Ever since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of a mysterious plateau – where dinosaurs miraculously still exist – in his 1912 book The Lost World, Hollywood has been more than eager to bring man and prehistoric beast together. Adapting Doyle’s book to the big screen in 1925 was certainly a no brainer, and basing a story on the premise of modern man meeting living dinosaurs was certainly better than the typical way of showing cavemen and dinosaurs living together. Now, with today’s advances in special effects, bringing dinosaurs to life is almost child’s play – with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park still being the benchmark – but back in the 50s, you had two choices when it came to realizing dinosaurs: you either went with the costly and time-consuming stop-motion method – pioneered by the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen – or you went with a guy in a dinosaur suit, as full scale animatronic monstrosities and CGI dinosaurs had not even been dreamt of back then. In 1957, Universal Pictures’ The Land Unknown went the dinosaur suit route – with the occasional use of monitor lizards shot out of scale – in what has become one of the more laughable entries in the genre.
Having decided to continue Admiral Bird’s exploration of Antarctica – especially after discovering areas of strangely warm water had been made – the Navy sends a small crew consisting of Commander Harold Roberts (Jock Mahoney), Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds), and Machinist’s Mate Steve Miller (Phil Harvey), to explore the region via helicopter, but to make things interesting, they also sent along female reporter Margaret Hathaway (Shirley Patterson), because you simply can’t have a proper monster movie if you don’t throw a damsel in distress into the mix.
When their helicopter encounters an unexpected storm – having been warned by their base ship to turn back – they try to outrun it, but they end up crash-landing in a massive volcanic valley – after having collided with a passing pterosaur – where our four heroes find themselves trapped in a prehistoric world. When Miller discovers that the rotor assembly has been damaged, and they have no replacement parts, it looks like they could be stuck in this “land before time” for good, as the fleet must leave in thirty days or risk being trapped by the ice. Their situation is not helped by Miller accidentally leaving the radio on overnight and draining its battery.
The Land Unknown was originally going to be an expensive science fiction epic – shot in colour and directed by the legendary Jack Arnold – but then Universal suddenly decided to slash the budget and turned what would have been an “A” picture into a “B” budgeted one. Arnold was out and contract director Virgil W. Vogel was in – who had directed the previous year’s Universal monster movie The Mole People – but the biggest victim of the budget cut would be the effects, and boy does this show. Like many low-budget movies starring dinosaurs – such as in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – monitor lizards were used in place of expensive stop-motion dinosaurs, but The Land Unknown is not primarily “known” for the unfortunate use of footage of monitor lizards fighting – though the brutal footage they do use is disturbing – it is actually known for the ridiculous dinosaur suit that some poor sap was forced to wear.
Aside from the goofy-ass dinosaur costume – a creature that looks constantly in danger of tipping over – the most memorable part of The Land Unknown is the real threat to our heroes, which isn’t dinosaurs, but instead the threat of man. While exploring their jungle surroundings, Maggie is abducted by Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon), the lone survivor of a plane crash from the 1947 expedition. Apparently, ten years of living alone in a prehistoric hellscape has not been conducive to good mental health – though he is smart enough to develop a method to combat his dinosaur neighbours – but just how crazy is Hunter? Well, it turns out that the remains of the plane crash, the one that stranded him all those many years ago, most likely has parts that could be used to repair our heroes’ helicopter, and Hunter will only reveal the location of the wreck if the crew agree to leave Maggie behind with him. What is truly weird here is that the idea of Hunter leaving with them is never even broached – he just wants Maggie – and of course, stoic Commander Roberts will have none of that. Henry Brandon’s portrayal of this marooned madman is quite chilling, and his eerie rant to Maggie, when she confronts him about his stealing of their food, is even more so, “It’s mine,” he tells her. “The whole valley is mine. Everything in it belongs to me, including you.”
The film’s undertone of rape and sexual slavery is downright creepy – not something you expect to find in a dinosaur adventure film – but aside from Hunter’s compelling and dark character, the movie is just rife with the usual clichés of the genre; Roberts is the stoic square-jawed hero, Jack is the able-bodied sidekick, Miller is the resident coward – more than willing to offer up Maggie if it means going home – and then there is Maggie herself, who faints at each and every threat that comes her way. No clearer collection of stock characters could be sited than this group, and thus, it makes it look like Hunter had wandered in from a different film – most likely a better one – as his character is so beautifully twisted and dark, yet still with a spark of humanity, and every moment with him on screen is truly compelling.
Maggie: “How long have you been in this valley?”
Hunter: “Ten years. A hundred years. Time has no meaning when you have nothing to wait for.”
Maggie: “How have you managed to stay alive?”
Hunter: “Not on charity or pity or the nobleness of the soul. I survived because I’m the fittest to survive! Because I’ve learned to kill efficiently!”
There are quite a few fun moments in the film – Maggie being harassed by a killer plant being a particularly hilarious one – and the jungle set is quite impressive, but the bargain basement dinosaurs undercut any dramatic tension the director tries to build. It doesn’t matter how Oscar worthy Brandon’s performance is when these moments are counterpointed with him waving a torch at a giant paper mâché dinosaur head, but at least one of the actors was trying. The Land Unknown may not be the best example of the genre, not even holding a candle to films like King Kong, which came out twenty-four years earlier, but there is enough good stuff on display for me to recommend it.