Sunday, October 23, 2011
The Land Unknown!
The Land Unknown is I think a movie with aspirations beyond its reach. One of the Universal giant monster flicks of the late 50's, you get a sense that this one wanted to not hang around with its B-buddies and wanted to go hang out with Oscar candidates across the aisle.
That said, despite what they might've wanted to create, what they did make was a straight on monster flick with just a dash of extra sexual tension.
The story is a pretty straightforward affair. A Navy expedition of four (three military types and a woman reporter) helicopter into the Antarctic to a mysterious open-water area first discovered by the Byrd party about ten years before. They get there, but have to leave quickly when weather turns ugly. They then are attacked by a pterodactyl which forces their helicopter down into a cliff-rimmed valley filled with dinosaurs and others fauna and flora from pre-history. They also encounter a lone survivor from a lost team who has been living among the dinos for a decade. He's more than a bit eccentric as you might imagine. The story is mostly about this group trying to repair their aircraft before the month passes and their ship must leave the region because of the coming of the Antarctic winter. They fend off a T-Rex, a man-eating plant, a sea dino called an "Elasmosaur", and some giant monitor lizards passing for dinos.
The movie has an odd look to it, as a number of techniques are used to create the dinosaurs. Mostly we get some suit-mation action in the form of a man inside the T-Rex, a plodding beast who shows on cue to threaten our gang when the plot requires it. More elaborate mechanical effects bring the water dino to life so to speak, and the giant lizards speak for themselves. This mish-mash of approaches does undermine the illusions somewhat, as the the real action of the lizards highlights the very unreal movement of the man-in-a-dino-suit as well as the very stiff mechanical sea beast. I've always thought movies are best served by going one direction or the other and letting the audience do the imaginative work to make the story click. By blending the audience is too often reminded of the special effects to become enthralled by the story.
The people in this story are a pretty tired lot too. Jock Mahney as Commander Harold "Hal" Roberts is by the book, so much so that you lose sympathy for him. William Reynolds as Lt.Jack Carmen starts strong, but his story gets forgotten about by the end and he becomes the flyboy prop needed to get them out hopefully. (Despite his awesome good looks, it seems Reynolds mostly played second fiddles.) Phil Harvey as Machinist Mate Steve Miller actually comes up with some depth as he begins to crack under the pressure. He's supposed to be seen as a weakling, less capable than the officers because of it, but he comes across as the only one who seems to get their predicament truly. There's clearly some class stuff going on here, as the the ranks seems to show how "civilized" the individuals are. Shawn Smith as Maggie Hathaway is pretty enough and screams when needed, but really has little to do save to give the guys something to fight over.
The real standout in this movie, and the main reason to pay attention when they talk is Henry Brandon as Dr.Carl Hunter, a man trapped alone among the dinosaurs for ten long years. He's clearly more than a shade touched in the head by his ordeal and when he speaks of the long months of darkness the movie comes alive with a real sense of terror it never achieves anywhere else. Brandon is a man struggling to stay civilized and his battle is easily the most interesting thing in this story. I remember Brandon mostly as the Indian chief Scar in The Searchers, a man who knows how to act when he doesn't have any lines.
Movies like this are fun to watch when everyone involved is acting professionally and seem to know what they are creating is an entertainment and not necessarily an art. This movie skirts that line and all too often its pat Hollywood looks undermine its attempts at seriousness. The threats are a bit too on the nose and the folks are not under as much stress as the situation should demand.
This is a good enough movie, but I'd have to say I bet those involved were somewhat chagrined to find it included among the other monster flicks of its day.
This movie was adapted into comic book form by Alex Toth. Here is a link to see this story, which in many ways is superior to the film itself.