This column on the Universal dinosaur adventure, THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957) originally ran in the pages of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter in July 2007 and is currently being reprinted in the July 2014 edition of the HWA Newsletter.
And just a friendly reminder, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at http://www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Dinosaurs have been with us in the movies since the silent era.
Go back to 1925, and you have the remarkable version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD. Continue to the original KING KONG (1933), through the Ray Harryhausen years with such films as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), to JURASSIC PARK (1993) and its sequels, all the way up to present day where we come full circle with Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). Dinosaurs have both fascinated and terrified us. We’re always happy to see them— at least, in the movies.
Today’s film, THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957) is— what’s that? Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. See, THE LAND UNKNOWN is— well, rather unknown.
Released by Universal Pictures and produced by William Alland, the same man who produced the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON movies for Universal in the 1950s, THE LAND UNKNOWN tells the story of four crew members on a naval expedition to explore Antarctica. When their helicopter crashes into a mysterious valley hidden from the skies by a strange, dense fog, they find themselves trapped in a prehistoric world full of dinosaurs.
Jock Mahoney plays Commander Harold Roberts, the leader of the expedition. Mahoney, a former stunt man who would go on to play Tarzan in the movies, is actually quite good, and you don’t find yourself thinking he’s a former stunt man turned actor.
He does his own stunts in the film, which is really cool, because it helps the action flow very smoothly. Absent are the traditional cuts to the stunt man. Nope, he just leaps here and dives there, and the camera keeps rolling. It really adds authenticity to the film. The best of these sequences is when Mahoney dives from the helicopter into a river.
The rest of the acting is also very good, including Shawn Smith who represents the lone female presence in the movie.
But of course you don’t watch a dinosaur movie for the acting- you watch it for the dinosaurs.
To create the illusion of giant prehistoric creatures, the special effects team of Fred Knoth, Orien Ernest, and Jack Kevan used a combination of real lizards, man in suit, and mechanical models.
The least effective method of portraying dinosaurs in the movies is the old trick of using real lizards. With the help of trick photography and thunderous sound effects, these real life reptiles are made to look humongous. This method was probably best used in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). In most other genre films, this particular effect comes off as cheap and fake. Luckily, it’s used sparingly in THE LAND UNKNOWN.
While models were used to portray a sea monster and a pterodactyl, for the film’s main monster, the T-Rex, it was time for the old “man in suit” routine, and nobody seems to do this as well as the folks who give life to Godzilla and friends. Sadly, the T-Rex here is quite laughable, looking like a prehistoric couch potato after a weekend of sucking down beer. He’s slow, lumbering, and oh that pot belly!
THE LAND UNKNOWN was directed by Virgil Vogel, while Laszlo Gorog wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Charles Palmer. Joseph Gershenson wrote the music score, and it’s OK, though nowhere near as good as his now classic score for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
THE LAND UNKNOWN is fun and entertaining, as long as you can look past the average special effects. And, no, it won’t give you any nightmares, unless, of course, you suffer from a fear of prehistoric couch potatoes.