In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.
Dracula films had been, along with Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein films, the studio’s bread and butter, but Hammer experimented from time to time with non-Dracula vampire films, with varying degrees of success. The first of these, oddly, was the first sequel to the studios smash hit Horror of Dracula. The Brides of Dracula finds Peter Cushing reprising his role as Dr. Van Helsing, but other than a few mentions here and there, Dracula is out of action for this film, and the action instead focuses on a second bloodsucker. Hammer had it in their head that the film series would be about Van Helsing, cruising around Victorian Europe fighting the various vampires Dracula had spawned, or something to that effect — sort of like the Sons of Hercules, only instead of huge bodybuilders in tunics, it was a skinny British guy in a greatcoat. Hammer’s reasoning may have seemed sound at first. Peter Cushing was their biggest star, after all, and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee was, at the time, just promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee.
But Hammer sorely underestimated the appeal of promising horror film newcomer Christopher Lee and, more importantly, the desire to actually see Dracula in any film that used the name Dracula in the title. So while Brides of Dracula is a spectacularly entertaining film, wasn’t what audiences or distributors were looking for. When Hammer dipped its tow back into the Dracula waters with Dracula, Prince of Darkness, they made sure that Dracula — played once again by now venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — was in the movie. But Hammer still liked to toy with the occasional non-Dracula vampire film, usually with great artistic success. 1963’s Kiss of the Vampire is wonderful, for example. But after the release of Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Hammer went into “all Dracula, all the time” mode, and any script for a vampire film had to be a Dracula film, because otherwise, the British public would miss out on another round of venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee complaining about Dracula movies.
Time passed, and many Dracula films came and went. So many, in fact, that eventually Hammer had no idea what to do with the guy. He’d been killed once and for all more times than The Ramones had farewell tours. So in 1970, as the studio was entering its downward spiral years, someone decided to revive the old idea of a Dracula movie without Dracula. This time, however, distributors nipped the temptation in the bud, and Taste the Blood of Dracula has the iconic count crowbarred into the script so he could stand in the shadows and provide a running countdown of the people who had been killed. It’s quite a good movie, but Dracula himself is more superfluous than usual, and he was pretty superfluous in most of the films. The count would limp on through a couple more features, including Scars of Dracula (which I like more and more as the years go on) and Dracula AD 1972, before The Satanic Rites of Dracula put the final stake through the heart of the franchise, completing Dracula’s transformation from a raging force of nature into a supernatural demon and, ultimately, into a cartoonish spy movie style mad villain. All he lacked was a TV transmitter that allowed him to broadcast taunts directly onto an oval-shaped monitor on the wall of Van Helsing’s study.
At the same time the Dracula films were making their grim march to the grave, however, Hammer did succeed in bringing one corpse back from the dead: the idea of a vampire film unrelated to Dracula. This came in the form of The Vampire Lovers, but more specifically, it came in the form of star Ingrid Pitt and the newfound permission to feature nudity in their films. The Vampire Lovers was enough of a success that it spawned two loosely connected sequels — the weak Lust for a Vampire and the exceptional Twins of Evil. It also opened the doors for a flailing Hammer to try and find some way of mixing the old with the new, of sticking to the tried and true vampire film that had supported them for so many years, but without relying on Dracula. Modern twists on old formulas, if you will. This lead to two of Hammer’s very best vampire movies, and had the studio had more time, more money, and more faith in its product, they might have had themselves two new franchises capable of carrying the studio through hard times when madcap On the Bus comedies could not. One of these films was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. The other was Vampire Circus.
Both films felt very different from any of Hammer’s previous vampire films. Vampire Circus, in particular, is probably one of the weirdest feeling films Hammer ever produced. It’s not psychedelic, mind you, but it’s like one of those psychedelic themed novelty records made by some old guy still trying to be hip with the kids. Or like Psychedelic Shack by The Temptations. That’s a good album, but no one was really going to buy The Temptations as a trippy psychedelic band, especially in 1970. Similarly, Vampire Circus is a really good film, possibly even a great film, but it never quite succeeds in feeling “modern,” not when it’s up against something like Blacula, for example, or the glut of Satanism movies that were coming out around the same time. Instead, Vampire Circus becomes its own really weird creature, rather unique and unlike any of the vampire films that came before it. In fact, though you could draw a connection to the old Universal House Of… movies because of the inclusion of a traveling gypsy circus, Vampire Circus has more in common with a film like Freaks or The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao than it has with Hammer’s previous vampire films.
The best and worst the film has to offer is right at the front, before the credits even role. A simple yet eerie and effective intro finds a local village man and his daughter in the woods. The little girl is tempted away from her father by a woman we know just isn’t quite right. The father, upon noticing, shrieks with terror and clamors to rescue his daughter, but it’s too late, and she disappears with the woman inside a creepy looking castle. The distraught man then rounds up a posse to carry torches and shake pitchforks at the inhabitant of the castle, a mysterious and threatening character named Count Mitterhouse (TV bit actor Robert Tayman). So far, so good. Everything has been really creepy in the same way the picture on the cover of that first Black Sabbath album is creepy. Yeah, it’s just a grainy photo of a weird looking chick in black robes standing in a clump of dead trees with a spooky house behind her, but it’s always scared me a little, even today. That woman would have definitely been in league with Mitterhaus, and if she lead you back to her lair with the beckoning of a slender (apparently green) finger, you’d be in for about two minutes of passionate spooky lovemaking and nudity, and then she’d rip your throat open or somehow manage to have gotten you lashed onto a series of hooks that pull off your skin or something like that.
However, what awaits within the walls of the castle is a bit different, and this is where the worst comes into play. Mitterhaus is absolutely ludicrous. He’s like a spoof vampire played by a drag queen in a disco musical written, directed, starring, and only seen by the world’s most flamboyant drag queens, and then at the end they all agree that the play was good but Mitterhaus was a little too campy for them. When you’re too campy for a theater full of drag queens, you are definitely too campy for a Hammer film, especially one that is otherwise so weird and serious. Not that Mitterhaus doesn’t have his strong suits as a character. For one, he lives in a cool castle populated by a couple sexy naked orgy women. He has lovely taste is sashes. And the fact that he’s kidnapped and lured a little girl into his sleazy lair gives the character an air of scummy, almost pedophiliac menace that really makes him a villain. You could always root for Dracula, even when he was at his worst and whipping Dr. Who with steel switches, but Mitterhaus just gives off a creepy uncle vibe. All this in and of itself is good for the movie, but Tayman’s performance is just ridiculous. It’s all mincing and eye rolling and silly face making. Even when he’s slaughtering his would-be attackers, he’s less frightening than he is…well, like a flailing dancer who got lost on his way to a John Waters film. Everything about the character is well written, but it’s like having it all and then delivering it in an Easter bunny outfit.
Still, when the worst thing about your film is that your vampire is a little too campy, that’s not bad. And when I say it’s the worst thing about the film, one has to measure that on a relative scale. Because silly though he may be, it’s hardly enough to spoil the film. In a way, I guess it makes Mitterhaus even more formidable. It’s like having your ass kicked by Mick Jagger’s character from Performance. You keep telling yourself, “This can’t be happening! He’s much to fey to kick my ass!” But that thought doesn’t stop him from doing it.
Eventually, Mitterhaus gets a stake through the heart and makes a face like a disgusted Southern bell who just won second place in the county fair beauty contest. With his dying breath, or whatever it is vampires have, he curses the town, swearing that the children of his killers will die to give him life again. Once again, it’s all really well done, easily one of the best vampire film intros ever, but it’s hard to take seriously with Mitterhaus camping it up to a degree that even Shatner and Vincent Price would tell him to take it down a notch. But with him in the grave the film can settle down and find its groove.
And that groove, as I’ve already said, is a mighty quirky one. The story picks up some years later. The town has been quarantined due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone caught attempting to leave the boundaries of the town is shot by unseen soldiers, or whoever is in charge of shooting people who try to escape from plague infected European towns. But other than tat, live seems OK. The elders, most of whom were in on killing Mitterhaus, while away their days figuring out plans to get the quarantine lifted. The village doctor doesn’t believe in vampires or that old queen Mitterhaus’ curse. Young people are in love. The inn, believe it or not, is not owned by Michael Ripper. In fact, there are very few familiar faces in this town, and no Hammer heavies in front of or behind the camera.
To this blighted town, though no one can explain how they get there, comes the Circus of Night, a small time, fairly creepy affair that employs, among others, a scary dwarf harlequin, an accordion playing mute strongman who will eventually grow up to be Darth Vader (David Prowse),a gypsy matron, a naked bald chick who does sexy tiger dances, a couple of potentially incestuous acrobatic twins who can turn into bats, and a hot young guy who can turn into a panther. Desperate for anything to take their minds off being a quarantined plague town cursed by a campy yet ass-kicking vampire, overlook the peculiarities of the circus and settle down for some good old fashioned family fun.
And man, what a circus it is. I attended a few circuses when I was young, and I remember a guy named Gunter who put his head in a lion’s mouth, and then I think a clown shot another clown with a seltzer bottle and they fired someone out of a cannon. That was cool and all, but I kind of wish I went to the circus where a tiger ran out and turned into a naked, chick painted with tiger strips, who then proceeded to do sexy dancing while being “tamed” by a guy before they finally just end up writhing around on the ground and practically doing…you know…it. And people seem to be amused by but not terribly upset by the fact that the people in this circus seem to be able to shapeshift into bats and panthers, or that a dwarf keeps grinning and running around making surprised “O mouth” faces. I guess they chalk it up to gypsy magic. Things aren’t as much fun once members of the circus break out the fangs and start preying on the children, usually after corrupting them in some sexual fashion. Each kill brings Mitterhaus a step closer to resurrection.
Vampire Circus benefits from the fact that Hammer was lost at sea, allowing new(er) directors to take a chance in hopes that something, anything, would stick and keep the studio afloat just a bit longer. That coupled with the relaxing of regulations regarding nudity meant that writer Judson Kinberg, in his first of only two career screen credits, could be much more explicit about the sexuality that has always existed in Hammer’s vampire fare. When first we meet Mitterhaus, he’s cavorting in bed with two naked women. He’s a rakehell and hedonist with a bit of the Marquis De Sade about him, and Vampire Circus gets to show more of that than they ever did in the past. He’s also a child murderer and has questionable taste in chest-exposing frilly shirts. Hammer’s Dracula was a combination of animal rage and desire, driven to do things not because he takes pleasure in them, but because it is his instinct, his thirst.
Mitterhaus, on the other hand, seems to take great pleasure in his lifestyle. He’s less animal, more decadent. Similarly, his minions in the circus use explicit sexuality to ensnare and kill their young victims. Emil the Panther seduces the burgomaster’s daughter and feeds on her during a series of sexual encounters. The incestuous acro-bats similarly seduce young men and women to take part in funky threesome action. It is not just important that they deliver fresh blood to Mitterhaus; they must also thoroughly corrupt their victims. Their master seems to draw as much power from this as he does from the fresh blood they dribble on his moldy corpse. If only he’d known that by the 1970s, all it too to bring Dracula back to life was a random bat flying into his window and dribbling some blood on his face. Heck, by the final Dracula film, you didn’t even need to bring Dracula back to life. He was just there, already in action (as much as “sitting behind a desk” can be action), and Hammer seemed to be saying, “Look, at this point do you even care how Dracula got brought back to life?” By comparison, Mitterhaus has to work pretty hard at it.
Tackling sexual politics has always been tricky for Hammer, and they’ve always walked the “have your cake and eat it too” thin line of cramming their films with naked sex appeal and heaving bosoms while skirting censorship issues by half-assedly grafting on “but in the end, the pure ones prevailed. Hooray!” final scenes. By their own admission, this was usually to keep uppity vicars and morally outraged censors off their backs while still being able show plenty of half naked women. As a libertine, rakehell, and dandy cad about town, I always roll my eyes when movies see no other outcome but tragedy for anyone evil enough to actually enjoy sex and a spot of hedonism. Victorian horror films usually counter that by expressly showing that it’s not the sexuality so much as it is the repression of sexuality that causes things to go sour. But the end result is the same. People who like sex usually die.
But ultimately, what it comes down to is that I am not inclined to worry myself about the sexual politics of Vampire Circus. These movies, like most movies, have to jump through so many hoops to satisfy so many cranky people that eventually, almost all politics, sexual or otherwise, are confused to the point of contradicting themselves, sometimes even in the same scene. I’m much happier to lie back in my reclining throne, slosh about my goblet of wine, and bark, “Send in the naked tiger dance woman!”
On the other hand, I do spend a lot of time thinking about other philosophical question as relates to entertainment. For instance, did every singer for a psychedelic 60s British band have a fling with a vicar’s daughter, and are all vicar’s daughters hot, blonde free spirits yearning to run naked and free through a field of barley? But then, I’m from the United States. I actually don’t even know what a vicar is. What is it, like some sort of a sports car? I did once have a crush on a Methodist minister’s daughter, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “vicar’s daughter” or “son of a preacherman” does.And anyway, it turned out she wasn’t a repressed girl yearning to rebel against her strict upbringing by letting me unbutton her blouse. She wanted to teach me about God, and I wanted to fondle her boobs in the choir balcony during church lock-ins. Needless to say, our relationship was as successful as my entire career as a churchgoer.
Anyway, where was I? I’ve gone and gotten myself all distracted now. Let’s move on to the general air of weirdness that’s instantly generated by setting a film in or around a traveling circus. In a way it’s a cheat, like those movies that film on location on the plains of Africa or the steppes of Mongolia and then expect awards for their sweeping, epic cinematography. The land itself did all the heavy lifting; all you really needed to do was set up the camera and pan around a spell. Similarly, old time traveling circuses are inherently creepy and awkward, just as they are inciting and mysterious. They infuse anything around them with those same characteristics. Vampire Circus definitely benefits from the “old time traveling circus weirdness” vibe that seems ingrained in our very psyches. It still works on me. I’m middle aged and I still dream of going to a parking lot circus and meeting some raven-haired gypsy beauty who will tell my fortune and embroil me in supernatural brushes with death as we fight the dark fate looming on my horizon. Or barring that, I dream of sitting around with carnival strippers and Johnny Eck, drinking whiskey and swapping stories about the rubes.
When I was little, I used to go with my Grandpa Bud to horse shows during the Kentucky State Fair every year. It was a pretty sweet deal for a little kid. You got to set up a campsite in a veritable city of horse stalls, sleep in the stalls (the horses were across the aisle in other stalls), and basically have the run of the fair. And the Kentucky State Fair, at least back then (I haven’t been in ages) was huge. There was a flea market back when cool stuff could be found at flea markets instead of on eBay, with all the flea markets now just selling OxyClean and ShamWows. The flea market took up two buildings the size of stadiums, and you could wander through all the weird junk and 4H dioramas for days. But best of all was that no one gave a rat’s ass about security, so even as young as I was, I was allowed to wander in and out of every building, through every door, every nook and cranny. I crawled through tiny maintenance access tunnels, wandered around in boiler rooms where hissing pipes seemed to go on for miles, and best of all, was never told to shoo off the midway, even in the middle of the night.
I’d sneak out and wander around, doing my best to avoid the teenagers who were doing the same but apparently had some sort of activity the boys and girls would do together. Not sure what it was. I got to watch people setting up and breaking down rides and attractions, pal around with creepy old men running the bumper cars and moon walk, and best off all, got after-midnight rides on the various disappointing spook house type rides which, despite being disappointing, continue to this day to delight me to a disturbing degree. Somehow, I did all this without ever once being molested or murdered by someone’s deformed son they kept locked in the bowels of their haunted house attraction.
At the time, I was high on a number of movies that involved similar settings. I saw Freaks at an early age, and it was right around the time Disney released Something Wicked This Way Comes. he Kentucky State Fair never had any stripper tents or freak show, but it was still pretty awesome running around in the middle of the night, with all those lights still flashing and the occasional hair trigger animatronic gorilla growling at me. Watching Vampire circus is sort of like wandering down a deserted midway int he middle of the night. There’s something undeniably spooky about it, but it’s also got this hallucinogenic allure. Whether born of myth or reality, circuses always have the air of something else going on, just behind the tent flap. Secret things, a whole other world to which you are not privy and only the select few can see. Ground down by daily humdrum, this world of beautiful gypsy fortune tellers and good natured strongmen, of devious managers and shifty mesmerizers, seems a much better alternative. Ignoring, of course, the backbreaking work and touring schedule, and the fact that if you join the traveling spooky circus, you may thing you are going to romance the gypsy girl or the sexy guy who turns into a panther, but mostly, you’re probably just going to be cleaning up chimp shit and taking care of Dracula’s corpse, which is in a poorly made display case.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? Carnivals, traveling circuses, gypsies — these things are awesome, pure and simple. And they infuse Vampire Circus with an atmosphere that is unique among Hammer horror films. In this strange world — almost, but not quite like our own — everyday items take on a sinister second nature. Most Hammer films aren’t scary these days, even f they are still quite good. But a film like Vampire Circus, while not exactly scary, manages still to be very…unsettling, perhaps. This works on a meta level as well. This is a Hammer film. Parts of it are very Hammer-esque. But it’s also not quite the same. The location shooting makes it different, for one, and the cinematography is off-kilter. There are no familiar faces. Certainly no Peter Cushing or venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee, but also no Michael Rippers, not even Ralph Bates. I was hard pressed to pick out any recognizable faces other than Anthony Higgins and Thorley Walters, and no one really gets all excited when, “That new Anthony Higgins film opens this week.” Not that this a cast of newbies, or that the cast lacks talent. Quite the contrary. Many of the faces are familiar from other movies, other television shows (Lalla Ward undoubtedly being the most recognizable thanks to her role as Romana in Doctor Who), but none of them are really familiar as Hammer stalwarts. It’s like walking into work one day and seeing that everyone has been replaced by someone else who does the same job, does it well, and is likable. You get along with them, even enjoy their company, and you certainly respect their work; you just can’t help glancing nervously around from time to time and wondering where the hell Michael Ripper went.
Thing is, I don’t think this movie would have worked as well if there had been familiar faces in it. After all, Hammer was ostensibly trying to break from the past, and nothing would signify that attempt quite as much as keeping the old guard off camera. If I see Peter Cushing, I know I’m in familiar territory, and I relax and enjoy the ride. But with a cast I don’t know, I have no idea what to expect. Who’s going to live, who’s going to die? Beats me. I just have to sit on the edge of the seat and watch the movie. Keeping the big guns off screen also means that B-teamers and background players get a chance to step forward and strut their stuff, proving why so many Hammer films are so good. Even the people who don’t have any lines are good actors. The lack of familiar faces onto which we can latch means that the characters get caught up in the bizarre events surrounding them far more easily. If it was Cushing out there, we’d expect him to say, “My God, man, it can’t be! Mitterhaus is dead!” Then he would competently go about exterminating the vampires and saving us all. But Cushing isn’t there to protect us, and that uncertainty is palpable.
Of the cast that is present, most are forgettably competent, which is kind of how they need to be for the film to succeed. The film continues Hammer’s trend of featuring young protagonists in hopes that would lure kids into the theater. This really started in Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula, and culminated in the groovy hep kids in Dracula AD 1972, though they still needed Peter Cushing to show up, research some books, and make a grim face of determination as he engaged Dracula in their latest final showdown. In Vampire Circus, bot the heroes and the villains skew young. Some adults are on hand, of course, though their primary function is to prove too weak to stand up to these freaky young vampires. Our nominal heroes Dora (Lynne Frederick, who went on to star alongside Peter Sellers in The Prisoner of Zenda) and Anton (John Moulder-Brown, who looks like some of the Pauls from Hammer’s last few Dracula films) don’t make much of an impression, but they are serviceable enough when surrounded by so much oddness.
This anonymity applies to the crew as well. There’s no Anthony Hinds here, no John Gilling or Terence Fisher. Instead we have first-time director Robert Young and first-time (almost only time) writer Judson Kinberg. Bringing in some fresh blood helped Hammer shake the formula up while still allowing it to remain recognizable. Vampire Circus feels much more like a continental horror film, like the dreamy, often illogical horror films of Italy or France where ambiance and imagery is more important than logical procession and and solid plot. This was pretty new territory for Hammer. Hammer horror may have relied on the fantastic, but it often presented it in as scientific and logical a fashion as possible for a horror film. Although Vampire Circus still follows a logical narrative — things still make sense — where as French and Italian horror films would not, it still boasts a very dreamy, supernatural state of being. That said, it also differs significantly from continental horror films in that there is a lot more action — plenty of vampire attacks and wanton point blank assassination of circus animals by drunken villagers. It may be dreamy, but it’s rarely ponderous.
Apparently, Young was given more or less free reign by Michael Carreras to do what he wanted, and Young wanted to make the film unusual. He certainly did that, and even though he ran out of time and had to edit around missing scenes he’d not had time to shoot, the film was ultimately one of Hammer’s most innovative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their most successful. Critics and fans alike seemed confused. After years of complaining that Hammer product was stale and old fashioned, they seemed upset that Vampire Circus wasn’t stale and old fashioned. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break, can you? Young went on to work steadily in film and television, and in 1997 directed the all time classic…ummm…Blood Monkey. And no, that isn’t one of my frequent typos. The movie is not Blood Money, but Blood Monkey. F. Murray Abraham was in it, so you know it was classy.
It’s a shame that, as of this writing, Vampire Circus remains missing in action in the United States. In fact, I believe it’s missing in action in England as well. It’s really one of Hammer’s most impressive, quirkiest efforts. I’m afraid that I’ve gotten lost and dreamy in my review of the movie as well, and at this point I’m making no sense and ought to just wrap it up by saying that regardless of how bad things were for Hammer in the 70s, the movies that came out of it were usually very good and very interesting. I don’t know that Vampire circus had the franchise potential Captain Kronos had, but I could have seen a series of films tracing the horrors that follow around a sinister circus of shape-shifting bloodsuckers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, and Vampire Circus ended up being a one-time deal. It’s a really good one-time deal, though, so if you get the chance to check it out, do it. It’s a much better way to have ended Hammer’s vampire film cycle than was Satanic Rites of Dracula.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933’s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
Here’s a quick way to make yourself appreciate The People That Time Forgot much more than you might otherwise appreciate it. Go watch The Mighty Gorga. In fact, watching The Mighty Gorga will pretty much improve the standing of any film, no matter how reviled, by comparison. Well, except perhaps White Pongo. But short of White Pongo and maybe White Gorilla, pretty much any movie looks good when compared to The Mighty Gorga. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are plenty of movies that look better when compared to The Mighty Gorga, but a lot of those movies aren’t going to be nearly as enjoyably torturous as this unique tale of a down on his luck showman looking to salvage his business by capturing and showcasing a legendary giant gorilla. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
The Mighty Gorga comes from a time in cinema history that will probably never come again. The most tempting comparison is to the world of shot on video DIY horror films, but that comparison doesn’t bear close scrutiny. On the surface there are similarities. The Mighty Gorga is a product of an era in low budget filmmaking that ran from the sixties until sometime in the 1970s and traces its roots back to the fast-buck junk films of the 30s and 40s — like the aforementioned White Pongo and White Gorilla — and the low-rent sci-fi films of the 1950s. The big difference is that those films, even when awful, were often made by professionals and sometimes under the aegis of an actual production studio. The 1960s saw the rise of a sort of alternate Hollywood, based largely out of Florida but certainly not limited to the Sunshine State. Unlike today’s crop of DIY video movies, which are primarily the product of a guy and his friends operating out of their living room, this was an actual industry, and their films played across various distribution circuits back when things like regional distribution areas existed.
Most of these films were cranked out to fill screens at drive-ins throughout the South, and the men who made them were as much carnival hucksters and showmen as they were filmmakers. In fact, in some cases, they were literally carnival hucksters. This era in film produced a number of names that most fans of obscure film don’t consider to be obscure: H.G. Lewis, Harry Novaks, Doris Wishman, and perhaps the king of them all, David Friedman. By hook and by crook, these people forged a movie industry totally outside the boundaries of Hollywood, and many would maintain, also totally outside the boundaries of any actual talent. But the fact remains that this was a real industry, producing films for theatrical runs and often employing a core circle of actors who were never very good but always seemed available.
The Mighty Gorga is one of the few films of that particular type that wasn’t shot in Florida, even though for most of the running time I assumed they were doing location work in the Everglades. But it comes to us courtesy of one of one of the “great” names of the era, David L. Hewitt. Hewitt, like many of the men and women working in this arena, was a jack of all trades, master of none: writer, producer, director, effects supervisor. His early work includes now infamous cult “classics” such as The Wizard of Mars, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, and Journey to the Center of Time — one of my all-time favorite movie titles because, frankly, what the hell does it mean? What is the center of time? Noon? Amazingly, his later work purely in the realm of special effects includes some movies even casual movie fans ended up seeing, and some work that was actually good: Willow, Leprechaun (hey, compared to The Mighty Gorga, it’s a mainstream film), Shocker, and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Of course, there was also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was made like ten years after the first film and yet had special effects that were ten times worse. His work on these films is amazing because his work on all his other films is just so awful. The Mighty Gorga is probably the magnum opus of his self-written, self-directed, self-produced special effects extravaganzas, and watching it, all you will wonder is how the hell the guy ever scored a gig on a film being done by ILM or Disney.
And so we open with shots of a horrifying sacrifice, as a listlessly writhing maiden is chained to an altar while post-production sighs of either terror, protest, or boredom are looped in. In prompt fashion, she is plucked up and eaten by the film’s title monster, Gorga, a gigantic ape that is realized by taking a guy, putting him the cheapest novelty store gorilla costume possible (complete with googly eyes), then filming him from a low angle as he peers out from behind some bushes. It’s going to be tough to top such a thrilling opening, but Hewitt does his best by cutting to a circus performance that is slightly less listless than the sacrifice. But times are bad at the circus, as some big time corporate circus is going around and buying up all the top acts so they can shut down the independents. This leaves manly-named circus owner Mark Remington (Anthony Eisley) on the verge of bankruptcy, as is explained to us in an extremely long-winded monologue by a clown who is in the process of wiping off his grease paint as he talks to a concession vendor, yet never actually removes any grease paint from his face. The clown, though a relatively unimportant addition to the cast, is played by Bruce Kimball, who does double duty as said clown and as the leader of the mysterious tribe that sacrifices women to mighty Gorga and curses the intrusion of the white man, even though the tribe itself is played entirely by white people or, at the very darkest, a couple Latinos.
Mark has a last ditch plan to save the circus from going out of business, at least for a little while. And it turns out that his plan seems to involve spending a whole lot more money than it would cost to just pay off the debts. On the third-hand story of a guy who was talking to a guy who works for a Africa-based big game trapper named either Tonga Jack or Congo Jack, Mark plans to fly to Africa, hook up with Jack, and help him capture a legendary giant ape, so that Mark can then purchase him to put in the circus as the new headlining act. Mark doesn’t seem to understand just how many jugglers and carnival strippers he could hire for that amount of money. So off we go to Africa, which looks a lot like a clean, space age airport that you might find in California, complete with air conditioning and pay phones.
I’ve clocked some hours in third world airports, and I can’t imagine how I’ve always managed to miss the ones that are this nice, instead always ending up in some dingy, hot hellhole with malfunctioning equipment, a guy asleep on the tarmac, and two-week flight delays. I assumed that any airport you fly into in order to meet a guy named Congo Jack would be of similar quality, but I guess that’s just my First World snobbery. I also assumed that most Congolese airports would probably be full of black people, or at least contain a few black people. But I was wrong there, as well. It’s almost as if this movie isn’t filming in Africa at all, but that can’t be right, because after some stock footage of planes taking off and landing, Mark walks out the door of the airport and says, “Well, here I am in Africa!”
Once in “Africa,” Mark attempts to meet up with Congo Jack, or maybe it’s Tonga Jack, but not before he tours a local zoo, which is surprisingly nice. I would guess that, for Africans, going to a zoo full of monkeys and antelope would be sort of like me going to a zoo full of house cats and sewer rats. But they needed to pad out the running time, and this way we get a nice look at all the animals that inhabit Africa. Eventually, Mark heads off to meet Tonga or Congo Jack, but first there’s an hilarious bit where he meets one of the three black men in all of Africa and attempts to speak to him in some pidgin form of whatever language they speak in whatever country this is supposed to be. I assume it’s The Congo, but only because one of the characters is named Congo Jack. But since “Congo” was often used in crummy movies to mean “pretty much all of Africa, except the parts which are the Sahara,” we could really be anywhere. And if the guy’s name is actually Tonga Jack, then we’re way off the map, because even though my geography doesn’t enable me to label every country on an unmarked globe, I’m pretty sure Tonga is not in Africa. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s about as far away from Africa as is physically possible. Anyway, after a couple stuttering sentences in the local tongue, Mark is interrupted by the black guy who says, “I don’t understand what you are saying. Do you speak any English?” in a perfect Sydney Poitier accent. That’s pretty much the film’s one stab at intentional humor, and predictably enough, it’s not as funny as any of the unintentional humor.
It turns out that the local, George (Lee Parrish), works for Tonga Jack (at this point, I revised my early waffling; they’re definitely saying Tonga Jack), but that Tonga Jack is missing, possibly having returned to Tonga. Instead, the business is being run by Jack’s daughter, Tonga April (Megan Timothy). April explains that her father disappeared while searching for the legendary Gorga. Also, there is an unscrupulous competitor who keeps trying to force her to sell the business, even going so far as to set her prize water buffalo on fire then show up seconds later going, “I heard your prized water buffalo was set on fire.” Empathizing with Rachel, Mark whips out a thousand bucks in cash and a cashier’s check for another five thousand, and pays off the woman’s debt. Once again, perhaps someone should remind Mark that he’s spent probably over ten grand at this point on a scheme to save his circus from bankruptcy. One gets the feeling that Mark could pretty much drive anything into bankruptcy no matter how many giant gorillas and trapeze artists he had working for him.
Mark, April, and George decide to head off into the jungle to capture Gorga and, with any luck, find and rescue Tonga Jack. How exactly three people plan to transport a twenty foot tall gorilla with googly eyes through the jungle, and then later across the ocean to America, is probably not worth wondering about. April’s rival, Morgan, has decided that the put-upon trio is seeking some lost treasure, so he decides to shadow them on their quest. Unfortunately, we too must shadow them on their quest, and at this point, the film settles down into a really long series of shots featuring April and Mark (George, being the most competent, stays behind to guard the camp) in their Woolworth safari outfits walking through whatever park they filmed this movie in. And this goes on for a long while.
Worst of all, it’s not even intercut with any gratuitous stock footage of interesting animals. Every now and then, they’ll stop and say, “My God! Those are giant prehistoric mushrooms!” but they never show us any giant prehistoric mushrooms, even though chicken wire and paper mache must have been within the budget of this film, assuming as I do that the budget was roughly equal to the budget we had for building a homecoming parade float my senior year in high school — and I managed to make a paper mache football player kicking a paper mache eagle on that budget! About the only effort The Mighty Gorga makes to convince us we are in a prehistoric lost world is scattering some tissue paper flowers around the bushes.
Things get even worse when Mark and April begin the tortuous mountain climb. This effect is achieved by having them pretend to struggle mightily up what is obviously a very mild incline, only the camera is tilted so as to make it appear much steeper. This goes on forever, with the mind-bending tedium only broken from time to time by the movie cutting to scenes of the high priest jabbering away to Gorga, who shows up in the village from time to time with no real purpose other than to allow the film to use the same shots of “natives” running away a couple times. Actor Bruce Kimball enunciates his lines in a way I can’t quite describe. I guess…imagine that you are a first year student in a community theater drama class, and your mentor is a horrible actor who insists that you enunciate with passion and clarity every single syllable. Or, if you haven’t the background to know what that ends up sounding like, recall Futurama‘s Dr. Zoidberg’s acting in The Magnificent Three when he says, “GOOD MOR-ning MEE-stir VICE PRES-ee-dent!” It truly is a tour de force.
After what feels like an eternity, April and Mark reach the top of the plateau, and all our hard work watching them make fakey grimace faces while climbing over very small rocks pays off when the two are attacked by a tyrannosaurus rex! Now there are good special effects, and there are bad special effects, and there are awful special effects. But this one…this one transcends all that has come before it and may very well be the nirvana of awful special effects. Mark and April cower helplessly on a projection screen while the screen is menaced by what looks like one of those plastic toy dinosaurs mounted on the end of a stick. You know the ones — they sell them at museums all the time. It’s a crude dinosaur upper body attached to a stick, usually with a trigger so your kid can make the mouth open and close. No exaggeration, this special effect is no more advanced than those toys.
That its incredible size is realized by making it menace a projected screen image of Mark and April shot from a long distance only sweetens the deal. As hard a slog as this film has been up until this point — and believe me, even I almost bailed out — this one scene more than makes up for all the horrible scenes of Mark walking around a zoo and Mort the Clown rubbing at his clown make-up. But wait, there’s more! Because Gorga shows up to fight the T-Rex! Yes, it really is as beautiful as you’d think. Where as the rest of the film nearly reduced me to tears of bitter defeat and surrender, this scene brought tears of joy to my eyes and made me believe that yes, despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still much that is good and worth fighting for.
From here on out, the movie trucks along at a pretty brisk pace. Well, brisk compared to everything that came before this point. Mark and April are captured by the tribe. They find Tonga Jack. There is talk of sacrifice. It all goes wrong and Gorga smashes things. There’s a desperate race through some tunnels where they discover there really was a treasure, and that it’s made up mostly of Mardi Gras beads and guarded by one of those skeletons you put in your fish tank. Then a volcano erupts for no good reason other than volcanoes always erupt at the end of lost world adventure films, and there’s footage of a cool stop motion dragon from one of the old Italian Hercules films. How they got through this whole sequence without using that footage of the two lizards with fins taped to their backs fighting with each other that appeared in dozens of other cheap films is a great mystery of cinema. Then after all that, the movie remembers to deal with evil Morgan and that there is a competent black character who needs to be killed off. And I guess Mark uses the plastic treasure to pay off his debt or something, because Gorga just sort of wanders back off into the jungle.
What we have here, folks, is a bona fide classic. This is the sort of film that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. Anyone can laugh their way through Plan 9 from Outer Space, and most who would read this site can get through far worse. But The Mighty Gorga is a true challenge. Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s the worst King Kong rip off ever made, even worse than the 1976 King Kong where the monkey die and everybody a-cry, or that one where Linda Hamilton brings King Kong back to life so he can save the future from the terminators. Pretty sure it was something like that. But forget it. The Mighty Gorga is so much worse than any of those that it’s hardly worth mounting a comparison. This is bad filmmaking at its most potent. Bad movie moonshine, if you will. It tests the viewer on every level, really makes you earn that scene where the witch doctor beseeches Gorga and Gorga fights a plastic dinosaur toy. But the reward, should one endure, is not unlike the plastic treasure the cast discovers at the end of the film. In fact, one could argue that The Mighty Gorga itself is an allegory for the trials of watching The Mighty Gorga, making it one of the very first “meta” films that are so common today. Or it could be a movie about a guy in a ratty monkey suit.
Let’s talk a bit now about the acting. To put it bluntly, no one is very good, although Bruce Kimball is at least memorable. Seriously though, I’ve seen better acting from tough actin’ Tanactin. Anchoring the film is heroic Mark, as played by Anthony “One Episode” Eisley. Much of his career is comprised of one-time appearances in various television shows. In 1959, however, he appeared in Roger Corman’s classic B-movie from 1959, The Wasp Woman. After that, he started spacing out his one-off appearances as minor characters in TV shows with appearances as minor characters in movies, mostly of relatively low profile, though he did manage to show up in some recognizable titles, including the Elvis film Frankie and Johnny as well as The Navy Versus the Night Monster, where he got to act alongside Mamie Van Doren’s bombshell figure. So really, not a bad career.
He also started appearing in David L. Hewitt films, including Journey to the Center of Time and the lost world epic The Mighty Gorga. He continued this pattern up until the early 1990s, when he finally retired. Now it’s easy to make fun of Eisley, especially based on his performance in The Mighty Gorga. But forget that. Eisley is the kind of actor I’d really love to do an incredibly long interview with. Between appearing in one episode of practically every TV show ever made and appearing in films from Corman, Hewitt, and Ted V. Mickels, the man has got to be full of stories about the pitfalls of being a working actor. It would be far more interesting than the usual A-list interview where they just gush about whatever awful film they have coming out that month. The directors who make movies like this can sometimes be overly sensitive and pompous about their work (I have no idea if that applies to Hewitt, mind you), but the actors almost always have a good sense of humor about it. And when they pass on, all those stories go with them, never recorded.
Eisner’s female co-star might not be as interesting, as she appeared in hardly any other films besides The Mighty Gorga. Megan Timothy seems to have no idea what to do, as one minute her character is suspicious of Mark, and the next minute she is wearing a bosomy summer dress and making nice with him, and then the next scene, with no reason at all detailed, she’s back to being mean. Huh. Dames. Either way, she gives a pretty horrible performance. Luckily, Bruce Kimball is there to enunciate “Oh Mighty Gorga!” as if he’s reciting a foreign language phonetically. Kent Taylor, who plays her father, delivers the closest thing this film has to a good performance, but he’s only in the film at the very end, so what’s the point? He’s another one who would be great to talk with, though. I wish there were fewer biographies of big stars and more biographies of guys who did things like appear in The Mighty Gorga or go make films with Al Adamson in the Philippines.
In fact, The Mighty Gorga, as boring and as incompetent as it is, is the type of film that really interests me — if not as a viewing experience, then certainly as a subject for discussion. I’m fascinated by the ways in which these films got made. Listening to a guy like David Friedman talk about the old Florida film industry is something I can do all day, and even though it was made in California, I can’t imagine that a film like The Mighty Gorga has any shortage of similar anecdotes surrounding it. It does make reviewing these kinds of films hard, though, because my enthusiasm for what happened behind the scenes generally colors my enjoyment of what is actually shown on-screen, infusing the film with more value than one gets simply by enduring scenes of two people stepping over rocks for ten minutes. I mean, Hewitt went on to do visual effects work for some huge movies — some more successful than others. Was the Gorga versus a T-Rex scene in his portfolio? What was Bruce Kimball thinking? When they wrote all the “white man is evil” dialog, did they know all their African natives were going to be played by white people in Aztec wigs? Where the hell did they find that atrocious gorilla costume?
Even I wouldn’t claim that The Mighty Gorga is an enjoyable viewing experience, but I found it fascinating never the less, for the same reasons I’m fascinated with films like Death Curse of Tartu or Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny or whatever weird stuff Doris Wishman was cranking out at the time. These truly are the heirs of Ed Wood, Jr., filmmakers who forge ahead no matter how ludicrous their solutions to working around their lack of budget and/or talent may be. The results are not always pretty, but they are usually fascinating if you are a scholar of truly obscure cinema. My only regret is that there is no commentary track for The Mighty Gorga. I would love to hear from someone involved in the production regarding what sort of an experience it was and how the film ever managed to see the light of day. So no, The Mighty Gorga isn’t a good movie. Except for Bruce Kimball’s performance and the monkey versus dinosaur scene, it’s not even entertainingly bad. But it’s the sort of movie you should have a look at never the less, because it’s awful in such an interesting way. Heck, The Mighty Gorga at its worst is still better than most shot on video microbudget horror films at their best. None of them have a guy in a googly eyed gorilla suit fighting a plastic novelty dinosaur.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: United States | Starring: Anthony Eisley, Megan Timothy, Scott Brady, Kent Taylor, Gary Kent, Greydon Clark, Lee Parrish, Bruce Kimball | Writer: David Hewitt | Director: David Hewitt | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Charles Walden | Producer: John Hewitt
When The Land That Time Forgot ended, it left hero Doug McClure and heroine Susan Penhaligon stranded in the tropic prehistoric lost world of Caprona in Antarctica, fated to wander the strange world of dinosaurs and cavemen while wearing big-ass furs and mukluks. Would rescue ever come? Would their hopeless message in a bottle thrown into the tumultuous seas at the end of the earth ever be found. If so, would it be believed? Well, we know from the first film that the account of the strange adventure to Caprona was found (though how the account, written by one man, could include detailed descriptions of things that happened while he was not around, is a question best left not asked in a movie about a u-boat crew fighting dinosaurs). Two years later, the answer to whether or not anyone would believe it was also answered. Unfortunately, the answer came in the form of The People That Time Forgot, a phenomenally boring follow-up that reduces Doug McClure’s role to little more than a cameo, kills off Susan Penhaligon in between the two movies, and seems to think that what people really wanted from a sequel to The Land That Time Forgot was fewer dinosaur fights and caveman rumbles, and more scenes of people walking across gravel-strewn landscapes.
The inaction begins with Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne, son of John), airplane pilot and friend of Bowen Tyler (McClure, remember — his character did have a name), preparing to mount a rescue mission after having received word of the message-in-a-bottle account of the events from the last film. McBride encounters relatively little skepticism either from the scientific community, the Navy, or the press. It seems accounts of Caprona have popped up from time to time in the past, and this is their best chance, using the navigation information Bowen recorded from their journey on the German submarine, to pinpoint the exact location of the mysterious land and, if possible, rescue Lisa and Bowen. But unlike the ill-fated experiences of the Germans and Brits who wound up there by accident, McBride is determined to mount a properly provisioned rescue mission, employing the latest cold weather ships, radio equipment, and an airplane. Accompanying him, besides assorted stoic British sailors, are his trusty sidekick mechanic, a biologist, and Charly Cunningham (Sarah Douglas), a reporter for the London Times whose inclusion in the expedition was one of the provisions of the newspaper financing the mission.
Things start off well, both for the film and the expedition. The ship gets McBride close enough to use the plane, and after successfully navigating through the high mountains, the pilot and his crew soon find themselves on the unmistakable outskirts of Caprona. The weather turns warmer, there are a few more trees (though nothing like the lush primordial forests in the last movie), and they are attacked by a stiff, fake-looking pterodactyl. Truly we are home. The battle forces the plane to make an emergency landing, and while the mechanic repairs the damaged rudder and makes “comical” comments, McBride and Charly set out on foot in a basically random direction in hopes of finding Bowen and Sarah. They encounter a dinosaur here and there, but for the most part, their trek is exceedingly dull.
I can’t really put my finger on why, even when there are dinosaurs on screen, it seems like there aren’t dinosaurs on screen. I think it’s because there’s no real sense of interaction with the creatures. The last film had all sorts of crummy looking composite shots so we could see Doug McClure sneaking around dinosaurs. This time, it feels like we’re watching stock footage. In fact, yeah. That’s exactly it. With the exception of one scene where Sarah Douglas takes a photo of a stegosaurus, the whole film feels like one of those old impoverished jungle adventures, like White Pongo or White Gorilla — films comprised almost entirely of shots of the cast walking through a set, intercut with stock footage of elephants and giraffes. This isn’t stock footage (though I suspect one or two shots of being unused footage from The Land that Time Forgot), but it feels like it. Until the very end, the dinosaurs are little more than parts of the set that cause the cast to make terrified faces, except for Patrick Wayne, who makes the same face for the entire film, regardless of what terrors or wonder might be confronting him. At the end, they finally fight a dinosaur, but it’s really too little too late. This movie needed to be packed with scenes of our heroes fighting dinosaurs, and it’s not.
Eventually, they begin to reach the more temperate regions of Caprona, here realized by location shooting in an actual forest (the Canary Islands, to be exact). Where as the last movie relied largely on a mix of location work with sets to create a believable if somewhat fantastic jungle, this movie looks like it was filmed in a pretty average clump of trees. Funny how that happens sometimes. The actual tropical island isn’t a very convincing tropical island, where as the last film — which I think was filmed on a set and probably in a London park — was more interesting looking. Sort of like how The Greatest Story Ever Told was shot in Arizona and Utah, because the filming they did on location in the actual Holy Land didn’t look Holy Land enough.
However, the location shooting also lends the film a more wide-open feel, though given how little impact that has, it would have been nice if they’d skimped on location shooting and used that money to buy more crummy dinosaur props or a tiny fur bikini for Sarah Douglas.
It’s also notable that, from this point on (which means, for most of the movie), the dinosaurs are gone until the very end. Instead, our intrepid trio (one forgets that the biologist is even along for the ride, from time to time) encounters big-breasted cavegirl Ajor (former David Bowie backup singer Dana Gillespie, who played a similar role in Hammer Studio’s 1968 lost world adventure film, The Lost Continent). I wouldn’t normally make a point of mentioning the breasts of a female character (or really, I probably would, but just play along), but in this case they seem to be the primary reason her character exists. Ajor is far more advanced and bosomy than the cavemen we saw in the last movie, and what’s more, she speaks English! At least that’s an improvement over the last film. When faced with choosing between a big-boobed cavegirl who speaks in pidgin English or a thick-browed caveman who shrieks a lot, I think the choice is clear. Also, she understands feathering and advanced hair-teasing techniques. All of these skills were taught to her, McBride discovers, by Bowen Tyler, who Ajor reveals has been captured by an even more advanced race, the Nagas.
It turns out that the Nagas are so advanced that they, completely isolated from all cultural influence in the rest of the world, have evolved to dress and fight exactly like medieval Japanese samurai, right down to the katanas, flag bearers, and big kabuto helmets with gruesome face masks. Despite all those advances, however, they still live in caves and are ruled over by a fat, hooting, grunting dude in a fur loincloth (big Milton Reid, once again). It’s as if the nation of Japan decided one day that they wanted to be ruled over ruthlessly by George the Animal Steele. But instead of ripping open a turnbuckle cover with his teeth, Sabbala pencils in Charly and Ajor for sacrifice to the…wait for it…yep, the angry volcano god. Then he throws McBride and the biologist, Norfolk (Thorley Walters), into his skull wall prison. In the prison, McBride is finally reunited with Tyler. And now, with a couple of two-fisted, good ol’ American boys on the job, these merciless rulers of Caprona’s crappy non-dinosaur infested southern region are primed for a beat-down.
By 1977, England’s Amicus Productions was dead. The People That Time Forgot was really not so much a production as it was one of those nervous twitches a corpse sometimes makes. The only thing that even got the movie finished was money from American International Pictures, who had already been propping up Amicus for their last two Kevin Connor directed adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventures. The People That Time Forgot feels much more like an AIP film than it does an Amicus film, and the budget must have dwindled to the point where even Kevin Connor couldn’t scrape together enough crappy special effects to fill the movie as he had in The Land That Time Forgot or 1976’s At the Earth’s Core. So almost all the action involves people. Sometimes they are cavemen, sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, they are samurai. There are only a couple of really crummy dinosaurs. It turns out that if your movie has dozens of crappy looking dinosaurs, it’s probably going to be pretty cool. But if your movie only has one or two crappy looking dinosaurs, then all you can think about is how crappy it is that you are getting so few crappy dinosaurs.
And even if you make your peace with the fact that you’re not going to get any dinosaur action, you still have to deal with the fact that there’s really not much caveman action either. McBride has a run-in with a tribe that has been chasing Ajor, but it’s short-lived and fairly thrill-free. So even if you reconcile yourself to the fact that there is no dinosaur action and precious little caveman action, then you find yourself depending on John Wayne’s son versus lost world samurai ruled over by a mostly naked fat guy painted green.
And even then, you’re going to be disappointed, because most of the samurai action is restricted to scenes of guys walking back and forth. That they are wearing samurai armor for no good reason doesn’t make it any more interesting. Also, I don’ think samurai wore their armor 24/7. Like, if you are on guard duty in the cramped caverns of your poorly lit cave dungeon, you really don’t need battle armor and a giant helmet with a faceplate. I guess they took the time to evolve the ability to think of Japanese armor, so they decided they were going to get their money’s worth. While I imagine samurai armor would help you in a battle against cavemen, it’s probably less effective against a T-Rex or any of the other monsters we know inhabit Caprona. Or at least, that inhabited it in the last movie. So maybe this is really the only time they get to break it out and show it off, since even though it’s effective against cavemen, they are probably too primitive to admire your craftsmanship. At least John Wayne’s son will appreciate your craftsman’s effort.
The lack of dinosaurs without anything to fill the void is the film’s major misstep. The next major misstep is reducing Doug McClure to a cameo. The structure of The People That Time Forgot is very similar to another colossal letdown, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. OK, so maybe Planet of the Apes was a more prestigious sci-fi film than The Land that Time Forgot, but the overall result for someone like me is the same. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is about a guy who wasn’t in the last film, who travels to the mysterious lost world-esque planet of the apes, has some dull adventures, then ends up underground in a jail where he meets Charlton Heston reprising his role in a cameo. And then they break out, there’s some fist fights, Charlton Heston dies, and everything explodes.
The People that Time Forgot plays out almost identically. Patrick shows up in Caprona, has some dull adventures, finds Doug McClure in a cave. There’s some fist fights, Doug dies, and then stuff explodes. Aping Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not a good move, and reducing your single remaining interesting character to a ten minute cameo at the very end of the film is even worse.
Actually, scratch all that. This film’s major misstep is that it casts Sarah Douglas in a role, has her character set up to be sacrificed to a primitive volcano god, and never puts her in a cavegirl outfit! Having almost no Doug McClure action is justifiable if you say, “Sorry, but we spent the little money we had on convincing Sarah Douglas to wear this tiny loin cloth. We couldn’t afford any more Doug McClure after that.” That’d be fine. But no. She stays fully clothed the entire time. Doug shows a little more flesh, which is welcome, but he’s grown out that big Jeremiah Johnson beard, so it’s hard to even tell. A travesty! Sarah Douglas, in case you weren’t around at the time, is probably best known either as the evil woman in Superman II or as the evil woman in Conan the Destroyer — two films in which she was more skimpily clad than she was in this movie, where she was in a land of scantily clad cave people. Still, despite my dissatisfaction with her sacrificial attire, Douglas is the closes thing this movie has to a good performance. She has an easy charm about her — surprising since I’ve been taught from all her other roles to be terrified of her.
In her place, the scantily-clad chore goes to Dana Gillespie. Gillespie was a former future pop icon. The one-time girlfriend of Bob Dylan, she was supposed to be some sort of folk rock star. That didn’t pan out. Some years later, she became David Bowie’s pet project after she sang back-up vocals for him during the Ziggy Stardust days. She completed an album, but I don’t think it flew off the shelves. I heard it and think it’s pretty crummy. She had slightly better luck on stage, appearing as Mary Magdalene in the original run of Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1968, she appeared in one of Hammer’s several “lost world” mini-epics, The Lost Continent. It was nearly ten years later when she appeared in The People that Time Forgot, allowing her breasts to do most of the acting for her. Still, it should be noted that her feathered hair is almost as big as her boobs, so it’s not like I’m reducing her to a single, degrading aspect of her physical appearance instead of judging her performance more rationally. But then, it’s also hard to judge a performance when your only lines are, “Tyler!” and “You are…friend of Tyler?” Given my druthers, I would have had Gillespie and Douglas switch costumes. Or I would have dropped Gillespie entirely and just given more screen time to Douglas, no matter what she was wearing.
Oh yeah, somewhere in that mix is Patrick Wayne. I can’t remember how unclothed he gets, because I’m more of a Doug McClure man. Coincidentally, much of Patrick’s filmography seems comprised of small parts in the films of John Wayne. What are the chances, huh? Well, Patrick Wayne is about as good an actor as his old man, only he doesn’t have any of the charisma or macho allure than compensated for the elder Wayne’s limited range. In 1977, Patrick had arguably his biggest role, that of Arabian sailor Sinbad (he’s even less Arabian than John Phillip Law!) in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. In the greater scheme of Sinbad movies with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, Eye of the Tiger is a lesser affair, though still plenty of fun. Plus, it features a pretty solid supporting cast that includes Jane Seymour and scruffy Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who).
That along with a bunch of stop motion monster effects was more than enough to make most people fail to notice how stiff an actor Patrick Wayne was. Thing is, a movie like that needs a stiff in the lead. It needs a piece of petrified wood off which it can bounce all its fantastic stuff. After all, those are Ray Harryhausen movies. Few people remember who directed them, or starred in them. Heck, I was out of college before I even realized different guys had played Sinbad in the various movies. Because everyone remembers the special effects, and everyone went to the films for the special effects. To have some talented lead actor getting in the way would have distracted from the films’ appeal.
The People that Time Forgot should operate under the same premise. Unfortunately, there’s very little fantastic stuff to distract from Wayne’s stiffness. With no dinosaurs and minimal caveman action, all we’re left to focus on is Wayne’s performance. Well, Wayne’s performance and Dana Gillespie’s gravity-defying breasts. I failed to be sufficiently interested by either (as a scantily-clad cavewoman, Gillespie is passable, but she’s no Caroline Munro or Raquel Welch). And there’s no talented supporting cast to pick up the slack. Sarah Douglas gives it her all, but there’s only so much you can do with a script that gives you nothing but “your character walks across a field, then across a gravel pit.” Patrick Wayne is a wooden hero with no charisma and no awesome monsters to make you forget he’s there. People who knock Doug McClure’s one-note performances should take a look at Patrick Wayne to see what stiff really is. McClure exudes an effortless charisma and believability. A movie teaming up McClure and Sarah Douglas would have been way better. Patrick Wayne exudes nothing. Plus, he looks a lot like Charlton Heston, way more than he looks like his own dad. I have some conspiracy theories about that one, and I consider them at least as likely to be true as theories about super-powered WWII Nazis operating UFO bases at the North Pole.
Some people consider this movie better than its predecessor. I cannot count myself among those people. While I love The Land that Time Forgot, I hate this movie. Well, maybe I don’t hate it, but I sure don’t like it. I was bored silly through most of the film, and it falls into that rare category of film I say you could give a miss. In fact, it reminds me in many ways of War Gods of the Deep, another surprisingly disappointing film I want to like more than I do and that sounds much cooler in summary than it actually is to watch. I mean, John Wayne’s son and the evil chick from Superman II versus samurai cavemen is a good pitch, but Amicus was too broke to deliver even the cheap-ass fun they delivered with The Land that Time Forgot, and AIP seemed to be interested in little more than getting something on the screen and ending their relationship with the doomed British studio.
It would have been nice to see Amicus, who had given the world so many entertaining films go out on a higher note. But then the same could be said of Hammer, who bit the dust around the same time and with a similarly wretched film to serve as their swan song. If Amicus was the scrappy Hammer wannabe, then The People that Time Forgot is their ode to Hammer going out on To the Devil…A Daughter. In retrospect The Land that Time Forgot would have been a poetic place for Amicus to end — with volcano erupting, boat sinking, and its stars facing a seemingly hopeless situation. Instead, they decided to show us the aftermath of the collapse, and give us Milton Reid in a skimpier outfit than Sarah Douglas (or Dana Gillespie, for that matter).
Release Year: 1977 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Patrick Wayne, Doug McClure, Sarah Douglas, Dana Gillespie, Thorley Walters, Shane Rimmer, Tony Britton, John Hallam, David Prowse, Milton Reid, Kiran Shah | Writer: Patrick Tilley | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: John Scott
If the world was just and kind, then the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” would indicate the existence of probably one of the greatest films ever made. But the world is often cold and heartless and it often enjoys toying with us mere mortals as did the petty and jealous Greek gods of old. Therefore, the sentence, “It’s a movie where Vincent Price stars as a madman who rules over an underwater society of fishmen prone to kidnapping scantily clad beautiful women,” does not indicate the existence of one of the greatest movies of all time, but instead, indicates the existence of a shocking dull film in which Vincent Price sits in a cave while a couple stiffs run around in tunnels, and then some stuff blows up at the end. This, sadly, is the fantasy world conjured up by the lackluster War Gods of the Deep — a modestly entertaining film in spots, but a tremendous letdown given the talent in front of and behind the camera.
For many years, England’s Amicus Productions was the scrappy studio living in the shadow of and following the lead of the higher profile Hammer Studio. In fact, so closely did Amicus follow Hammer’s horror lead that much of their output continue to be mistakenly labeled as Hammer Horror. Amicus often used the same actors — including Peter Cushing and venerated horror film icon Christopher Lee — and directors — including Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker — and went for a similar feel. There are, however, several differences. For starters, most of Amicus’ horror films were set in the present day, or at least more recently than Hammer Victorian-era gothic tales. Also, having been founded by Americans, Amicus often looked overseas for established genre talent rather than sticking primarily to English stars. Thus, you get a film like Madhouse or Scream and Scream Again, both of which starred American horror icon Vincent Price. And finally, although Amicus is known these days primarily for their horror output — and especially their horror anthology films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood, Vault of Horrors, and Tales from the Crypt — they also produced a number of science-fiction and sci-fi tinged horror films. Hammer did this as well, at least for a little while and most successfully with their Quatermass films, but once Dracula, the mummy, and Frankenstein became established hits, Hammer pretty much jettisoned sci-fi in favor of straight Gothic horror. Amicus, on the other hand, constantly dabbled in the speculative genre.
Their first, and easily their best known sci-fi outings, if for no other reason than the association they have with one of the biggest sci-fi cult hits of all time, are their two Doctor Who films starring Peter Cushing as the mysterious time-traveler. At the time, the television series was still shot in black and white. Amicus looked toward two of the very best story arcs from the first Doctor’s series (William Hartnell’s stories The Daleks and The Daleks’ Invasion of Earth), and redid them, only with a bigger budget and in eye-popping color. Although the movies were rehashes with some departures from the series (Peter Cushing, for example, actually refers to himself as “Doctor Who” and with no hint of being an alien — which, while out-of-step for the series as we know it, was still in line with the series at the time), they were hits for Amicus. The appeal of seeing Doctor Who in color and starring one of England’s most beloved actors was a huge draw.
Amicus dabbled in sci-fi on and off in the ensuing years, with generally good results (They Came From Beyond Space), and one or two clunkers (The Deadly Bees). When the British film industry tanked at the beginning of the 1970s, small studios like Amicus were hit particularly hard. Hammer collapsed entirely, despite making some of their best horror films during the early years of that decade. Amicus limped on, however, producing some genuinely interesting films, like the bizarre and enjoyable mash-up of horror, science fiction, and Eurospy films that was Scream and Scream Again. As the decade wore on, the belt-tightening became more and more extreme. Looking for a way to keep their craft afloat, Amicus decided to put their faith in a series of science fiction/fantasy adventure films based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It didn’t work, for a number of reasons, even though the films proved relatively popular with kids and remain nostalgic favorites for people like me.
The first of these films was The Land that Time Forgot, not to be confused with The Land Before Time. Both feature dinosaurs, but only one features a shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl dangling from absurdly visible wires.
When I was a kid, The Land That Time Forgot played pretty regularly on television. Although I know I saw it in the theaters (it was distributed in America by AIP, whose infusion of cash as co-producers was the only thing that enabled Amicus to get these final films finished), my memories are of watching it on television, and fairly frequently at that. These days, now that I have progressed from being a five year old with the mentality of an eight year old, to being a forty-year old with the mentality of…well, a nine year old if we are generous, I can see just how threadbare the productions really were. It didn’t matter to me then, of course, and it didn’t matter to most kids despite the fact that so many people try to project the sophistication of their adult life onto their childhood. “Even as a kid, I could tell these films were cheap,” they claim, and it’s almost never true. Most children view films differently than adults. When a film is cheap and boring, the cheapness doesn’t really register (what do you have, at age six or seven, to even judge cheapness by) and the boring parts wash over you like water off a duck’s back. You tune out when it gets boring, and all you remember afterward are the cool parts. Thus, even really crummy movies can seem relatively enjoyable, because you don’t remember the dull bits; all you remember is the shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl. Oh sure, I know some of you watched these movies with the keen eye of a wizened critic even at age six, and you turned your nose up at how juvenile they were even when you were juvenile. Well, I hope you had fun watching Kramer versus Kramer as a child, while the rest of us were watching dinosaurs fighting a submarine while Doug McClure punched cavemen in the face. I’m sure your childhood was much better off for your refined sense of cinematic value when you were in first grade.
I, of course, was hopelessly lowbrow and common as a child. As an adult, as you know by know, I am equally hopeless and lowbrow. While that means that I am still pleased by loads of cheap juvenile crap while being bored by indie films in which quirky dysfunctional families learn to accept one another, it also means that I also get to enjoy most of my filmgoing experiences, shrugging off most films with an, “Ehh, that was all right.” It keeps me happy and keeps the blood pressure low, even if it deprives me of any claim to righteous fury over how base and moronic most entertainment has become. I’ve made my peace with this, and I’m happier rolling with the punches and genuinely enjoying films than I am getting upset about something as silly as a movie. Which means than even though I can see how floppy the rubber dinosaurs are, and even though I can see the wires on the pterodactyl, and even though I can tell the caveman in its mouth is a wind-up action doll, I still really enjoy The Land That Time Forgot.
The year is 1916 or 1917. The United States has yet to enter into World War I, which has yet to be named World War I, but we are more visible in our support of the Allied cause. In turn, Germany has announced the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare. At the start of the war, Germany operated its much feared u-boat fleet under certain restrictions in regard to the rules of good sportsmanship during a war. They would not, for example, attack civilian vessels, limiting themselves to torpedoing identifiable military ships belonging to their enemies (mostly England). As the war in Western Europe ground to a stalemate, Germany began to revise their u-boat strategy, first attacking any ships belonging to their enemies, and then any ships belonging to anyone they though might be helping their enemies (thus bringing American ships under fire). And then, finally, they pretty much started torpedoing anything that wasn’t German. The policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was one of the major tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war (though it wasn’t the coup de grace — that being a telegram from Germany pitching a plan to bring Mexico into the war on the side of the Germans). The Germans maintained that most of the so-called civilian ships they attacked were carrying weapons and supplies to the beleaguered Brits, who were deviously smuggling equipment from American suppliers aboard such civilian craft.
The Land that Time Forgot picks up its story during this time of expanding u-boat warfare. German submarine captain Von Schoenvorts has just finished torpedoing a ship of the type described above: civilian but suspected of containing smuggled supplies. Despite the job being well done, and although he believes in the German cause, Von Schoenvorts is in no mood to celebrate killing civilians. He’d be even less celebratory if he knew one of the civilians who survived was American entrepreneur Doug McClure, here playing a guy named Bowen Tyler, but he’s pretty much just Doug McClure. Isn’t he always? And aren’t we always thankful for it? McClure is adrift now, along with the one other survivor who, lucky for McClure, happens to be lovely and female (Susan Penhaligon), and lucky for the script, also happens to be a scientist. I think she’s a biologist, but really, she seems to be one of those classic movie style scientists who knows a lot about everything. Thanks to my sister, herself a biologist, I have met many other scientists and many other biologists, and they always seem to be very specialized in what they do. My sister, for example, can tell you pretty much everything you need to know about various types of bats and blind cave fish, but I think if you dropped a caveman off in her lab and asked her about him, she’d have little more to say than what could be gleaned from watching Encino Man, which is that cavemen love to party and swing from things. But Susan Penhaligon’s Lisa Clayton is as comfortable finding her way around a protozoa as she is a caveman, a diplodicus, or Doug McClure. She’s also handy with geography, and she probably knows a few things about botany. But not mechanical stuff. That’s for the guys, and luckily, Doug McClure happens to be the son of a guy who designs submarines. But it is the early 20th Century, so perhaps science was still more generalized, like how centuries before, Sir Isaac Newton could be good at calculus, physics, and poking metal rods into his own eye sockets to see how deformation of the eyeball affected seeing.
When it happens that a few other survivors float by, all of them British sailors, and our merry band happens to find the U-boat that torpedoed them, the gang is well-suited for a hostile take-over. So begins a cat-and-mouse battle between the Germans and Brits plus Doug McClure, with each side trying to either out-muscle or out-sneak the other side to get the upper hand and win/lose control of the submarine. Now you might be wondering whether you’re watching a movie about Doug McClure fighting dinosaurs or a WWI era submarine adventure. And indeed, the first half of this film concerns itself primarily with Great War U-boat shenanigans. However, I never really found these proceedings to be dull, as not only do I like WWI stuff, but I also like the glimpses into the characters — specifically von Schoenvorts (himself an amateur naturalist). When the move/counter-move mini-war on the sub results in the ship ending up off the coast of Antarctica, very low on fuel and with no hope of reaching a supply ship or port, the two sides form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to figure out how the hell to get themselves out of the mess they’ve gotten into. A large cave from which pours forth warm, fresh water, seems the best possible alternative, because when in doubt, why not take your submarine into a completely uncharted cave. But they do, and despite some close scrapes, they safely navigate through and into…
An amazing tropical prehistoric wonderland!
Previously, we looked at the Doug McClure fantasy adventure film At the Earth’s Core, from the same production company and director, and reflected briefly on the history of hollow earth theories that inspired the various “world within the world” adventures stories like Pellucidar, the series upon which the film was based. This time around, we’re tackling a theory that had a very similar evolution from scientific theory to discredited crackpot theory to fodder for pulp sci-fi and adventure writers. And once again, tracing the origins of such beliefs takes us far back in time. As with the caves and earthquakes, fissures and sinkholes, that most likely let primitive man to conceptualize a world below the surface of the earth, so too can we assume that the birth of the idea of the arctic as a place of magic comes from it being an equally impenetrable and difficult to understand region. In the days before performance fleece and Russian ice breakers, the remote, freezing north must have been nearly as impenetrable as the depths of the oceans. But men ventured there, from time to time, and when they did, who knows what things they beheld — augmented, of course, by the old timey storytellers’ penchant for bullshit.
Early accounts of Greek thinkers theorized that, because the northern stars didn’t seem to rotate around the earth in the same fashion as other stars, that they must be above an equally unusual land. Although polar exploration was likely out of the question, the Arctic circle itself was within reach of ancient man, provided he brought enough furs and mukluks. But the Greeks simply made up their own stories about this curious place to the north, beneath the Arktos constellations. They “theorized” — perhaps with the aid of Dionysus — that this land existed above the north wind, and thus was pleasant in climate if you survived the curtain of murderous cold that surrounded it. The land was, furthermore, once populated by advanced beings known as the Hyperboreans who, being lucky enough to live in such an awesome world, were basically gods. However, the toil of a perfect existence eventually wore them down, and out of boredom, the Hyperboreans drowned themselves.
In 330 B.C., someone actually did bother to set out for these mysterious northern lands. Greek astronomer Pytheus purportedly sailed north of the British Isles and discovered there a land he dubbed Thule, where during the Summer Solstice the sun did not set. Pytheas attempted to continue his harsh northward trek, but the ship was turned back by an impenetrable wall of what he referred to as “sea lungs.” Fantastic at the time, we can today understand the basic truths behind Pytheas’ accounts. Thule could be any of the lands north of Britain: The Shetlands, the coasts of assorted Scandanavian countries. Non-setting suns in these regions at certain times of the year are understood and accounted for. And sea lungs are, more than likely, massive icebergs and floes.
Long after Pytheas journey to the north, more and more stories began to filter down, often from early British and Norse sailors. These stories, given the average ancient sailor’s taste for embellishment, became increasingly fanciful. Aside from the ancient Greek idea of a lush tropical paradise beyond the curtain of cold, these early explorers added pygmies and various monsters to the mix. In the late 1500s, England mounted official expeditions to the region, largely in hopes of laying claim to it as part of the empire. It was even claimed that King Arthur, the quasi-mythical father of what was then modern England, mounted expeditions to the arctic regions. The early Elizabethan efforts, while both brave and groundbreaking, did little to advance the cause of the northernmost world being within England’s sphere of influence. It turns out that the chief problem with exploring the Arctic is that most of the people who try it die of starvation and exposure, provided they aren’t frozen or drowned when their ships hits an iceberg. Or they simply go mad when they find their ships iced in and unable to free themselves. Despite all that, it was during this era that England established tenuous toeholds in places as far north as the Baffin Islands.
Exploration picked up again in the 1800s. This time it was ignited by stories of a navigable “northwest passage,” a sailing route clear of ice than would allow ships to sail over the top of the world, thus saving untold months that had to be spent sailing around the giant continents that got in the way of easy cruising between, say, England and India. This time, they weren’t just shooting for the arctic regions; they were aiming for the very Pole itself. Not surprisingly, a science fiction writer beat them to it. Although little of it made it into subsequent — and more familiar — film versions, Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein, is concerned at least partially with an ill-fated arctic expedition, the captain of which seems bitterly and ironically disappointed that there isn’t any mystical tropical paradise to greet them at journey’s end. There is, instead, only more and harsher cold. It is on this expedition that they encounter another ill-fated arctic traveler, Victor Von Frankenstein, traveling with his now infamous creature. While most film versions of the story concern themselves purely with the creation of the monster in Frankenstein’s Jacob’s Ladder-strewn laboratory, and the eventual destruction of the creature by torch-wielding peasants storming the castle, the book actually ends with the creature escaping toward the North Pole, presumably going there to die.
Exploiting the fervor over dramatic leaps in exploring the world during the 1800s and relying on the old myths and legends, the science fiction and pulp writers of the era began cranking out a number of stories about the discovery of strange lands at the top and bottom of the world. Most of these fell within the realm of what we can today classify as “lost worlds” literature. As the remote corners of the earth became less remote, new discoveries of ancient civilizations were happening with stunning rapidity. Most dramatic among these was the excavation of ancient Egyptian sites, but similar excavations and scientific expeditions were taking place everywhere from the heart of the Amazon Jungle to the steppes of Mongolia. Scientists were having a field day, and so too were the writers of fantastic fiction. In 1838, Edgar Allan Poe entered into the game with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a fictionalized account of a man’s incredible adventure at the South Pole and of the mysterious creatures he encountered. Incredibly, the story was thought for a time to be a work of non-fiction.
When explorers finally did penetrate the top of the world, thus dispelling any myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth, it did little to dispel myths about tropical islands or gigantic holes leading to an advanced society of learned elders who dwelt inside the earth. H.P. Lovecraft wrote a pseudo-sequel to Poe’s work, entitled At the Mountain of Madness, which proffers the hole into which Pym fell into lead to a land populated by his now famous shoggoths. A group of German mystics founded something called the Thule Society in 1912, combining the more or less believable accounts of Pyhtean’s voyage north with the more fantastical old belief in the Hyperboreans, then layering on top of that a healthy dose of master race B.S. and anti-Semitism. According to the Thule Society, Thule wasn’t just a name for some existing northern land before such places had names known to Greeks. It was, in fact, an actual island, one populated by the super-advanced Hyperboreans who, like the Atlanteans (and the Muu-ians, and the Lemorians, and presumably the Seatopians), perished when their island paradise sank into the sea. However, a few Hyperboreans escaped and became the German race, condemned to live out their lives on the European mainland amid all the Jews and other inferior races who wore pants and stuff, instead of the silver lame mini-tunics with golden shoulder pads and tiaras, which is what I assume all super-advanced inhabitants of lost continents wore. The Thule Society eventually went on to be a Nazi farm team, and no one in the Thule Society’s Nazi wing ever addressed the fact that while the Jews may have been inferior, at least their continent never sank into the sea.
You would think that something as daft and racist as the Thule Society would have finally put the “mystic arctic” theories to rest. But then, you’d be underestimating the strong desire of people to believe really ridiculous shit. In fact, post World War II, theories about secret paradises above the Arctic Circle enjoyed a resurgence, with the claim now added that the North Pole was a base for UFOs piloted not by space aliens with an affinity for anally probing Midwestern farmers, but by Nazis who had escaped after Word War II and rediscovered ancient Hyperborean technology, allowing them to build experimental flying saucers to be used when the Fourth Reich rose up and conquered the world. Once again, pulp writers had a field day. These days, despite the fact that commercial flights pass over it and young women ski across it, and rich people drink champagne and go there on giant Russian ships to look at polar bears, conspiracy theories about secret UFO bases, gateways to the hollow earth, and lush tropical paradises at the North Pole still enjoy a surprising degree of popularity, with all the evidence to the contrary dismissed as “a government cover-up.” Such theories were lent further fuel when, in 2004, researchers began digging up fossil evidence that at some point (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of years ago) the Arctic enjoyed a subtropical climate. That this would have been long before the dawn of man is of little consequence, the Hyperboreans of course being a totally different race. Unfortunately, arctic researchers have turned up little more than the fossilized remnants of plants. To date, they have found no ray guns, UFOs, or silver lame mini-tunics — that they’ve told us about.
Amid all of this (1922, to be exact), Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story The Land that Time Forgot. And many years later, a nearly bankrupt Amicus Productions sent Doug McClure to the fantastic tropical lost world of Caprona, where he and the combined German and British crew soon discover the land is positively crawling with dinosaurs — and dinosaurs from various epochs. They also discover cavemen who, like the dinosaurs, seem to be in varied states of evolutionary advancement. Through her incredible ability to interpret caveman grunts and chest slapping, as well as her ability to look through a microscope with von Schoenvorts, Lisa is able to divine the mysteries of Caprona. It seems that evolution in this lost world occurs not over a period of millennia, but within the span of a single lifetime, with great evolutionary leaps being taken as part of a mysterious metamorphosis. The further south one travels, the more advanced the humans become. While Lisa and von Schoenvorts are fascinated by this biological phenomenon, and while Doug McClure seems happy to pal around with a caveman and shoot dinosaurs, most of the sailors on both sides are keen to get the hell out of Caprona so they can stop being eaten by dinosaurs and return to the safety and luxury of World War One. When they discover crude oil, they discover the means of their escape. However, like all lost worlds, this one is menaced by a restless volcano that could blow at any minute.
As with Kevin Connor’s other adventures based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land that Time Forgot is low-budget and crammed with tons of really awful special effects. In 1925, Harry Hoyt and Marion Fairfax’s silent film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World became the first “lost world” movie, and it was said at the time that the special effects work of Willis O’Brien (who would later go on to do the effects for the original King Kong) were so good that audiences would be completely fooled into thinking the film was a documentary with actual footage of living dinosaurs. I don’t know how many people did believe the dinosaurs were real, but it’s safe to say that the effects in 1925 were far better than the effects we see in 1975. The effects in The Land that Time Forgot aren’t quite as bad as, say, Mighty Gorga, but they are pretty bad.
On the other hand, they are also colorful and hypnotic. As a kid, I was fascinated by them and not phased by how shoddy they were. As an adult, I still think they are fun. Plus, what the movie lacks in quality it more than makes up for in quantity. Once the u-boat arrives in Caprona, all vestiges of the rather serious World War One maritime adventure vanish, and the dinosaur and caveman attacks come more or less non-stop. As McClure and his buddies venture further and further south, the evolutionary mysteries of the lost world become even more puzzling. So do the geographical mysteries, because although it is assumed that they have hiked days away from the lake that is their base, everyone seems to be able to jog back to the submarine within a matter of minutes.
The cast, comprised mostly of professional British stalwarts, is solid. McClure turns in his usual performance, but that’s really all I ever want from him. Yet again, he’s a regular Joe who runs up against the fantastic and deals with it mostly by punching it in the face. Some people don’t care for McClure’s style. I’m not among those people, but even if I was, I’d have to admit that his final “we are so fucked” expression as he watched the submarine disappear is incredible. Connor’s direction is, also, about the same as always, meaning that he correctly positions the camera and shoots his scenes, but never adds very much character to the film. I sort of prefer that style of direction to the overbearingly tricky “look at me and how clever I am” style of self-indulgent direction we see today. Connor recognizes that his movie is colorful and full of crude rubber dinosaur, and you don’t add much to the formula by zooming the camera around and doing lots of crazy editing.
Although I’m sure this film benefits in some degree from my own nostalgia regarding it, the end result is the same. I really like it. It’s one of those rainy Saturday afternoon matinee films that seeks to do little more than entertain you. Aside from plenty of fun dinosaur and caveman adventure, The Land that Time Forgot offers up really one of the most downbeat and apocalyptic endings of any movie aimed at kids. As McClure tries to rescue Lisa from a band of slightly more advanced cavemen (naturally they kidnapped her), the volcano erupts (also naturally). As they struggle to make it back to the submarine, the truce between the Germans and the Brits finally starts to break down. Von Schoenvorts, the sentimentalist, wants to wait for McClure and Lisa. His first mate, a realist, wants to leave before it’s too late. In the end, no one wins, as pretty much everyone guns down everyone else, and the cave collapses, crushing the submarine and the few in it who were still alive. McClure and Lisa are stranded in Caprona, with nothing to do except follow the land’s mysteries ever further south, until at last they reach what is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world. There, they toss a message in a bottle into the raging Antarctic seas, hoping against all hope that someone, someday, will find it, believe it, and come rescue them.
And unfortunately, someone did.
Release Year: 1975 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Doug McClure, John McEnery, Susan Penhaligon, Keith Barron, Anthony Ainley, Godfrey James, Bobby Parr, Declan Mulholland, Colin Farrell, Ben Howard, Roy Holder | Writer: James Cawthorn, Michael Moorcock | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematographer: Alan Hume | Music: Douglas Gamley
After taking several years off, the 1950s saw the return of the pirate movie, thanks largely to the efforts of Walt Disney. In 1950, Disney produced a colorful, fast-paced, and smartly written adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale, Treasure Island. Two non-Disney sequels — the directly related yet immensely boring Long John Silver and the dubiously connected Return to Treasure Island — followed in 1954, and a TV series came out in 1955. Plus, it seemed like every other episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” featured either pirates or kids in coonskin caps solving a mystery in a spot called Pirate’s Cove. Along similar lines, Disney released a classic version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1958, the first of the Sinbad films featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen showed up. While these last two weren’t pirate movies per se, they still had the air of old fashioned high seas adventure and swashbuckling about them.
So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
There are a lot of times when I don’t remember a movie (sometimes mere hours after watching it), but I remember a particular scene or vague theme from the movie. This has come up several times before. For instance, before I rewatched it, all I could remember about Treasure of the Four Crowns was the scene where fireballs on ridiculously visible wires were flying around. With Sword and the Sorcerer, even though I watched that movie about seven billion times when I was ten years old, all I could remember was “guy falls into room of naked women” and “guy makes witch’s chest explode, then catches her heart.” Although there were many times when I remembered both the scene and the title of the movie in which it appeared, there are many other times when I have no recollection at all of the film’s title. It is in these instances that the Internet has proven to finally be worth all the trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of social and technological evolution finally lead to the moment when I can look up “screaming banshee on moors” and find out in which movie it appears.
That movie was, of course, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I thought it was Cry of the Banshee, but when I rewatched that film, I found that it contained no screaming banshee on the moors, or any banshee of any type for that matter. Luckily, the internet was there for me. And it was there for me again, very recently, when I was trying to remember the title of a movie about which all I could recall was, “frog man in center of hedge maze.” Actually, I remembered one other scene, which was of a woman looking out a dusty window and seeing some creepy guy in a cape dashing across the moonlit lawn, but it turns out that was a bizarre combination of a bit from The Maze combined with a bit from, I’ve been told, Munsters Go Home.
This time, the movie was The Maze, and when I finally tracked it down (because even if something isn’t in print, the internet also helps you find old copies), I discovered two ways in which my memory was faulty. First, of course, was the fact that I couldn’t remember the title of the movie I’d seen. Second, it turns out I’d never seen the movie. Yet still the concept “frog man in center of hedge maze” haunted me. It turns out that, when I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me the plot of this movie as a spooky bedtime story. Granted, stories about murderous frog men lurking in the center of a hedge maze may seem like a strange bedtime story, but I was a strange kid, and anyway, children’s bedtime stories used to be all full of cannibalism and witches and trolls who steal the fingernails of naughty little boys and girls who don’t eat their stinky boiled kale. In comparison to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, regaling me with the adventures of a man-frog in a hedge maze is small potatoes. But it did result in me spending most of my life thinking I’d seen the movie — which, as I explained, I discovered to be untrue once I actually did watch it. It also fueled, or so my theory goes, by continuing obsession with hedge mazes, especially hedge mazes that are occupied by weird magical creatures and monsters. Preferably sexy, naked nymphs and such, because if I have to be murdered by a charming but malicious magical being, I’d much rather it be a sexy flying girl with pointy ears and no clothes than a lurching man-frog in a threadbare suit or a shirtless guy with goat legs and a fondness for Zamfir records.
While I was disappointed in the subjectivity of my memory — what other grand adventures are merely lies I told myself so many times that even I started to believe them — I was happy to have this movie on hand to watch for the first time, even if the big reveal of the ghoulish dark family secret was already known to me. In fact, knowing the shock ending ahead of time is probably or th better. If you went into this film with some degree of anticipation, after all, the big reveal would be something of a letdown, to say the least. Conversely, if you go into a movie knowing little about it other than “frog man in center of hedge maze,” it’s much easier to be pleasantly surprised by the bulk of the film and pleasantly amused by the shoddiness of the nightmarish man in a monster suit waiting for you at the center of the labyrinth.
The Maze is a film tailor-made to appeal to me. It has a gloomy castle, gratuitous fog, a hedge maze, a cute woman in a bullet bra, creepy butlers, secret passages, and a “jolly good, old chap” kind of guy who smokes a pipe and enjoys motoring through the countryside whilst wearing his Harris tweed. And, of course, it’s got the man-frog. It’s black and white, and since it’s the sort of movie that is unlikely to ever be lovingly restored — that exhaustive process being restricted to classic works of art like Caligula and Zombie Lake — it remains available primarily in grainy, murky bootleg copies. Now, I’ve never been a quality freak, especially for old films. For newer ones, yeah sure. I want them looking the way they’re supposed to, at the correct aspect ration, in the correct language, with all the scenes intact. But for a lot of old films, I kind of like seeing them all grainy and beat up, with the dust specks and the random missing frames and that greatest of old film friends, the stray piece of hair. Not that I would turn down a proper copy of The Maze, or of any old film, but having a pristine and remastered version doesn’t mean that I’ll be willing to get rid of my crappy old copy. What I would like to see is a copy of The Maze that restores the film to its full 3D glory, even though from what I can judge, the 3D would be pretty lackluster, unless you are really excited by gratuitous “bat flies at the camera” 3D effects.
Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) is about to married to his lovely fiancee, Kitty (Veronica Hurst), and to celebrate they are frolicking in some sun-kissed paradise with, for some reason, Kitty’s dry-witted aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). Fun in the sun is interrupted when Gerald gets an urgent telegram from his uncle. It turns out that Gerald has a family castle in the highlands of Scotland, and all sorts of weird things happen in it. As a boy, Gerald remembers being locked in his room at night whenever he and his family visited the castle, and that there was a massive hedge maze into which no one was ever allowed. He departs to tend to whatever emergency his uncle has been contacted about, but Kitty and Edith become increasingly worried when they receive no word from him. When a letter does arrive, it only distresses them more. Gerald calls off the wedding, breaks his engagement to Kitty, and forbids them from ever visiting or contacting him again. Kitty is understandably perplexed, and rather than merely accept Gerald bizarre, out of the blue proclamation, she and Edith pack up and head for Scotland to see what’s up at the ominously named Craven Castle.
Gerald is, needless to say, distressed by their sudden arrival, just as they are distressed by the fact that his hair has turned white and he seems to have aged considerably. He is adamant that they must leave immediately, but Kitty keeps devising excuses to stick around until she has figured out what the heck is going on and why Gerald has suddenly become so hostile and elusive. Clues begin to prevent themselves later that very night, when they hear Gerald and his two servants dragging something out of the off-limits guard tower and into the maze. Kitty discovers a secret passage in her room that leads to a long-forgotten room with a window (most of the windows in the castle have long since been bricked up) and observes the men hauling something into the maze. On the second night, Edith fakes out Gerald and leaves her room before it is locked for the night. While exploring the castle, she stumbles across…some hideous thing…that scurries from her view an disappears into the shadows before she can get a proper look at it. This tears it for Gerald, who insists that they get lost. Kitty counters by arranging to have a group of their friends show up, hoping that familiar faces and friendship will snap Gerald out of his funk and force him to come clean about the mysterious shenanigans. Her scheme almost works. Gerald even smiles at some point. But then it all goes horribly wrong. Everything comes to a head that night, and the horrible truth is revealed.
The Maze depends heavily on atmosphere. For the bulk of the movie, very little actually happens. Small tidbits are thrown the viewer’s way to keep them interested — a fleeting glimpse of a glistening creature, a weird webbed footprint, the frequent foreboding stares of the butlers — but if this sort of movie isn’t your thing, it’s going to bore you pretty quickly. Lucky for me, this sort of movie is my thing, and I found the whole thing engrossing. Richard Carlson, who already had a long list of credits, including at least one other Scotland-based horror tale (an episode of Lights Out entitled “The Devil in Glencairn”), does a wonderful job of transforming Gerald from happy-go-lucky regular guy to world-weary crank, and he does so in a manner that makes you both sympathetic (you know he bears some horrible family secret) and irritated (why won’t he just trust someone?). But then, I guess I’ve never had a giant frog for a great great great great uncle, so who am I to judge? I do, however, have an uncle who refuses to put his teeth in, and I don’t think it’s an entirely dissimilar circumstance.
Veronica Hurst, aside from being gorgeous, also does fairly well with a character who stays within the realistic bounds of femininity at the time (oh for the days women investigated unspeakable horrors whilst dressed in a shimmering cocktail dress and heels) but also emerges as strong-willed and determined in her unwillingness to simply let Gerald be a spooky jerk. That said, she may be one of the worst amateur sleuths in the history of amateur sleuthing. Although she constantly foils Gerald’s plans to send her and Edith away, nothing ever really comes of the time she buys herself. Edith, for that matter, is set up as sort of the stolid voice of reason, but her sneaking about never bears much fruit, either. It gets to be frustrating at points, and even though both women are fairly well portrayed for the time, one can’t help but with there was a bit more of the modern in them, thus allowing Kitty to grab Gerald by his tweed lapels and knock some sense into him. I mean, he has a dark spooky family secret, but it’s not that dark or spooky. Kitty sort of stand sup to him by defying his orders to skedaddle, but it would have been nice to see her actually confront the guy and not let him glower and frown his way out of it.
The supporting cast,lead by Katherine Emery as Edith and Michael Pate as William the butler, is also excellent. With the exception of Veronica Hurst, who was only in her very early twenties at the time, The Maze is yet another in a long line of classic examples of how a film can be lent an added air of gravity and importance by filling the cast with actual adults rather than teenagers. These are all experienced players, and they handle the film with dedication, so much so that when the final reveal of the creature proves to be somewhat comical both by today’s standards as well as, I would assume, the standards of the time, it hardly matters. They sell it regardless, and after the initial guffaw at the sight of this man-frog, The Maze makes it really easy to get over creature design short-comings. It helps that the creature is only on screen for a brief moment, but what helps more is that the entire cast sells the tragedy of the situation.
There is also some attempt to justify scientifically the appearance of the creature, who it turns out, is a horribly deformed member of the MacTeam family. Kitty discovers Gerald reading a book about human deformation, and Gerald explains that the human fetus goes through many stages of evolution before obtaining its final form, including one that is amphibian in nature. As with most horror film science, the end result is somewhat dubious but wholly believable within the confines of the film’s reality. Once again, this is the product of a cast that is committed to selling the plot of the film, even at its most outlandish moments.
Complimenting and, usually, overpowering the cast is the cinematography, production design, and director. William Cameron Menzies isn’t exactly a well-known name among modern horror fans, but he directed a number of early horror efforts, including 1931’s The Spider and 1932’s Chandu the Magician, both films that drew heavily upon the world of magic and illusionists, as well as 1936’s Things to Come (based on the predictions of H.G. Wells) and 1940’s The Thief of Baghdad. However, what’s probably more important to the success of The Maze is his long career and vast experience as a production designer and art director. In this role, Menzies is perhaps better known. His experience in this field reaches as far back as 1918 and includes a whole slew of famous films such as the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdhad, Pride of the Yankees, and in 1939, a little something called Gone with the Wind. A couple Oscars and a few other assorted awards later, he found himself directing The Maze, as well as serving as the film’s art and production designer. These multiple roles make it possible to say that the movie is, every step of the way, the director’s vision. It also means that the guy responsible for the burning of Atlanta sequence is also the guy responsible for the man-frog in this film. Menzies was no stranger to horror of science fiction, having previously directed the sci-fi cult classic Invaders from Mars. Although the direction itself in The Maze is best characterized as “blandly competent,” the unassuming nature of the direction allows the mood to take center stage.
And that’s a wise decision, since it’s the film’s strongest character and was obviously the aspect in which Menzies was more interested. We barely get a glimpse of Craven Castle (obviously because of budgetary concerns — this is a low budget film, after all), but when we do, it is all twisted brambles and gnarled trees. When Kitty and Edith first arrive, the moors are awash in fog. Everything inside the castle is shadows and gloom. Even when sets aren’t draped in moroseness and cobwebs, it feels like they are. When the atmosphere takes front stage, the film is very effective. When it relies on the script, it is decidedly less so. And even within Menzies’ otherwise acceptable if pedestrian directing style, there are a number of curious decisions. Most noticeable is the bizarre set-up during narration sequences featuring Katherine Emery, which are framed so that she is visible from the chin up at the very bottom of the screen, with the rest of the frame filled with nondescript ceiling and room. If I had to guess, I would say this was not an artistic decision, but was rather the product of a camera being improperly positioned and there not being enough time, money, or interest in reshooting these sequences. Still, these are minor gaffes in comparison to the film’s biggest misstep, which is promising a horrible monster terrifying beyond all belief and then delivering…well, you know by now.
Augie Lohman was the special effects supervisor, so one has to assume that blame for the appearance of The Maze‘s signature monster should be pinned on him — though Menzies ultimately made the decision to go with the creation. Judging by his long list of credits, which includes special effects for everything from John Huston’s Moby Dick to Barbarella, one has to assume that Lohman was good at what he did. But The Maze represents his first real foray into the realm of the fantastic, having previously worked on adventure and crime films. I don’t know if it was his relative inexperience (hard to believe since three years later he was working magic in Moby Dick), or a function of time and money that resulted in the final product. To some degree, he was hamstrung by the story. The Maze was based on a novel by Maurice Sandoz, so the nature of the beast as already set. I would imagine that even the most adept effects man in the early 1950s would have a hard time when saddled with the assignment “make me a man-frog!” Modern effects technology could probably dream up something more effective, but then, modern scripting would probably ditch the idea of a frog entirely and go with something more legitimately terrifying, like a boll weevil or a marmoset. So maybe Lohman was just faced with an impossible task and did the best he could.
Which, in all honesty, was pretty bad. If you didn’t know ahead of time that the monster was going to be a colossal let-down, then that first reveal, when Kitty stumbled upon the creature while wandering desperately through the maze, would pretty much undo all the hard work the atmosphere of dread put into the rest of the film. To make matters worse, rather than walking upright like a man, the frog creature is down on all fours — which might have worked it the suit was designed to better mimic a four-legged creature. Instead, it’s designed in the same way that the Anguilas costume from the Godzilla movies was designed, meaning that the hind legs are bent because the guy in the suit is just crawling around. And as if that wasn’t enough, it seems like even the makers of The Maze couldn’t justify trying to pass off a frog’s “ribbit” as a terrifying noise and so instead rely on…elephant noises? Huh. How about that? The end effect is singularly laughable.
On the scale of scary animals, frogs have to be at the bottom of the list. I mean, maybe even lower than giant killer bunnies. Sure, some people think frogs are “icky,” and like me, many of you know from first-hand knowledge that if you catch one, they are going to defend themselves by peeing on your hand, but other than that, the number of people genuinely terrified by frogs must be very small and limited to a few women who had bad experiences as girls with naughty little country boys dropping frogs down the back of their dress (not that I ever did that to anyone), and members of various Amazonian tribes who have to deal with those frogs that are the size of a fingernail but will cause you to die an agonizing and certain death by poison if you touch them. Oh, and maybe Spider-Man, who I think once tackled a dastardly frog guy. Even the Australians, who have come as close to anyone to doing actual real world combat against giant frogs, consider them a nuisance more than a nightmare of hell that will cause a woman to hold her left hand up in front of her face while biting the knuckles on her right. I mean, sure. If I was out at night, wandering through the hedge maze of a spooky Scottish castle, and I stumbled upon a gigantic frog, I’m sure I’d be taken aback, perhaps even a little startled. But once the initial shock wears off, and provided he doesn’t shoot a gigantic sticky tongue out at me, I think I’d recover fairly quickly and go into “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” mode — which is a mode I go into with disturbing frequency.
It should be noted, however, that the above statement is only suitable for instances in which you encounter an actual giant frog in a hedge maze or a haunted cove. Saying “I say, that’s a tremendously large frog you have there, old chap” whilst in a gym locker room or standing at the urinals lends the phrase an entirely different and perhaps controversial air.
In the end, though, the monster is played more for tragedy than terror, so if you know in advance that the build-up is let down by what’s being built up to, you can relax and enjoy the rest of the movie, have you chuckle at the sight of the monster when it finally shows up, then move on with very little harm done. There have certainly been sillier looking monsters (Giant Claw, I’m looking in your direction), but few that are surrounded by as much somber atmosphere and seriousness.
I have a tremendous affinity for this film, even though I think when my mom told it to me as a bedtime story, she changed things up a bit. Because I’m pretty sure in my version of the movie, the man-frog lived in the center of the maze (in actuality, he lives in the locked guard tower and is carried tot he maze at night so he can swim in the pond in its center) and the dragging and scraping sounds were made by the servants dragging some poor chump out to the maze to be eaten alive (the reality in the movie being that the monster never actually kills anyone, though one maid dies of fright upon seeing it). But still, after setting the record straight in my own mind, I still think The Maze is an enjoyable, if somewhat silly, film that boasts some tremendous mood and a hearty chuckle. The script does tend to run in place for too long — Kitty diligently investigates the situation but never makes any real progress — but I have a pretty high tolerance for films comprised mostly of well-dressed people sitting in comfortable chairs, sipping scotch and pondering things. I didn’t find The Maze to be boring even when it was biding its time, and I think the build-up is quite nice even if the pay-off is more side-splitting than horrifying. Screenwriter Daniel Ullman, who worked mostly in television but also wrote the screenplay for Mysterious Island (where his script is once again upstaged by production design and special effects), redeems himself int he film’s final moments, which actually succeed in making you feel sorry for our doomed man-frog beastie, but the bulk of The Maze, be warned, is people sitting in chairs discussing things that should be resolved much quicker than they are.
So I reckon if you are looking for a great monster and cracking good dialog, you’re probably better off elsewhere. But I found a lot to like in The Maze, even if my mom’s version of the movie was better, and I would gladly wander through it again…even knowing what’s waiting in the center for me.
Release Year: 1953 | Country: United States | Starring: Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lillian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes | Writer: Daniel Ullman | Director: William Cameron Menzies | Cinematographer: Harry Neumann and William Menzies | Music: Marlin Skiles