The Land Unknown - 1957

The Land Unknown - Released August 1957. Directed by Virgil W. Vogel

Long before Jurassic Park and the various versions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, this 1957 black and white mini-epic of trapped explorers in a warm water oasis in Antarctica was released in Cinemascope widescreen with a scenario stocked with dinosaurs, a dangerous and hostile jungle, and trapped explorers.

Director Vogel's camera has careful composition throughout, and the effects (from Orien Ernest, Jack Kevan, Fred Knoth, Roswell A. Hoffmann) are usually well done (for 1957) though there are instances where an effect is marred by obvious things that don't belong: a Tyrannosaurus Rex looks great from the waist up, but from waist-down it is obviously a man in rubber trousers marching through a miniaturized set; a small monkey on a plant leaf is guided by an obvious wire sending the jiggling (fake) monkey into the mouth of a carnivorous plant.

Such things aside, the steaming landscape looks like a Louisiana bayou that's become overheated and predatory, and the interactions with the unpredictable prehistoric creatures adds to the dilemma of survival and sense of danger.

The Story in The Land Unknown

The plot of The Land Unknown at first moves along more or less like the 1933 King Kong: a woman (Shirley Patterson) is embedded into an all-male exploration team, and she must put up with remarks from the handsome team leader that this is no place for a woman, and the dialogue about what they're doing adds to the mystery of where they're going and what they'll find (Patterson plays a stern-jawed reporter named Maggie Hathaway).

When the helicopter they are flying malfunctions (it is apparently side-swiped by a pterodactyl), they are soon stuck down below the surface of the earth, and Maggie Hathaway seems to have no particular role except to pay attention to her hygiene which allows for a male team member to come across her while she's bathing and dressing. He apologizes and moves on, but that scene helps to establish her vulnerability in a hostile environment, and shortly after she ends up with the local native (Henry Brandon) who captures her (she passes out) and he brings her back to his cave. After she revives he begins talking crazily about his supremacy over the creatures, and then immediately attacks her. She is rescued by her team, but 'the native' turns out to be Dr. Carl Hunter, the only surviving member of an earlier expedition that also crashed into the underground crater. He offers a bargain: leave the woman with me, and I'll give you a map to where the wreckage from the earlier expedition is, and you can get replacement parts for your helicopter and get out of here.

Part of the team of men, desperate and unnerved by the new environment, seem interested in the deal, but Jock Mahoney (as Commander Hal Roberts) isn't having it, and after an argument all around they leave with Maggie to return to the helicopter camp-site.

Back at the camp, Maggie begins insisting that she ought to return to the cave man so that the other three male crew members can get the part they need and leave, but Commander Roberts reveals that he needs her more, and his budding infatuation guarantees that he will never contemplate the crazed swap offered by the dinosaur king.

Dr. Hunter is supposed to appear, I think, as if he has reverted to being a savage Hollywood cave man, but he looks more like a beatnik musician: he even plays an instrument, a conch shell that seems to terrify the local dinosaurs. His primitive atonal jazz playing gives him an edge over the "land unknown" which comes in handy, especially for dealing with a large Loch-Ness monster sea creature that haunts the lagoon where Hunter's cave is. Soon he will have Maggie Hathaway again under his power, and then the conflict becomes not only man against dinosaur, but Dr. Hunter vs the savage identity within his heart that he created in order to survive...

The direction by Virgil Vogel is very careful, and probably had to be in order to get all of the special effects to work in proper sequence with his actors. Unfortunately, there is woodenness to many of the scenes, as if the cast was playing it too safely (or unrehearsed) such that dialogue becomes flat and without expression. However, Shirley Patterson and Henry Brandon use their facial expressions to good effect to communicate things that are simply not in the dialogue, and you end up wishing the girl reporter and the cave man had more time together.

The usual dinosaur effects are interrupted by one long sequence in which live action lizard monsters fight each other (blown up with lens effects to appear larger than they really are), and that section of The Land Unknown is hyper-realistic (these are monitor lizards which are actually fighting) and when one lizard has killed the other, holding the neck of the lifeless body of the other lizard in its jaw, you realize that The Land Unknown was made before animal safe treatment regulations were in effect.

Original Page January 22, 2017

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