Harris and Yeaworth first teamed up for The Blob (1958). Harris, like many indie producers of his generation, started out as a movie theater usher who gradually worked his way up the ladder into regional film distribution. Yeaworth was a director of educational and especially religious films, working out a small studio in, of all places, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The Blob was made for just $110,000 yet eventually earned around $4 million, a phenomenal return for such a cheap movie.
The reasons for its success are pretty clear. It had an outrageous, funny title (and title song); unlike most cheap films of the time it was shot in vivid color; and it starred Steve McQueen, the filmmakers nabbing the actor on the cusp of stardom. (To his embarrassment, after McQueen achieved super-stardom status, Harris rereleased The Blob several times, McQueen's face prominent on the posters.) But the main reason The Blob proved so successful was that it was good. Compared to other films of its type, The Blob's screenplay was logical and populated by fleshed-out, interesting characters, rather than genre stereotypes. It also wisely confined its story and scale to something doable on its tight budget.
4D Man (1959), also new to Blu-ray, followed. Like The Blob, it was extremely well made for such an inexpensive ($300,000) film. If anything, the acting, especially by star Robert Lansing, was even better, and its screenplay even more adult and intelligent, though darker and less crowd-pleasing.
In stark contrast the screenplay for their third and last picture, Dinosaurus!, is unaccountably terrible, while the grand scale of the premise is far too ambitious for its budget, even though it cost more than The Blob and 4D Man combined.
On a remote Caribbean island, workers dredging a new harbor discover the perfectly preserved remains of two dinosaurs, a Brontosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus rex. Nearby, the mud-covered body of a Neanderthal man (Gregg Martell) also washes ashore. Lightning strikes from a rainstorm revitalizes the prehistoric "monsters." Inexplicably, the caveman also revives, despite not getting an electrical pick-me-up of his own. The Tyrannosaur particularly runs amuck, crushing a commuter bus and (offscreen) eating its passengers. The islanders retreat to the ruins of a cliffside fortress.
That's pretty much the extent of the plot, though it's certainly busy within that slim storyline. Much of this business revolves around "loveable" Julio (as writer Bill Warren describes him), an annoying, garrulous little boy who loves dinosaurs and cavemen. The ward of greedy island "manager" Mike Hacker (Fred Engelberg), Julio gets in the way after Hacker secretly plans to sell the Neanderthal and make a fortune. Elsewhere, the Neanderthal has made off with pretty Betty Piper (Kristina Hanson), the girlfriend of harbor construction manager Bart Thompson (Ward Ramsey). These and other characters do a lot of running around trying to find one another, all while the two dinosaurs are still running loose, occasionally threatening them when not each other.
One could go through a checklist of all the good qualities present in The Blob and 4D Man but lacking in Dinosaurus!: appealing and/or intriguing lead characters; imaginative, mostly high-quality special effects; an adult approach; a logical progression of the story, etc. For Dinosaurus!, the filmmakers were saddled with Ward Ramsey, a Universal contract player who resembles their recently departed George Nader. He's not bad, just colorless. Kristina Hanson is quite beautiful and while obviously inexperienced (she doesn't seem to know what to do in scenes where she has no dialogue) she's amusing in her funny, tense encounter with Gregg Martell. Alan Roberts, as little Julio, is simply grating. He never shuts up ("Caveman! Caveman!") even talking non-stop to the unresponsive Brontosaurus.
The stop-motion animation and use of puppets to bring the dinosaurs to jerky, unconvincing "life" exemplifies the difference between artists like Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, and the lesser talents of Dinosaurus!' effects team. It's not just that the models are poor and the animation not as good - they completely lack the vitality and dynamic qualities of O'Brien's and Harryhausen's work. Conceptually, many of the dinosaur sequences have potential, like the Tyrannosaur vs. steam shovel climax, but are poorly staged.
Unlike the Pennsylvania-shot Blob and 4D Man, Dinosaurus! was partly filmed on location on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, with Ramsey, Hanson, and Paul Lukather (as Chuck, Bart's right-hand man) traveling there but not others in the cast. The remainder of the film was shot not in Pennsylvania but Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, an independent lot across the street from Paramount Pictures. On the plus side, despite the Hollywood shooting, Yeaworth somehow maintains the same unique, primary-color look of his two earlier films, though the soundstage jungles and overuse of rear-projection is unconvincing, the darker soundstage scenes failing to match footage shot in sunny St. Croix.
Despite all these complaints, I and others of my generation have a great fondness for the picture. For children, the picture delivers the goods, stale though they might be, and the film has its good points. The dinosaurs and the caveman appear frequently from almost the opening scenes, and there's a lot of footage featuring them, mediocre though it is.
The movie's saving grace is Gregg Martell's performance as The Neanderthal. He and (primarily) co-writer Jean Yeaworth (Shorty's wife) wisely portray the character as a primitive adult, not a buffoon, nonplussed by unfamiliar objects like doors, books, window glass and other modern conveniences that didn't exist a million years ago. The caveman is pleased when he figures something out or finds something familiar (like an axe in the garage), and confused by things that make no sense to him, including the flushing of a toilet, which terrifies him.
With a minimum of makeup (not sure if that's a compliment or not) Martell creates a very sympathetic character whose reactions are, at times, quite hilarious but always believable. Indeed, he's more "real" than any of the human characters or the dinosaurs, the best and most memorable depiction of a caveman in a movie up to that point and long after.
Video & Audio
? Filmed in color and CinemaScope, Dinosaurus! was previously a 16:9 enhanced DVD from Image Entertainment in the early days of that format. That release looked splendid but Kino's new Blu-ray, a 4K remastering from the original camera negative, does it one better. The color and sharpness remain strong, and even projected onto a big screen (mine's about 10 feet across) the image looks great, very film-like. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is fine, and optional English subtitles are included on this Region "A" disc.
Supplements include an audio commentary by Kris Yeaworth, son of "Shorty" and Jean, and a trailer, but the big-ticket item here is "Dinosaurus! A Monstrous Story." A 30-minute featurette made in the U.S. (by Elijah Drenner) for the German label Subkultar, Kino wisely sublicensed this show, which features interviews with Jack H. Harris (who died at 98 in 2017), Paul Lukather (who died in 2014), Keep Watching the Skies! author Bill Warren (2016), and dinosaur expert Donald F. Glut (thankfully still with us). Despite the strange appearance of German-language graphics, the featurette is fun and informative, and captures the thoughts and memories of these well-chosen guests while they were still around. Kudos to Kino for going the extra mile obtaining this.
Warts and all, Dinosaurus! is a fun, enjoyable picture, a favorite of monster-movie fans despite its shortcomings. The Blu-ray looks great and the extra features are most welcome. Highly recommended.