Generally speaking, Dinosaurs make everything better. However, when you get down to the specifics, you’ll likely find “better” often translates out to “better than nothing” or “not complete shit.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, is usually blamed for hammering out the Dinosaur Adventure template with his 1912 novel The Lost World. Principally remembered today as an on-the-job training ground for budding special effects wizard Willis O’Brien, 1925’s Lost World movie was extremely popular as a whole, opening whole new markets up to subsequent “fantasy adventure” pictures and the giant monster movies they eventually spawned.
There’s a reason most film geeks skip directly from that Lost World to King Kong and onward to Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The twenty years in between Kong and Beast were a sorry time for all the interesting genres. Horror fell into a vicious “self-parody = $$$ = self-parody without self-awareness” cycle my fellow survivors of the 1990s should instantly recognize. Sci-fi, barely out of infancy, got relegated to before-the-feature serials until the Space and Atomic Ages stole the American imagination away from the Old West. There were no “Action Movies” as we know them today. Westerns covered most of that territory, but whole swaths of what we’d now call “Action” or “Thrillers” were categorized under the catch-all term “Adventure.”
Like most film nomenclature, the term’s inaccurate and often dangerously misleading. Most “Adventures” follow a plot so standardized and predictable even audiences from the 1940s could recognize it from the next town over. Blindfolded. In the dark. Unknown Island is a perfectly awful example of that, the best reason in the world to love King Kong even more than you already do. Because as problematic as some of the things in Kong might be, at least they aren’t boring. And, generally speaking, Willis O’Brien makes everything better.
There’s no O’Brien here; he was busy doing the work on Mighty Joe Young that would eventually (finally!) win him an Oscar…and schooling a young padawan learner named Ray Harryhausen. Besides, this is no RKO picture. Unknown Island comes to us from a company called Film Classics, the long-since-defunct distributor of such “classic” films as Jungle Woman, The Hairy Ape and my personal favorite, White Savage.
Favorite because it could accurately describe most of the characters that appear in these films, including Unknown Island. We meet them all in the fifteen minute long meet-and-greet barroom scene that frontloads tonight’s feature. At the All Nations Cafe in Shanghai, two well-dressed Americans – Ted Osborne (Phillip Reed) and his fiancee, Carole Lane (Virginia Grey) – contact the boisterous, always-up-for-a-brawl Captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane). Our “Happy” Couple hopes Tarnowski and his ship – both internationally (?) famous for transporting wild animals – will carry them to the titular Island. Ted flew over it back in The War and managed to snap a hilarious picture of what looks like a dinosaur…if said dinosaur were roughly sketched onto a Polaroid in gray crayon. By a kindergartener. In the dark. With Carole’s money and his own, obvious photography skills, Ted hopes to show the world dinosaurs still roam somewhere…and slam a mountain of photos down in front of anyone who cries “foul.”
By astonishing (and convenient) coincidence, Tarnowski already knows which island Ted and Carole seek. Months before, Tarnowski’s crew picked up a sack of “skin and bones” named John Fairbanks (future star of Creature from the Black Lagoon, among many others, Richard Denning) floating on a raft, babbling about an island full of monsters that ate the rest of his shipmates. Since returning to civilization, Fairbanks hasn’t left the bottle he crawled into…though its heavily implied Cap’n Tarnowski helped him in there because babbling drunks amuse the Cap’n in that annoying way you have to be drunk, yourself, to fully appreciate.
At this point, I was honestly appreciating the film despite a creeping sensation Unknown Island was what we’d now call someone’s “gritty, realistic” answer to King Kong. Instead of hearing the Expedition’s Head recount how he hired a boat and convinced its Captain to sail into uncharted waters, we see the hiring take place. Instead of a virtuous, worldly, multilingual leader like the Venture’s Captain Englehorn, Tarnowski is an unrepentant pig, only agreeing to this crazy voyage so he can steal Carole away from the one that brung her (he hopes – rather foolishly). The Island may be Unknown, but it’s far from uncharted in a post-World War II world, after a minimum two Navies spent years combing the Pacific for each other and every island in between. Instead of a lemon in a cap and buttoned-down shirt, like Original Recipe Jack Driscoll, Tarnowski’s First Mate, Sanderson (Dick Wessel), is exactly the kind of XO you want – a level-headed Voice of Reason who takes none of the Cap’n’s shit, repeatedly calling him on the hubris that inevitably brings down his doom.
And instead of an obvious author avatar, like Original Recipe Carl Denham, Unknown Island‘s hero is a dry drunk fighting his way through what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s not much of a fight, since the film’s much more concerned with moving Fairbanks into a heroic role than it is exploring his Robinson Crusoe–ish return to “civilized” life. So, in the space of a cut (that gets us most of the way to the Island), Fairbanks has shaved, dried out, and become capable of holding conversations. The better to be the Voice of Reason no one listens to until its too late, of course. Because Adventure Formula dictates we need at least one of those. Might as well be our Designated Hero, since that worked so well for Original Recipe King Kong…and turning most of the cast into them went a long way towards fleshing out the expendable Dead Meat in 2005’s Extra Crispy King Kong remake.
By the time everyone got to the Island I was actively wondering, When did Peter Jackson seen this film? If he saw it’s not even a question – any capsule description makes its seem like something that’d be right up both our alleys. I’m not saying he ripped anything off, but the tone of this picture and his Kong are startlingly similar. Both seem to believe being “realistic” means “making every character a self-interested, short-sighted asshole who refuses what few opportunities for change they see.” No matter how many people might behave that way in real life, inserting such people into fiction will almost always hamstring the drama. Because such people are horrible, I can dismiss them out of hand and start praying for their deaths…even before their bad decision making leads to the deaths of others.
Like Ted, whose bad decision making led to this whole expedition. He spends the movie going on and on about his “pictures” and how they’ll prove Dinosaur Island exists to…someone…somewhere. Is he a Scientist? Reporter? Idle Rich Person? We never know, meaning we never know what he plans to do when/if he escapes all this. His whole character’s vague to the point of invisibility because the movie designates Ted as The Third Wheel from the moment Tarnowski finds out Carole’s paying the bills for this trip. The lingering pause after this fact’s announced emasculates Ted as efficiently as a CutCo knife. The remaining hour of movie’s devoted to underlining this point, drawing circles around it, and big red arrows, pointing to the circles. All so we’ll be okay with Fairbanks cozying up to Carole by picture’s end. As if naming him after the most famous leading man of the Silent Era (who was less than ten years dead at the time) weren’t enough to ensure that. Ted might as well become a eunuch in the women’s section of a Mughal palace, because I can’t think of another job he’s qualified for. Photographer for the Daily Bugle, maybe. J.J. will pay anybody.
What about Carole? Is the money all her’s? If so, how’d she get it? What the hell does she do when she’s not staring off at the blank space where dinosaurs will be composited into the shot latter? Or is she funding her boyfriend’s post-war dream with family money? What breed of madness convinced her to underwrite this madness in the first place?
Never mind, says the film. We’ve got an “island” to explore – 90% of which is the usual collection of jungle sets you’ll find in B-movies all the way up to late-60s. The rest comes from location shots of Southern California scrub desert, which fill in for the island’s “barren” patch, where the carnivores gather. Human interaction with the prehistoric monsters is nearly impossible under the circumstances, most often achieved by cutting from Our Humans at the edge of their set to the incredibly awkward, unbelievably stiff, and detestably ugly puppets who play our dinosaurs. The kind of puppets that make the papier-mâché things modern protesters love so much look both scary and professional.
The Dimetrodon puppet’s the worst. Since its legs were never designed to move (and jut, stiff and immobile, from its obviously rubber sides) some poor grip, who probably had to squat for hours at a time, pulls the thing along the ground on wires like a caveman dragging a date home. Next to that, the T-rexes are almost convincing…until they move. Or attempt to move, at any rate. One step and I stop thinking about the plight of our hapless adventurers (yeah, right) and focus on the plight of the poor bastard in that over-sized suit. Having to climb inside such a contraption would be bad enough, but to do it outside? In the day? On the edge of the Mojave? I’m dehydrating just thinking about it.
So while I salute the hard work involved, I’m sad to report it was all wasted. Especially the cast, most of whom are way too good for this material. Except Phillip Reed. If he were playing a better character I’d categorically declare “he sucks,” but Reed’s even more aware of how paper-thin Ted Osborne is than I am. Look into his eyes and face an actor completely lost, with nothing to do but act off those around him and try not to grimace too obviously as he spouts groan-inducing lines. Like, “Men have always been killed in the interests of Science.” Yeah, Ted…but that’s generally a Bad Thing. When Carole actually utters the line, “I feel like we’re being watched,” Ted actually responds with “It’s just your imagination darling.” Dumbass! You’re on an island of dinosaurs! The one guy you know with prior Unknown Island experience just spent half-an-hour telling you how dangerous the damn place is. And you just watched a man get mauled by, not one, but two T-rexes. How could you imagine you aren’t being watched by a million hungry eyes? Probably the same way you can ignore the Cap’n’s lecherous designs on your fiance.
A drinking game keyed to all this film’s cliches could depopulate whole frat houses in an evening. One keyed to all the sexist bullshit (particularly the self-hating bullshit coming out of Carole’s mouth) could turn Women’s Studies departments into frat houses. One keyed to all the sailor jargon that sounds sexual when taken out of context (example: “Well, we might have a little blow…”) kept me from falling asleep. Absent the money for good (or even “passable”) effects, the entire weight of the film’s shifted onto its human melodrama…damnit. The few surprises that come up (like an attempted mutiny by Cap’n Tarnowski’s crew after they figure out where they’re going) are just as quickly swept away so we can get back to Richard Denning, Virginia Grey, and the eyes they’re making at each other. The only genuine surprises (other than the blood that shows up in our climactic battle between two prehistoric monsters) are (a) the movie doesn’t end on a climactic kiss and (b) the Third Wheel doesn’t die. Nor does he form a creepy, pedophilic, psychic bond with someone else at the last minute, so Twilight fans need not apply.
The rest is simple as it can be. Will the surly (and entirely ethnic) crew leave these dumb white people to the deaths they went halfway around the world to find for themselves? Will Cap’n Drunk McRapist betray everyone out of his own unenlightened self-interest? Will the man in the ape costume (legendary Western/man-in-ape-costume actor Ray “Crash” Corrigan) have a fight with one of the stiffly staggering tyranosaurs near the end of the picture? Indeed, yes – and it’ll take barely thirty seconds for the ape (credited only as a “monster,” because it’s not like this is some obvious King Kong rip-off or anything) to rip the dinosaur’s throat out.
That climactic battle’s about the only time this picture’s color came in handy, or justified what was surely this movie’s biggest expense. Before three-strip Technicolor dropped in price, there was Cinecolor: you load your camera with one strip of panchromatic (what we now think of as “normal”) film and one strip that’s dyed red. Shoot as normal. In the finished product, anything with a hint of red in it (but especially human flesh) will look beautifully true to life at the cost of pushing your greens toward True Black, as the foliage in this “jungle” shows. So when neon-red blood started decorating the end of the ape’s snout I perked up more than at any point in the previous hour and ten minutes. For a second, I thought I was watching an early Sam Raimi film. For a second, I thought I was watching something worth my time. Turns out that was just a passing fancy brought on by desperation. Or maybe “jungle fever.” Honestly, guys, I’m still not terribly clear on what “jungle fever” even is…
Whatever it might be, Unknown Island is a fever dream of wasted talent and potential. There’s nothing wrong with this set up – “civilized” people go to a wild place and get their asses handed to them – or the retrograde species of “twist” this movie offers by having all the “civilized” people hate, fear, despise, or just plain not like each other. You could do a lot with that set-up alone. Add dinosaurs and possibilities expand geometrically. But Unknown Island ignores most of those, the way it ignored what made Original Recipe King Kong such a success. It wasn’t just the dinosaurs, or the giant ape – it was the fact they interacted with human beings, adding scope and scale to what could’ve easily become a claustrophobic chamber drama coincidentally set outside, among dinosaurs.
If you’re a fan of that, or Richard Denning, or “Crash” Corrigan’s man-in-ape-suit work, Unknown Island will give you something to laugh at and/or be mystified by for seventy-two minutes. If not, skip forward to the next Lost World movie. Or you could just watch King Kong again. Even 1975’s (Italian Seasoned) King Kong is a better way to satisfy your craving for Adventure.
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