B. Abbott to be “good enough” in this respect, as the trio were tasked with the process again just a year later, for Irwin Allen’s The Lost World.

Slurpasaurs or no, Journey to the Center of the Earth‘s tremendous entertainment potential remains (there’s a reason the ScreenArchives servers crashed the day this film went up for pre-order, and it wasn’t just the promise of Pat Boone’s autograph!), and with a host of wonderful performances, a taught script, and superb production design on its side it stands firmly as one of the best of its genre. This is a film that’s captivated me since before I can rightly remember, and is more than worthy of recommendation if for that reason alone. See it!

I’ve owned Journey to the Center of the Earth on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD over the years, and as such I’ve looked forward the title’s debut in high definition with the utmost anticipation. I was not disappointed.

If I’m not mistaken, Journey‘s negative was in too ragged a condition to be sourced for either DVD or Blu-ray, and as such the film had to be reconstituted from 35mm separations (essentially three individual black and white prints, each of which represents one color of the three-strip color process) for its more recent video transfers. Given the quality of the results, I’m glad 20th Century Fox went to all the trouble. It seems pertinent to get the worst out of the way first. Journey isn’t a spotless presentation by any means, and minor flecks and speckling are in evidence throughout. More bothersome is faint but notable vertical scratching to the right of frame center that persists for what appears to be an entire reel, from roughly 00:35:00 to 00:48:00 (see the first screenshot below, just above Alec’s shoulder). The anomaly is present in the 2003 Fox DVD of the film as well, but has become more noticeable with the increased resolution (it’s easy to miss unless hunted for on the DVD).

The issue of damage aside, it’s difficult to fault Journey‘s HD presentation for much of anything else – in 1080p this film can be quite stunning, and the improvement in-motion is substantial (gone forever is the modestly ghosty, video quality of the DVD). As I find myself saying so often of these older CinemaScope productions, detail doesn’t improve so much as the texture of the thing. This is another film that has thankfully been allowed to retain the physicality of that medium on Blu-ray, even if the grain isn’t so well rendered here as on The Egyptian or Picnic. Color reproduction is vivid and natural (this is perhaps the greatest benefit of working from separations), with robust saturation and sharp contrast that really puts past editions to shame. In purely technical terms this is another good showing for Twilight Time - Journey receives a typically strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. The feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and artifacting, if any, is negligible. Fans of the film should be very pleased.

Journey to the Center of the Earth receives a considerable bump in the audio department courtesy of a lovely lossless DTS-HD MA encode of the original 4-track stereo mix, and it should come as no surprise that Bernard Herrmann’s bass-heavy score, often muddled in past editions, sees the most benefit from it. The organs underlying the opening title theme are thunderous here, and as a former bass (and contrabass) clarinetist I was thrilled to finally be able to distinguish that instrument’s role in things as well. As is the norm for Twilight Time’s Fox-licensed titles, there are no subtitles available. Supplements offer Herrmann’s score as an isolated lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, as well as the original American and Spanish trailers for the film (both SD). Packaging is of the company’s typically high standards, spearheaded by another wonderful essay from Julie Kirgo, and the disc is, again, fully functional, with non-generic chapter stops, pop-up menu and so on.

What else can I say? I love this film, and Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray soundly bests what’s come before. This gets another easy recommendation from me.

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

The Lost World

dir. Irwin Allen
1960 / 20th Century Fox / 96′
written by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett
from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
director of photography Winton C. Hoch
music by
 Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter
starring Claude Raines, David Hedison, Jill St. John, Michael Rennie, Fernando Lamas, Richard Haydn and Vitina Marcus
The Lost World is available on both standalone 2-disc DVD and as part of a budget-priced 75th anniversary four-film DVD set (the latter version omits the second disc, which features the George Eastman House restoration of the 1925 The Lost World, as well as a trailer fragment and several minutes of effects outtakes, but pairs the feature with three others – Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Fantastic Voyage and The Towering Inferno).

Playing as a sort of matinee-ready follow-up to 20th Century Fox’s successful Journey to the Center of the Earth from the year before, Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is big, colorful, and dumb in more or less equal measure. The screenplay by Allen and frequent collaborator Charles Bennett (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), freely adapted from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel with some allusions to First National’s classic silent version thrown in for good measure, may propel Doyle’s early-century action into more modern times, but the film’s effects production remains positively prehistoric. This is perhaps the slurpasaur epic, second only to Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. in its wholesale embarrassment / abuse of large lizards and others of their ilk. It’s really a dreadful show by most measures, a fact compounded by a stirringly awful turn from Jill St. John (Diamonds Are Forever), but Winton C. Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography and Allen’s own sense for pure stupid spectacle (this may be the genesis of his go-to suspense setup – the ledge) keep it from being a total bore.

The tale begins in London where, shortly after bopping bothersome American newsman Ed Malone (David Hedison) over the head with an umbrella, the imminent and irascible Professor Challenger (the wonderful Claude Rains, horribly miscast) heads to a meeting of the resident Zoological Society to make a shocking announcement: He has discovered an unscalable plateau hidden deep within the forests of the Amazon, a plateau populated by the living descendants of animals thought extinct since the Jurassic Age. In other words, “Live dinosaurs!”

With nothing to show for himself, his photographs and journals having been lost in an accident on the return voyage, Challenger proposes that a new expedition be mounted to his lost world, to be manned by himself, the ZSL’s own Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn, well chosen as Challenger’s condescending professional rival), and two unbiased volunteers. Stepping up to the challenge are Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie!), renowned big game hunter, explorer, and philanderer, and, much to Challenger’s chagrin, reporter Ed Malone, whose boss immediately fronts $100,000 for the expedition’s expenses. With the money and team in order the trip into the Amazon begins, where its roster of personnel quickly bloats beyond all recognition. Aside from the necessary addition of helicopter pilot Gomez (Fernando Lamas!) the expedition takes on the useless and slimy local profiteer Costa (character player Jay Novello, wasted in his role) as well as Roxton’s headstrong love interest Jennifer Holmes (a dreadful Jill St. John) and her brother David, the two children of Malone’s wealthy news-baron employer.

 
 
 

Gorged on superfluous humanity, the Challenger expedition hobbles its way to the isolated plateau and, with its helicopter destroyed by a wandering brontosaurus (amusingly identified by Challenger without him having had an opportunity to see it), quickly becomes stranded there. Taking refuge in a spacious cave, the team members set out to investigate their surroundings and happen upon an example of native wildlife far more interesting than dinosaurs – the beautiful Vitina Marcus as a mini-dressed tribeswoman. Unfortunately her existence suggests that more of her kind are living on the plateau, and soon the expedition finds itself contending not only with dinosaurs and other giant flora and fauna, but a tribe of monster-worshiping cannibal natives as well…

While several oft-omitted elements of the original novel found their way into this The Lost World in heavily adapted forms, including subplots involving diamonds, capture by natives, and even a dramatic conflict between Roxton and Gomez (in the novel this was the method by which the expedition was stranded, and was replaced by a brontosaurus in the 1925 film – this The Lost World keeps both), those hoping that Allen and Bennet’s writing might stick close to the source should look elsewhere. Indeed, the closest Allen’s production comes to honoring the author’s intentions is to put his name above the title card – which summarily bursts into flames. Perhaps the most grievous wound inflicted upon the material, besides the inclusion of Frosty the poodle in the character roster, is a love triangle revolving around the dull Jennifer Holmes and the backwards sexual politics that come with it. The Lost World, like From Hell It Came, is another of those films in which a woman tries to prove herself in “a man’s world” only to be happily put in her place by the final reel. The overtly objectified Vitina Marcus doesn’t escape either, being so much eye-candy that the film neglects to even name her. After an attempted rape by the sleazy Costa is thwarted young David pulls Marcus aside. “We’re not all like that,” he assures, before losing all credibility with his follow-up. “You know, you’re kinda nice!”

Ultimately more problematic than any of that is that Allen and Bennet have populated their The Lost World with such unlikable characters (not to mention that damned dog). It’s impossible not to like Claude Rains’ as Professor Challenger, miscast though he is in the role of the boorish and confrontational zoologist, and at least Gomez is granted a justifiable reason (spoiler: the death of his beloved brother due to Roxton’s negligence) for being such a jerk. Otherwise this is pretty rough going, compounded by the lackluster quality of the writing itself and Allen’s own uninspired direction. Seemingly at a loss for blocking the action in any interesting way, Allen resorts time and again to having his cast wander into a single and double-file lines to fill the frame. Winton Hoch’s vivid CinemaScope photography helps to distract from some of the deficiencies – Hoch had worked with Allen previously on The Big Circus, and would go on to photograph Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Five Weeks in a Balloon as well as episodes of several of Allen’s television series. More than just an award-winning director of photography, Hoch had helped to develop the three-strip Technicolor process as a lab tech in the 1930s. When it came to color on film he obviously knew his stuff.

 
 
 

Like the majority of Irwin Allen productions the issues of writing and characterization are all secondary to the spectacle of the thing, and The Lost World has spectacle to spare. Aside from the expected encounters with dinosaurs and cave-people Allen also treated audiences to one of his first daring ledge-walks (watch out for those obvious fall-away rocks!) as well as a climactic volcanic eruption and a gaggle of man-eating plants. Though Willis O’Brien receives credit as an effects technician (just what he contributed, if anything, is unclear – sadly this appears to have been his final on-screen credit) his time-consuming stop motion animation process went unused here, and the dinosaurs were instead brought to life through the dubious slurpasaur technique. Used to reasonably good effect in Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth and here managed by the same studio effects techs (L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr.), The Lost World features monitor lizards, iguanas, alligators, and geckos in a variety of rubber appliances. Though close inspection reveals the detail with which the technique was carried out (a lot of work went into matching colors, scale patterns and so forth) it never goes so far as to work – convincing an audience that a Nile monitor topped off with a triceratops’ frill and a stegosaurus’ back plates is anything other than what it looks to be is a losing battle.

The dependence on slurpasaur effects is perhaps the show’s greatest handicap, particularly for modern viewers with higher sensitivity to animal cruelty. There’s little doubt that at least some of the costumed reptiles were outright killed for the production – one is sunk into a bubbling pool and doused with smoldering lava-substitute, while an homage to the star dinosaur battle from One Million B.C. concludes with technicians hurling the participants over a ledge. These scenes were enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth even as a child, and certainly hasn’t grown on me since then. Allen trotted out this dinosaur footage at every opportunity during his television career, from The Time Tunnel to Land of the Giants, and even re-cast Vitina Marcus in her familiar cave-girl role in Turn Back the Clock, a season one episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that replays the events of The Lost World wholesale.

So what are we left with after all this? A well-shot but poorly conceived adaptation of a classic novel that’s loaded with unlikable characters and largely dependent on animal abuse for its thrills. This is one of those cases where I should by all rights hate the film, big and stupid and reprehensible as it can be, but for some intangible reason I don’t hate Irwin Allen’s The Lost World at all. Contemporary audiences apparently agreed. Though it received only middling critical attention the modestly budgeted The Lost World made a mint for both Allen and 20th Century Fox upon its release, fast-tracking Allen’s far more substantial (if no less dumb) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and setting the stage for his successful stint as a producer of 60s fantasy television.

 
 
 

Whether you’ve picked it up on its own or as part of the company’s recent spate of 75th anniversary DVD multipacks (as I did, netting The Lost World and 3 co-features, each on their own disc, for just under $10), 20th Century Fox’s DVD edition of Irwin Allen’s The Lost World is certainly a looker – if I’m not mistaken this is the first time the film has been available on home video in its original CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio.

Aside from some modest edge enhancement, a bit of minor damage (just some speckling, light scratching and dirt – nothing unexpected for a film of this vintage) and the odd errant reel change marker, there’s very little that can be held against Fox’s presentation of Irwin Allen’s schlockterpiece. From dense green foliage punctuated with brilliant blue and red flowers to the glowing reds of a lava chamber to the ridiculous jungle attire of Jill St. John (and her salmon pink luggage), the DeLuxe color is surprisingly bold, only falling flat during the occasional optical work (as when the Challenger expedition spots their first… ehem… dinosaur). To that end DVD Savant wrote of some anomalous color timing, but I didn’t notice anything untoward – note that I’ve only ever seen the film on VHS previously, and never theatrically, so make of that what you will. Contrast is at healthy levels throughout and detail is quite strong, particularly during the miniature photography. Even with a bit of obvious haloing this gave a strong presentation upscaled on my HD set, and the technical specs are unexpectedly robust – the Mpeg-2 encode clocks in with a high average bitrate of just over 8 Mbps.

 
 

 

Audio is less impressive, but gets the job done. The feature is accompanied by two stereo tracks in the original English – the original 4-track stereo mixed as Dolby Digital 3.1 surround as well as a standard Dolby Digital 2.0. There’s some strange directional stuff going on with the 3.1 option at times, with dialogue occasionally feeling as though it’s coming through on the wrong channel, but this didn’t bother me so much as how frail it sounded overall. Paul Sawtell and Bert Schefter’s strong score comes through well enough, as do the dinosaur roars (mostly recycled from Fox’s earlier Journey to the Center of the Earth) and other effects, but the dialogue can sound quite thin and weak. The 2.0 track does nothing to improve on that front, and I assume it’s just a fault of the original recording. Monophonic dubs in Spanish and French are also included, as are optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

Film-specific supplements are light, but appreciated. A three-minute vintage featurette – Footprints on the Sands of Time - and a brief excerpt from Fox Movietone News (just under a minute) round out the documentary material, with an original theatrical trailer rounding out the video supplements as a whole. The best extras of the bunch are a set of comprehensive image galleries that cover pre-production artwork and film stills as well as ad art, an “interactive” press book, and Dell’s tie-in comic adaptation. There’s some terrific stuff here, especially with regards to the pre-production illustrations, though Fox impairs itself needlessly in making the galleries practically unmaneuverable. Those with the 2-disc standalone edition will also be treated to the George Eastman House restoration of the classic 1925 The Lost World, which runs 76 minutes, as well as some outtake footage and a trailer fragment for that (vastly superior) version of the story.

The $20 retail price attached to the stand-alone 2-disc DVD of Irwin Allen’s The Lost World seems a little steep to this bean counter, but you really can’t go wrong with the Studio Classics four-pack (unless you’re just after the GEH restoration of the 1925 film). This makes for a decent brain-off double bill played back to back with the much better Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and its demonstrable awfulness lends it some unexpected charm. Whichever edition you choose the Fox DVD is good stuff, a few caveats aside, and fans will definitely want to indulge.

The Land Unknown

rating:
company:
Universal International
year: 1957
runtime: 78′
country: United States
director: Virgil Vogel
cast: Jock Mahoney, Shirley Patterson,
William Reyolds, Henry Brandon,
Douglas Kennedy, Phil Harvey,
Ralph Brooks, Kenner G. Kemp
writers: Charles Palmer,
Laszlo Gorog and Willam N. Robson
cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
music: Joseph Gershenson (supervisor)
special effects: Orien Ernest, Jack Kevan,
Fred Knoth, Roswell A. Hoffman,
Ray Binger, Clifford Stine
disc company: Universal Studios
Home Entertainment
release date: May 13, 2008
retail price: $59.98
disc details: Region 1 / NTSC / dual layer
video: 2.35:1 / anamorphic / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic (English)
subtitles: English SDH, French
currently only available as part of the
Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2
order this disc set from Amazon.com

Plot: A group of US Navy explorers and a female reporter crash land in a prehistoric oasis dominated by huge dinosaurs while exploring Antarctica in a helicopter.

This relatively expensive Universal effects production from 1957 pillages plot elements from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot while foregoing the drama, action, and excitement of either.  One need only look at the number of effects credits versus other studio science fiction productions of the decade to see that reasonable amounts of money passed hands with this one, but what a waste!

The dull story begins with a bit of dull expositional film-within-a-film, a briefing of a soon-to-begin Antarctic expedition that director Virgil Vogel (Invasion of the Animal People, The Mole People) allows to run in real time.  That is, until it is interrupted by the infinitely more interesting Shirley Patterson (credited as Shawn Smith), as reporter Hathaway, enters the scene.  Commander Roberts (stunt man and Western regular Jock Mahoney) and his underlings react in the expected fashion, encircling the poor woman as though they’ve been ignorant of the basics of human biology for the past 30 years of their lives.

The expedition, to investigate the Antarctic and, more specifically, a warm region discovered their some years earlier, is put underway in short order, though Vogel keeps the pacing at little more than a steady slog.  Commander Roberts, the reporter, a Lieutenant (William Reynolds, Cult of the CobraThe Thing That Couldn’t Die) and a machinest (Phil Harvey, The Monolith Monsters) hop in a helicopter and take it for a spin, but a side-swipe from a pterodactyl sends them crashing (slowly, per the rest of the picture) into the interior of a volcano.  What they find there is a lost world full of strange plants, dinosaurs, and an endless supply of fog.

Surprisingly little happens from this point forward.  Sure, dinosaurs chase people and a giant carnivorous plant tries to feel up the lovely Miss Hathaway a number of times, but no one is ever put in any real danger.  The chief dramatic impetus arrives with Hunter, a bearded man from a previous expedition who has been living in the prehistoric haze for a decade.  Hunter has the parts the men need to fix their helicopter, but he wants Hathaway for himself.  The usual melodrama and fist-fights result, but Hunter is eventually convinced to give up the parts, allowing the lot of them fly out of the volcano for good.  Only their wardrobes seem worse for wear for their trouble.

There’s nothing wrong with The Land Unknown that better scripting couldn’t have fixed.  The CinemaScope frame is filled with vast sets and complicated process photography, but the story by Palmer, Gorog and Robson keeps the action within it to a barely acceptable minimum.  Editor turned director Vogel would (wisely) move into the greener pastures of television after this, directing only a handful of other feature films before his death in 1996.  His handling of proceedings here is about as accomplished as the limp scripting would allow for. The Mole People‘s tale of subterranean Sumerians endeavoring to steal John Agar’s flash light seems almost exciting by comparison.  Almost.  Jock Mahoney seems terribly miscast, and he delivers every line with the same squint-eyed stoicism.  Henry Brandon puts in the most effort, turning the role of the man lost into one of the film’s few high points, while the under-appreciated Shirley Patterson, whose acting career was shortly to go the way of the dinosaurs, is given precious little to do other than look perpetually concerned and scream when necessary.

The film’s monsters were featured prominently in the exciting ad artwork and were undoubtedly responsible for selling the majority of tickets.  It’s a pity they’re so utterly unconvincing.  The star of the show is an anatomically improbable Tyrannosaurus Rex, a rubber suit featuring a massive, toothy skull perched atop a lumpy and incongruously small body.  One can’t help but feel sorry for whatever poor technician was shoved inside to operate the thing, waddling around the intricate prehistoric sets on its stumpy little legs.  A mechanized Elasmosaur (a sad precursor to Bruce the shark) improves upon the Tyrannosaurus in design, if not implementation.  The creature creeps anemically through the wave pool it inhabits, hissing at all who dare to enter its domain (which the full cast naturally does, and often).  A stiff pterodactyl mock-up and a pair of dueling monitor lizards round out the film’s unimpressive creature attractions.

Universal Studio Home Entertainment’s DVD of the film, originally part of the Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volume 2 and now re-packaged with The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volumes 1 & 2, is nice at least.  The film comes double-booked with the far less inspired The Deadly Mantis, a loathsome sci-fi from the same year that offers up a neat looking monster puppet but little else.

While a Scope transfer did make its way to laserdisc in the late 1990s, most are familiar with The Land Unknown via its pan-and-scanned television and VHS masters.  The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer on Universal’s DVD improves upon all of the previous releases, exhibiting strong contrast and sharp detail.  Uninteresting as the film itself may be it looks great here, with only the stock footage inserts (frequent towards the beginning and end of the picture) showing much in the way of damage.  Audio is delivered via a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic track and the stock music cues (from composers Henry Mancini, Heinz Roemheld, Hans J. Seiter, and Herman Stein) sound fantastic, and far more interesting than the dialogue.  Optional English SDH and French subtitles are available for the feature.  A battered trailer is the only supplement.

The fans are obviously out there this one, and Universal’s DVD comes highly recommended to them.  The film itself  isn’t terrible, all in all.  It’s just not very good, and I doubt I’ll ever understand its healthy 6.0 score at the IMDB.  The Land Unknown rates as a mostly forgettable affair (Irwin Allen’s hysterical 1960 obliteration of The Lost World offers more excitement, intentional or otherwise, and in color to boot),  and I don’t feel bad advising most to give it amiss all together.  Not recommended.

King Kong Escapes

part of the Goin’ Bananas B-movie roundtable:

a.k.a. Kingu Kongu no Gyakushu
rating:
company:
Rankin/Bass Productions
and Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1967
runtime: 96′ / 104′
country: Japan / United States
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Rhodes Reason, Mie Hama,
Linda Miller, Akira Takarada,
Eisei Amamoto, Shoichi Hirose,
Toru Ibuki, Nadao Kirino
writer: Takeshi Kimura
cinematographer: Hajime Koizumi
music: Akira Ifukube
special effects direction: Eiji Tsuburaya

dvd company: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
release date: November 29, 2005
retail price: $14.98
details: Region 1 / NTSC / Single Layer
feature: progressive / 2.31:1 anamorphic
audio: Dolby Digital English (2.0 Mono)
subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
order this film from Amazon.com
single disc
| double feature with King Kong Escapes


Plot: The evil Dr. Who conspires to mine the mysterious radioactive Element X using his mechanical King Kong.  It’s up to commander Nelson and the real King Kong to stop them.

The second and last of Toho Co. ltd.’s King Kong cycle is a real doozy of a motion picture.  Co-produced with Rankin / Bass Productions (of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Last Dinosaur fame) and based on that company’s earlier collaboration with Toei Animation, The King Kong Show, it’s easily one of the sillier things to originate on Toho’s lot.  But that’s okay, as King Kong Escapes is immense fun regardless.

Baring no relation to the earlier King Kong vs. Godzilla, with the exception of the fact that the character of Kong is in it, King Kong Escapes concerns UN submarine commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason, younger brother of Rex This Island Earth Reason) and his scientific interest in the Kong legend.  When his submarine runs into mechanical trouble near the island where Kong is said to live, Nelson and his friends, Lt. Commander Nomura (Akira Takarada) and Lt. Watson (Linda Miller), decide to take the opportunity to investigate it.  There they find living dinosaurs (rather, a living dinosaur and a giant sea snake), a single elderly native, and the giant ape King Kong, who takes a shining to Lt. Watson after saving her from the jaws-n-claws of of a scaly island inhabitant.

Meanwhile at the North Pole, the fiendish Dr. Who (Eisei Amamoto), arch nemesis of Commander Nelson, is using his super-machine Mechani-Kong (the plans for which the fiendish Dr. Who fiendishly stole from Commander Nelson) to mine for the rare radioactive Element X.  But Mechani-Kong is no match for the power of the element, its delicate wiring destroyed by Element X’s deadly emanations.  With Mechani-Kong out of commission until repairs can be made and the country backing the project threatening to pull financing, Dr. Who is left with no alternative but to fly to Kong’s island and kidnap the real thing . . .



Writer Takeshi Kimura (Attack of the Mushroom People, Rodan, Gorath) must have had quite the time trying to craft a half-way serious story around the basic framework of the Rankin / Bass cartoon show (the villain Dr. Who, Mechani-Kong . . .), but the result, even if it is little more than an exercise in high camp (complete with heroes, villains, and a hypnotized giant ape), isn’t half bad.  The past relationship of Commander Nelson and Dr. Who goes largely unexplored, though they certainly behave as stereotypical old enemies that they are, playing chess and chortling about the futility of each other’s plans.  A bit of human interest is a boon to the silly dramatics, and the G-rated romance between Lt. Commander Nomura and Lt. Watson figures well into the climactic Kong / Mechani-Kong battle.

The focus of proceedings is, as it should be, squarely on the monsters, and there is no development in the full running time that doesn’t somehow involve them.  Even the representative of the unnamed country financing Dr. Who, a beautiful Mie Hama (You Only Live Twice) in her final giant monster film appearance, has a change of heart at their behest, deciding that nuclear domination of the world isn’t worth a few thousand human casualties at the hands of Kong and his mechanical alter ego.  Kimura’s story brings the human cast and their monstrous counterparts together early and often, a fact that’s sure to make genre fans happy.

There’s a strong sense of humor running throughout the film, and while Kimura and director Ishiro Honda never allow the picture’s self awareness to interfere with the storytelling comedy is still an important part of the proceedings.  Dr. Who’s hard-hatted henchmen are played with a distinctly comic edge, and when introduced to Commander Nelson and his crew his Mechani-Kong (a machine seemingly ready-made to break down at the worst of possible moments) offers up a friendly wave.  Dr. Who himself, full of over-the-top schemes and brimming with ego in spite of his utter lack of success, is the kind of villain you almost hate to see get his just deserves.

Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects production is on the fantastic and colorful side, appropriate for a film inspired by a cartoon series.  The miniatures still look great after all these years, and even the smallest (a toolbox that drops onto Kong’s face, spilling its contents) are rich with detail.  The best part of the show remains the climactic Tokyo showdown, which sees the dueling Kongs exchanging blows atop a massive reconstruction of Tokyo Tower.  Limits on time and budget rear their ugly heads in a few snippets of stock footage and in the constrained scope of the miniature downtown Tokyo, though the lively action keeps them from being as distracting as they were in films like Monster Zero.



King Kong Escapes fared well when imported for American distribution in 1968, receiving an English dub well above the norm for the genre and a slight edit that tightens the pace while adding a few shots and angles nowhere to be found in the Japanese release variant (a la War of the Gargantuas).  This 96 minute cut, around 8 minutes shorter than the Japanese, is my favored cut of the film, and the slight editing only really becomes an issue in the few moments where it clips Akira Ifukube’s score (notably during the Tokyo Tower sequence).

Universal Studios, the American distributor of the film, had been sitting on renewed rights to King Kong Escapes since 1996, only stepping up to release it on home video in 2005.  Like the simultaneously released King Kong vs. Godzilla disc, those hoping for any kind of deluxe release will be disappointed as Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s DVD is about as bare as bare-bones releases get.  That said, the film itself looks better than ever before – a big win for kaiju fans here in the States.

Universal presents King Kong Escapes in its original scope (actual aspect ratio 2.34:1) for the first time stateside since its original theatrical release.  The detailed progressive transfer is smooth in motion and remarkably void of damage, save some light speckling.  The bright color scheme really pops and contrast looks spot on.  This is a gorgeous transfer with some visible grain and great detail, and one of the best of an older Toho SPFX film that’s been seen in the States.  Audio is presented in a fine Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic English track that sounds quite good, retaining nice punchiness in the low end and doing justice to Ifukube’s excellent score.  Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are available, and there are no supplements.

For a disc with such horrendous packaging design (from the menus to the disc art to the sleeve, the graphics are consistently awful throughout), it sure does a fine job of presenting the film in question.  I was very late catching up to this (four years, and I call myself a fan!), and have no problem recommending the release or its double-feature pairing with King Kong vs. Godzilla to those who have yet to pick it up (a lot of retailers appear to be dumping the two pack from their stock, and I got my copy at well below the Amazon price – shop around!).  As for the film, it’s one of the more enjoyable of Toho’s late ’60s product and a fixture of my memories of growing up on aging UHF stations. Highly recommended.

Lost on Adventure Island – XXX

a.k.a. King Dong / Supersimian XXX
company: Hendriethfilm Ltd.
year: 1985
runtime: 57′ / 33′
country: United States
director: Yancey Hendrieth
cast: Crystal Holland, Chaz St. Peters,
Dee Hendrieth, Felicia Fox, Mikhael
Visit the official website or
order the family-friendly edit of
this film from Amazon.com

Young Anna [Crystal Holland] has issues with her mother.  Big issues.  When the recently divorced matriarch announces her intentions to take an extended trip to the Mediterranean, sans her daughter, Anna decides to take a trip of her own – sailing into the uncharted waters of the South Pacific.  Left at the helm for a few seconds while the boat’s owner Alex [St. Peters] goes below deck to fetch their horny co-travelers to relieve them for the night, Anna promptly smashes the vessel into a battleship.  The next morning finds Alex and Anna stranded on an island populated by prehistoric monsters, and worse . . .

014The two run afoul of a cannibal tribe and, in their flight from danger, wind up in the clutches of a population of Amazons.  Alex finds himself locked up for dinosaur food while Anna is adopted into the tribe.  But alas, those pesky cannibals are afoot again!  No sooner has Anna stepped into her new Amazonian garb than she is kidnapped and tied to a stake in the cannibal village.

Luckily for Anna, Alex has evaded death and dismemberment at the hands [teeth?] of a Tyrannosaurus thanks to the cunning intervention of his new friend Buddy the Gorilla [played by Hendrieth himself] and his mother, a Kong-sized ape Alex dubs Super Simian.  Alex and his cohorts make quick work of the cannibal village, with Super Simian smashing both it and most of its inhabitants to bits.  But just as Alex is about to rescue Anna he is speared through the back – Anna faints and, upon awakening, finds herself in a hospital bed with her mother at her side.  Confused as to whether her ordeal was real or imagined, Anna nevertheless promises to stay at home from then on, and the credits roll.

This independent production is definitely on the strange side [as I indicated in my earlier article, which was based solely on a viewing of the new family-friendly edit of the film], with a strange history to match.  Intended as a fanciful amateur homage to the special effects films of Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien [ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. and KING KONG in particular], LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND would eventually find itself graced with pornographic sex scenes and marketed briefly on home video as adults-only entertainment under various titles like KING DONG and SUPERSIMIAN XXX.

013Writer / director Yancey Hendrieth claims to have had no input in regards to the pornographic material and, having now seen the adults-only cut of the film, I’m still inclined to believe him.  While it’s obvious that the original feature had a more mature bent than the revised version he currently sells through outlets like Amazon.com and Filmbaby [Alex and Anna's co-travelers are a rather horny pair, for example, though they never have sex on screen], all of the hardcore sex looks impossibly cheap and suspiciously out of place.  One rather lengthy sex scene is actually divided into two parts, with the latter playing earlier in the film than the former.  There are two hardcore scenes featuring the main cast – one in which Alex must impregnate three chained Amazons, the other a lesbian trist between Anna and one of her Amazon captors – both of which are filmed on the same sets as the scenes that bookend them.  Whoever decided on shooting the adults-only material obviously did so at or around the time the rest of the filmw as produced.

Draggy as it can get during the sexy parts, the pornographic cut of LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND definitely bests the newer no-sex version in regards to its editing.  In his effort to relieve his picture of all things indecent, Hendrieth succeeded only in making a mess of it.  The longer version actually has some dramatic impetus and, regardless of the derivative nature of the story and general lack of talent shared by the entire cast, manages to be mildly entertaining at times.  It’s unfortunate that Hendrieth didn’t opt to excise the unnecessary hardcore bits, which do untold damage to the pacing, and just leave the rest of the film as it was.

016The only real draw, regardless of which cut you see, is the accomplished [if not entirely successful] special effects production.  The three-man technical team of L. B. Carvelo, Keith Finkelstein, and David Dane manage some impressive stop motion shots of a plesiosaur as well as some imaginative layered matte work depicting the more fantastical aspects of the island [the Amazons' palace, a grove of Easter Island-like statues].  There’s also a neat life-sized Super Simian hand, a nod to the uber-expensive hydraulic arms constructed for Dino de Laurentiis super-budgeted KING KONG remake from 1976.  The stop motion armature of Super Simian fares worse than the rest, with its animation seeming shoddy in comparison to the rest of what’s on display.

The only official DVD release of LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND that is available at present is of Hendrieth’s 33 minute re-cut.  It looks about as good as its half-and-half 16mm / SOV  mastered-on-VHS origins would indicate – soft and artifacty with unnatural color and iffy contrast.  Audio fares about as well, with considerable background hiss noticeable throughout.  The authoring is, in a word, pathetic – there were no supplements on the disc I received.  The retail price tag is high given the content – around $15 before shipping.  Given the issues with the encoding and paltryness of content, it’s impossible for me to recommend a purchase.

018I didn’t find either cut of LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND to be a particularly appealing affair, the brief special effects moments aside.  It is what it is – an amateur effort with amateur talent and amateur production values.  Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, but I can’t recommend.

_________________

An interesting side-note:  The 1991 video-documentary HOLLYWOOD DINOSAURS features the plesiosaur sequence from LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND with one noteable alteration – Chaz St. Peters and Crystal Holland have both been replaced with footage of unidentified actors in mismatched locations.  Those with keen eyes will notice a blip in the editing, which reveals a few frames of the original cast hastily making their way off the left edge of the frame.

This review is part of the October Monster Mayhem roundtable:
BANNER

Lost on Adventure Island

a.k.a. KING DONG / SUPER SIMIAN
Hendrieth and Yoman Productions [1985] 33′
country: United States
director: Yancey Hendrieth
cast: Crystal Holland, Chaz St. Peters,
Dee Hendrieth, Felicia Fox, Mikhael
Visit the official website or
Order this film from Amazon.com

Young Anna [Holland], after a fight with her divorced mother, heads out on a sailing trip to the South Seas with a few of her friends – a trip that ends in disaster when their boat crashes into a battleship!  Anna and friend Alex [St. Peters] survive the incident only to find themselves marooned on an island populated with dinosaurs, Amazons, cannibals, and the Kong-sized giant ape Super Simian and her son [Buddy the gorilla, played by director Hendrieth].

This is a strange little independent production with a history so confusing that even I can’t keep it straight.  Writer / director Yancey Hendrieth produced the film mostly out of pocket with a big focus on special effects inspired by the 1933 classic KING KONG.  The three-man creative team of L. B. Carvelo, Keith Finkelstein, and David Dane, under the supervisian of Hendrieth, purportedly worked for 18 months in a 600 square foot studio to complete the post production effects.

I’m not entirely sure what happened next, but Hendrieth’s film somehow made its way into the hands of adult video producers.  The result was that LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND was loaded with hardcore sex and marketed on video under the new title of KING DONG.  Hendrieth has stated that he had nothing to do with the pornographic version of his film and, given his enthusiasm for the subject, I’m inclined to believe him.

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KING DONG has been all but lost to the sands of time [it still pops up on gray market video lists from time to time], with Hendrieth now making available a family-friendly re-edit of the film under its original title.

Firstly, the good.  The special effects, given that LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND was produced on such a limited budget, are rather well achieved.  With a nod to the de Laurentiis KONG remake of ’76, a full-scale mock up of Hendrieth’s Super Simian’s hand was constructed and animated with an internal rope system [no fancy hydraulics here].  Buddy the gorilla is a typical man-in-suit creation, though better than many I’ve seen and capable of at least some facial expression.  The rest of the effects are handled through stop motion animation and rear-screen projection with varying results.  A plesiosaur fares best as far as the armatures are concerned, and the mattes used to relate more fantastic parts of the island [the Amazon's hideaway, for instance] are inspired if not terribly believable.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film holds up so poorly.  The simple fact of the matter is that with a running time of only 33 minutes [with several of those taken up by lengthy opening and closing credits] there’s just isn’t much here.  We get lots of Alex and Anna running through the wilds of the Hawaiian shooting locations and a few sparse lines of dialogue [including some nods to THE WIZARD OF OZ] but little else to hold the picture together.  Complicating matters further is the post-dubbing of much of the dialogue, which is bad to the point of distraction at times.

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The bra-less chest shot above is the full extent of the adult material to be found in Hendrieth’s new edit of LOST ON ADVENTURE ISLAND, which is just fine with me – I doubt it would have been any more successful as pornography.  The video quality of the screener I received is pretty bad and its obviously mastered from a VHS source [I suspect that the original elements are long gone by now].  The audio quality is about as good as the video would indicate and a few of the patches of dialogue are difficult to make out.  There were no supplements.

I wish I could say more but there’s just not enough here to even warrant talking about.  The special effects are neat and it’s obvious Hendrieth adores the films he emulates, but the rest of the film just falls flat and I can’t see anyone but stop-motion animation junkies [myself included] getting much out of it.  Not recommended.

Reptilicus

Saga Studio and
American International Pictures
[1961/1962] 92′ / 82′
country: Denmark / United States
directors: Poul Bang and Sidney Pink

cast: Asbjorn Anderson,
Ann Smyrner, Mimi Heinrich,
Carl Ottosen, Bent Mejding,
Bodil Miller, Dirch Passer,
Marlies Behrens
Order the US release version of
this film from Amazon.com

Deep in Lapland a strange discovery is made – the disembodied tail of some enormous prehistoric reptile is found by a mining expedition, perfectly preserved in the icy muck underground.  The remains are flown to Copenhagen, where a freak accident allows them to thaw.  Scientists and authorities alike are stunned when a full creature begins to form from the tail, which was thought to be dead.  Precautions are taken to ensure that the beast doesn’t escape, but not nearly enough it seems.  The monster, dubbed Reptilicus, goes on a rampage, attacking Hamburg and Stockholm.  But Reptilicus soon returns to Copenhagen, where the Danish military is waiting . . .

REPTILICUS is a terribly serious affair – hence the terribly serious synopsis above.  And I can’t stress enough how terribly seriously it was taken by those responsible for making it.  Co-produced between Denmark’s Saga Studio and Pittsburgher Sidney [BWANA DEVIL, THE TWONKY, THE ANGRY RED PLANET] Pink, with international distribution rights handled by legendary schlock house American International Pictures, REPTILICUS was a big deal for all involved.  The production received unprecedented cooperation from the Danish armed forces, and there’s no end to shots of tanks rolling through fields or anti-aircraft cannons lining deserted city streets.

Experienced Saga Studio director Poul Bang got first crack at Danish-American Ib Melchior’s screenplay, producing a reasonable [compared to what was to follow] if entirely unremarkable blend of science fiction, romantic drama, and comedy that was marketed with much fanfare as ‘the first Danish science fiction fantasy film in Eastman Color’.  But thanks to the particularly awful failing of its inexperienced special effects crew [more on that in a bit] the film was met with a mix of indifference and incredulity by Danish audiences, who must have wondered what all the fuss had been about.

Sidney Pink had the second round, directing an alternate English language version of the Melchior screenplay to be distributed world-wide by A.I.P.  Unfortunately Pink was far less experienced [or talented] than his Danish counterpart, and the cut he presented to American International executive Sam Arkoff was reportedly awful to the point of being unreleasable.  Never one to let a bad film go to waste, Arkoff set about re-working Pink’s abysmal production into something approaching marketable.  The dialog was re-looped and the narrative edited considerably, but the most noticeable difference was in the special effects department.  Arkoff must have spent a good chunk of change here, as the finished American REPTILICUS is loaded with new optical work, notably in the addition of the titular monster’s ability to projectile-vomit globs of bright green glop.  It’s a stupid effect to be sure, but just the sort of thing the film needed to get its school boy demographic talking about it.

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Additional optical effects, like the inclusion of flames or smoke in the foreground, seem to have a dual purpose – to make the original shots more exciting and cover up at least some of their inherent limitations.  What limitations, you ask?  The miniature work utilized for both the Danish and American versions of REPTILICUS is easily some of the least effective ever to grace a major motion picture.  The buildings of the table-top Copenhagen sets rarely appear fully detailed, more often looking like the squat and misshapen cardboard boxes they are.  That the setups are, without exception, photographed in a full-on flood of light only makes matters worse, showcasing every one of a seemingly endless supply of defects.

Bad as the miniature city scapes may be, REPTILICUS’ biggest failing is definitely in its depiction of the menace for which it is named.  Forget the magical space buzzard of THE GIANT CLAW, Reptilicus beats it hands down for the title of Worst Monster Marionette.  While interesting enough in the design department, seemingly inspired by the mythological sea serpents of old, its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.  Reptilicus wriggles and wobbles as though propelled by a single technician holding a single string and, thanks to standard speed photography, has about as much visual weight as one imagines a puppet a scant few feet long would.  A more detailed hand puppet of the monster’s head fares only slightly better, its manner of manipulation all too obvious.

American International did much to refine REPTILICUS in regards to its special effects, but for every step forward the company seems to have added a new technical blunder to the pile.  Chief among these is a truly awful process shot meant to show Reptilicus devouring a poor Dane.  Just one glimpse of a static photo of the victim disappearing down the monster’s hatch is enough to illicit howls from even the most jaded of bad movie veterans.  More obnoxious to me is A.I.P.’s tendency to repeat close-ups of the beast ad nauseum, and more often than not in awful step-printed slow motion.  The optical slime effect also grows tiresome through over-use, losing its initial “neat” factor early on.

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Sidney Pink [the man responsible for JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET] liked to claim that American International ruined his picture through their meddling, but the dollar signs certainly add up in A.I.P.’s favor.  Business for REPTILICUS was good, in spite of its stilted dramatics and awful effects, and it continues to be a cult favorite here in the states.  American International’s release made it to VHS courtesy of the defunct Orion, which is how I first encountered it many years ago, and was released on DVD as part of MGM’s Mignight Movies series in 2001.  That disc looks to have since been discontinued.

As for myself, I’ve become rather partial to Poul Bang’s Danish version of the film.  There’s no questioning that the dramatic aspects of Ib Melchior’s screenplay are better handled here.  The emphasis is shifted away from the titular menace in favor of the romances that form around its discovery.  Considerable time is spent fleshing out the relationship between Svend and the young Karen Martens [there's some wonderful subversive dialogue early on, like Karen asking her father for permission to thaw Svend out], though the conflicting love interests of General Grayson are left largely unexplored.  Too bad, as Grayson is the one person in the picture who could have benefited the most from expansion of his character, and the Danish trailer reveals that at least some material in that regard was produced.  The only note on Grayson’s love life to be had is when we see him embrace Lise Martens at the end of the picture, just before it dissolves to an underwater shot of Reptilicus’ twitching disembodied foot.

Nearly all of the romantic footage is either excised in the A.I.P. cut or was never re-filmed by Pink to begin with, including a couple of scenes in which Svend and Karen frollic at the beach [stills of which were circulated by American International].  Replacing such material in the American cut are lengthy spools of travelogue footage, including an extended tour of Tivoli [limited to the Tivoli Nights musical number in the Danish release] and pontification on the bike-riding habits of Danes.  The main cast is the same through both versions with the exception of potential General Grayson love interest Connie Miller, who is played by Bodil Miller in the Danish cut and the considerably [ten years] younger Marlies Behrens in the A.I.P. release.

Still, the Danish REPTILICUS plods along at a tedius pace, and you’ll find that half of the film has passed before the monster finally makes a living, breathing appearance.  Once the beast does enter things, there’s much less of him to be seen here than in the A.I.P. cut [not necessarily a bad thing], though a good amount of what is here is alternate footage not found in that cut.  Most notable amongst this special effects footage are the infamous flying sequences, in which Reptilicus awkwardly attacks Hamburg and Stockholm in the night before sailing into Copenhagen.  Arkoff was probably wise to cut them from his release [I can only imagine how they must have dragged on in Pink's original cut as compared to here], even if some of his own additions proved just as ridiculous.

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Then there is the odd case of Dirch Passer, the Danish comedy legend who plays a night watchman named Mikkelson [renamed Peterson in the A.I.P. release].  Passer is much better represented by the Bang film, obviously being more comfortable working in Danish than English,  with the egregious exception of his show-stopping song-and-dance number.  Passer meets up with a gaggle of school children in a park and tells them, through the magic of song, about the terrifying monster ‘Tillicus [the joke here is that the kids aren't scared in the least, and call Passer a little baby for being afraid].  I don’t find this to be nearly so bad as many other reviewers seem to and really quite enjoy it, though its placement here is questionable all the same.  The rest of the Sven Gyldmark musical score for the film is pretty good, the somber opening theme in particular.  Only the unfortunate inclusion of a slide whistle to the orchestra detracts from things, making the “intense” monster scenes even more ludicrous.  Gyldmark’s score was augmented by Les Baxter [PANIC IN YEAR ZERO] for the A.I.P. release.

The Danish version of REPTILICUS was once quite hard to come by, but Sandrew Metronome Video and Saga Studio did much to rectify that by releasing it to region 2 PAL DVD in 2002.  The transfer on display is a fine full screen and progressive one.   Colors seem a bit faded at times and there are instances of minor damage, but the source elements look to have been in otherwise good shape.  Contrast and detail fair very well and the single layer encoding is solid [the compressed screen caps really don't do it justice], though I did detect some edge enhancement.  Audio is presented in a strong Dolby Digital monophonic track in the original Danish.  Dialogue and sound effects are clear and the Gyldmark score has definite punch. The track is augmented with Danish SDH subtitles, but there are, unfortunately, no English subtitles to match.  Extras are limited to an original Danish trailer [which wisely opts not to show the monster], some text biographies, and a text history of Saga Studio.  Both the menu and the packaging are adorned with a huge cartooney logo announcing REPTILICUS as a Dirch Passer Film – that he would be of more appeal than the rest of the film to potential Danish customers isn’t really surprising.

The Sandrew Metronome Video / Saga Studio disc is currently readily available from a variety of online Danish video retailers, and I purchased my copy through dvdoo.dk.  While the checkout was a bit difficult to navigate, being in Danish only, prices were good [I paid only $18 for the dvd, shipped] and service was impeccable.

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I hated REPTILICUS when I first saw it as a child, and wondered for days about just why I’d shelled out my hard-earned change on a VHS of it in the first place.  Since then it’s grown on me, and I’ve even added it to the long list of terrible films I commonly screen for friends.  Bad as both versions may be, there’s something undeniably amiable about this monster opus born out of international co-production hell.  Odds are it won’t thrill you or chill you, but you might just find yourself entertained in spite of it.  I’m giving it an overall recommendation, and heartily encourage fans to take the time to track down the Danish release version.