The Universal Sci-Fi thriller The Land Unknown comes through with high marks for things that were scarce in late-'fifties sci-fi: convincing hardware, an impressive prehistoric world, and rather good special optical effects. Yet it fails to give us an engaging story. Not even eighty minutes long, it lacks forward momentum and feels like a slow two hours. We're told that it was the most expensive of Universal's fantasy films of this time -- racking up higher bills than even the Technicolor This Island Earth. Yet the clunky, half-baked The Mole People from the year before is more entertaining.
Tom Weaver's audio commentary illuminates the shaky factory setup at Universal, with department heads worried about losing their jobs, and the house producer already in the process of jumping ship to a possible better deal at Paramount. Yet Universal lavished resources on William Alland's The Land Unknown and Albert Zugsmith's The Incredible Shrinking Man, even as they were phasing out fantasy productions.
The Land Unknown has a good look, in CinemaScope and B&W. A group of explorers about to embark on a major military examination of Antarctica is joined by Maggie Hathaway (Shawn Smith), a beautiful reporter. Once in sight of ice, they take a helicopter into the interior, heading straight for a mysterious 'warm zone' reported by the 1947 Byrd expedition. descending way below sea level, through a thick fog, the party ends up stranded in a prehistoric Lost World at the bottom of a deep canyon ruled by giant lizards, a pterodactyl, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and an aquatic elasmosaur. An actuator rod on their rotor is damaged, causing them to be stuck until a replacement can be dropped. But the battery for the radio is drained by accident, which makes contacting the base impossible. They instead stay in the valley for months, eking out a living and avoiding contact with the colossal dinosaurs. More danger but also a chance of escape, comes when they encounter a 'savage' who turns out to be Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Brandon), a survivor of the earlier expedition who has been fighting for survival for a full ten years.
The acting in The Land Unknown is adequate but colorless, with Shawn Smith (aka Shirley Patterson) the most animated of the castaways. Her entrance is wince-inducing -- as the only female in a room of males, she accepts their wolf whistles like Shirley Temple being handed a lollipop. Star Jock Mahoney is the commander and therefore first in line as potential boyfriend material. Lean and muscular, the ex-stunt man and future Tarzan proudly does his own stunts, diving from heights and swimming at top speed. Utility player William Reynolds is handsome and acquits himself well, but leaves little impression. Poor Phil Harvey seems to have inherited all the doofus chores in the script -- he's invariably the one who screws up, futzing the radio battery and putting lives in danger.
The most experienced actor is Henry Brandon (The Searchers, Vera Cruz), whose feral Dr. Hunter at least generates a certain intensity. But when Hunter claims Maggie as his future cave-woman, it's just not the conflict we were waiting for. Events in the lost world lack urgency, and the castaways seem only inconvenienced when pursued by carnivorous beasts. The magical fixit solution for getting out feels entirely arbitrary. You're telling me that a part from a 1947 helicopter is going to work perfectly years later in a 1957 helicopter? If we were talking Volkswagens I might buy that notion.
Everybody comes to The Land Unknown to see the special effects promised by Reynold Brown's exciting poster art. The A+ contribution is the work of the optical department, which delivers excellent wide views of the valley, with trees, vegetation, a river, and painted cycloramic backdrops. Mist and smoke accents help out as well. Little patches of live-action are slotted into parts of the frame, to show the humans staring out at the vista, or regarding an approaching Tyrannosaurus. Little human figures are added to scenes by means of traveling mattes much better than we're used to seeing. This allows Jock Mahoney and Shawn Smith to run in front of the dinosaur and even crouch under a pathway rock while the monster passes overhead. It's very skilled, successful work -- we only wish the action were more exciting.
But the movie self-destructs with its dinosaurs, which are the dullest and least exciting I can remember. The monitor lizards that fight are even more animated that those in One Million, B.C., and shots of one crawling forward past the expedition's helicopter look quite good. A rubber pterodactyl is stiff but okay. But the other two dinos are worse than pathetic -- they not only don't seem alive, they give no indication of being anything but what they are. The elasmosaur is shapeless, with an ugly, stiff head. It apparently works on rails in a stage pool. The hydraulics to make it go are elaborate, but it moves like something one would see in an animated window display at Macy's.
None of these monsters should have been shown as clearly as they are seen in the completed film. The Tyrannosaurus is laughable. The design just wasn't meant to be seen all at once, in a full body view. The legs and feet aren't bad but the tail is short and silly. The skin texture is better than the gloppy elasmosaur, but it still looks like an accident in a rubber factory. The stiff head is on a par with the average Mardi Gras costume. If this thing were to be seen in pieces, through fog, bits of it showing through rocks and trees, they might have something. But in full view it all too painfully looks like something for a grade-school play, albeit with a better finishing job. I can see kids exiting The Land Unknown wondering why they weren't blown away, and staring at the exciting, rather eccentric dinos pictured in Reynold Brown's poster art.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Land Unknown is a terrific copy of this good-looking B&W 'Scope sci-fi thriller. It looks much better than the 2007 DVD, simply because the added resolution gives us a better look at the special effects. Sure, some flaws come through but just as many things look better.
Kino comes through with an animated image gallery and some trailers, but the audio commentary is what fans will want to hear, especially those already familiar with the movie. Tom Weaver's research on this title is fairly exhaustive, and includes input from some of the key participants. We find out that the original writer Charles Palmer's eclectic background included Disney animation and a key social consciousness movie about racial prejudice. He's the one who extrapolated the Byrd Expedition's discovery of a 'warm patch' in Antarctica into a locale for a Lost World saga.
Weaver's background on Jock Mahoney is augmented by the happy memories of Jan Alan Henderson, guest-commenting. Music expert David Schecter explains why he thinks Land Unknown has one of the worst scores of producer Alland's '50s output. We also hear quite a bit about Tom's experiences chatting with Henry Brandon. Weaver also details much of the plotline of the original treatment, and explains why he prefers the live-action monsters in this film to stop-motion or large mockups. I'll sign on to any argument that doesn't require me to defend the beasties in this show.
Stopping short of a defense, I openly admit that I return to The Land Unknown every few years. There's no denying that it's a handsome-looking picture. With a few exceptions director Virgil Vogel spent the rest of his directing career in television. He was certainly adventurous, as indicated by his attempt at a third sci-fi epic in the very, very strange U.S.- Swedish coproduction from 1959, Rymdinvasion i Lappland. It's worth a look, but by all means avoid its toxic American release version, Invasion of the Animal People.
The Land Unknown
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson