After descending through a thick fog in Antarctica and landing a damaged helicopter in a crater where the temperature is 91 degrees, one of the characters in The Land Unknown (1957) asks, “Can you tell where we got hit?” Since the movie was recorded on a Saturday night, Svengoolie interrupts to answer, “Yeah, in the special effects budget!” He then adds, “Wait’ll you see the dinosaurs.”
Sven isn’t wrong. Prior to the landing, we’ve seen the helicopter poorly superimposed onto stock footage of Antarctica, and we’ll soon see a Tyrannosaurus Rex represented by a human being in a costume. That part is actually not as bad as it sounds, and I prefer it over footage of lizards acing as dinosaurs.
Behind the scenes, Sven isn’t wrong, either. The Land Unknown was originally intended to be a bid-budget epic directed by Jack Arnold. However, Universal International changed its mind, cut the budget and the cast, and turned it instantly into a B-movie. Arnold, who had already begun pre-production, left the project and was replaced by a contract director, Virgil W. Vogel.
Produced by Willaim Alland (Tarantula, 1955; The Mole People, 1956; The Deadly Mantis, 1957), the first few minutes of The Land Unknown feel like another one of Universal’s terrific Atomic Age sci-fi movies, often directed by Arnold. It’s not long past those few minutes, though, until you realize that it’s not.
The idea is solid, if not completely original. Three Navy men and a female reporter discover a prehistoric world hidden below sea level within the minus 40-degree climate of Antarctica. Sure, they’re going to face dangerous creatures; however, we’re reminded once again that the most dangerous creature is man when they also discover the only surviving scientist from a previous expedition that has been stranded there for a decade.
This reminds me that the movie is based on the real-life discovery of warm water in Antarctica in 1947. So, in a way, The Land Unknown is not only based on fact, but is also a meta tale of what might have happened if the actual expedition had ended in disaster. It would have been nice to see a little more money invested in it, but its low budget doesn’t ruin the movie.
Commander Alan Roberts (Jock Mahoney) leads the expedition and gets cozy with Margaret Hathaway (Shirley Patterson), who’s along for the ride to write a feature for the Oceanic Press. Lt. Jack Carmen (William Reynolds) and Steve Miller (Phil Harvey) tag along. One keeps his cool and looks mighty studly as his shirt gets wet and starts to tear. The other has the standard breakdown in the face of diversity, threatening their chances of survival.
The crew is destined to join Dr. Carl Hunter (Henry Brandon) for at least another ten years, if not the rest of their lives, unless they can repair their helicopter and return to base within the next 25 days. That’s when they close-up shop and return home. It’s not exactly the race against time it may have intended to be, but it’s entertaining enough, and the people are compelling enough to not let the fake monsters ruin the movie.
Written by Laszlo Gorog (screenplay), William N. Robson (adaptation), Charles Palmer (story)
Directed by Virgil W. Vogel
Starring Jock Mahoney, Shirley Patterson, William Reynolds, Henry Brandon, Douglas Kennedy, Phil Harvey
RT 78 min.
Released Oct. 30, 1957
Recorded on July 25, 2020 (Svengoolie)
Rating 5 Godzillas (out of 10)
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