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Irwin Allen's The Lost World remake never had many friends among genre fans. It was the last screen credit for the great Willis O'Brien, a sad bookend to a feature career that started with a famous adaptation of the same story 35 years earlier. After his 1933 triumph King Kong O'Brien had terrible luck pulling together new feature film projects. He spent the 1950s on minor assignments while watching his personal dreams hijacked by producers and made by other hands. O'Brien has an 'Effects Technician' credit on The Lost World but seems not to have been permitted past the consultancy phase; producer-director Irwin Allen opted to film his dinosaurs with the 'big lizard in slow motion' tricks used to good effect in the previous year's Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Allen's idea of entertainment was to launch a flimsy screenplay with a cast of cheap but noteworthy name actors, throw them into some unconvincing situations and call it a movie. The Lost World is a shabby film in a colorful and noisy package that appealed to audiences either unconcerned with quality or too young to know the difference. It was a substantial hit in 1960.
As with his follow-up matinee thriller Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the shrewd Irwin Allen put The Lost World into the hands of ace cameraman Winton Hoch. The famed Technicolor pro devised ways to film an exotic jungle adventure on a shoestring, complete with scenes of huge prehistoric animals interacting with people. With Hoch in charge L.B. Abbott's mattes are much better than usual, maximizing the appeal of large monitor lizards and alligators as unconvincing dinosaur surrogates. With horns and fins glued to their scales the creatures still look nothing like dinosaurs, and audiences laughed out loud when Claude Rains identifies them as brontosaurs and Tyrannosauri Rex. Enlarged to gigantic size in CinemaScope, the lizards' stereophonic roars are deafening on the dynamic soundtrack. Unlike Universal's The Land Unknown this The Lost World isn't a snooze. 1
The A.S.P.C.A. certainly wasn't notified, as the lizards bite and maul each other in graphic detail; one lizard is uncomfortably dunked in water and doused with chemicals to represent molten magma. Frankly, just gluing the little horns to their heads probably created serious reptilian health problems.
The special effects are the movie's reason for being, and we get several scenes of the critters menacing the cast. The best shots in the film show a dinosaur crawling between impressive miniature trees. Some moments are laughable, as when the unhappy lizards chomp down on unconvincing puppets representing humans. Fox's Malibu ranch is festooned with multicolored tree moss and flimsy fungus to impersonate a tropical jungle. Robert Wise's frequent collaborator Maurice Zuberano may have contributed some fanciful touches, like the dinosaur skeleton that serves as a drawbridge across a smoky cavern floor. The better cavern settings appear to be recycled from Journey to the Center of the Earth and look similar to parts of that film's sunken Atlantis set. Other cave sets have the fake-rock 'crumpled construction paper' quality befitting a cheap production. A couple of unlikely rubber plant monsters are added to goose up scenes of people chasing each other around the greenery. One really cheap set consists of fake spider web material, with a superimposed day-glo green tarantula. Boo!
Of special mention are the costumes, which we're disappointed to find out are not an intentional joke. The explorers relax in nicely pressed suits at a steaming jungle outpost, and then go into the wild wearing 'action' clothing suitable for toy store dolls. David Hedison dons a white jumpsuit and an unmotivated officer's cap, while Michael Rennie dresses as a generic Great White Hunter. Most often criticized is the sight of Jill St. John skipping through the jungle in tight pink stretch pants and bright red boots, carrying a basket with a poodle, "Frosty". The poodle must have been a conscious decision to say, "we're not serious," which unfortunately comes off as "only an idiot would expect us to be."
Irwin Allen's direction is simply terrible. Charles Bennett must have provided only a story outline, because the dramatic situations are weak sketches. In dialogue scenes the actors spread out into static poses (mustn't create continuity problems) while one or two of them spout expository lines suitable for a radio show: "Our helicopter has been wrecked!" "It looks like a cyclone hit this place!" The central conflicts are just silly. Michael Rennie is an utterly charmless playboy. Deprived of a coherent back story, the venerable Lord Roxton confesses his abandonment of the earlier expedition like a junior college student with no excuse for his late homework. The only one who reacts is the airhead played by Jill St. John, who can do absolutely nothing with even the simplest of lines. Presumably told to shift her romantic attentions to David Hedison's reporter, she's given one shot to suddenly stare at Hedison like she's re-targeting her female radar. It's pitiful.
Fernando Lamas' pout-faced Gomez harbors a dread vow of vengeance, yet suddenly changes allegiances for the most nonsensical of non-reasons. No matter, because the biased script reserves a grotesque death scene for both of its Latin Americans. Jay Novello's Costa (he's too loathsome to have two names) is a scummy would-be rapist and greedy coward. Everyone else is a different flavor of Noble.
The film's biggest shame is the way the great Claude Rains has been misused. Tucked into a red beard and given nothing but idiotic lines to recite, Rains can do little except go with the flow. Professor Challenger was Arthur Conan Doyle's favorite character and he's yet to be brought to the screen in an interesting way, unless one counts Richard Attenborough's John Hammond in Spielberg's Jurassic Park.
One native girl in a sexy outfit (Vitina Marcus) is on hand to betray her people for the sake of the explorers that yell at her and drag her around. She ends up holding hands with Jill St. John's cute younger brother. The natives, of course, are unga-bunga non-entities with only one remarkable quality: no matter how slowly the heroes run, the tribesmen never catch up. We keep hearing them yelling in the backgound, as if they've lost their way in the underground caves, or have interrupted their pursuit to stop off for a quick beer. When they overtake the white interlopers, the first three Indians run headlong into a burning bush and tumble off the cliffside. Deadly! Cannibalistic! Clumsy!
The movie's fun-house finale takes place in a highly unlikely subterranean cavern. The terrified explorers inch their way along a ledge wide enough to stroll with one's hands in one's pockets. The fanciful setting contains a cistern full of diamonds and a wooden dam holding back a lava floe. It all makes no sense whatsoever but experts agree that it is noisy and colorful.
Fox's DVD of The Lost World is the first widescreen presentation of the film on home video, and the transfer is a major source of frustration. With the exception of a few over-processed dialogue lines, the audio is clean. The image quality is fine but the telecine people have unaccountably timed many day-for-night scenes for broad daylight, including dark nighttime chases where every other shot pops to an afternoon look. The transfer mars the film's only really successful aspect, its cinematography. The big dinosaur battle witnessed by Hedison and St. John is timed like high noon, when it was originally adjusted to glow golden-amber, a dramatic sunset look. 2
A contemporary featurette inter-cuts museum exhibits of Mastodon bones with scenes from the movie, while a newsreel excerpt shows David Hedison signing autographs for uncomprehending kiddies waiting in line in Manhattan. The trailer is also included, along with a still gallery and an entire comic book to look at (it's too small to read).
The second disc carries an entire feature, the 1925 silent The Lost World, with Willis O'Brien's original animated dinosaurs. This presentation is from the George Eastman house, with an original music score by Philip Carli. It's a very different cut than the 1997 Lumivision DVD, also an Eastman restoration, and also different than David Shepard's 2001 Image disc of this feature, which is reviewed here. All three appear to have unique scenes. Comparing running times doesn't tell us much because the longer versions frequently slow down scenes. This new cut runs 76 minutes, and includes a short reel of outtakes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lost World (1960) rates:
1. Listen to the dinosaur roars and you'll hear an elephant trumpet sound effect from John Huston's The Roots of Heaven ... which appears to be the audio basis for the (admittedly slightly modified) sound of Darth Vader's TIE fighter in Star Wars.
2. This scene and several others were pan-scanned and re-purposed in Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV show that also starred David Hedison. Because Hedison already wore a hat like a boat captain, all Allen needed to do was find a co-star who could pass for Jill St. John.
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