Brother, Can You Spare a Realistic T-Rex? – By Philip Smolen

As a kid in the 1960s, dinosaurs were just about the coolest things in the world to me, and they were a very important part of my childhood play time. I had dinosaur books (one had beautiful reproductions of the Charles R. Knight paintings), dinosaur comic books (DC’s “The War that Time Forgot” was my favorite), and, of course, plastic dinosaur toys. My particular modus operandi was for my dino toys to viciously attack my toy soldiers on my Lionel train set. It was perfect. There was always an earthquake type phenomenon that unleashed these hellish creatures on my band of plastic GIs. The monsters made short work of the layout by smashing buildings, eating people and causing massive O-scale property damage. But my soldiers would somehow survive, usually by developing a super weapon or by having a locomotive plow into the creatures “Addams Family” style. My mother used to get mad at me because I got so absorbed in my play that I would ignore her calls for dinner. Only one thing could ever get me to leave my favorite toys for a prolonged period. And that was a dinosaur movie.

I watched them all. From The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Godzilla vs. the Thing, I sought out every dinosaur film available. But even at a young age, I was struck by how some dinos looked more realistic than others. At age six I laughed my head off when the actors in King Dinosaur (1954) called the lethargic iguana a T-Rex! I used to scratch my head because I couldn’t figure out why some dinosaurs were real cool and others were rather dopey looking. But as I got older and started to research these beloved movies, I began to understand the processes that created them.  And just as my knowledge began to increase, dinosaur movies started to disappear from TV. They were replaced by repeated showings of cheap “psycho-type” horror films. I still thought about the dinosaur films though. I know that some of them had pretty rickety looking dinos, but most of them kept me happy. So here are five low budget dinosaur movies that you may find have redeeming qualities. They won’t win any awards and their monsters are mediocre, but they are part of the golden age of prehistoric films.

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1. UNKNOWN ISLAND (Film Classics, 1948) Director: Jack Bernhard

In a sleazy Singapore bar, photographer Ted Osborne (Philip Reed) and his fiancé Carol Lane (Virginia Grey) hire steamer Captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane) to take them to a remote island in the South Pacific. It seems that during the war Ted flew over this island and saw live dinosaurs roaming around. Tarnowski laughs at the idea, but he agrees to take them. He also decides to take along local drunk John Fairbanks (Richard Denning) who has also been to the island. He witnessed several of his friends being devoured by these monsters and has crawled into a bottle ever since. Once on the island, the intrepid group does find assorted dinosaurs including Dimetrodons, a Brontosaurus, several Ceratosaurs and a giant sloth (played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan). Far worse than the prehistoric creatures, though, is the monstrous behavior of Tarnowski who is clearly sexually interested in Carol. His drunken crude actions have cost several crewmen their lives. Can Osborne, Lane and Fairbanks survive all the dangers of this island and make it home alive?

During the 1960s, Unknown Island was one of the most frequently shown movies on television. It was filmed in the two-strip CineColor process and featured well known TV actors like Richard Denning and Barton MacLane. The plot is basically your standard jungle thriller with dinosaurs replacing the normal wild animals. All of the actors are decent, but top honors go to Barton MacLane as the villainous Tarnowski. MacLane is loud and sometimes overacts, but he does play a great slimy sea captain. Sometimes it seems that all MacLane needs is a needle mustache and a top hat (he does wear black throughout the film). As a child it was very satisfying to see him get his just deserts at the hands of the sloth. However, what really drags Unknown Island down are its monsters. The dinos are portrayed either by stiff looking models or by stunt men in very ill fitting costumes (created by effects veteran Ellis Burman). The Ceratosaurs are particularly pitiful. They walk stiffly and their mouths flap about unconvincingly. When they fight, they bump into one another and try to look menacing. To a modern audience Unknown Island is pretty lukewarm stuff, but when watched with the innocence of a child, it’s a pleasant enough time waster.

Quotable Movie Line:

“I have nothing to fear Mr. Fairbanks. After all they’ll be some men going as well.”

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2. GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (AKA GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER) (Toho/Warners 1955/1959) Director: Motoyoshi Oda

Koji (Minoru Chiaki) and Shoichi (Hiroshi Koizumi) are pilots for a Japanese fishing company. It’s their job to look for schools of fish for their company’s fleet. On a routine flight, Koji’s plane suffers engine trouble and he’s forced to land on a nearby mountainous island. Shoichi lands to pick him up and both men are stunned to see two giant prehistoric dinosaurs locked in a titanic battle. Once back in Japan, Shoichi and Koji tell the authorities that one of the monsters looked liked Godzilla. The scientists are stunned since Godzilla was obliterated the previous year by Dr. Serizawa’s oxygen destroyer. They quickly surmise that H-bomb radiation has created another Godzilla. The second monster is identified as Angilas and resembles an Ankylosaurus. Japan’s defense forces quickly prepare for another monster onslaught. But without Dr. Serizawa and his secret weapon, what can the scientists do to prevent annihilation? 

Of all the Toho Godzilla films, Godzilla Raids Again is the one that’s easily overlooked, but in some ways it’s an important entry in the series. As a young boy I always wondered “how could Godzilla come back when he was reduced to a skeleton?” This film provides the answers. While it was no great stretch to simply create another Godzilla, this at least provided some much needed continuity to the series. This was also the last black and white Godzilla film and the first in which he fought another giant monster. The battles between Godzilla and Angilas are much more subdued than any of the later film fights. There aren’t any of the outrageous wrestling type moves that were used later on. This film is actually quite somber like its predecessor. The photography is very dark as well which hides the shabbiness of the dinosaur costumes, but it also prevents you from enjoying some of Eji Tsuburaya’s miniatures. When released in the US in 1959, Warner Brothers deleted Masaru Sato’s excellent score and substituted music from other American sci-fi films. They didn’t even call Godzilla by his name (apparently they failed to get the rights). Overall, this is still a decent entry in the Godzilla series. While it’s not a first class Toho production, Godzilla Raids Again is a fun monster movie that delivers the “kaiju eiga” goods.

Quotable Movie Line:

“We killed Godzilla once before with the oxygen destroyer. That Godzilla is at the bottom of Tokyo Bay. All the information related to that invention is gone.”

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3. THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (United Artists, 1956) Director: Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodriguez

American rancher Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison) and partner Felipe Sanchez (Carlos Rivas) are losing some of their cattle. They feel that their rival Enrique Rios (Edward Noriega) is responsible. But the locals say that the cattle have been carried off by the Beast of Hollow Mountain, a horrible creature from earth’s prehistory. To make matters worse, Rios’s girlfriend Sarita (Patricia Medina) secretly loves Jimmy. When little Panchito (annoying Mario Navarro) goes off to the Hollow Mountain swamp to look for his father, Jimmy and Felipe discover that there is more to this local legend than just the tall tale. Jimmy and Felipe must use their wits to kill a cunning beast that is determined to snack on little Panchito (and anyone else it can find).

The Beast of Hollow Mountain is a sad coda in the career of stop motion legend Willis O’Brien. Legend has it that O’Brien sold his short story (that the film is based on) to producer Edward Nassour for little money with the implied guarantee that he would be allowed to complete the stop motion himself. O’Brien even gave Nassour his model Allosaurus from his cancelled Gwangi project (although this model was not used in the film). Nassour forgot all about O’Brien once he had what he needed and let cinematographer Henry Sharp do most of the actual animation. The result is a dinosaur movie with a boring dinosaur. Sharp is unable to instill any life into the puppet. The Allosaurus looks realistic enough, but simply acts like a regular movie monster without any character or personality. I always wondered how much better this film would have been with O’Brien’s sure hands in control of the beast. Nassour seemed to know his dino wasn’t that good, because he keeps it off camera until the final twenty minutes. What we’re left with is a boring western. Even as a kid, The Beast of Hollow Mountain was tough to get through. I didn’t care about the ridiculous love triangle in the film and wanted to get to the good stuff. Unfortunately, there is precious little good stuff and the film suffers accordingly. The Beast of Hollow Mountain is hollow all right. It’s a hollow monster thriller.

Quotable Movie Line: None


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4. VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (Toho/Crown International, 1958/1962) Director: Ishiro Honda

In Siberia, a previously unknown species of butterfly is discovered. Convinced that this species must also exist in selected areas of northern Japan, a research scientist sends two assistants to the area to search for it. The explorers are greeted with hostility by the local inhabitants. They say that the scientists’ arrival has angered their god Varan who lives in a nearby lake. When the scientists are killed by this strange god, more researchers are sent in. The god is discovered to be a previously unknown species of spiky dinosaur. Varan comes out of the lake and proceeds to destroy the village. The monstrous creature then flies to the ocean and heads for Tokyo. When traditional weapons prove useless against it, the military prepares special new ammunition that can penetrate the creature’s tough skin. It all comes down to a final battle at Tokyo airport as the fearsome Varan and the brave Japanese Defense Forces square off.

Comparing the original Japanese version of Varan the Unbelievable to the American version is interesting. The American version used only the battle footage and none of the plot. All the scenes with the search for the butterfly were discarded and replaced with boring scenes of American actor Myron Healy trying to desalinate the lake where Varan lives. The original Japanese version of Varan is far superior in every way. Akira Ifukube contributes a good solid music score (although some of the themes from Godzilla can be heard here) and while Eji Tsuburaya’s effects are not up to the level of either Godzilla or Rodan, they are still fun. The mist shrouded lake where Varan resides is an effectively spooky miniature. One problem with the film is that Varan is not a great Toho monster. The monster suit is not very special and looks like it was put together very quickly. And the less said about Varan’s flying scenes, the better (although these were cut out of the American version). Like Godzilla Raids Again, Varan the Unbelievable is not well thought of by monster film critics. But for the seven year old in me, it still is a fun feature.

Quotable Movie Line:

“Go home! Your presence here today is making Varan angry. Two men who have come from Tokyo have already died. Go home!”


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5. SOUND OF HORROR (Zurbano Films, 1965) Director: Jose Antonio Nieves Conde

In the mountains of Greece Professor Andre (Antonio Casas) and his niece Maria (Soledad Miranda) remove prehistoric eggs from a cave. The duo is later joined by some of their friends. When one of the friends goes back to the cave, he is torn apart by an invisible T-Rex. Wanting its eggs, the savage creature lays siege to the professor’s house. It takes the ultimate sacrifice from one of the Professor’s friends (Jose Bodalo) to save the group from the vicious flesh eating invisible monster.

So when is a dinosaur movie not a dinosaur movie? Perhaps WHEN THERE IS NO DINOSAUR! Sound of Horror is one of the worst dinosaur movies ever made. While no one expects quality from a low budget Spanish monster film, director Jose Conde thumbs his nose at monster movie fans by failing to deliver the dino goods. The monster remains invisible for 88 of the movie’s 89 minutes. Only at the last moment, do we get a look at the T-Rex. And it’s one of the all time worst dinos ever committed to film. It looks like a prop from a miniature golf course. The only good thing in this film is seeing future Hammer horror queen Ingrid Pitt in the cast. She’s lucky because she’s quickly killed off and put out of her misery. The real sound of horror here are the screams of anger and frustration that emanate from monster movie fans who sit through this sad excuse of a dinosaur film.

Quotable Movie Line: None

 
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So that’s a quick look back at five older dinosaur films that have gone the way of the behemoths themselves. Yes, they were cheap, and the cost of the dinosaur suits couldn’t cover one day’s catering on a modern day film set. But back then all they wanted to do was to provide 90 minutes of entertainment. They used sleight of hand so you didn’t look at them too closely and see the zippers.  For the youngster in me, some of these still make me smile.

 

Selected References:

Berry, Mark F. The Dinosaur Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc, 2002.
Galbraith IV, Stuart. Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1994.
Pettigrew Neil. The Stop-Motion Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1999.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.
Warren Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.