The Land Unknown
The “lost world” sci-fi/adventure movie The Land Unknown is available today on a single DVD, or as part of Universal Studios’ Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, just one of 10 films in this impressive box set. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the box set it shares a disc with another film, The Deadly Mantis, with which it has much in common. For starters, both Universal films were released in 1957 (May for The Deadly Mantis and August for The Land Unknown), both were shot in B&W, and both, strangely enough, clock in at precisely 78 compact minutes. In addition, the two films both feature prehistoric monsters, a polar setting (the North Pole for the earlier film, Antarctica for The Land Unknown), the use of well-integrated stock footage, some dry, scientific narration at the film’s opening, and a female character who happens to be a magazine reporter. And both, happily, are as fun as can be; intelligent, well-realized films that hold up very well today.
In The Land Unknown, a Navy scientific team heads to Antarctica to perform a mapping and exploratory mission; specifically, to explore the warm inland sea that Admiral Byrd’s crew had discovered a decade before. But trouble arises when a chopper containing Commander/geophysicist Hal Roberts (future Tarzan star Jock Mahoney), pilot Jack Carmen (William Reynolds), machinist Steve Miller (hmmm, why does that name seem so familiar?, and played by Phil Harvey) and pretty Oceanic Press reporter Maggie Hathaway (Shawn Smith, who would go on to appear with Jock in Tarzan the Magnificent BEFORE Jock assumed the Tarzan role, and who here looks more than a little like the young Janet Leigh) is forced down by a sudden storm … and a collision with a pterodactyl! The helicopter lands in the titular “land unknown”: at the bottom of a crater, 3,000 feet below sea level, with a temperature above 90 degrees and a sultry, humid, steaming jungle environment. Unable to fly out due to a busted rotor, the unfortunate quartet must contend not only with the terrain’s prehistoric inhabitants —carnivorous plants, a T. rex, enormous lizards, and a water-dwelling, flippered “elasmosaurus” — but also with Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon), a survivor from the Byrd expedition who has been marooned in this inhospitable landscape for a decade, has reverted to savagery, and who now kidnaps Maggie so as to possess a cavegirl of his own…
Shot in CinemaScope and boasting very passable special FX, The Land Unknown certainly does look better than one might reasonably expect. Utilizing beautiful matte paintings in the backgrounds and lush vegetation and swirling steam to the fore, the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a fully convincing Mesozoic landscape (“…a pretty effective lost world,” says Michael Weldon in my Psychotronic Encyclopedia bible). The dinosaurs — although only NON-stop-motion models or, in the case of that T. rex, a man in a suit — are just passable enough to avoid the dreaded “cheese factor,” and the battling reptiles (actually monitor lizards in close-up, and a seemingly unavoidable convention in this type of film) are well integrated onto their backdrops. In a word, the FX in the film are adequate, and often endearing, and always artistically done. Director Virgil Vogel (who had helmed the Universal “classic” The Mole People just the year before) gives his film a memorable look and even manages to generate some real suspense near the conclusion, as our team of heroes races to repair that chopper as T. rex slowly advances on them. “A paradise of hidden terrors,” proclaimed the original poster for the film, and Vogel does a fine job of keeping those terrors and jolts coming. In all, a hugely entertaining affair, and of course, a perfect film to watch with your favorite 10-year-old… another similarity the picture shares with The Deadly Mantis. And as a bonus, The Land Unknown provides all us men with what might be the most memorable pickup line in screen history, courtesy of he-man scientist/nerd Commander Roberts: “Although I know basically women consist mostly of water, with a few pinches of salt and metals thrown in, you have a very unsaltlike and nonmetallic effect on me”!