Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Three Underrated Movies: The Land Unknown

Here's something you don't see every day: a 1950s lost world movie from Universal that I was completely unaware of.

I can't figure it out. I must've seen or at least had a chance to see every sci-fi epic to come out of that studio, but Land Unknown was completely unknown to me until I came across it in a video store in the '90s, and even then I didn't realize it was a Universal.

(It's not like the Universal name is that stamp of greatness. It's just that, you know, an actual studio produced it. One with sets, cameramen, and a special effects crew--no matter how time-pressed or budget conscious--was employed in its production. Compare that to American-International and its ilk, where most of the budget went to letters begging the U.S. Army for copious stock footage. Again, it might be good. It's just that the odds are longer.)

Well, Land Unknown is good. Very good, in fact. It has one of those combos of escapist high adventure and good drama in which the two elements don't seem to be at odds with each other, like they are in Devil Girl from Mars, in which a perfectly credible drama is routinely interrupted by a woman in a giant rubber spacesuit.

Here the drama comes from one of the basic fictional conflicts, man Vs. nature. Okay, nature comes in the form of T-Rex played by a guy in its torso and a puppet for a head. It's still man Vs. nature.

The performances run from credible to damn good, and the cheerful camaraderie of the helicopter flyover the South Pole falls apart as soon as they get stuck in a prehistoric jungle in the middle of nowhere. One of the men does some stupid things, and then some bad things, but it's hard to hate him; his wife back home is expecting.

Then they encounter the ultimate man's inhumanity to man, Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon), a longtime survivor of a previous crash who has become an intelligent beast, looking upon the others as predators, pray, or (in the woman's case) procreation.

The only one who doesn't break is Cmndr. Harold 'Hal' Roberts, played by Jock Mahoney as guy who's both brave and morally decent, not just a wooden '50s hero. The part that most resonates for me as a modern viewer is when the others want to torture Hunter for information, but Mahoney stops them. He's not going to let them sink that far. (Roberts would not have made it far in Gitmo.) The act of decency pays off, as Hunter decides he can trust them. (This is generally how it operates in real life as well.)

And the effects? Well, they're unconvincing, but they're fun. What the effects crew lacks in realism they make up for in quantity. There's an abundance of monsters, one showing up every couple of minutes. It keeps the film going at a speedy pace, right up tot he climax.

The climax is the final thing that sold me on this movie. In most movies of this genre (I'm looking at you, Irwin Allen), the heroes are allowed to be pure and innocent, while a In Deux Machina device doles out a gruesome fate ti characters the audience wants to see suffer. Without giving things away, let's just say that the movie has heart.


At 10/28/10, 2:29 PM, Anonymous Boston Bill said...

I've seen it! Well, the last 10 minutes anyway. The 'beast man' was what made me remember. There is a battle in the end and a struggle to get on a helicopter. The hero defeats the caveman (I had no idea he was ever civilized), then rescues him along with the rest of the survivors.


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