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.