1960 was not necessarily the Year of the Dinosaur, but it did feature a pair of science fiction films that clearly delineate two different approaches Hollywood used during this era to portray the ravenous reptiles on screen: DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD. Neither film is a milestone in its presentation of carnivorous carnosaurs, but each has its own goofy charm for those with an appreciation for the sort of old-fashioned special effects used in the days before computer-generated imagery – in this case, stop-motion puppets and live-action lizards.
By 1960, both techniques had been well established. The use of stop-motion to depict prehistoric beasts on screen dated back to the silent era, when Willis O’Brien pioneered the technique on short subjects like GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1915) and the feature-length THE LOST WORLD (1925), the first adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, about a expedition to a plateau where evolution has hit a stand-still, allowing the supposedly extinct animals to continue living into the 20th Century. O’Brien went on to perfect the technique in KING KONG and SON OF KONG (both 1933). However, because of the time and expense (stop-motion involves shooting miniature armatures one frame at a time, adjusting the armature between frames to create the illusion of movement), stop-motion was never widely adopted, and only a relative handful of films utilized it to depict dinosaurs: THE LOST CONTINENT (1951), THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956), and THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956).
The first known use of modern reptiles to replicate dinosaurs on screen had occurred in ONE MILLION B.C. (1940),* which saved time and money by simply gluing fins and horns onto monitor lizards, baby alligators, and iguanas. Of course, the results resembled dinosaurs only in terms of being reptiles with scales, teeth, and claws. As if this were not bad enough, the treatment of the animals is clearly inhumane (a death by avalanche is depicted by dropping a load of rocks onto an iguana; the big dino-fight set piece features the monitor lizard and the alligator biting and clawing each other – for real). According to Denis Gifford in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, this all-too-real carnage raised the ire of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leading to a ban on similar scenes. Consequently, later low-budget dinosaur films either used men in dino-suits (e.g., 1957’s THE LAND UNKNOWN) or recycled ONE MILLION B.C.’s footage: PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1950), TWO LOST WORLDS (1950), UNTAMED WOMEN (1952), ROBOT MONSTER (1953), and TEENAGE CAVEMAN (1958). Nevertheless, at least a few subsequent films shot new footage of made-up lizards as dinosaurs: UNKNOWN ISLAND (1948), KING DINOSAUR (1955), and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).
This, then, is the historical backdrop against which DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD painted their pictures of prehistoric life surviving into the modern world. The former picture is an attempt by the team behind THE BLOB (1957) – producer Jack H. Harris and director Irvin S. Yeaworth – to upscale with a bigger-budget production, shot in widescreen and released by a major distributor (Universal Pictures). The story involves a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex accidentally brought to life on an isolated island resort. Hired to provide the special effects was the team of Tim Baar, Wah Chang, and Gene Warren, with uncredited help from model builder Marcel Delgado (who had worked on KING KONG) and several stop-motion animators.
The advantage of stop-motion over costumed lizards or men in suits is that the miniature model can be far more anatomically correct in terms of proportions and resemblance to actual dinosaurs. The advantage of stop-motion over mechanical models is that the frame-by-frame shooting process allows careful positioning of the puppets, which helps imbue the creatures with life-like movements. The disadvantage is that miniature models can be hard to detail correctly; also the fact that the models are not actually moving when each frame is exposed creates a perfectly clear image, lacking motion blur, which results in a staccato, stroboscopic look, especially when the creatures are supposed to move quickly.
Unfortunately, the dinosaurs in DINOSAURS fall victim to these disadvantages. The creatures are convincingly terrifying to youngsters, but older viewers will most likely find them quaint in their execution. Nevertheless, fans of the stop-motion process will find them interesting, and some of the action is imaginative, such as the final-reel confrontation between the T-Rex and a steam shovel.
The 1960 version of THE LOST WORLD is an attempt by producer Irwin Allen (LOST IN SPACE) to remake the 1925 silent classic with sound and color, featuring an all-star cast: Michael Rennie from DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), David Hedison from THE FLY (1958), and Claude Rains from THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), along with Jill St. John along for sex appeal. Although Willis O’Brien, from the original film version of THE LOST WORLD, is credited as an effects technician, stop-motion was eschewed for cost reasons, with L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, and Emil Kosa Jr. optically enlarging monitor lizards made up to resemble (allegedly) their prehistoric ancestors.
The advantage of real lizards is that they are clearly alive, and they move very convincingly: their tongues flick; their claws grasp, and their bodies flop about, without the artificially precise stylization inherent in stop-motion. The disadvantage is that they are obviously not dinosaurs. The addition of fins and horns does little to create a resemblance to Stegosaurus or Triceratops, and Professor Challenger, the film’s alleged expert in paleontology, comes across as a bit of a fool as he identifies each new hybrid monstrosities by name, suggesting for example that one belly-crawling beast is a Brontosaurs, a creature structured more like a suspension bridge.
The other big problem with the live-action approach to special effects is that, once again, we are presented with a real-life tussle between two wild animals. Fans of cockfighting may not have much problem with this, but more enlightened viewers are likely to shake their heads in wonder that only five decades ago, Hollywood filmmakers still thought that watching animals harm each other on screen was an innocent evening’s entertainment. (To be fair, one should note that even today, the prospect of witnessing animal atrocities draw eyeballs to YouTube videos of animals devouring each other. But at least in cases like these, the action has not been staged for the camera.)
Modern viewers, accustomed to the glossy digital dinosaurs in films like JURASSIC PARK (1993) and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008) will likely be disappointed by the old-fashioned effects in DINOSAURS and THE LOST WORLD. Even fans with a nostalgic fondness for classic films will prefer the superior work seen in the previous version THE LOST WORLD and in the subsequent remake of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (featuring Ray Harryhausen’s dynamated dinosaurs, upstaged by Raquel Welch in a fur bikini). Nevertheless, the 1960 versions of DINOSAURUS and THE LOST WORLD provide a marvelous snap-shot of Hollywood’s efforts to recreate extinct life forms in the era before special effects became the province of computer operators. FOOTNOTE:
As Mark Leeper points out in comments below, THE SECRET OF THE LOCH (1934) used a live iguana to portray the Loch Ness Monster. Whether Nessie is a dinosaur is at least open to debate, but the film definitely deserves credit for using live-action lizard technique before ONE MILLION B.C. Although the film itself is rather slow and dated, the composite effects used to place the monster in the same scene with the actor (during a dive beneath the loch’s surface) are very effective. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that, instead of swimming, the monster crawls on the loch’s bed – without, rather miraculously, raising any swirling silt to muddy the water.
Below, check out more images from DINOSAURS and THE LOST WORLD.
1960. The beginning of a turbulent decade: civil rights, riots, sit-ins. On screen, however – at least as far as mainstream Hollywood is concerned, it is still business as usual, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handing out an unprecedented number of Oscar to the overblown historical epic, BEN-HUR. If you are searching cinema for hints of the societal tensions that will explode over the course of the next few years, you will have to look elsewhere, to genres that allow buried fears to surface in disguised forms. You have to look to cinefantastique.
What did 1960 have to offer in terms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films? Essentially, the year was part of a transitional period. Science fiction, which had dominated genre film-making throughout most of the 1950s – with fears of communism disguised as enlarged insects, other-worldly creatures, and various atomic mutations and monsters – waned toward the end of the decade, replaced by a resurrected horror genre, which focused on visceral, bodily fears. While England’s Hammer Films, who had revived the Gothic tradition with new incarnations of Dracula and Frankenstein, continued their successful streak, filmmakers in America and Italy sought to cash in on their success. Japan – long a supplier of giant monsters – showed that they could scale their terrors down to size. Horror was becoming international in scope. But unlike the classic horror of yesteryear, the new films hit closer to home, with stories hinting that the bastions of normality, far from being impervious strongholds, might, in fact, be the source of horror.
PSYCHO and HOUSE OF USHER – even BLACK SUNDAY, to some extent – trace the etiology of terror back to the family, once a sacrosanct institution. Playing to the target teen audience, USHER’s depiction of horror is closely aligned with age: the white-haired Roderick (Vincent Price) stands between the film’s two young lovers. Though technically the brother of Madeline Usher, he exhibits all the signs of parental authority, and one of the illicit thrills of the film is seeing the old authority figure go down in flames along with his house.
Also, in 1960 it is hard to identify the “monster” by mere looks; now he – or she – may walk among us, unnoticed until it is too late. Norman Bates seems to be a nice, shy boy. PEEPING TOM’s Mark Lewis is likewise likable. The new Mr. Hyde, in Hammer Films’ version of the familiar tale, is a handsome bon vivant, not a deformed maniac. The bottom line is this: the safety zone is smaller, if it exists at all; watching the skies for alien invaders is pointless, when the attack is more likely to come from within one’s own neighborhood or household, perhaps even one’s own self.
Although 1960 saw horror exploding on screens around the world, science fiction and fantasy were not entirely absent; they continued, sometimes offering an optimistic counterpoint, sometimes including monsters menacing enough to populate a full-blown horror film. Producer George Pal took us into a future populated by subterranean Morlocks. Stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, who had switched from science fiction (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS) to fantasy (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) sent Gulliver to Lilliput. The great Ingmar Bergman took time out from his more serious work to send Don Juan back to Earth from Hell.
Another sign of the times was the trend toward color photography. The low-budget black-and-white science fiction – which had once proliferated like pod people in a green house – withered away to almost nothing. Not every genre film had a hefty budget, but even modest productions like HOUSE OF USHER and DINOSAURUS made the effort to look lavish and glossy, thanks to widescreen and/or color – and if not more lavish, then at least more lurid, thanks to the occasional flash of blood, which registered with much greater impact when viewers could see the deep crimson dripping on the screen.
Exactly how many horror, fantasy, and science fiction films were released in 1960? That depends on how you define the genres, and whether you include foreign titles that might not have reached our shores until later. Below we do our best to round up the relevant titles. Read on to get a taste of what the genre had to offer fifty years ago…
-1960 SCIENCE FICTION FILMS-
THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN. The career of the talented Edgar G. Ulmer (1934’s THE BLACK CAT) seemed on a downhill slide with this low-budget effort, scripted by Jack Lewis, about a mad scientist who intends to use an invisibility formula to create an army of invisible zombies. ATOMIC WAR BRIDE. This 84-minute Yugoslavian film (known as Rat in its native land) is an alleged satire on the insanity of nuclear warfare. BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (Nebo zovyot). Russian film about a race to land the first rocket ship on Mars. Directed by Mikhail Karzhukov and Sleksandr Kozyr, from a script Karzhukov co-wrote with Yevgeni Pomeschchikov and Aleksei Sazanov. Francis Ford Coppola (working under the pseudonym Thomas Colchart) re-edited the film and shot new footage for the U.S. release. BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER. Another film from director Edgar G. Ulmer, this one from a script by Arthur C. Pierce, about a test pilot who inadvertently rockets into a future time, when the ruler wants him to procreate because the male population has gone sterile. THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS. Phil Tucker, producer of the infamous ROBOT MONSTER, wrote and directed this dismal little ditty, a 69-minute stinker about aliens from outer space who possess the bodies of a man and a woman who died in a car accident. The disembodied aliens are visualized as simple white circles of animation floating across a black screen, an effect reprised at the end to suggest the defeated extraterrestrials will be back for more mayhem – a fate that, fortunately cinema audiences were spared. DINOSAURUS. This sci-fi effort from the team that gave us THE BLOB (1958) is built around a great premise for a cool action-thriller: an island resort is menaced by a pair of prehistoric reptiles accidentally dredged up from the harbor; the brontosaurus turns out to be friendly enough, but the Tyrannosaurus Rex is hungry! The isolated setting forces the characters to defend themselves without help from the army or even much in the way of firepower; they have to rely on whatever is available, leading to a clever confrontation between the Rex and a steam shovel at the climax. The script throws in a cave man as well, who is used mostly for comic relief. In general, the writing, directing, and acting are competent but not outstanding. The stop-motion miniature dinosaur effects may amuse fans for the technique, but only very young viewers will be convinced by them. All in all, this is a pleasant popcorn experience, but it is easy to imagine a better film being made from the central idea. NOTE: Producer Jack H. Harris had hoped that this would be his “forever movie,” the one that lasted in people’s imaginations, because it had more lavish production values than THE BLOB, and it was distributed by a major studio. Although the film turned a profit, it did not become a classic; meanwhile, memories of THE BLOB live on. THE HUMAN VAPOR. Director Ishiro Honda and special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, the team behind such Toho productions as GODZILLA and RODAN, focus on a human-sized monster for a change: a librarian (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who gains the ability, courtesy of a scientific experiment, to turn himself into a vapor. Cross-breeding science fiction with cop-and-robbers, the script by Takeshi Kimura has the titular human vapor use his abilities to rob banks. The original Japanese titles literally translates at “First Gas Person.” THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH. Odd-ball effort from producer-director Roger Corman, starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, and Robert Towne (who wrote the script) as the last three people left alive on Earth, leading to the ultimate love triangle as the two men vie for the affections of the sole remaining woman. Although shot in color and widescreen, this little movie is a low-budget affair, too slowly paced (in spite of its 71-minute running time) to stand up even as a solid cult film; fortunately, it does have a few things going for it, such as the effective depiction of a depopulated world, realized on location in Puerto Rico with streets full of empty cars abandoned in the middle of the road. The ending even works up a little genuine interest, refusing to cop out with a happy resolution. THE LEECH WOMAN. This black-and-white B-movie from Universal Pictures is too cheap and shoddy to be really good, but like THE WASP WOMAN (see below), it offers some interesting insights on the 1960 male attitudes toward women and aging. It’s about some anthropologists who accompany an old crone back to her village in the jungle, where she reveals a secret that restores her youth; the catch is that the process requires a human victim to work. June Talbot (Coleen Gray) appropriates the secret for her own personal use, more than wiling to have men pay the price for extending her youthful appearance indefinitely. Although June is clearly the villain, the film offers her some measure of sympathy: her first victim is a two-timer who gets what he deserves, and the dialogue explicitly notes the double standards that apply to men and women as they grow older (men earn greater respect, while women are cast aside as worn out and useless). THE LOST WORLD. Irwin Allen’s remake of the 1925 silent classic substitutes live-action lizards for stop-motion dinosaurs. There is a decently sweaty atmosphere to the jungle scenes as Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) leads a team in search of surviving prehistoric reptiles. Michael Rennie (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), Jill St. John (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER), and David Hedison (THE FLY) fill out the cast, but the humans cannot make up for the fact that we don’t get to see convincing dinosaurs. Charles Bennet wrote the script, based on the fine adventure novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. MAN IN THE MOON. This British comedy, directed by Basil Deardon from a screenplay by Bryan Forbes and Michale Relph, stars Kenneth Moore as a man chosen to be the first to make a flight to the moon. The premise is that Moore’s character is a professional medical test subject who has proven to be highly resistant to disease, so scientists preparing a moon mission decide to use him as a guinea pig, sending him to the moon before any real astronauts go. SHIP OF MONSTERS. 81-minute black-and-white Mexican film about women from Venus who coming looking for male breeding stock. When the hero refuses to comply, the Venusians unleash monsters. The ploy does not work, and they return home, defeated. THE SILENT STAR (Der Schweigende Stern). Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (SOLARIS), this German-Polish film from DEFA (East Germany’s state-run Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft) was intended as serious science fiction effort, with a high-class production values, including color, widescreen, and four-track stereo. However, when it reached American shores in 1962 as FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS, the English-dubbed, re-edited version was unimpressive indeed, providing well-deserved fodder for an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Fortunately, the original version is now available on DVD and VOD. It’s still not great, but it is better. SPACE MEN (a.k.a. ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE). Italian film directed by Antonio Margheriti (CASTLE OF BLOOD), about a reporter, assigned to a beat aboard a space station, who must disable the photon generators of an errant space ship, the radiation from which is threatening Earth. THE TIME MACHINE. George Pal, who had produced THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1953, returns with another adaptation of H.G. Wells, and this time Pal steps into the director’s chair. The story has time traveler Rod Taylor heading to the future, when society has been divided into two segments: one weak and passive, living on the surface; the other strong and cannibalistic, living underground. Wells’ original was a sort of satiric imagination of the direction in which society might be evolving: it’s the bourgeoisie and proletariat taken to extremes; Pal substitutes the idea that things got this way because of nuclear war. This was quite a lavish production for its time; although some of the special effects trickery is visible at the seams, the work is colorful and engaging enough so that you want to forgive the flaws. Overall, this is an enjoyable effort, though not quite as astounding as WAR OF THE WORLDS. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Excellent, suspenseful science fiction film about the misadventures of a small English town, where the residents wake up after a mysterious bout of narcolepsy, and nine months later the women give birth to children with strange powers (including Martin Stephens of THE INNOCENTS). The always entertaining George Sanders plays the man who first tries to teach the children (who have a nasty habit of using their telepathic powers to bump off those who offend them) and later tries to destroy them, putting his own life at risk. VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET. Jerry Lewis stars in this film version of the Gore Vidal Broadway play (which had made its debut as a television drama). Lewis plays an alien who comes to Earth and falls in love. Unfortunately, along with love, come less pleasant emotions, which may not be worth the price. Vidal’s original was a satire about an alien who wanted to study the Civil War; when he arrives too late – in the 20th century – he decides to start a new war. THE WASP WOMAN. This little black-and-white movie, produced and directed by Roger Corman, casts the striking Susan Cabot as Janice, head of a large cosmetics firm, who resorts to wasp enzymes in order to arrest the aging process. The treatment works; unfortunately, it also morphs her into the titular Wasp Woman from time to time. It is hard to take this thread-bare production seriously; its monster is obviously a riff on THE FLY (1958), but the makeup and production values are no real competition for the earlier film. Still, THE WASP WOMAN retains a flash of interest. It’s a male, sexist depiction of how beautiful women handle aging, going to such desperate lengths that they turn themselves into monsters. ALSO OF NOTE: In order to get the running time up to the minimum length needed for a television sale, Jack Hill added a prologue sequence. (NOTE: THE WASP WOMAN was shot in 1959, and some sources list it as having been released in October of that year; others list the release date as February 12, 1960.) WORLD WAR II BREAKS OUT (Dai-sanji sekai taisen: Yonju-ichi jikan no kyofu). This Japanese film from writer-director Shigeaki Hidaka (with a directorial assist from William Ross) portrays the tragic consequences for Japan when a nuclear war erupts between the USA and the Soviet bloc.
-1960 FANTASY FILMS-
THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER. The men behind THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1957) – producer Charles H. Schneer, actor Kerwin Matthews, and (most importantly) special effects supervisor Ray Harryhausen – reteamed for this film version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Although much of the Swiftian satire is lost in the screenplay by Arthur A. Ross and director Jack Sher, the film emerges as another colorful showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. Without much in the way of monsters to animate, Harryhausen focuses on the miniature and composite effects necessary to make Matthews look either larger or smaller than everyone else (depending on which of the three worlds he is in at the time). The result is an adequately entertaining fantasy for children. Swift fans will probably prefer the original novel. Harryhausen fans will probably prefer anything with more monsters. THE DEVIL’S EYE. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s fantasy-comedy is based around the folk saying that a woman’s virtue is like a stye in the Devil’s Eye. In this case, Satan (Stig Jarrel) sends Don Juan (Jarl Kulle) up from hell in order to seduce a virtuous vicar’s daughter (Bibi Andersson). Bergman’s comedies (such as SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) are not so much “funny” as they are light-hearted counterpoints to his more serious work. Unfortunately, this film has never been released on Region 1 DVD. FAUST. A German film version of Goethe’s play, starring Will Quadflieg as Dr. Faust and Gustaf Grundgens as Mephistopholes. Unavailable on Region 1 DVD, the color, 128-minute film has a decent rating on IMDB. GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON (La vendetta di Ercole [“The Vendetta of Hercules”]). This is one of many Italian beefcake epics from the era; many were simply muscle-men movies, but others included fantasy elements, often borrowed from Greek mythology. In this film, Goliath/Hercules (Mark Forest) battles giant bats, a three-headed dog, and a dragon. Broderick Crawford (from the 1941 version of THE BLACK CAT and, later, television’s HIGHWAY PATROL) provides a little American name value as King Eurystheus. LA TESTAMENT D’OPHEE. The last film from the highly regarded surrealistic filmmaker Jean Cocteau (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) portrays an 18th century poet who travels through time seeking divine inspiration. THE WILD BEAST OF CRETE. Inspired by Greek mythology, this Italian peplum film is about an evil ruler in Crete, who keeps the dangerous man-monster hybrid the Minotaur at bay by sacrificing island virgins. THE WIZARD OF BAGHDAD. Dick Shawn and Diane Baker star in this comedy spin on THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, written by Jesse Lasky Jr. and directed by George Sherman.
-1960 HORROR FILMS-
13 GHOSTS. Gimmicky William Castle film, written by Robb White, for which audience members were given special tinted glasses that allowed them to see the ghosts on screen. ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. Italian rip-off of EYES WITHOUT A FACE (see below), with a mad doctor who is able to turn himself into a monster, so that he can abduct women in order to use their skin to restore the face of his disfigured daughter. THE AVENGER. Germanpsycho-thriller set in England, about a killer who decapitates his victims and sends the heads through the mail. Based on an Edgar Wallace novel. BLACK SUNDAY. Widely regarded by fans as a genre masterpiece, BLACK SUNDAY is a magnificent work of black-and-white horror, filled with wonderfully atmospheric effects and punctuated by moments of brutality quite grizzly for their time. Also known as “The Mask of Satan,” ”Mask of the Demon,” or “Revenge of the Vampire” (depending on the country of release), the film simultaneously harkins back to the Universal classics of the 1930s and emulates the then-contemporary verve and dynamism of Hammer Films productions like HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). The result is a unique piece of Gothic visual poetry that retains its power to thrill and entertain with all the tenacious vivacity of its centuries-dead vampire-witch, who refuses to lie quietly in her grave. This marks the official directorial debut of cinematographer Mario Bava, who would craft several excellent horror and science fiction films over the course of the next two decades. BLOOD AND ROSES. French director Roger Vadim’s adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla has its defenders, but the Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror faults it for “stilted performances…bathetic dialogue, and direction too prosaic to achieve the necessary intensity.” THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. This is Hammer Films’ first sequel to their 1958 classic, HORROR OF DRACULA. Made at the height of the studio’s success, BRIDES OF DRACULA features the familiar elements (beautiful color cinematography, lavish sets, solid writing, strong performances), making this a worthy heir to its predecessor. However, it is perhaps most notable for the obvious absence of the king of vampires, Count Dracula; instead, we get a blond, youthful vampire named Baron Meinster (David Peel). Directed with assurance by Terence Fisher, BRIDES is lavish and beautiful, filled with interesting ideas and memorable scenes. In the end, however, this sequel cannot surmount the absence of Count Dracula. Having dispatched the Vampire King in the previous film, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is the Gothic equivalent of the world’s heavyweight champ, and Baron Meinster is a comparative light-weight, making his defeat feel like a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. CIRCUS OF HORRORS. Anton Diffring gives a fine performance in this lurid film directed by Sidney Hayers, from a script by George Baxt about a crooked plastic surgeon who evades the police by assuming a new identity as the proprietor of a travelling circus – which soon becomes famous (or infamous) for a series of tragic accidents, which seem only to increase tickets sales. Besides the visceral kick of trapeze artists falling to their deaths, or lion tamers mauled by the big cats, the film gets its biggest charge from Diffring’s character – essentially a tempermental artist who fashions his female patients to suit his classical ideas of beauty, and then destroys them when no longer satisfied with his own results. Not exactly reputable, but fascinating to watch. Donald Pleasence (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) appears early on, as the previous circus owner, mauled to death in a drunken stupor by his favorite performing bear. CITYOF THE DEAD (a.k.a. HORROR HOTEL). This excellent spookfest – about student who gets more than she bargained for when she goes to a small New England town to do research on belief in witches – stops just short of being one of the all-time great horror films. It is drenched in black-and-white atmosphere, and things that should be wrong actually end up helping: the budget-dictated lack of exteriors location shooting, plus the English actors trying to sound American, combine to create a limbo-like feeling, as if the film is set in its own weird little universe. The only drawback is that director Moxie lays it on so thick that sometimes you have to giggle. Fortunately, he redeems the misstep with the wonderful finale – one of the greatest endings you will ever see in a horror film. CREATURES OF THE WALKING DEAD. A mostly forgotten Mexican horror film about a mad doctor’s great grandson, who inherits the family castle and revives his ancestor. THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS. Entertaining opening salvo in Mexico’s series of films about the vampiric son of the famous prophet. Nostradamus fils (Germain Robles) is as much super-villain as vampire, revealing his existence to a professor and challenging him to prevent a series of 13 murders that blood-sucker proposes to commit (all of this is to prove that the powers of darkness and the supernatural are far stronger than those of modern science). The clever concept is somewhat marred by bad dubbing in the U.S. versions, but the film is richly atmospheric, with nice Gothic sets benefiting from some fine photography, and Robles is impressive in the title role. Three sequels followed. THE CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE. Mexican horror film on the voodoo theme. DOCTOR BLOOD’S COFFIN. A surgeon exhume the body of his receptionist’s husband and attempts to implant a living heart. The wonderful Hazel Court is the receptionist – perhaps the only point of interest to this obscure flick. EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Les Yeux sans Visage, 1960). This brilliant film from director Georges Franju is a compelling and clinically brilliant combination of French art film and shock horror. The plot reads like little more than conventional B-movie schlock: Doctor Genessier, driven by guilt for disfiguring his daughter in a car accident, is the archetypal mad scientist who will stop at nothing to restore her face – even murder. What raises the film to the level of a masterpiece is the thorough conviction with which the story is treated, at all levels: the performances, direction, photography, and art direction – all combine to create a world in which fragile, poetic beauty is periodically shattered by clinical horror. The juxtaposition of the contrasting imagery is, in some miraculous fashion, entirely seamless, all part and parcel of the same picture, never feeling gratuitously grafted on. The result is not merely frightening but also genuinely disturbing – and thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. This is the first “art” horror film, and it’s cross-over appeal between the art house and the grindhouse should not be overestimated. THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS. Black-and-white British horror movie, written and directed by John Gilling (THE REPTILE, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE GORGON), based on the true-life story of Burke and Hare. Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Knox, the surgeon-teacher who pays the grave robbers to provide corpses for his anatomy students. Donald Pleasence co-stars. THE HANDS OF ORLAC. Mel Ferrer stars in this film, one of several adaptations of the Maurice Renard novel about a pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has the hands of a murderer grafted on in their place. Christopher Lee co-stars. HOUSEOF USHER. With this thick slice of atmospheric horror, producer-director Roger Corman (mentioned only a few paragraphs ago in reference to THE WASP WOMAN) finally got a chance to prove that he could handle a relatively lavish and respectable film. Though still working on a small budget, Corman put together an excellent team that provided lots of bang for the buck, including cinematographer Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller. Based on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the screenplay by Richard Matheson has a bit of trouble expanding the story to 80 minutes, but it manages to convey the gist of the original, while providing an excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price, who became this generation’s heir to the throne of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Corman and Price would go on to collaborate on numerous, even better Poe-based movies, but this is the Big Bang that started it all. HOUSE OF TERROR (La Casa Del Terror). Infamous patchwork Mexican film featuring comic star Tin Tan, which is known in the U.S. in a radically altered form as FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF. Lon Chaney Jr. is on hand as resurrected mummy who turns out to be a werewolf. Wow! THE INVISIBLE CREATURE. Innocuous variation on the familiar story of a scheming adulterous couple out to kill the man’s wife. This twist is that their plot is foiled by the titular invisible creature, a poltergeist. Also known as THE HOUSE IN MARSH ROAD.
JIGOKU. That’s Japanese for “Hell” – in the Buddhist sense. Nobuo Nakagawa, who had previously helmed GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (1959), directed and co-wrote this bizarre movie about damnation. Nakagawa is sort of the Japanese equivalent of Terence Fisher or Roger Corman, who were active in England and America, respectively, around the same time, and this is probably his most impressive effort. JIGOKU is divided into two sections. The first two-thirds focuses on a grad-school student led into temptation by his Mephistopholean friend, although in this case, temptation consists mostly of passively not doing the right thing, as opposed to actively performing evil actions. This portion of the film goes on a bit long, as we encounter numerous other characters performing actions that will send their souls into perdition; fortunately, it is redeemed by some eccentric stylistic flourishes: the tempter friend is never shown entering a scene; his arrival is heralded by off-screen sound effects (e.g., a train), and then the camera angle shifts to reveal his sudden presence. The film really takes off when everyone dies and goes to hell, at which point, Nakagawa more or less drops the usual tropes of narrative cinema in favor of aiming the horror straight out of the screen at the viewer. In what amounts to an early form of torture porn, we witnesses the various punishments inflicted on the damned (such as having limbs hacked off) for all eternity. Definitely a must-see. GHOST CAT OF OTAMA POND. Writer Yoshihiro Ishikawa, who had contributed to the script’s for Nakgawa’s GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA and BLACK CAT MANSION (1958), takes a place in the director’s chair for this Japanese horror effort, one of many “ghost cat” movies that were popular around this time. The fairly typical story is filled with intrigue and murder; as usual for this type of tale, the unjustly dead extract vengeance in the form of a cat. THE HAUNTED CASTLE. A German comedy in which the ghosts of a gang of thieves help a financially strapped Countess to overcome her money problems. THE HELL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Mexico’s stab at the Frankenstein story features a body snatcher who gains control of Frankenstein’s creation and uses it to carry out his revenge against those who imprisoned him. THE LAST VICTIM OF THE VAMPIRE. This is the second of two Italian vampires films starring Walter Brandi released in this year. The story has five show girls taking refuge in a castle, where Brandi plays both a friendly count and his vicious vampire ancestor. From available descriptions, it sounds as if the focus is less on horror than on the skin revealed by the showgirls. Also known as THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE.
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. Roger Corman certainly deserves some recognition for being the only film-maker with three titles on this list. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a cult horror-comedy about a goofy guy who accidentally cross-breeds a carnivorous plant – which not only craves humans for food, but also talks. (“Feed me!”). Except for a couple of cops doing a dead-pan DRAGNET impersonation, the performances tend to be broad, and not everything works, but the film is so off-the-wall ithat you have to sort of like it anyway. Essentially, this is a remake of Corman’s earlier BUCKET OF BLOOD: both films, scripted by Charles B. Griffith, feature lonely losers who accidentally become murderers while seeking fame and success. Although LITTLE SHOP has gained greater fame because of its talking plant (leading to an off-Broadway musical that was turned into a 1986 movie), it is the lesser of the two films; its skid-row setting (indicative of the poverty row production values) offers some comic potential, but it is no match for the Beatnik coffee house of BUCKET. Still, you can’t totally knock a film that so joyfully embraces its own absurdity. THE MASTER OF HORROR. Argentinian anthology featuring episodes based on three Poe tales: “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN. Italian horror film, dedicated to Hammer director Terence Fisher, about a professor who drains blood from beautiful women so that he can inject it into his daughter. The victims are turned into statues, which attract the attention of an art student. MY FRIEND JEKYLL. Italian spoof, about a professor who transfers his personality into the body of a teacher at a girl’s school, where he tries to organize orgies with the students. PEEPING TOM. Michael Powell – a renowned director known for such wonderful films as STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (a.k.a. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, 1946) – more or less destroyed his career with this impressive study in voyeuristic horror. It’s about Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a crazy camera operator who has a strange compulsion: he likes to kill beautiful women while recording their deaths on film. Steeped in Freudian psychology, the screenplay by Leo Marks has several parallels with Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (both feature likable young men who turn out to be serial killers), but Powell’s film is in some way the more disturbing of the two, perhaps because Mark is more self-aware than Norman, lacking a split personality to keep the likable side of himself separated from his murderous impulses. There is also something about the obvious seriousness of intent that gets under you skin: if you go to PEEPING TOM just looking for a thrill ride, you may be disappointed, but if you allow yourself to be drawn into its world, it will creep you out.
PSYCHO. This low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie? THE SNAKE WOMAN. Another film from the team behind DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN, about a mad doctor whose injections inadvertently turn his daughter into a cobra. THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY. Although loosely based on the real-life Thuggee cult, whose members killed travelers during the British occupation of India, this Hammer Film earns its place in the horror genre thanks to the fine effort by director Terence Fisher, working from a script by David Zelag Goodman. The story has Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe) eager to investigate the disappearances of numerous locals. Although the film does not apologize for colonialism, it is smart enough to cast a cynical eye on Lewis’s superiors in the army, whodismiss his concerns, claiming that the Indian populace have a tendency to wander off simply because don’t have the same ties to family and home that the superior English do. Lewis’s pursuit of the truth loses him his job and puts his own life at risk, leading to a confrontation with the cult of Kali, in the form of a high priest played by George Pastel (THE MUMMY). Here, the film enters horror territory, played out in the form of a battle between Lewis’s pet mongoose and the cult’s cobra. In a startling moment, the life-or-death struggle becomes more than two animals fighting, taking on a larger symbolic significance as the creatures embody the opposing forces of light and dark, good and evil. Although not as famous as other Hammer films, this ranks very highly. THE TELL-TALE HEART. A short but fairly well regarded British feature-length treatment of Poe’s story, with a screenplay co-written by Brian Clemens (THE AVENGERS). TERROR OF THE TONGS. Like THE STRANGERLS OF BOMBAY, this is not exactly a horror film; it’s more of a crime melodrama, but the association with Hammer Films, the British House of Horrors, drags it into the horror genre. It’s about a British sea captain (Geoffrey Toone), who runs afoul of the “Red Dragon Tong” while in Hong Kong. Christopher Lee (who deserves credit for being the only actor to show up three times on this list, with appearances in CITY OF THE DEAD, HANDS OF ORLAC, and TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL) plays the Tong’s evil leader, Chung King (yes, he wears slant-eyed makeup). This is not one of Hammer’s best efforts, but the captain’s pursuit of the Tong, no matter the odds against him, generates considerable interest. And the film features one of cinema’s most diabolical lines of dialogue when Chung King, preparing to torture our hero, asks him, “Have you ever had your bones scraped?” TORMENTED. Producer-director Bert I. Gordon, more known for sci-fi flicks like THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, tries his hand at a supernatural thriller, scripted by George Worthing Yates. Richard Carlson (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) plays a jazz pianist, whose engagement to a wealthy heiress is jeopardized by his mistress – until said mistress conveniently falls from the top of a lighthouse. However, the spirit of the dead woman, whose body is never found, returns to torment her lover; the haunting is visualized with special effects of crawling hands and ghostly footprints. The film aims for a fatalistic tone by focusing on a protagonist who deserves – and eventually succumbs to – the terror being visited on him, but it doesn’t quite come off. The film was spoofed on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL. Bold and colorful, this imaginative and original take on the old Robert Louise Stevenson tale, smartly scripted by Wolf Mankowitz, is one of the best and most underrated efforts from Hammer Films. After the box office success of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957 and HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL sees Hammer pushing the boundaries of the horror genre, emphasizing the drama, characterization, and even philosophic undertones. Director Terence Fisher eschews the usual suspense set pieces in favor of lavish, widescreen production values that suggest an opulent costume drama rather than a tawdry terror tale; with a few exceptions, the horror on display is moral rather than visceral. Unfortunately, this sophisticated approach was not a success, and after another ambitious failure a year later (with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), Hammer horrors would retreat to more conventional territory. THE WITCH’S MIRROR. A fairly well regarded Mexican horror film about a witch who enables her murdered god-daughter to extract vengeance against the faithless husband who murdered her. WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES. An eccentric Mexican variation on the vampire theme, in which for some reason the undead can be disabled by particular sound waves, leading to a dubious conclusion in which the villain is defeated by someone playing a tune on a pipe organ. THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. Also known as THE VAMPIRE’S LOVER, this Italian production stars Walter Brandi in an attempt to cash in on the recent success of the Hammer Dracula films. It was followed later the same year by THE LAST VICTIM OF THE VAMPIRE (see above). THE VIRGIN SPRING. Director Ingmar Bergman’s film (one of the few he did not write himself) is not really horror, but its story, based on a legend of a father (Max Von Sydow) taking revenge for his daughter’s murder, earned a place in horror history when it served as the basis for Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), which was subsequently remade in 2009.
Originally published on July 2, this article has been updated with subsequent entries.
One of the most important works in the history of cinefantastique is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Although not as widely read as it deserves to be, the novel has had a huge impact that lives on to this day, thanks to the many science fiction film and television adaptations, beginning with the 1925 silent version, which established the template for the many prehistoric monster movies that followed, including 1933’s KING KONG and 1997’s THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. If you have ever seen a movie about explorers discovering an extinct species in some newly discovered land and/or bringing it back to civilization, where it escapes and goes on a rampage, you have Doyle – and the 1925 THE LOST WORLD – to thank.
Published in 1912, Doyle’s The Lost World arrived too late to accurately be labeled “Victorian,” but it has much in common with the Victorian-era science fiction literature of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, not to mention the adventure stories of H. Rider Hagard. As with Verne, the story is a sort of travelogue adventure to a mysterious land (in this case a plateau in South America, cut off from the forces of evolution that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs throughout the rest of the world). As with Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle uses the story to raise the issue of human evolution (at one point, the physical appearance of the books’ protagonist is pointedly compared to that of the leader of a tribe of ape-men, implying that the gulf separating modern man from his primitive ancestors is not so great after all). As for Haggard, he has pioneered the “lost civilization” adventure story with King Solomon’s Mines in 1885, but but Doyle went him one better by populating his lost world with dinosaurs. (To be fair, Verne had previously used the idea of prehistoric animals surviving into modern times in Journey to the Center of the Earth).
The great thing about The Lost Word – besides dinosaurs, of course – is that the adventure story is told with wit and humor. Arthur Conan Doyle improves over the work of both Verne and Wells, whose vivid imaginations concocted some amazing adventures but sometimes fell flat in terms of style and/or characterization. Doyle, on the other hand, was the creator of Sherlock Holmes: he knew the value of eccentric, acerbic characters; and in the person of the book’s protagonist, Professor Challenger, the author almost outdoes the intellectual arrogance of the more famous detective, creating a personality at once temperamental, admirable, and even humorous. Equally clever is the handling of the book’s narrator, Edward Malone, an Irish journalist who is understandably terrified of each new danger that presents itself – but who refuses to reveal his fear to his English compatriots, forcing himself to swallow his fear and face each new threat with a brave face that belies his inner turmoil.
In fact, the characterizations and dialogue of the first few chapters are so delightful that a reader is immediately hooked, long before the expedition has set sail for the Amazon – a rare example when the opening expository section of a story is as entertaining as the exciting adventure that follows. An early highlight is Malone’s attempt to finagle an interview with the reclusive, abusive Challenger, whose wife warns the reporter about the dire consequences of rousing her husband’s temper (“Get quickly out of the room if he seems inclined to be violent… If you find him dangerous – really dangerous – ring the bell and hold him off until I come”). The scene turns into a hilarious brawl with Challenger and Malone rolling out the door and into the street, where a policeman offers to arrest the professor until Malone admits he was at fault, his honesty having the side effect of earning Challenger’s respect
Once on route, the story of The Lost World does somewhat bog down in a familiar pattern of Jules Verne-like descriptions of every inch of territory charted on the way to finding the dinosaurs that are the book’s real selling point. There is also an inexplicable plot twist, with Challenger first sending the expedition off without him, then suddenly showing up to take over after Malone and company have reached South America. Why the subterfuge was necessary, is never explained.
Fortunately, once the plateau has been reached, the adventure is fast-paced and exciting, with plenty of action and adventure at every turn, involving both dinosaurs and a tribe of primitive men (who are condescendingly described as being relatively high up the evolutionary ladder – though obviously not nearly so high as the British explorers). The presentation of the prehistoric reptiles is certainly eccentric enough to be memorable: one two-legged predator is described as hopping like a kangaroo, which might not be scientifically accurate but which at least suggests a dynamic active form of life in keeping with our modern conception of dinosaurs (as opposed to the lethargic beasts often depicted in scientific theory of the past). The Lost Worldis dated and flawed in some ways but remains entertaining as a sort of boy’s adventure story that can be enjoyed by adults, too. Malone’s motivation for joining the dangerous expedition is to impress a woman, but by the time he gets back she has left him for someone else. Instead of a heart-breaking moment, this is portrayed as a revelation of the fickle nature of women, prompting Malone to realize that the truly lasting and important bonds are between men who risk their lives side by side. It’s the perfect ending for a pre-adolescent boy too young to have developed an interest in girls yet.
The first screen adaptation of Doyle’s novel is the 1925 silent film THE LOST WORLD, which is historically important as the first feature-length dinosaur movie. Although primitive by today’s standards, THE LOST WORLD is still entertaining as a showcase for Willis O’Brien’s old-fashioned stop-motion effects, and its story became the blue print for countless “lost world” films that would follow, including KING KONG (1933), which also featured O’Brien’s movie magic. The dinosaur action was greatly expanded for the film adaptation, with effects supervisor O’Brien filming scenes not in the novel or the screenplay. In effect the dinosaurs became the stars of the show, with the humans taking a back seat. This is especially true of the truncated version, the only one available for many decades, which deleted many of plot and character scenes that had originally been retained from the novel; restorations for laserdisc and DVD eventually revealed that the full-length film was reasonably faithful to its source, giving star Wallace Beery’s Professor Challenger at least a glimmer of the novel’s characterization.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s story had ended with Challenger bringing back a live specimen, a pterodactyl that escapes and flies home to its faraway land. One of the screenplay’s innovations was expanding this brief vignette into a third-act climax, replacing the relatively small flying reptile with an angry brontosaurs that breaks loose and runs amok in London. This sequence established what would become a cinematic tradition of unleashing prehistoric monsters on modern cities; the plot device has been recycled in everything from the various versions of KING KONG to Steven Spielberg’s film THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. The JURASSIC PARK sequel was based on Michael Crichton’s novel The Lost World, which borrows not only its title but also an early scene from Doyle, in which a scientific lecture is interrupted by a renegade scientist who believes that dinosaurs have survived into the present day. One element that Crichton’s novel lacked was a T-Rex brought back to civilization; the addition of this sequence for the film underlines the lasting influence of the 1925 silent film.
Besides the homages and spin-offs, there have been several subsequent official adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The First of these wasthe disappointing 1960 Irwin Allen production, which not only substituted Claude Rains for Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger but also, unfortunately, substituted made-up lizards for stop-motion dinosaurs. Michael Rennie (Klatuu in the 1951 DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) is also on hand, and Jill St. John provides sex appeal, but not even the presence of Willis O’Brien on the effects team can compensate for the disappointment of the dinosaurs. (Ever the economical producer, producer Allen recycled this footage for the “Island of the Dinosaurs” episode of his television series, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.)
In 1992, disreputable producer Harry Allen Towers fashioned a surprisingly good version with John Rhys-Davies (LORD OF THE RINGS) as Professor Challenger. Despite phony-looking rubber-mechanical dinosaurs, the script and Rhys-Davies’ performance capture much of Challenger’s humor and temperament, which is often lost in other adaptations. David Warner (TIME AFTER TIME) is on hand in the thankless role of Challenger’s scientific colleague, but he brings his usual professionalism to the performance. The film and its follow up RETURN TO THE LOST WORLD received theatrical distribution in Europe but were sold as a two-part mini-series for American television and video. With a bigger budget for some really good special effects, this could have been a great movie.
After author Michael Crichton used the title The Lost World for his 1995 sequel to Jurassic Park, leading to the Steven Spielberg film two years later, it was perhaps inevitable that eager filmmakers would go back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original book, which would allow them to fashion productions with the same title as a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster with no fear of legal action; after all, the novel they were adapting had prior claim to the title. Thus, we saw Patrick Bergin as a serious Professor Challenger in a competent but unremarkable version, directed by makeup effects man Bob Keen, which made its debut on U.S. television in 1998.
Shortly thereafter came the 1999 TV pilot, with the once-promising Richard Franklin (PSYCHO II) directing a no-name cast in a version of the tale that followed much of Doyle’s plot, with one notable change: instead of returning the characters to London as in the novel, the pilot ends with the expedition forced to remain in the lost world for the remainder of the series. As with the 1925 film, the television pilot upped the ante with the dinosaur footage; the script also added some romantic entanglements between the explorers and the natives (who are much more attractive than Doyle’s primitives), presumably so that the modern characters would not feel too badly about being trapped in the lost world for the three seasons that the series ran, until its demise in 2002. John Landis, one of the show’s executive producers, had previously hoped to mount a feature film version of THE LOST WORLD at Universal Pictures, with Richard Matheson scripting a faithful adaptation of Doyle’s novel, starring Sean Connery as Challenger, but Universal abandoned the project in favor of Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK (1993).
More recently, the BBC presented a fairly faithful adaptation of THE LOST WORLD in 2001, which reached U.S. shores courtesy of A&E cable. In this version, Bob Hoskins takes over as Challenger, and JURASSIC PARK-style computer effects supply the dinosaurs. The premise behind this production seems to have been to do justice to Doyle, but the screenplay still tweaks many of the details, apparently in an attempt to render the production as a serious piece of science fiction, not merely a rousing adventure story. Hoskins is good (playing the professor as driven man whose personal life has been eclipsed by his work), and the film is decently entertaining, but it does overlook one excellent opportunity: Doyle’s book is dated by its Victorian view of dinosaurs (recollect that allosaurus-type predator chasing human prey by hopping like a kangaroo).
Today’s scientific view of dinosaurs is completely different, so it would have been interesting to portray Challenger and his colleagues starting off their old-fashioned paleontological theories and then radically revising after observing the living animals first-hand. Unfortunately, the script’s one nod in this direction is backwards: dialogue has the Victorian scientists expecting to see an Iguanodon walk upright; when they encounter one, it is on all fours. The truth is the complete reverse: scientists from Challenger’s era would have expected to see an Iguanodon on all fours, but later research revised the image of the creature as bi-pedal.
Of course, Conan Doyle will always be remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes – a fact that would not have pleased him. If he is looking down on us from somewhere in literary heaven, he is probably grateful to see that at least one other of his literary efforts continues to inspire and influence filmmakers today. No doubt modern day dinosaur films will continue to flourish, thanks to the ever-improving innovations in the special effects field, but Doyle’s original novel really is a literary work worth reading for its own fine qualities, and as far as professor-scientist-explorer characters go, Professor Challenger stands head-and-shoulders above his competitors in the field.
With LAND OF THE LOST opening today, I was thinking of doing a list of “Top Ten Dinosaur Movies,” until I realized that unearthing ten such titles would take more effort than mounting a major paleological expedition. In order to spare myself the struggle of rounding out a list of ten, I considered revising the title to “Hollywood’s Greatest Dinosaur” movies, but that risked resulting in the shortest article every written. The sad fact is that there are few good – let alone great – dinosaur movies. Too often, the special effects outweigh the stories and acting, leaving little to enjoy besides the spectacle of rampaging reptiles. But when you stop and think about it, what more do you need? Dinosaurs are among cinema’s biggest stars. The very sight of them – when achieved with technical competence and some style – is more than enough to stir our Sense of Wonder. With that in mind, my list will work on the theory that great dinosaur movies consist of movies featuring great dinosaurs, regardless of the overall quality of the films. I covered many dinosaur titles in The History of Prehistoric Movies, which focused on films set in the past. In order to avoid too much duplication, I will emphasize films featuring dinosaurs that have survived into the present day. So if it seems as if films like ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. are being short-changed, just click through on the link to the older article to see these films get their due consideration.
THE LOST WORLD (1925). This silent film, based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, is the first feature-length movie to showcase stop-motion dinosaurs. (One showed up briefly in Buster Keaton’s 1923 comedy THE THREE AGES.). The special effects by Willis O’Brien (who went on to do KING KONG) are crude by today’s standards, but they still have a certain charm that makes them endearing. When it’s captured brontosaurs escapes into the streets of London, the film establishes the tradition of a rampaging prehistoric beast on the loose in a modern city – a plot device that would recur many times thereafter. There were several remakes, usually using lizards or rubber suits instead of stop-motion. A 2001 version for BBC used computer-generated imagery to good effect. KINGKONG (1933). The giant ape is the star of the show, but Willis O’Brien’s menagerie of prehistoric monsters gives him a run for his money – including a brontosaurus, a stegosaurus, a pteranodon, and an elasmosaur. The dino-highlight of the film has to be Kong’s battle with a T-Rex (seen at the top of this page), which is one of the great fight scenes ever recorded on film. Overall, the stop-motion effects have improved noticeably over THE LOST WORLD. They may not be completely convincing in the sense of being “realistic,” but they establish their own style, perfectly suited for the film’s fantastic storyline. The 1976 remake featured no dinosaurs, just a giant snake. The 2005 version had some great dinosaurs, but ruined the impact with some ridiculously over-the-top sequences. FANTASIA(1940). Disney’s medly of animated sequences set to classical music includes “The Rights of Spring,” which depict primitive prehistoric life, including some wonderful dinosaurs. In a grim sequence backed by Stravinsky’s powerful music, a stegasaurus falls prety to an allosaurus. Pretty dark and grizzly stuff for Disney. ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) features Raquel Welch and great stop-motion dinosaurs by Ray Harryhausen, one-time protoge of Willis O’Brien. (Covered in The History of Prehistoric Movies) THEVALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). Ray Harryhausen is back, this time with a dinosaur who survives into modern times in a hidden valley, until some ranch hands find him and bring him back to civilization, putting him on display like a circus act. Inevitably, the allosaurus breaks free and mayhem ensues. As usual, Harryhausen’s stop-motion work is technically excellent, and he brings some style to the creature, giving it as much personality as a ravenous reptile can muster. As usual, the movie itself is weak, serving only as a showcase for the title character – who is worth the price of admission. WHEN DINOSARUS RULES THE EARTH (1971). A follow-up to ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., this time with stop-motion dinosaurs provided by Jim Danforth. Lots of great special effects in this one. (Covered in The History of Prehistoric Movies) CAVEMAN(1981). Starring Ringo Starr, this one is played for laughs, but Dave Allens’ special effects are actually very good, especially when it comes to combining human actors with the dinosaurs. The T-Rex in this one is far from fearsome, but he is well suited to the comic tone, especially when he eats some berries that give him a buzz. In fact, the dino’s comic “performance” comes close to stealing the show. MY SCIENCE PROJECT(1985). In this comedy science fiction film, about a kid who’se high school project goes wrong, there is a brief scene in which a time warp places a T-Rex in the school gymnasium. Achieved with rod puppet effects, this is one of the most convincing uses of the technique to depict a dinosaur – in part because the cramped location prevents the dinosaur from moving very much, thus hiding the limitations of the technique. THE LAND BEFORE TIME(1988). Former Disney animator Don Bluth directed this prehistoric tale of talking dinosaurs searching for a safe valley. This is a very good family film with cute characters that appeal to children and also some reasonably adult story-telling. The death of the lead character’s mother – at the claws and teeth of a T-Rex – is harrowing without being explicit. There were several direct-to-video sequels, none of them memorable. JURASSICPARK (1993). This is the film in which computer-generated imagery replaced stop-motion as the best way to breathe life into the extinct animals known as dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg’s film version of Michael Crichton’s novel was widely derided at the time of its release, but it still holds up over sixteen years later thanks to its great special effects and the suspense the director achieves. The film also introduced a new dino-star – the Velociraptor – who for the first time challenged the T-Rex’s crown as the all-time most valuable dinosaur – until Rexy puts him in his place in the spectacular finale. This is probably the best dinosaur movie ever made (depending on whether or not you count KING KONG as a dinosaur movie). The sequels, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK and JURASSIC PARK III, cant take a bite out of the original. DINOSAUR(2000). Disney is at it again, this time with using computer-generated animation instead of the old hand-inked technique of FANTASTIA. Like THE LAND BEFORE TIME, this features talking dinosaurs, but here they are rendered with special effects that make them almost lifelike, in spite of their dialogue and human emotions. Another nice touch is that the backgrounds are all live-action plates, not drawings. The result is not quite a total success, but the opening sequence (of a mammal’s egg being stole from its nest and dropped into a dinosaur’s nest) is a breath-taking piece of cinema. NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM(2006). Perhaps the most memorable image of this comedy, starring Ben Stiller as a night watchman in a museum, is the sight of a T-Rex skeleton that comes to life. The special effects perfectly captures the initial thrill of fear that turns to relief when Stiller’s character realizes the Rex merely wants to play fetch with one of its own bones. LAND OF THE LOST(2009). After seeing this film, I had to come back and add it to the list. Although too much of the comedy falls flat, the dino never disappoints. In fact, Grumpy the T-Rex is a real sceen-stealer. What’s really impresive is that, thanks to “Crash” McCreery’s designs and some great special effects, Grumpy really does look convincing and threatening when you first see him, but then without missing a beat, he turns into a comical character, getting at least as many laughs as the more overtly humorous Rex in CAVEMAN. The joke is that Grumpy loses interest in eating the humans and becomes more focused on avenging the insult he receives from Will Ferrell’s paleontologist, who derisively notes that the tyrannasaurs has a brain the size of a walnut (words that come back to haunt him when Grumpy leaves a humongous walnut for him to find).
MYTHICAL PREHISTORIC BEASTS
Lots of movie monsters claim to be dinosaurs, but we omitted the mythical ones from out list above. For those who are interested, here are some of the most notable movies featuring fictional dinosaurs, often revived in modern times by radioactivity. THEBEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). Ray Harryhausne’s rhedosaurus is a delightful on-screen monster, but you won’t find it in any paleontology book. GODZILLA (1954). Japan’s answer to BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS features a creature (achieved with a man in a monster suit) that looks a bit like an upright T-Rex with plates on its back vaguely like a stegosaurus. And it’s way too big to be a real dinosaur. THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959). Eugene Lourie, director of BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, offers a virtual remake, this time with Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen’s mentor, creating the stop-motion effects. The creature looks more or less like a brachiosaurus, but it appears to be carnivorous; it swims like a plesiosaur; and it emits radioactive waves as only a movie-monster can do. GORGO (1961). Director Eugene Lourie offers up a third and final film about a giant prehistoric monster attacking a modern city. This upright-walking sea beastie is identified as a dinosaur in the dialogue, but it looks nothing like a real dinosaur.
Many other films have featured dinosaurs, but too often, Hollywood saved bucks by using cheap puppets, lizards in makeup, or men in suits. The films may have been entertaining in a juvenile way, but by offering discount dinosaurs, they lost their chance to top our list.
ONE MILLION B.C.(1940). This black-and-white effort, starring Victor Mature and Carol Landis, features “dinosaurs” that are actual reptiles with fins and horns glued on (the technique of live lizards had been pioneered in 1934’s THE SECRET OF THE LOCH). Sadly, this results in some all-too-real animal cruelty, when a juvenile alligator and a gila monster are allowed to tear into each other on camera. THE LOST CONTINENT (1951). Cesar Romero and crew crash-land on an island with some cheap stop-motion dinosaurs, which receive little screen time. KING DINOSAUR (1955). Astronauts land on a planet inhabited by an iguana pretending to be a T-Rex. BEAST OF THE HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (1956). This film gets points for novelty by mxing dinosaurs with cowboys. The prehistoric beast is not seen until the end; achieved with stop-motion, it is is puppet-like, but there is a good sequence of the predator running. THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957). Another trip to a lost world, this time inhabited by rubbery looking dinosaurs.
JOURNEYTO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). In the tradtion of ONE MILLION B.C., some briefly glimpsed lizards and baby alligators pass for dinosaurs in the 1959 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The 2008 remake, starring Brendan Fraser, features a chase scene with a CGI Tyrannosaurus Rex that is pretty decent, and it had the added bonus of being in 3-D. DINOSAURUS (1960). A T-Rex and a Brontosaurs are realized with passable stop-motion – pretty convincing if you’re a kid, but not when you see the film as an adult. Still, the fight scene between the Rex and a steam shovel is a good idea.
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT(1974). Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this features mechanical dinosaurs, some of them miniature, some of them full size. They don’t look too bad, but their limited movements give them away. The sequel THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT was much the same. PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS (1977). Astronauts crash-land on a planet full of stop-motion dinosaurs. The effects are not bad, but they lack the Harryhausen touch. BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND (1985). Based on real-life rumors about a surviving brontosaurus, this adventure film offers up mechanical dinosaurs with faces that are way too cute and anthropomorphic. It’s as if someone wanted the beasts to look like E.T. CARNOSAUR (1993). Low-budget producer Roger Corman rips off JURASSIC PARK but instead of modern CGI, he utilizes old-fashioned mechanical dinosaurs, including a full-size T-Rex. The design and look are not too bad, but the movements are slow and sluggish. The same mechanical dinosaur reappeared in two sequels and in 1994’s DINOSAUR ISLAND.
Let’s face it: When it comes to movie monsters, the Order of Crocodilia get little respect. Sure, the snapping jaws of alligators and crocodiles (and their lesser known cousins, caimans and gharials) can send a shiver up your spine, but will they give you nightmares after the movie is over? Their prehistoric, scaly appearance suggests a living dinosaur, but they are a bit too slow and lazy to inspire the sort of irrational mortal dread we associate with sharks (which get a bum rap for being man-eaters because something about their sleek, silent appearance registers in our brains as an archetype of Grim Death). Consequently, no killer croc movie has ever captured the public’s imagination a la JAWS; instead, aggressive alligators are more likely to appear in low-budget exploitation films. Fortunately, fans of rampaging reptiles – if they are not too timid to explore the blood-stained depths of the cinematic swamp – may find a few fresh titles floating side by side with the corrupt carrion. ALLIGATOR (1980). Undoubtedly the highpoint of this small genre, this tongue-in-cheek horror film boasts a fun script by John Sayles that is loaded with inside jokes and clever characterization. The story follows a baby alligator, named Ramon, who is flushed down the toilet and grows to giant size thanks to eating discarded animal experiments filled with growth hormones. Director Lewis Teague keeps the action moving and serves up the bloody violence with gusto. A times we cringe at Ramon’s predations (the film violates one of the cardinal rules of horror cinema, by having the gator eat a young kid); at other times we cheer Ramon on (as when he crashes the wedding party hosted by the owner of the company responsible for the animal experiments). Filmed in the days befor computer-generated imagery, the alligator effects are technically dated, but they remain among the most effective ever seen, including a full-sized mock-up and a live alligator (a juvenile filmed against miniature backdrops to make it look huge). You wont’ see any alligator acrobatics or death rolls, but the texture of of the live-action effects is more than enough compensation, and clever editing hides the clunkiness of the full-scale prop. Special kudos go to this film for answering the question that plagues all rampaging reptile movies: in real life, the cold-blooded creatures spend most of their time lying around, eating only occasionally, so why is Ramon so aggressively attacking and eating everything in sight? Those growth hormones have artificially accelerated his metabolism. Upon learning of the unhealthy side effects of the gator’s chemical cocktail diet, our hero drily remarks, “Maybe it’ll die of cancer.” Eleven years later, ALLIGATOR was “honored” with a sequel, the now-forgotten ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION. ROGUE(2007). Greg McLean’s follow-up to WOLF CREEK is an obvious attempt to fashion a JAWS-type film with a crocodile instead of a shark. A fairly elaborate production, the film features good characterization and some admirable restraint in terms of gore and special effects. The titular Salt Water Crocodile is only briefly glimpsed until the end. The CGI may not completely fool a sharp eye, but it is very well rendered, and the croc’s behavior is mostly scaled down to believable levels, which makes the horror more convincing. Of course, like all movies of this type, the animal displays the metabolism of a mammal rather than a reptile. The script goes some way toward addressing this issue by stating that the croc is territorial – killing the invaders and storing them for later, rather than eating them all at once. LAKE PLACID (1999). This is a schizophrenic effort: half horror, half comedy. It works in bits and pieces, but the bits and pieces never mesh together into a satisfying whole. Blame it on a conflict of sensibilities between writer-producer David E. Kelly (known for his witty television shows) and director Steve Miner (known for his gory FRIDAY THE 13 sequels). The alligator is not bad, but the film cannot make up its mind about how to treat it. When it bites off someone’s head, we’re supposed to scream; when we see an eccentric old woman (who has “adopted” the gator) feed it a live-cow, we’re supposed to chortle in amusement at the absurdity. As crazy as it is, this is worth a look-see, for the strange combination of humor and horror. 2007 gave us a made-for-television sequel LAKE PLACID II, which featured no returning talent from the original. PRIMEVAL (2007). In this pretentious political allegory, a man-eating crocodile is a metaphor for civil war in an African country. Although loosely based on a true story about a crocodile known as Gustav, the concept is hard to take seriously, and you get the feeling that the screenwriters are talking down to their audience, lecturing them with redeeming social consciousness instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty with the alligator action. Gustav himself is fun as long as you give up any hope of actually believing he’s a real animal. The computer-generated effects go for broke, showing the animal runing like a gazelle, leaping from the water like a marlin, and pretty much doing anything else the effects people can think of. In the end, the film is actually entertaining, though not in the way intended: because the scenario takes itself so seriously, the result emerges as unintentional camp, good for a laugh. EATEN ALIVE (1977). Tobe Hooper’s follow-up to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE features Neville Brand as a crazy motel proprietor who feeds his guests to the ferocious alligator living next door in the swamp. Most of the focus is on the human psycho, with the alligator in a supporting role, occasionally popping up to munch on a pet dog or kill off one of the supporting cast. (Freddie Kruger fans take note: Robert Englund makes his debut in this film.) Decades later, Hooper made another croc movie, appropriately titled CROCODILE (2000), which somehow inspired a sequel, appropriately titled CROCODILE 2: DEATH SWAMP (2002). HATCHET (2006). Talking about psycho killers in a swamp, here’s another one, and there is an alligator in this film, too. The opening scene features a couple of poachers killed off while hunting a big gator, and later an alligator (perhaps the same one) munches on the leg of a tourist after the tour boat runs aground. It could be just a coincidence but EATEN ALIVE’s Robert Englund plays one of the unfortunate poachers; I tend to think that writer-director Adam Green cast him as a deliberately jokey inside reference to the Tobe Hooper film. Also worth noting: the basic set-up of HATCHET is recycled in ROGUE. ERASER (1996). This action flick features a memorable crocodile cameo. While battling the bad guys in a zoo, Arnold Schwarzenegger shoots the glass of a crocodile pen, releasing the animals so that they can chow down on the villains. Coming a few years after JURASSIC PARK (the big breakthrough for computer-generated reptiles), this film may feature the first example of CGI crocodiles. Typically, these are turbo-charged beasts that bear little resemblance to the real thing – they act as if their handlers haven’t fed them in weeks. Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger shows little gratitude for the assistance they provide, casually shooting one while deliering the lame-ass one-liner, “You’re luggage.” DINOCROC (2004). This Roger Corman production aims to recreate the feel of an old drive-in exploitation movie, to mostly good effect. The titular monster is the result of some kind of experiment at one of those good-for-nothing evil corporate laboratories that proliferate in this kind of film (and in real life for that matter). Perhaps more dino than croc, the monster is not really convincing, but if you take the leap of faith known as suspension of disbelief, you will have a pretty good time with this. Notable for the unexpected death of a characters whose youth seemed to put him safely in the “Survivor” category. ONE MILLION B.C. (1940). Producer Hal Roach was too cheap to fork over cash for stop-motion effects, so this prehistoric fantasy features real-life reptiles made-up with fins and horns to resemble dinosaurs – including a baby alligator that fights a lizard. The animal action is, unfortunately, real, and it is the kind of thing the SPCA would never allow today. Recycled as stock footage, this alligator-versus-lizard fight became almost a staple of low-budget sci-fi films, being reused in the awful ROBOT MONSTER among others. THE LOST WORLD (1961). Decades after ONE MILLION B.C., producer Irwin Allen employed the same cost-saving technique (modern reptiles made-up as prehistoric dinosaurs) to film this color remake of the 1925 silent film based on the Arthur Conan Dolye novel. The SPCA were still not on the ball, and you can clearly see the monitor lizard and the alligator really biting each other during their battle. Also like ONE MILLION B..C., this footage ended up being recycled – in the “Terror on Dinosaur Island” episode of Allen’s TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.
And so it goes. Family members of the Order of Crocodilia have shown up in THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), KILLER CROCODILE (1989) and KILLER CROCODILE II (1990), and KROCODYLUS (aka BLOOD SURF, 2000). Never one to let an old idea die a painless death, the Sci Fi Channel gave us 2007’s CROC, about a man-eating crocodile menacing a tourist location in Thailand. The most recent efforts to reach U.S. shores are not one but two Australian productions, BLACK WATER (2007) and ROGUE, which arrived on DVD after pretty much bypassing theatres. In the case of ROGUE, that is altogether unfortunate, because the film is good enough to redeem the genre’s reputation if only it had been given half a chance to find an audience. Oh well, like I said at the top, as movie monsters go, alligators and crocodiles get no respect.