Ah, yes, here's one that really did belong on Mystery Science Theater 3000, even though it's nice to have it as it was originally shown in 1955. Take a look at the boxtop, folks. It's a reproduction of the poster that probably pulled in kids by the thousands - at least until word-of-mouth got around.
King Dinosaur is the very first Bert I. Gordon movie. 'BIG' Gordon was one of a couple dozen filmmakers who realized in the early 1950s that if you could make any kind of movie at least an hour long, with a beginning, middle and end, and if it vaguely resembled the attention-grabbing title and poster you cooked up for it, you could get it booked into theaters. Al Zimbalist was a penny-pinching producer from way back, and Lippert films was one of the first real independent exploitation producers to jump on the science fiction bandwagon. Gordon could pull off some simple special effects and had big ideas about emulating monster movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!.
Primitive is too sophisticated a word to describe King Dinosaur. For a movie that is supposed to be about space travel, there's almost no technology or hardware in sight: the four principal actors are introduced playing with test tubes and microscopes during a ten minute opening montage. The professional voice of Marvin Miller explains away 90% of the plot against a backdrop of stock footage; the rocket to Nova is simply recycled V-2 footage, presumably double-exposed over starfields and landscapes to indicate the space journey and the landing on Nova.
Nova turns out to look just like Big Bear, California, or some similar Sierra lake area, with generous side trips to Bronson Caves in Hollywood. Except for one angle with a spaceship's fin hiding an ordinary ladder, the rest of the movie consists of what looks like a simple camping trip, with lots of dull hiking shots, and even duller dialogue scenes in between.
The acting isn't at all bad considering what the talent was up against - trying to animate these non-characters, who don't follow even the dimmest idea of dramatic logic, is a vain struggle at best. One couple is always necking at the slightest opportunity. Action scenes mean that the women scream and at least one of the men tears his shirt and has to be bare-chested. The explorers aren't impressed much by anything they see, especially the fact that Nova seems to be a duplicate of Earth, right down to the stock shots of birds, sloths, and snakes that further pad out the monotony. Forced to get into fights with an alligator (on a dry, grassy hill!) and other fauna, the astronauts treat the wildlife of Nova as a big inconvenience. The script, a string of unrelated small-talk that connects the dots between animal attacks, was written by a young Tom Gries, who later became a noted director (Will Penny).
The cinematography is basic but dull. With little or no visual clues, dialogue is needed just to tell us whether it's night or day. The camera pans once in a while but is usually static. The only production value is in the animals on view - the gator, an owl, and a 'honey bear' who gets featured billing.
Gordon's first split-screen monster effects combine an iguana, a small alligator, a monitor lizard and an Indonesian Tegu lizard in fake but unpleasant battles. The reptiles are mostly manipulated from offscreen, but even the vegetarian iguana is encouraged to bite for real. It's clear that the hefty lizards are being harmed, which takes all the fun out of their phony fighting. The best effects angle shows the head of the iguana trying to poke its way into a cave to try and get at the struggling Earthmen. The male lead snaps a polaroid, and stares at it to make an I.D. on the beast - even though the identical real view is right in front of him. Yep, it's obviously a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the 'King Dinosaur' of the title!
Elsewhere, we can see the first example of Gordon's poor man's travelling matte technique, when he combines a greatly-enlarged insect we called a potato bug with a campsite background. The matte is created from a soft-edged hi-con, and the composite is a fuzzy mess. Shadows under the bug are also matted away, and see-through holes are created wherever the shiny insect reflects a highlight. Nowadays, the simplest video editor can do a better job ... just two years later, Gordon based an entire film, The Beginning of the End, on a refinement of this process, thus cementing his reputation as the unchallenged master of the unconvincing special effect.
Everything in King Dinosaur is engineered backwards from the idea of getting the bare minimum of exploitable content on screen to sucker the first weekend's business. A rocketship ... animal fights ... giant monsters ... and the Atom bomb! The escaping spacemen blast the dinosaurs on the island for no reason at all - except to provide an ending that would allow schoolkids to mumble a plot description that included a nuclear explosion. Looking on at their handiwork, the heroes proudly tell us they've 'brought civilization' to Nova. Under the circumstances, there's nothing to comment on - the movie is too thin to be mined for topical controversy.
Savant hasn't seen the MST3K version of King Dinosaur, but it must be a hoot. There's plenty of dialogue-free idiocy to comment on, like the first Astronette using a microscope while wearing a bulbous space helmet, or the alligator fighter going to bed with bleeding wounds, and waking up the next morning cured and scar-free.
Retromedia Drive-In Theater's DVD of King Dinosaur is mildly disappointing. The transfer appears to be 35mm in origin, but at about the halfway point, intermittent old-fashioned analog video wrinkle flaws appear, maybe a dozen or so spread out across the last half of the show. When 19.95 can buy a fantastic transfer of a film twice as long, it's disappointing that this couldn't at least be a new transfer. The 1:33 flat aspect ratio appears to be correct, because the main titles fill up the frame.
The extras include a washed-out Trailer that hypes the meagre thrills of the show for all they're worth, while showing each and every special effect. The still gallery holds only a few images, almost all of which are used in the menus and on the packaging. A very annoying choice on the special features menu is a Retromedia website info page, which turns out to be an image of a trashy-looking woman that the potential kid audience for King Dinosaur shouldn't be landing on by accident. All and all, the ridiculous poster art on the cover is the best thing about this DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King Dinosaur rates: