September 21, 2010
If paleontologists have said it once, they have said it a hundred times: non-avian dinosaurs and humans never coexisted. Most people who insist otherwise are creationist cranks who believe that evidence of a living dinosaur would somehow undermine evolutionary theory, but I understand that Hollywood has to play by different rules. Dinosaurs are just not as exciting without people to menace, and so it has been traditional to use time travel, the existence of prehistoric “lost worlds,” fertilized eggs preserved for over 65 million years and genetic engineering experiments gone awry to bring dinosaurs and people together. But none of these options worked for the creators of the 1970 Hammer film When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. They wanted dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters to attack scantily-clad cavepeople, and so they made a film that a biblical fundamentalist could take as a documentary rather than fiction.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth doesn’t begin with a shot of a steaming, primeval forest, but of a gaggle of tanned and oiled cavepeople who have crawled out of their cliffside dwellings to engage in their regular “let’s pick which blond woman we want to sacrifice” ritual. Naturally, the prospective victims are not very happy about this—one throws herself off a cliff—but when they try to escape they are hindered by the fact that they are wearing prehistoric underwear so skimpy that it actually makes it more difficult for them to run away. It would have made more sense for them to lose the push-up bras and just bolt for it, though I imagine going streaking during prehistory would have presented its own unique risks.
In any event, one of the Cenozoic supermodels—named Sanna—does manage to escape by jumping into the sea and is promptly rescued by a conveniently placed group of fishermen whose unfortunate garments remind us why it’s never wise to wear thongs in a windstorm (I wish I were talking about sandals here—yikes). It is among this group of unfortunately attired men that we meet Tara, our film’s scruffy male lead. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the musclebound leader of the cavepeople is clearly upset that the sacrifice did not go as planned; he shouts incomprehensible phrases and gestures widely to get people to go do whatever it is they do. Maybe this was intended as a bit of fun for the audience—make up your own dialogue as you go along—especially since words like “akita” appear to mean: “Over there”; “Stop”; “Give me that”; “Come over here” and “Let’s have pancakes for dinner tonight.”
For me, though, the film’s real stars are the prehistoric creatures that help to thin out the cast, and the audience’s first look at one of the film’s exquisite stop-motion monsters comes when the fishermen return with the woman to their camp. While the dudes were out fishing, someone brought a plesiosaur (which is, of course, not a dinosaur) to the big clam bake, but damned if they knew what to do with the thing. It was too angry to just stick an apple in its mouth and start slow-roasting it, and when half the village runs over to examine their new visitor their dinner tries to make a break for it. Unfortunately, though, the plesiosaur wanders right into a mess of fluid the tribe uses for lighting fires, and soon the only question on anyone’s mind is: “White meat or dark?”
Things don’t look so rosy the next day. The cliffdwellers are still miffed that their sacrifice just up and left, and Tara’s wife isn’t too happy that he came back with a new, blond girlfriend. When Sanna’s captors show up, she makes a break for it, and thanks to an assist from an angry Chasmosaurus she gets a little extra time to get away. That does little to help the fisherman and his friends, though—when they set out after her the same dinosaur causes them a spot of trouble before throwing itself into what sounds like a bottomless pit (lots of roaring, but no crash). Sanna also encounters some of the dangerous local fauna when she finds herself being enveloped by a carnivorous plant, although I would not recommend her escape technique of reaching outside to stab inwards at the plant’s tough outer hide (pointsy towardsies = bad).
The remainder of the film is little more than an excuse to watch Victoria Vetri run around in an embarrassingly small bikini. Thankfully, there are a few more prehistoric critters to help break the movie’s naked tedium. A newly-hatched baby something-o-saurus and its mother (which look like cousins of the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) provide a brief bit of comic relief as they try to figure out whether Sanna is friend or food; an attack by an oversized Rhamphorhynchus livens things up a bit, and when Tara returns home to find that his tribe doesn’t think it’s cool that he ran off with someone else’s sacrifice, they try to serve him up on a raft to the local Tylosaurus. (The marine reptile responds by tossing him off the raft. “Yecch! Human? No thanks – I’m trying to cut back on junk food.”) Given how good these stop-motion creatures look, though, it is sad that the film also resorts to gluing plates and spikes on alligators and monitor lizards and making them fight, a practice that is despicable as it is lazy.
In the end, a giant tidal wave wipes away the coastal village but delivers our heroes to a mountaintop to observe a lunar eclipse. Dumb, but attractive, they would go on to found a settlement along the southern coast of California which would eventually be named Los Angeles. What happened to all the prehistoric monsters is unclear, though. Perhaps they got so tired of the cavepeople’s shenanigans that they eventually died of boredom—a risk I certainly felt while watching this vintage 1970s schlock.
August 25, 2010
Ah, The Crater Lake Monster, a film that repeatedly made me wonder, “why the heck am I still watching this movie?”
Like the last Dinosaur Drive-In film featured here, Crater Lake Monster contains no actual dinosaurs (no matter how many times the scientists in the film call it one). Instead our monstrous star is a big, hungry plesiosaur hatched out of an egg kept in “suspended animation” at the bottom of a lake until a meteorite strike turns the lake bottom into an incubator. It’s not the most original premise, but not a terrible place to start, either, and the stop-motion special effects of David Allen are pretty good for their time. Too bad the filmmakers had no idea what to do with their story.
The film opens with a trio of scientists who have discovered a cave painting—said to be thousands of years old but looking like it was made with a Sharpie just yesterday—depicting Native Americans attacking a plesiosaur. The scientists have to scramble out of the cave as the meteorite strikes the lake, and they soon forget their first discovery to investigate the impact. Pretty standard monster movie stuff, but the movie jumps the track when we meet our unexpected protagonists, a pair of local ne’er do-wells named Arnie and Mitch.
Arnie and Mitch are meant to be the film’s comic relief. They are not the least bit funny. They haggle, squabble and complain for an inordinate amount of time without moving the plot forward, outside perhaps of giving people an opportunity to fall prey to the lake’s plesiosaur by renting them boats. After finding one of their rented boats full of blood and a snooty couple in shock after a run-in with the monster, Arnie and Mitch begin to suspect something might be up, though they never see the monster themselves despite working around the lake, scuffling in the lake and otherwise acting like oblivious potential prey items. Perhaps the odd day-night cycle is responsible for their weird behavior. Throughout the movie characters keep saying things like, “look at all the stars,” in the middle of the day; the director apparently tries to convince his audience that it’s dark out by having characters repeatedly comment on it being nighttime, all evidence to the contrary.
In any case, the monster continues to select morsels from the lakeside buffet—from cattle to fugitive liquor store robbers—before running into the town’s sheriff. Everything comes together, but when the local law enforcement brings up the problem to the scientists we met at the beginning of the film he receives little sympathy. The researchers basically yell “SCIENCE!” at the sheriff and decide that it would be wiser to trap the monster in a nearby bay for study rather than destroy it outright. A town meeting—filled with people apparently given $5 by the director to be in the movie and giving him his money’s worth—is called to resolve the issue, but it doesn’t get very far before the monster starts tossing around hay bales in a nearby work yard. It’s the last straw for the sheriff, who powers up a flimsy bulldozer that looks capable of giving the monster a very dull shave. Before he can dispatch the monster, though, the plesiosaur kills Arnie, leaving a sullen Mitch alone as the end credits begin to roll. As the yellow list began to flash over the screen, my wife said it best when she said, “wow. Nothing happened in that movie.”
August 3, 2010
When you get right down to it, most dinosaur movies are missing something. “Good special effects” might be one answer, and “a plot” is an even better one, but if “a trippy jazz-disco musical score” was your reply, then 1977′s Japanese monster flick Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds may be just what you have been looking for.
Our story picks up, as so many schlock films do, with an eye, apparently belonging to a young woman wandering around the woods of Mt. Fuji. It sounds as if she is being stalked by the British prog-rock band Jethro Tull, but as she tries to flee Ian Anderson and Co. she ends up falling into a cavern in which several giant eggs are kept on ice. Awakened by the disturbance, what I can only assume is one of Baby Huey’s siblings begins cracking out of its shell, providing us with another close-up eye shot (the amount of close-up shots of characters looking offscreen so early in the film makes me wonder if the director was a Spielberg admirer).
The young woman survives the ordeal, although she receives little help from the mining crew that finds her—contrary to what this film shows, vigorously jostling a fall victim down the side of a hill is not a good way to see if she has any serious spinal injuries. She soon dies at a hospital, but not before her story pops up on the evening news and catches the attention of the ambitious young geologist Ashizawa. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our hero—a smug, arrogant scientist who abuses women and becomes so preoccupied with his father’s idea that dinosaurs could have survived into the present day that he spends the majority of his screen time doing little more than saying “I know my father was right!” I’m sure he and Maston Thrust would get along famously.
Not long after we meet Ashizawa, the film introduces us to our other main protagonist—Akiko. The film’s score tells us that Akiko is Ashizawa’s love interest, but that is a bit hard to swallow, especially given the scientist’s reprehensible treatment of Akiko later in the film. Like Ashizawa, though, Akiko spends much of the film doing the same thing over and over again—in her case, screaming at the top of her lungs whenever the film’s titular monsters (which, as we will see, are not actually dinosaurs or birds at all) come into view.
The majority of the film takes place in and around Lake Saiko, which is bordered by the creepy Aokigahara Forest—a place filled with rocky caverns that is, as the film correctly notes, a popular place to commit suicide. There could hardly be a more perfect setting for a scary monster movie, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Legend of Dinosaurs doesn’t really deliver. As the stilted story kicks into gear, people start disappearing around the lake and, in an unfortunate cameo, Black Beauty loses his head and gets stashed in a tree. Ashizawa uses these events to jump to his favored conclusions. Maybe he is meant to be portrayed as a bad scientist, or maybe, since the actor read the script, he knew what was up and felt fine skipping ahead a bit. “Oh look! A plesiosaur track… I mean, a mysterious track made by some unknown critter. I wonder what it could be….”
I have to say this for the film’s monsters, though—they have impeccable timing. The first, an immense plesiosaur, shows up just on time to cause trouble at the annual Dragon Festival. My hypothesis is that it was angered by the pop stylings of a Japanese band dressed up in country-western outfits playing on a floating stage—if that was the first thing I heard upon waking up after slumbering peacefully for hundreds of millions of years, I would be pretty mad, too. Apparently the marine reptile was more a fan of lively disco fusion, and it spares little time in dispatching a group of would-be hoaxers to the nauseatingly chaotic soundtrack.
Not content with slinking around the forest and stashing horses in trees anymore, the plesiosaur shifts gears and starts going after people hanging out in and around the lake. Among its victims is Akiko’s diving buddy, who practically serves herself up as a plesiosaur hors d’œuvre on a raft. (To tell you the truth, the plesiosaur-about-to-eat-Akiko’s-friend-scene—with its own creepy music—goes on for a bit too long, underscoring the hypothesis that many horror film directors have some pretty deep issues with women, issues that need addressing.) When news of the sightings and attacks reach the ears of a visiting American reporter, the whole town goes nuts over Nessie’s vacation to Lake Saiko, and a full-scale “scientific” investigation is launched. Frustratingly, the search doesn’t lead anywhere, and most everyone gives up out of boredom. A few hold out hope that the monster is still out there, though, and in my favorite line of the entire film, a reporter explains to a local official “if [the creature in the lake] is a dinosaur, it wouldn’t be very strange if there was also a pterodactyl here.” No, not strange at all….
Ashizawa, of course, is among those who believe that there really is a plesiosaur in the lake, but he goes diving at a very inopportune time—depth charges and divers don’t mix well. It’s up to Akiko—who is apparently immune to underwater pressure waves caused by the exploding canisters—to save Ashizawa, and the two eventually find their way out to the side of Mt. Fuji through a conveniently-placed cave. Meanwhile, a pair of hikers wandering around the Aokigahara Forest stumble upon—surprise!—an enormous pterosaur, and when the falsely-named “monster bird” drops by the town everyone is thrown into such a tizzy that they literally blow themselves up. Another lesson from the film—when hiding behind the big pile of depth charges, it’s best to make sure your gun’s safety is on.
With the lakeshore burnt to a crisp, the film returns to the plight of Akiko and Ashizawa on Mt. Fuji. As if the plesiosaur and pterosaur were not bad enough, it turns out that they were just signs that the massive volcano was about to erupt again, trapping the duo between some very hot rocks and the hungry puppets monsters. As the plesioaur and pterosaur squabble in the forest, Ashizawa reminds us of the dictum “Take a picture, it will last longer.” His delay on the rumbling volcano means almost certain death for him and Akiko, and with the roll of the end credits nearly every character introduced in the film—reptile and human alike—has died. The movie isn’t just bad, but it makes you feel bad, too.