Friday, June 17, 2011

Unknown Island (1948)

During World War II, then-Airforce-pilot Ted Osborne (Phillip Reed) observed what looked like living, breathing dinosaurs on an island in the South Pacific. Now that the war is over, Osborne has convinced his fiancée Carole Lane (Virginia Grey) to finance an expedition to that island so that Osborne can film and photograph the dinosaurs - for science (and, one suspects, fame that'll let Osborne step out of Carole's financial shadow).

The whole expedition is a bit of a low budget affair, though. Osborne and Carole bring in no personnel of their own, and instead hire the shady alcoholic Captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane) and his ship and crew to help them do the job. That just might be a decision the couple will regret later on.

On the other hand, one can't say this particular business relationship is starting off too badly. Turns out Tarnowski knows a guy who visited Osborne's island, too, but barely escaped with his life and sanity intact. John Fairbanks (Richard Denning), as he is called, now spends his time penniless and drunk and thought mad in a corner in the same bar where Tarnowski does business. Somehow - I suspect the involvement of a lot of alcohol - Tarnowski is able to convince Fairbanks to take part in the expedition too.

Once everyone's at sea, the problems begin. Tarnowski shows a rather unpleasant interest in Carole that'll only get more unpleasant the longer the trip takes, while Tarnowski's "Lascar" crew doesn't particularly enjoy the thought of visiting this particular island, and starts a dramatic, yet easily quelled mutiny.

Things don't improve once the group finally arrives at the island. Not only are the surviving crewmen still pretty mutinous, and their Captain still a pig, the dinosaurs population is pretty aggressive too. And that's before Crash Corrigan and his giant sloth costume attack.

Will anyone survive the expedition?

Despite its somewhat ironic (and today, highly google-unfriendly) moniker, Film Classics was one of the better distributors of Poverty Row films. At least, the films wearing the "Film Classics" logo are usually on the more professional and less boring side of the extremely cheap persuasion.

Unknown Island was even shot in Cinecolor, whose emphasis on red and green tones and little else isn't exactly spectacular from a modern point of view, but must still have cost a bit of money this sort of production usually didn't have to throw around. It also suits Virginia Grey quite nicely, so there might be a reason for its use there. Or somebody was out to win the title of "first dinosaur movie in colour".

Be that as it may, the film was directed by Jack Bernhard (also responsible for at least two pretty entertaining b-noirs with Blond Ice and Decoy), whose direction does not show him as any sort of visionary, but as a guy trying to get through the problematic work of making an entertaining movie out of cardboard and wobbling dinosaur suits with professional dignity intact, which obviously puts him leagues above directors like William Beaudine. Bernhard does know how to keep an adventure movie like this going without filling it out with footage of people pointing at library footage of monkeys and hippos.

Instead, there's quite a bit of pointing at the film's back-projected special effects, but what's not too like about looking at T-rex costumes constructed so that the suit actors can only waddle in them as if they were giant penguins (teke-li-li)? Even if you ignore the monsters' (with Corrigan's sloth as the big exception) bad movability, the effects leave a lot to be desired. It's impossible to get a feel for how large any of the monsters are supposed to be. Especially the giant sloth seems to shrink and grow depending on the scene. On the other hand, the sloth is a good looking monster (of a reddish colour - not white as half the Internet says, by the way)that works well with the film's colour scheme.

Of course, the film is about as much of a stock adventure film as possible, with all the character types (though Carole is fortunately a bit more feisty than her movie's era seemed to like its women), the casual racism, and the lazy psychology you'd expect. Thing is, it's also snappily done, well-shot and pretty entertaining inside the borders of its place and time. Plus it features a giant sloth wrestling a dinosaur.


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