March 30, 2013

There's No Such Thing as a Free Ride

Poster - The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Now Playing: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Pros: Gritty, suspenseful low-budget masterpiece; Great performances, especially by William Talman
Cons: Requires some suspension of disbelief

You don't see too many hitchhikers on American roads these days. We've heard or read too many horror stories to be picking up strangers on the side of the road, no matter how normal they might look (or on the flip side, hitching a ride with someone you don't know -- "Is that a normal, friendly grin on the driver's face, or is he enjoying the thought of serving me up to his cannibal family?") Even if you could still find some trusting souls out there, a plethora of laws, ordinances and regulations have pretty much done in the practice. Yep, the hitchhiker is a near-extinct species.

It was one thing for dear old Mom to wag her finger and warn about the hazards of hitching, but it took Hollywood to really put the fear of God into hitchhikers and would-be Good Samaritan drivers alike. Ever since the innocent, "carefree" days of the Great Depression and the amusing hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night (1934), it's all been downhill. Just like going down in the cellar or out in the woods alone, thumbing a ride on the silver screen always ends badly. The protagonists of such varied and sundry films as Detour (1945), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hitcher (1986) will all tell you: there's no such thing as a free lunch, and often there's a great price to pay for a free ride.

Frank Lovejoy, Edmund O'Brien and William Talman in The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Gil (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy (Edmond O'Brien) should have listened
to dear old Mom when she warned them not to pick up hitchhikers.
And then there's The Hitch-Hiker. If none of those other films put you off hitchhiking, Ida Lupino's grim noir classic might just do the trick. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the movie's premiere in Boston, MA. Shot on a lean budget with just three principal actors, the film has held up remarkably well over the years. It deftly manages to be edgy, suspenseful, and at times gut-wrenching, while managing to show very little actual violence on the screen, and no blood whatsoever. (Note to today's filmmakers and audiences: it may seem counter-intuitive, but excessive violence, blood and gore are not always necessary ingredients for a successful suspense-thriller.)

The Hitch-Hiker is a hard-boiled variation on the archetypal Man vs. Nature story, wherein two men, off on a camping and fishing weekend, unwisely pick up what they think is a stranded motorist, and end up battling the desert heat and a force-of-nature all to himself in the form of an armed sociopath.

The film begins with a title card explaining that what is about to transpire is a "[T]rue story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours -- or that young couple's across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual." (More on the true story a bit later.) Then the main titles display over a montage-like sequence where we see nothing but the hitchhiker's legs and worn-out shoes on the hard asphalt as he tries thumbing down cars. In long shot -- we only momentarily see the back of his head -- he hops into a fancy convertible in broad daylight. Cut to night, where the car rolls to a stop, the hitchhiker (again, only his legs) jumps out, off camera a woman screams, and a white purse falls at the hitcher's feet. He goes through the contents, then nonchalantly walks off into the night. (Even the aftermath of the crime is hidden in night shadows, as the beam from a deputy's flashlight reveals a corner of the dead woman's dress, and just the hand of her male companion on the steering wheel.)

We finally get to the see the maniac's face, but only as a washed-out photograph under a huge newspaper headline: "Ex-Convict Myers Suspect in Hitch-Hike Atrocities." It's a face only a mother could love. Meanwhile, Myers is at it again, climbing into yet another poor soul's car and roaring off toward a desert mountain range. We don't get to meet the sociopath "up close and personal" until the protagonists of the film do -- and it's a hair-raising meeting at that.

Good friends Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) are into the first leg of a relaxing fishing weekend when they impulsively decide to head south of the border instead of continuing on to their usual stateside fishing spot. As they drive through Mexicali in Baja California, Roy is ready to hit the honky-tonks, but his friend is asleep, so Roy reluctantly heads out of town toward San Felipe, their alternate destination. Cut to those legs again, standing in the dead of night next to the car of his latest victim. The headlights of Roy's car illuminate Myers' outstretched thumb, and before you know it, the unsuspecting men are picking up what they think is a stranded motorist.

A face in the dark: William Talman as Emmett Myers
In classic movie monster style, the murderous Emmett
Myers (William Talman) emerges from the shadows.
In a very effective scene, Roy and Gil, lit up by the dashboard like two disembodied heads, try to make small talk with the stranger cloaked in darkness in the backseat. Gil offers the stranger a cigarette, and gets a revolver pointed at him for his troubles. As the two shocked men look at each other, the camera zooms into the blackness of the backseat just as the sociopathic Emmett Myers (William Talman) darts his head forward into the light, his dead eyes sizing up each man in turn as he barks orders at them. It's not unlike a classic horror scene where the monster emerges from the dark of the closet or cellar into the light. 

Gil and Roy should have listened to Mom, but now they're stuck on the wrong end of the gun wielded by a homicidal maniac who is ordering them to drive off into the godforsaken Mexican desert using dirt back roads. The desperate Myers is now improvising, using the two fishing buddies as cover and their car as a taxi to take him to the Baja California town of Santa Rosalia, where, he coldly informs the pair, he intends to dispatch them and catch a ferry across the Gulf of California to freedom. Gil and Roy engage in a deadly game with the sociopath to convince him that they're more valuable to him alive than dead…

While this suspenseful, low-budget noir has never received the accolades of the genre's greats, since its initial mixed critical reception 60 years ago, The Hitch-Hiker has steadily accrued a devoted cult following and belated respect from critics who have reassessed the career of its main author, actress/producer/writer/director Ida Lupino. The Hitch-Hiker is also a significant milestone. According to Judith M. Redding and Victoria Brownworth (Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors, Seal Press, 1997), it was the first mainstream film noir to be directed by a woman. In fact, between the 1930s and the 1960s, only one other woman, Dorothy Arzner, managed to direct films in the Hollywood system.

Ida Lupino was born into a successful English theatrical family, joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at the age of 13, and shortly after that started steadily appearing in films (she would appear in over 100 films and television shows spanning 5 decades, from the early '30s right up to the late '70s). Although her acting career never quite hit the high mark of a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, she appeared in some of the great dramas and film-noirs of the '40s and '50s with such leading men as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews: They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and While the City Sleeps (1956), among others.

According to Redding and Brownworth, from the get-go Ida was a reluctant actress, preferring music and screenwriting to being in front of the camera. At the point where many actress' careers stalled due to waning youth (or perhaps worse yet, they were cast as mothers of males who were only a few years younger), Ida decided that it wasn't enough being an actress, "sitting around on the set waiting for something to do." (Ibid.) She and her husband, Collier Young, founded the independent company Filmakers to shoot hard-hitting issue-oriented movies that mainstream Hollywood studios wouldn't touch. Finally she was producing, writing and directing, as well as standing in front of the camera.

Ida's first directing gig (uncredited) came when she filled in for an ailing director, Elmer Clifton, on the set of Not Wanted (1949), a pioneering movie about an unwed mother that she also co-produced and wrote. As if daring prudish, self-satisfied America to get its collective head out of the sand, she directed, co-wrote and co-produced Outrage (1951), a film about a young woman dealing with the trauma of rape in the midst of a seemingly uncaring and judgmental society (of course, standards of the time prevented the word from being used at all in the film).

While on the surface The Hitch-Hiker is a straight thriller with no pretensions to social relevance, Lupino still adds touches that further humanize the characters -- even the detestable Emmett Myers. In one touching scene, the kidnapper and his two victims enter a dusty Mexican store to buy food. As Gil and Roy fill a box with provisions, the store owner's little pigtailed daughter decides to make friends with Emmet and introduce him to her doll. As she tugs at his sleeve and he glares down at her, Gil (who we earlier learned is a good family man), rushes over to get the girl away from Myers. He hugs her tightly, as if he's just saved his own daughter's life.

Night scene from The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Is he awake or asleep? Only Emmett knows for sure.
A short while later, over a campfire, Myers turns reflective, telling the fishermen exactly what's wrong with their soft, middle-class lifestyles (and suggesting that perhaps murderous maniacs are made, not born):
"You guys are soft. You know what makes you than way? You're up to your necks in IOUs… you're suckers, you're scared to get out on your own. You've always had it good, so you're soft. Well not me. Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody. My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost."
But perhaps the most effective (and chilling) scene is when Myers calmly informs the fishing buddies not to get their hopes up about rushing him when he's asleep:  "You know you make pretty good targets from where I sit. Anyway, you couldn't tell if I was awake or asleep. Got one bum eye -- won't stay closed. Pretty good, huh?" (Sure enough, the men spend the night nervously glancing over at Myers, who's sitting up, gun in hand, one eye trained on them and the other closed. They decide not to chance it.)

The casting of the three principals in The Hitch-Hiker is pure noir nirvana. By the time of this film, both Edmond O'Brien (Ray) and Frank Lovejoy (Gil) were film noir veterans, appearing in such landmark titles as The Killers (O'Brien; 1946), White Heat (O'Brien; 1949), In a Lonely Place (Lovejoy; 1950), The Sound of Fury (Lovejoy; 1950), and D.O.A. (O'Brien; 1950). They are both excellent. But the film really belongs to William Talman as the reptilian Emmett Myers. With his gaunt face, half-paralyzed eyelid, and quiet menace, Talman's Myers is one of the creepiest noir villains ever. It is an acting tour-de-force. (Ironically, Talman would go on to fame portraying a character on the other side of the law: the smarmy, arrogant prosecutor -- and perpetual loser -- Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason TV series.)

If The Hitch-Hiker has a weakness, it's a plot device that asks the audience to believe that a desperate murderer -- after quickly dispatching his earlier victims and stealing their cars -- suddenly is willing to take the chance of kidnapping two big, strapping men and using them for several days as cover to make his way over to the Mexican port city. It also seems a stretch that he could keep them at bay at night with just a "trick" eyelid. However, the plot is more or less based on the real notorious case of Billy Cook, who went on a murder and kidnapping spree after getting out of prison. He was ultimately captured by Mexican police with two kidnapped hunters in tow. So maybe it's not such a stretch after all!

Behind the scenes on the set of The Hitch-Hiker
Director Ida Lupino and Frank Lovejoy discuss a scene.
The Hitch-Hiker was Ida's favorite of the seven films she directed, but unfortunately it was not a triumph for her at the time. In his introduction to VCI's special VHS edition of the film, actor Robert Clarke (who appeared in two Lupino-directed films, Outrage, 1950 and Hard, Fast and Beautiful, 1951) details the director's abiding disappointment with how sloppily and carelessly the distributor, RKO, handled her film's release:
"The Hitch-Hiker was released with little fanfare through RKO Studios, which at that time was a pale shadow of the studio it had been in the glory days of the 1930s and 40s. To make matters worse, the release prints were very badly made, printed on cheap stock to save a few pennies on each foot of film. Visually, they lacked all the subtle tones and mood which Ida and veteran cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca had worked so hard to achieve. Desert scenes shot in daylight were supposed to have been overexposed, giving the audience a feeling of oppression and unbearable heat. Night scenes were to be a velvet black, with pools of light and shadow, trapping the characters in their fate. But instead, everything was printed a dull grey, and the prints were hastily released. The Hitch-Hiker played the bottom half of double bills."
However, time and an appreciative, discerning community of critics and film buffs have resurrected Ida's B masterpiece and restored its reputation. The Hitch-Hiker is 60 years young today. Happy birthday!

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Kino Lorber (includes the Robert Clarke introduction)

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Sociopath Emmett Myers (William Talman) seems pleased with himself as he listens to a report of his murderous exploits on the car radio:

March 18, 2013

Two Heads are More Bitter than One

Poster - The Manster (aka The Split), 1959
Now Playing: The Manster (aka The Split; 1959)

Pros: Dark and eerie atmosphere; Some neat shock effects and a cool mad scientist's lab; Good, cheesy B movie dialog
Cons: Some stiff, amateurish acting; Love triangle slows things down

It's hard to be just one person these days. With smartphones, tablets, social media and whatnot embedded everywhere in society, and friends, family, co-workers and businesses using them to command our attention every waking moment, one body with one brain is not up to the task of processing it all.  Cloning is problematic, because a.) the technique is still in its infancy; b.) it's illegal; c.) it takes years to raise your clone to adulthood; and d.) just like any child, there's no guarantee that once it matures it will want to have anything to do with you, much less do your bidding.

Another option is growing a new head. How many times have you heard the saying, "two heads are better than one"? Apparently, growing a new head on your shoulders takes a lot less time than raising a clone (source: The Manster). There is the distinct advantage that since the new head shares a body with you, it can't just wander away like a clone could. Again, there's no guarantee that the junior head would be cool with everything you want. But if it was, it would go a long way to solving the 21st century "not-enough-time-in-the-day" dilemma. One head and hand could handle the boss on the phone demanding that overdue report, while the other head takes on the really important work of updating Facebook.

If you could somehow add multiple personalities to each head, then you'd really have something. You could trot out Eve when the situation called for compassionate and caring, Sybil when it called for hard-nosed and plucky, and Norman could emerge frequently to help run that bed and breakfast you've always wanted to own. (Whoa, I'd better be careful, or I'll blow whatever's left of my one and only mind!)

It's hard to tell if The Manster's mad Japanese doctor is deliberately trying to grow a thing with two heads to benefit time-pressed, single-tasking humanity. Besides a defensive throwaway line to his assistant that he's doing it all "for human knowledge," it seems like he's just into creating human mutations, the more grotesque the better.

Even before the title credits, The Manster gets down to serious business. It opens on a rural Japanese village where several young women are bathing in outdoor mineral waters, and another is powdering her face at her dressing table. We see a hairy, ape-like silhouette sneaking up on the woman behind the screens of her bedroom. It attacks, she screams, and suddenly an arc of blood splashes up on the translucent screens as the titles roll.

A shaggy creature waits for Dr. Suzuki in his underground lab
Another of Dr. Suzuki's experiments that didn't work out.
Cut to an establishing shot of Mt. Fuji, then to a man in a business suit working his way up the fog-shrouded mountainside. He enters a nondescript cabin, where an attractive woman sitting at a desk tells the man that "he" has come back, and that she's locked him down in the laboratory. "You better take this with you," she says, handing him a revolver. The man, Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura), descends into the laboratory carved out of mountain rock, which, with its huge exotic plants, bizarre-looking lab equipment, and iron-barred cells (one of which holds a grotesquely deformed mad woman), looks like an updated version of Buddhist Hell.

Suzuki yells for "Genji" in the darkened lab. In a very nice shot, the huge shadow of the hairy creature we saw in the pre-title sequence looms over Suzuki as, gun in hand, he apologizes to his brother: "You're an experiment that didn't work out. Sorry Genji…" Suzuki unleashes scalding steam on the thing that used to be his brother, then shoots it dead. Right away we know this isn't your garden variety rubber-suited giant monster flick (nor is this strictly a Japanese production, as we'll see later).

Into this mad science mess walks foreign correspondent Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), who's been sent by the World Press to interview Suzuki about his work. For a man who's just shot his mutated brother, Suzuki is remarkably calm and self-possessed. The laconic newspaperman expresses doubts that Suzuki's work in "evolutionary development" will interest his readers very much, but the bemused doctor seemingly takes no offense. Instead, he queries Larry about a number of personal details, including his height, weight, general health and marriage status (Larry's wife is waiting for him back in New York). It's as if Suzuki is sizing up Larry to be the prime subject for his next experiment… uh oh! Larry is confused and a little offended, but the doctor smooths things over by offering him a very special glass of Scotch (complete with a mutation-inducing enzyme).

Suzuki's attractive assistant Tara (Teri Zimmern) knows exactly what the doctor is up to, and although she feigns indifference, it's clear her conscience is tugging at her. When she challenges him, Suzuki's answer is the perfect distillation of The Mad Scientist Ethic:
Tara: Are you sure what you're doing is absolutely right?
Dr. Suzuki: This is for science, for human knowledge! What happens to one man doesn't make any difference!
Although Larry had originally planned to fly home to New York to be with his wife, Suzuki convinces him to stay a while longer ostensibly so that he can show him a side of Tokyo he's never seen before (but really so that the doctor and his assistant can keep an eye on their new experimental subject). Days turn into weeks as the doctor, Tara and Larry live it up at geisha parties and bathing suit-optional bath houses. Larry is intermittently bothered by a pain in his right shoulder and a right hand that seems to have a mind of its own, but the more drastic change is in his personality-- the formerly upright, faithful reporter has become sullen, lascivious and generally a drunken wreck. When his Tokyo station chief Ian Matthews (Norman Van Hawley) asks him what's going on and why he hasn't gone back to New York to see his wife, Larry grumpily tells him to mind his own business.

Jane Hylton as Linda Stanford
Linda's in for a real surprise when she
flies out to Tokyo to see her husband.
Things get really complicated for Larry when he returns from a night out with Tara to find his wife Linda (Jane Hylton) waiting for him in his apartment. When she gives him an ultimatum -- "the girlfriend or me!" -- he storms out with Tara on his arm. Tara in turn informs the bewildered man that he's got to go back and tell his wife in no uncertain terms that they're finished for good. So what's a formerly straight-laced, happily married man turned drunken-lout and philanderer to do? It seems like he needs two heads to deal with it all-- one to come to terms with his wife, and the other to carry on with his new exotic girlfriend. It's just around this time when Dr. Suzuki's slow-acting, mutating enzyme starts to kick in -- with terrifying results.

Many reviewers have noted The Manster's surreal shock imagery. For example, the first graphic manifestation of Stanford's mutation (beyond an itchy neck and a hairy, claw-like right hand) is a real eye-opener (pun intended). The Manster is also very dark, with most of the action taking place in the dead of night. The mutated Stanford, clad in a trenchcoat, attacks his victims on dark, foggy streets and in dimly-lit rooms. (The thing also leads the ineffectual Tokyo police on a chase through a darkened cemetery; the aftermath, and the fate of an unlucky officer, is another one of the film's shock images that stays with you.) It's as if Suzuki's formula had been applied to a film-noir, and it had mutated into a surreal, noirish, sci-fi/horror thriller (the cinematic equivalent of a thing with three heads).

In addition to the dark atmosphere and surrealistic imagery, The Manster is peppered with interesting bits of business and dialog that elevate it above the run-of-the-mill B sci-fi movie. There's a mildly raunchy scene early on in which the beautiful Tara takes Stanford to a communal bathhouse, where, per Japanese custom, men and women bathe together au naturel. "Well now I've seen everything… or I'm about to!" Larry quips as the two prepare to strip.

Larry (Peter Dyneley) confronts a temple priest (Shinpei Takagi)
In anguish, Larry seeks solace in a spooky Buddhist temple (but finds none).
Later, as the enzyme really gets down to work on poor Larry's body and his right hand turns into a beast's claw, there is a very nicely done scene in which Stanford, disconsolate and wandering aimlessly, stumbles into a darkened Buddhist temple. Surrounded by bizarre statuary of saints and demons half-hidden in the shadows, the tormented man, his transformed hand stuck in his coat pocket, approaches the temple priest who is praying out loud. "I just wanted to talk," he pleads with the uncomprehending priest. "I've got to get it out of me!" (Obviously in more ways than one!) When the priest turns away and goes back to his prayers, the enraged man falls on him off camera, and the prayers turn to screams. (Stanford's existential angst and tortured face, especially in this scene, remind me of The Wolf Man's Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. Both are turned into monsters through no fault of their own, and both are named Larry. Coincidence?)

At the climax, as Doc Suzuki's transgressions are finally catching up with him, he uncharacteristically waxes philosophical (and reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor): "Maybe I've offended the gods. Funny, I didn't used to believe in gods…"

On the other hand, there's quite a bit of smarmy dialog that should've ended up on the cutting room floor, especially when Stanford's boss Ian counsels Larry's wife to fight to keep her man, or at the very end when he clumsily sums up the moral of the story. A lot less of Ian and the desultory love triangle between Larry, Linda and Tara would have made the film leaner, meaner and more mutated (in a good way). (I guess Ian had an excuse for being wooden-- Norman Van Hawley's one and only acting credit is The Manster).

In his monumental work Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland, 1986), Bill Warren touches on the interesting, varied and peripatetic career of The Manster's producer, co-director and original story writer George P. Breakston:
Born in Paris in 1920, by the age of 6 he was in the United States. He soon became a well-known child actor, appearing on radio, in the theatre and films. His most prominent role in the early 1930s was as the boy Pip in Great Expectations (1934)… By the late 1940s, however, Breakston seems to have wearied of Hollywood, and left for Africa. There he began producing and directing pictures, sometimes also writing and starring in them. Among these films were Urubu (1948) and Golden Ivory (1955). … In the late 1950s, Breakston started wandering again; he made The Manster in Japan, Shadow of Treason (1963) and Blood River (1968) in other parts of the world, and The Boy Cried Murder (1966) in Montenegro.
Peter Dyneley as Larry Stanford; Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot
Two tormented Larrys: Peter Dyneley (left) and Lon Chaney Jr.
Warren also relates that for The Manster, Breakston relied heavily on visiting/expatriate Americans who spoke Japanese and Japanese who spoke English, so there are more amateurs in the cast than usual. The film, a co-production of United Artists of Japan and Shaw-Breakston Enterprises, was first released in Japan in 1959, but didn't make it over to the States until 1962 (thus accounting for the different dates that you find in various sources).

While The Manster itself is more ludicrous than frightening (the second head looks somewhat like a coconut with a scary face carved into it), the overall dark, surreal atmosphere and some very effective shock scenes make this one well worth a look (or even a second look).

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available online

Netflix Instant Watch

The Manster
was released in the U.S. on a double-bill with The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (aka Eyes without a Face):

March 8, 2013

"Hang on to your parkas!"

Poster - The Land Unknown (1957)
Now Playing: The Land Unknown (1957)

Pros: Intriguing premise of a lost world within a forbidding world (Antarctica); Imaginative production design on a limited budget
Cons: Wooden male lead; Variable monster effects; Budget too low for the high concept

Permit me to make a short plug for a book in a space normally reserved for movies. Several weeks ago I ran into a co-worker (and fellow horror fan) reading Dan Simmons' The Terror (2007) on his lunch break. I've had a lifelong side interest in tales of sailing ships, exploration and survival, so Simmons' unique mix of historical fiction and horror was intriguing to say the least -- the novel is based on the actual lost expedition of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, under the command of Sir John Franklin, to find the Arctic northwest passage in the mid-to-late 1840s. So I picked up a copy at the first opportunity and took it with me on a recent vacation.

As if all the challenges and privations of an Arctic expedition in the age of wooden sailing ships weren't enough -- the bone-chilling, killer cold; frostbite; crushing ice flows; violent storms; rotting food stores; scurvy and food poisoning; the inevitable human failings of envy, greed, ignorance and fear -- Simmons adds a huge, seemingly supernatural entity that stalks the expedition and picks them off one-by-one in fiendishly violent ways, without warning. It's a dauntingly long read at 960 pages, but for me a compelling one.

At one point in the book, after two years of being stuck in the Arctic ice, one of the characters morbidly compares a quick death from the slashing claws of the Thing with the prospect of a slow, agonizing death from scurvy or starvation. Simmons has obviously done his research, and the experiences and even the conversations of the characters feel very authentic. Just when you think things can't get worse, they do. From time to time it hits you that these were actual men who in all probability experienced and suffered much of what Simmons describes in the novel (absent being torn apart by a demon-beast of course).

Cover art - Dan Simmons' The Terror (2007)
At another point, mention is made of men who had previously served on the Terror or Erebus in Antarctica under James Clark Ross. From a comfortable 21st century perspective, typing on a computer in a cozy heated room, it seems incredible that anyone in their right mind would subject themselves for years on end to all the discomforts and perils of long sea voyages in rickety wooden vessels, and then, on top of it all, add mind-numbing, sub-freezing temperatures and the distinct possibility of being trapped by ice and snow thousands of miles from home. Then again, home back in those days was no bed of roses. Even in England, the supposed apex of civilization, life tended to be nasty, brutish and short. If you went into debt, you went to prison. If you couldn't feed your family, they starved. And in an pre-antibiotic world, chances were high that you'd die young of a routine infection. So maybe these long, arduous voyages of discovery weren't so crazy after all. There was the camaraderie and sense of mission, and if you just happened to survive, big bonuses for the members of a successful expedition (not to mention the status, kind of like being an astronaut back in the '60s when it was still rare and cool).

If I'd lived back then, I no doubt would have taken my chances with debtors' prisons, starvation and runaway infections on good old terra firma (and perhaps written reviews of plays while munching on stale bread in a drafty attic apartment). I don't think I could have been persuaded to join such an expedition until say, the invention of the airplane, so that you could fly over all that ice and snow, the polar bears, the chasms, cliffs, avalanches, etc. Take Admiral Richard Byrd, for example -- on his fourth Antarctic expedition, he was backed up by 15 naval ships, dozens of aircraft (including helicopters and flying boats), and over 4000 personnel. Now that's my kind of exploring!

Not that there aren't risks even with such a large, modern undertaking. The weather of course is always tricky in the arctic and antarctic regions. Parts give out in the freezing temps. Wings and rotors ice up. Fuel runs out. Sudden storms blow you out of the sky. And if you're really unlucky, a stray pterodactyl grazes your helicopter and sends you crashing down into a cavernous, lost prehistoric world thousands of feet below sea level.

This last bit of bad luck forces an unplanned stopover and exploration of The Land Unknown. The movie kicks off with a briefing in Washington, D.C. concerning a new U.S. Naval Antarctic expedition to follow up on the discoveries of the Byrd expedition of 1947, which, among other things, uncovered a south polar oasis of unaccountably warm water surrounded by ice. But that's not all that interests the U.S. government. As the expedition commander Captain Burnham (Douglas Kennedy) describes deposits of coal, nickel and uranium found by past Antarctic explorers, a gorgeous, well-dressed woman enters the briefing room. All the men turn around in their seats to stare as if they'd been out to sea (or out to lunch) for years and hadn't seen a woman in all that time.

At a break in the briefing, we learn that the head-turning blonde is Margaret "Maggie" Hathaway (Shawn Smith, aka Shirley Patterson) of the Oceanic Press, who will be joining the expedition. In classic '50s style, as the Captain introduces Maggie to two of her fellow explorers, Commander Harold "Hal" Roberts (Jock Mahoney) and Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds), much awkward banter, smirks, leering and and assorted sophomoric hijinks ensues. A sample:
Hathaway: Hello Lieutenant. I hope you won't mind having to fly the first woman over Antarctica.
Lt. Carmen: Ma'am, you just say the word and I'll fly you up to the moon!
Hathaway (beaming): Hmmm, in a helicopter?
Capt. Burnham (smirking): You won't have to worry about him Miss Hathaway, I'm sure he'll cool off as soon as he hits sub-zero weather.
Oh brother! Only the straight-arrow Commander Roberts manages to escape with his dignity intact, simply telling the reporter that he's an "ardent" reader of her columns (and of course, we immediately wonder what's wrong with that guy). A little bit later, on the deck of an ice breaker ship bound for the Antarctic, we get a better idea of just how far "off" this Navy commander and nerdy geophysicist really is:
Hathaway (hair perfectly coiffed and in place, despite standing on the windy deck of a ship bound for the south pole): Oh Hal, oil vapors, molecules… do you have to be so technical?
Roberts: A few things I can be quite romantic about.
Hathaway: Name one!
Roberts: Well, women. For example, although I know that basically women consist mostly of water with a few pinches of salt and metals thrown in, you have a very un-saltlike and non-metallic effect on me.
Maggie Hathaway (Shawn Smith) and Cmdr. Roberts (Jock Mahoney) aboard ship
Shawn and Jock seem embarrassed by the jaw-dropping
"romantic" dialog in the scene aboard ship.
Man, this guy's smoother than The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper! With that touching interlude over, the movie gets down to the business of getting its main characters lost in an unknown land. With Machinist's Mate Steve Miller (Phil Harvey) in tow, the group takes off in a helicopter in search of Byrd's warm water discovery. When the pilot reports that the temp is 40 below, Maggie comments that it's hard to believe the area was once sub-tropical. Little does she know that she'll soon be experiencing for herself just what it was like millions of years ago.

Back on the ship, the weather reports look bad, and Captain Burnham orders that the helicopter be called back. But Lt. Carmen matter-of-factly informs his passengers that he can't fly over the storm, there's not enough fuel to fly around it, and nowhere to land to wait it out. So he looks for calm patch to fly through. As he heads for a small break in the storm bank, he tells the group to "hold on to your parkas!" Just then, out of the fog, a screeching pterodactyl buzzes the helicopter and clips the rotor assembly. With the controls and the antenna damaged, the craft starts to go down, but then, in a nice, suspenseful touch, Carmen realizes that they're below sea level and still descending (and the temperature is rising dramatically). Roberts guesses that they're inside the crater of a volcano. "I hope it's got a bottom," Carmen responds.

They find the bottom-- and what a bottom it is!  (Okay, that came out wrong. Let's go with, "and what a lost world it is!") As Carmen and Miller try to repair the helicopter, Roberts and Hathaway look around. In the dense fog, Maggie is completely oblivious to a huge man-eating plant that is just about to grab her with its tendrils when she's called over by Roberts. Meanwhile, Machinist's Mate Miller tries hammering out the bent push-pull rod that allows the helicopter to ascend. When he succeeds in breaking it, they realize they're royally screwed. Roberts points out that if they're not found relatively soon, the expedition pulls out in a few weeks, and there's not likely to be another one for years. Miller panics, and when the others are distracted, runs down the helicopter's battery vainly trying to hail search planes over the radio.

The helicopter crew is dwarfed by Mesozoic flora and volcanic peaks
Behold! The Land Unknown in spectacular black-and-white Cinemascope!

The crew spend a fitful night in their new digs, then wake up to find that the fog has lifted and they're standing in an strange world of towering volcanic peaks, weird tropical plants and strange creatures right out of the Mesozoic era. As the castaways stand awestruck at the vista in front of them (and in Cinemascope no less -- the effect isn't bad considering the limitations of the time), the viewer gets a taste of what might have been. Originally, Universal-International had planned a big-budget "epic" with heavy hitters William Alland producing and Jack Arnold directing (the team had recently scored a hit with The Incredible Shrinking Man, released in April, 1957). But the studio got cold feet, and drastically cut back on the budget and the cast. Arnold lost interest, and even though Alland is credited as producer, he also pulled out in all but name.

According to Virgil Vogel, the man who picked up the directing reins, the effects department was mostly responsible for the studio's change of mind (as told to Tom Weaver, Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, McFarland, 1991):
"Universal went into this planning to make it the biggest science fiction picture of its time. But then the effects department and the makeup department spent all their money! Universal spent so much on the monsters, they didn't have any money left to make the picture. They didn't know that they couldn't make the biggest show of all time without spending money! Jack Arnold found out that Universal was pulling all that money -- they took the color away, they took the cast away -- and Jack kind of lost interest in it. It was no longer going to be an epic, it was going to be a typical, cheap Universal picture. So Jack said, 'I don't want to do it, let Virgil do it!'"
Considering all the money that was apparently spent, the monster effects are variable. They range from rear screen-projected monitor lizards as stand-ins for dinosaurs (standard issue for B dinosaur movies), to a 12 foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex suit supplemented with hydraulic-operated eyes and jaws, to a 15 foot long "elasmosaurus" sea creature (also operated with hydraulics), to a simple pterodactyl prop hoisted on a fishing pole. Perhaps the most credit should go to the set designers, who had to create a complete lost world on a process stage when most of the money, and location shooting, was pulled. Vogel again:
"When we were on that big stage, we had a big cyclorama all the way around. That's a big piece of canvas, about 75 feet tall and about 300 feet long. It had the scenery painted on it and it hung all around the edge of the stage, like a backdrop in a theater. We also had that big pool in there, much bigger than an Olympic pool -- it was 300 feet long and 100 feet wide." (Ibid.)

The King of the Dinosaurs attacks the repaired helicopter
T-Rex wants to pick his teeth with the helicopter rotor blades.
Another casualty of the studio's cold feet was the cast. Vogel claims that when the studio heads were still thinking "epic," Cary Grant (of all people!) was considered for the lead (but Vogel's not sure if he was ever contacted). The cast that ended up before the cameras is very lean -- one wonders if the original concept was to include a larger number of performers to be "lost and terrorized in prehistoric time" (tagline). 4 is not a lot of people to provide for such thrills as having the local fauna (or the man-eating flora) feast on a crew member or two, and still have somebody surviving at the end.

It doesn't help that Jock Mahoney (Roberts), the male lead, is pretty wooden and uninspiring, a far cry from Cary Grant (I still can't quite wrap my mind around Cary appearing in such a picture, even a big budget one). But it's hardly his fault. Vogel explains that he was a stunt man whom Universal had pressed into service as a cheap replacement on a cheap production. But in one sense it's fortunate he was around, as, according to the director, the man the studio had hired for the water stunts couldn't swim (??!!) Mahoney ended up diving in and saving the floundering man's bacon! (Ibid.)

Shawn Smith (who had appeared in earlier films as Shirley Patterson) is a very competent B movie heroine, and very easy to look at. As the days trapped in the hot and humid lost world drag on, she starts to look like Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. But her blonde hairdo is never less than absolutely fabulous. Shawn/Shirley's other '50s sci-fi credit is World Without End (1956; check out my post on it here). Pretty boy William Reynolds' sci-fi/horror credits include Cult of the Cobra (1955) and the zero-budget The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958; both also reviewed on this blog-- click the links!)

The elasmosaurus is foiled once again by Dr. Hunter (Henry Brandon)
The Land Unknown's friendly elasmosaurus is ready to give up smoking.
Henry Brandon rounds out the cast as Dr. Carl Hunter, a survivor from a previous expedition, who through pluck and brains has created his own little fiefdom in the prehistoric world. The character reminds me of a poor-man's Dr. Morbius from Forbidden Planet (1956). At the climax, Hunter becomes an action hero as he does battle with the hungry elasmosaurus. The poor creature gets so many fiery torches (and one flare gun) in the mouth that by film's end I'd mentally dubbed him "Smokey" ("Only you can prevent fiery elasmosaurus breath!")

We'll never know if a bigger budget, color, and Cary Grant might have vaulted The Land Unknown from its status as a near-forgotten Universal sci-fi programmer to a classic on par with Forbidden Planet, but what did survive the studio's second guessing is a decent, unpretentious movie with plenty of action, good production design (for the budget) and some snappy dialogue. I haven't found a streaming version, but it is included on the highly rated 6-disc "Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection" released by Universal in 2008.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

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