|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Sep 26, 2004)
PLANET OF DINOSAURS
Alternate Titles: PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS; MYSTERIOUS PLANET; DEATHBEAST.
RT: 84 mins.
Pro Co: Deathbeast Productions.
Dir/Pro: James K. Shea;
Wr: Ralph Lucas; st: James Aupperle;
Exec Pro: Stephen Czerkas;
Assoc Pros: James Aupperle, James R. Waite.
Phot: Henning Schellerup;
Film Eds: Maria Lease, Stan Gilman;
Mus/Sound FX: Kelly Lammers, John O’Verlin.
Stop-Motion Anim: Douglas Beswick;
Viz FX: Stephen Czerkas, James Aupperle;
Mattes: Jim Danforth;
Special Props: Bill Malone;
Spacecraft Des: Stephen C. Wathen.
Cast: Louie Lawless, James Whitworth, Pamela Bottaro, Derna Wylde, Harvey Shain, Charlotte Speer, Michael Thayer, Chuck Pennington, Mary Appleseth.
While Japanese giant monster or “kaiju” movies, as represented by the likes of Toho’s Godzilla and Daiei’s Gamera series were going into an almost terminal decline, in the West there was a minor revival of the genre, as evidenced by the success of John Dark and Kevin Connor’s Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, beginning with The Land That Time Forgot (1974), and John Guillermin’s remake of King Kong (1976) for Dino de Laurentiis, as well as the syndicated teleseries Land of the Lost.
Although the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s marked the debut of a new generation of stop motion effects geniuses such as David Allen (Flesh Gordon 1974), Phil Tippett (Piranha 1978) and Randy Cook (Laserblast 1978), all with their own very impressive test reels and inspired movie concepts, studios were very reluctant to employ their talents, due to the prohibitive cost of the processes involved and the length of time required to complete them. Thus producers tended to opt for less problematic puppetry or mechanical devices, the more traditional man-in-a-suite or doctored footage from earlier productions.
There were of course some exceptions to this, among them Ray Harryhausen at Columbia Pictures, who contributed two completed projects to the decade, Gordon Hessler’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Sam Wannamaker’s later companion piece, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and William R. Stromberg’s independent effort The Crater Lake Monster (1977), along with the film under review here, Planet of Dinosaurs.
In an uncharted region of the galaxy, the reactor of a commercial space cruiser malfunctions and explodes. Fortunately, some of the crew and passengers manage to escape in a shuttle craft, with the captain deciding to make for the nearest planet, which their sensors suggest could be life-supporting. There they manage to crash land into a large body of water, managing to evacuate the vessel before it sinks, and swim to shore. The arrogant vice-chairman of the company that owned the space cruiser demands to know what the captain plans to do next to get them out of trouble. It transpires that the group has probably landed hundred of light years from the nearest civilisation and their only hope is that their distress signal was heard before the ship blew up, and that they can survive on the planet until someone comes to rescue them. A crew member discovers that she has forgotten to pick up the shuttle’s portable distress transmitter and decides to go back to the vessel to retrieve it, accompanied by the navigator. As they swim out, the woman is dragged underwater by a briefly glimpsed creature. Her fellow crew member makes it back, but has been traumatised by the incident. Checking the remaining equipment, including weaponry and rations, the captain decides it is in everyone’s best interests to move further inland, in case there are any more such creatures and are amphibious. Making their way through the landscape of the new planet, the survivors find themselves entering a swamp. The vice-chairman’s personal assistant, suffers a sever panic attack when confronted with water they have to go through, being reminded of the fate of the crew member earlier on. To placate her, one of the others gives her his laser rifle for protection. Shortly after, she stumbles and drops the weapon into the water, rendering it useless, for which the crew member is heavily chastised by the captain. The assistant agrees to do what she is told in future. After journeying through the swamp for a long time, the vice-chairman refuses to go any further, complaining he is completely exhausted. The captain relents and agrees to set up a temporary camp, issuing rations and posting a guard. He later confides in one of his crew that he has grave concerns about is lack of experience in such a difficult situation. Despite his own misgiving, he tries to reassure his nervous fellow survivors, in particular the vice-chairman and the still-traumatised navigator. Just then a roar is heard coming from a nearby forest. Although, unable to identify the species, one of the crew says that from personal experience in Africa, it sounds like the hunting call of a carnivorous animal. The next morning, the man posted guard on the camp awakens the captain and urges him to come with him. A short distance away both men are shocked to discover the presence of a large dinosaur…
Planet of the Dinosaurs’ basic premise, of travellers stumbling onto an unspoilt prehistoric world, really first came into its own with Victorian and early 20th century writers like Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and the previously mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Variations on this began to appear in pulp fiction of the 1930s, where the traditional locations for such adventures, remote plateaus, inner Earth and remote tropical islands, were replaced by alien worlds, featuring many, if not all, the same elements as the earlier models, but taking advantage of the growing interest in the theme of interplanetary travel. As part of the sci-fi boom of the 1950s, a few cinematic examples of this subgenre appeared, notably Bert I. Gordon’s cult favourite King Dinosaur (1955).
If the B-movie sensibility that King Dinosaur represents was a major inspiration for the makers of Planet of the Dinosaurs, then an equally big influence was probably Franklin J. Schaffner’s seminal sci-fi work Planet of the Apes (1967). This quickly becomes apparent when the craft that the survivors used to escape the exploding space cruiser ditches into a lake. They manage to get out of the vessel by blowing open an escape hatch and jumping into the water. The way their craft is angled as it slips below the surface, together with the angles chosen by director James K. Shea, to shoot the sequence, seem designed implicitly to evoke the image of a very similar episode from earlier on Schaffner’s picture, although another inspiration was likely to be Ray Harryhausen’s giant monster-on-the-loose flick 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), helmed by Nathan Juran. Connections to the 1967 work are underlined the lengthy trek the survivors take through the tundra of the planet, the characters dwarfed by hostile landscape, with Shea reworking very obvious visual clues from the same source, including the recurring full-screen shots of a blazing sun, lap dissolving into key scenes.
In the standard “lost world” formula, whether located on Earth or another planet, the situation in which the human characters find themselves in usually becomes complicated by their coming into contact with human or humanoid lifeforms already living there. Their arrival tends to upset the established order of things, or threaten the alien civilisation’s elite in some way. Often this conflict is across gender lines, W. Merle Connell’s Untamed Women (1952) being an example of this. In Planet of Dinosaurs, the circumstances are somewhat different.
The stranded survivors, in fact, discover that although a wide variety of creatures, of all shapes and sizes, has evolved on this world, man, including his more primitive ancestors, has not yet made an appearance. Instead, the groups finds itself very near the bottom of the food chain, at the mercy of much larger, more aggressive, life-forms. Dramatic tension, therefore, is provided by conflict within the group, as they attempt to come to terms with their situation. While this emphasis on characterisation, unusual for a low-budget exploitation movie, appears entirely laudable on paper, its execution is badly flawed.
Screenwriter (Ralph Lucas, The Child 1977), a member of Fred Olen Ray’s on and off-screen stock company, has introduced a number of interesting, if well-worn, such as how the constantly shifting power structure within the group develops as their plight develops, with the role of leader, as taken on by the ship’s captain (Louie Lawless), being undermined by both his own inexperience and the attitude from some of his crew, particularly the survivalist-minded engineering officer (James Whitworth, The Hills Have Eyes 1977), who seems to relish to possibilities offered by this new world.
Added to this are questions regarding how far individuals are willing to shed the trappings of modern civilisation in order to conform to their current reality, and how to react to the threat posed by the planet’s fauna, either defensively or offensively. Unfortunately, Lucas presents and develops this potentially fascinating material in such a mundane manner that it becomes largely irrelevant to the completed movie.
The efforts of the makers, however, are most undermined by the standard of performance seen here. With a couple of exceptions, most of the on-screen talent in Planet of Dinosaurs have little or no professional acting experience, and normally work behind the camera on low-budget exploitation features, something which becomes obvious early on. Overall, the level of acting barely rises above that of a porn film, ranging from the awkward and stilted to the outrageously manic, with some scenes, such as a comic interlude involving the corporate asshole (Harvey Shain, Visions 96) ordering other group members to get him some water, and an “erotic” dance from his personal assistant (Derna Wylde), prove buttock-clenchingly embarrassing. Ralph Lucas’s already mundane script is also made to appear much worse than it is in actuality.
There is some evidence that director James K.l Shea, with film editors Maria Lease and Stan Gilmore, tried to work around the lengthy dialogue scenes, apparently to little avail. While following the B-picture dictum “talk is cheap” and featuring a surfeit of exposition, the pace of the movie’s narrative is slowed considerably, which together with the performances, makes Planet of Dinosaurs challenging viewing for modern audiences.
Another drawback for the movie, and like to cause some unintentional myth for today’s audiences, is the fashions sported by the actors. With their nylon tracksuits and trainers and acrylic-style hairstyles, Shea’s film is firmly anchored in the late 1970s. The impression that some of the cast are displaced porno actors is reinforced by the men’s physical appearance where they are seen adopting the bushy moustaches and hairstyles favoured by porn stars of the era like John C. Homes and Harry Reems. Meanwhile, an element of campness is introduced in the form of muscle-bound Chuck Pennington who, after his colleague becomes the first victim of the planet’s wildlife, is so overcome that he wanders about wearing nothing but his trousers.
There are compensations. Despite the trek through the planet’s interior going on far too long, actor-turned-director James K. Shea and veteran exploitation cinematographer Henning Schellerup (The Bermuda Triangle 1979) succeed in generating a genuine sense of “otherness” for the very familiar Californian desert locations, making particularly striking use of interesting geographical features and panoramic wide shots. A rather good piece of stuntwork occurs when one of the crew (Pamela Bottaro, Death Dimension 1978) stumbles and is left dangling off the edge of steep cliff. Sound designers and music composers Kelly Lammers and John O’Verlin do a useful job in creating a suitably weird ambience for the prehistoric world, with a constantly howling wind heard on the soundtrack. Sadly, their electronic music score, while occasionally evoking Bebe and Louis Barron’s work for Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) and Jerry Goldsmith’s for Planet of the Apes, much of the time it wouldn’t seem out of place in a low-grade 80s slasher flick.
Ultimately, what the patrons who paid to see a movie called Planet of Dinosaurs really wanted for their money is, of course, monsters, and on this level the production is refreshingly ambitious.
Because of budgetary and time constraints, the few monster movies that appeared during this period relying on animation were normally restricted to showing the one creature onscreen, as was the case with The Crater Lake Monster. In contrast, the makers of this film have created a veritable menagerie of prehistoric beasts, including a brontosaurus, a stegosaurus and some raptors along with an enormous T-Rex and a man-eating spider. There’s even a cameo from Ray Harryhausen’s rhedosaurus, the star of Eugen Lourie’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953).
Many in the field of stop-motion animation, from whatever era, including Harryhausen, have cited legendary effects pioneer Willis O’Brien as their single biggest influence on their careers, particularly he and his team’s extraordinary achievements in Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933), and perhaps especially Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925). Planet of the Dinosaur’s executive producer Stephen Czerkas is said to have been one of those inspired by O’Brien’s efforts on those two productions, with the result that he not chose not only to work in special effects (Dreamscape1984), but also made a living as an artist and sculptor, concentrating on the representation of prehistoric animals, before becoming a renowned amateur palaeontologist, with several books to his credit, eventually establishing his own dinosaur museum in Utah. Planet of Dinosaurs can therefore be seen as something of a pet project for Czerkas.
In a tradition going back at least as far as those O’Brien projects, and continuing with later movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), the centrepiece for prehistoric monster action has typically been the T-Rex, and James K. Shea’s film is no exception. In the latter stages of Ralph Lucas’s screenplay, the survivors believe that they can defend themselves from the rest of the planet’s inhabitants behind a stockade constructed at their camp. The appearance of the much larger, more powerful Rex easily attacking and killing its fellow dinosaurs soon shatters this illusion, forcing the humans to go on the offensive and take the fight for survival to the monster’s lair in a nearby cave.
The T-Rex itself, created by Cerkas with James Aupperle (Caveman 1981), and animated by Douglas Beswick (Evil Dead II 1987), is a superb, highly detailed piece of work. Indeed the vast majority of the optical work in Planet of Dinosaurs is, thanks in a large part to advancements made in the technology available to the technicians. This becomes most obvious in the fluidity of motion for the beasts, giving them a more natural, realistic appearance when seen battling with each other, or chasing some unfortunate humans.
The several fights, which take place between the planet’s denizens during the course of the film, are designed to evoke images from the previously mentioned O’Brien ventures, particularly the confrontations between the Rex and rhedosaurus, and the stegosaurus and iguanodon. The climactic confrontation between the humans, presenting themselves as bait, and the T-Rex is a spectacular event, with the creature giving chase to its prey, only to impale itself on wooden shafts lying in its path and go crashing to the ground.
Low-budget movies employing animation and opticals tend to overcome the logistical problems that these processes presented when used with live-action sequences by way of keeping each sequence completely separate if shown in a same shot, usually by means of masking. Early sequences suggest that the makers of this film intend to follow this approach, as evidenced by the group’s first encounter with a dinosaur. Here the actors appear in the bottom left of the screen while the animal appears at the top, with the join between the two shots obscured by creative use of matte paintings.
As the picture progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the effects team have no reservations about combining animation, live-action and mattework. Some sequences are less successful than others, such as when Harvey Shain’s corporate spare-wheel is impaled on the horn of a triceratops, but the rest are very well done, among the most notable being where Chuck Bennington spears a struthiomimus, Michael Thayer trying to retrieve a laser rifle he dropped earlier, all the while trying to avoid attracting the attention of two brawling dinosaurs and an attack on crew member Charlotte Speer by an allosaurus, shot from a high-angled position.
Sequences featured at the start of Planet of Dinosaurs, involving the destruction of the space cruiser, were made before motion control technology came into vogue with George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and so the visual cues are taken from the classic effects shots used in Stanley Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The model itself, designed by Stephen C. Wathen, is impressively detailed and only let down by a poor optical effect representing a nuclear explosion.
In a departure from genre conventions, Ralph Lucas does not end his screenplay with the expected cliché of having Louie Lawless and James Whitworth battle it out for leadership of the group, or indeed a cataclysmic seismic event, laying waste to the planet’s environment. Instead a compromise is reached between the two men, with they and the rest of the survivors resigning themselves to spending some considerable time stranded on the planet, making the best of the situation by rearing a family and establishing a community at a new location, still with some semblance of civilisation retained and no longer fearful of their fellow inhabitants.
Although the screenplay leaves the way open for a sequel, Planet of Dinosaurs failed to make much impression in the post-Star Wars marketplace. Its availability was scarce on home video as well, but over the years and thanks mainly to internet chatrooms and newsgroups, it has garnered a sizeable cult following, to the extent that a fully-licensed, officially sanctioned DVD release could prove potentially very profitable for an enterprising label.
As with Hal Roach’s One Million BC, the effects footage created for this work has been cannibalised (sometimes unofficially) by other filmmakers to inject additional production values into their enterprises, examples including Fred Olen Ray’s The Phantom Empire (1986) and J.R. Bookwalter’s Galaxy of Dinosaurs (1992).
Director James K. Shea, not to be confused with the Jack Shea who helmed psychedelic science fiction satire The Monitors (1969), is now operating as a script doctor and screenwriting guru with several book published on the subject.
In addition to being a cinematographer, Henning Schellerup doubled as a director with movies like Sweet Jesus, Preacher Man (1972) and Beyond Death’s Door (1978) to his credit as well as numerous teleseries segments.
While Stephen Czerkas has latterly been concentrating almost all efforts on running his dinosaur museum, the movie’s other special effects crew have been busy over the years with recent projects for James Aupperle including Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams’ Family Values (1993) and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004), while Douglas Beswick has worked on features like Stephen Norringtnon’s Blade (1998) and Tobe Hooper’s Crocodile (2000). Meanwhile, with a career dating back to the mid-1950s, matte artist Jim Danforth has contributed effects work to mainstream Hollywood productions like Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Gregory Widen’s Prophecy (1995) as well as independent pictures such as James Wood and Denis Muren’s Equinox (1970) and Mike Jittlov’s The Wizard of Speed and Time (1989).
Bill Malone, who created the special props used on Planet of Dinosaurs, including dinosaur eggs and armaments, later became a director with titles like Titan Find (1985) and House on Haunted Hill (1999) appearing in his canon, along with numerous TV segments.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
Chroma-Noize cult sci-fi and horror movie reviews: www.geocities.com/bigfatpav2000