Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Movie Review: Dinosaurus! (1960)

Today’s movie review is about an odd little 1960 film. At first glance, it’s a typical kid’s adventure film mixed with some horror elements. On the other hand, it’s a pile of tired clichés with many depressing and dark moments. It’s an odd little movie, and it’s worth a look.  It’s not part of my childhood, but it certainly was for a lot of people.  This is the Jack Harris-Irvin Yeaworth collaboration Dinosaurus! (the exclamation point is theirs). Thankfully there is a rifftrax for this film, so I’ve added their best jokes when appropriate. 

The setting isn’t clear, but considering how it was filmed on St. Croix, the US Virgin Islands probably would make sense.  We have our Wonderbread-white American leads surrounded by nonspeaking black and Latino extras, as part and parcel of contemporary films set in that region.  After opening credits underwater (“And we had the u and the s lying around, so we’re sure as hell gonna use ‘em” “Dinosaurus: the laziest mutant hybrid the Asylum ever created” “Next on Scyfy! Dinosaurus vs Crocogator”) , our story begins with blasting. You see, our hero is BART THOMPSON (played by Ward Ramsey in his first role ever). With his sidekicks the similarly square-jawed Chuck (the prolific TV actor Paul Lukather) and the aptly-named Dumpy (Wayne C. Treadway in his last film role).  Wouldn’t it be something if the hunky hero was named Dumpy and the dumpy guy named Bart Thompson? They’re a construction crew building a bay on the island. 

Betty Piper (Kristina Hanson in her first film role), the token blonde love interest for Bart boats in with sandwiches for the boys, but wanders into the blasting zone and knocked into the water.  Naturally Bart has to save her (“That’s nice, she drowns and he cops a feel”), naturally they bicker, and she storms back to pick up her lost cargo. That’s when she meets the dinosaurs. Naturally she faints and Bart saves her again, and now the plot begins. The antagonist enters the picture, Mike Hacker (Fred Engelberg in his first and last credited role), and he butts heads with Bart. Bart demands workers, Hacker blames the delays on Bart. The discovery of the dinosaurs, however, inspires Hacker to order the team to haul up the dinosaurs. 

Like with many dinosaur and kaiju movies in the 50s and 60s, there is a child. Hacker’s adopted and abused son Julio (Alan Roberts, already a veteran child actor in his only credited film role) is interested in the dinosaurs, constantly asking Bart about them and then showing Bart his Marx toy dinosaurs. He rattles off the exposition-Brontosaurus is the gentle herbivore, Tyrannosaurus is the scary carnivore and predator (“Hey idiot, they lived 70 million years apart! Send a boxtop for a clue next time!”).  Hacker, drunk and harassing his girlfriend Chica (Lucita Blain), smashes the toys and harangues Bart again. Distraught, Julio flees into the jungle. Of note, Hacker dresses in a white panama suit and hat and speaks in a French accent. A Frenchman named Hacker in 20th century St. Croix? I’m starting to think the filmmakers aren’t familiar with non-Anglo-American ethnicities.
The requisite tropical storm rolls in (“That’s just God having flashbacks to Encino Man”), the lightning naturally striking the two frozen dinosaurs, naturally waking them up. I’m saying naturally a lot, probably because I’m familiar with these kinds of lazy film clichés. Meanwhile, Hacker and his comical henchmen Mousy and Jasper discover a third prehistoric animal-a Neanderthal man (Prolific character actor and WW2 veteran Greg Martell).  They hope to put him on display for money (never mind the US government) but he escapes. 

Speaking of “Comic relief”, a stereotypical Irish drunk O’Leary  (James Logan) is assigned to oversee the dinosaurs, and is terrorized by the Neanderthal and killed by the Tyrannosaurus (due to arming himself with dynamite…then throwing it to the side). Such is the fate of all stereotypes in a monster movie. The explosion of the dynamite gets Bart’s attention-with Julio and the dinosaurs (excellent name for a rock band) gone, Bart and company as well as Hacker and company go hunting for the missing ones.

Each of the animals goes their own way-Tyrannosaurus eats a tour bus full of people (“Well, Mr. Spielberg has some explaining to do!”), Brontosaurus meets and befriends Julio (who shoos him off when Tyrannosaurus appears “I’m doing it! I’m only one sauropod!”), and the Neanderthal man finds the rather opulent home of Doctor and his wife (the doctor is never seen and his wife only appears for a brief facial mask gag). These are the best scenes in the film-it’s adorable to see a boy and a dinosaur hang out, the Tyrannosaurus attack is well-shot and suspenseful, and the Neanderthal’s hijinks trying to figure out 20th century technology and culture are actually pretty funny.  

Fortunately for Julio, he meets the Neanderthal. Unfortunately for him, so does Hacker (“Nobody expects the moron inquisition!”). Julio talks the prehistoric man out of killing Hacker, so instead Hacker is defeated with a pie in the face.   As the two run off and ride off on the Brontosaurus, Bart and Betty finally arrive at the house. As they pursue, Tyrannosaurus turns and attacks Betty. Naturally she trips (“Fall once and she’s like a turtle on her back”) and naturally the Tyrannosaurus picks her up. With Bart busy getting Dumpy, Chuck and their jeep (another good rock band name), it’s up for the Neanderthal to rescue Betty and hurry off to an abandoned mine with her.  The Tyrannosaurus then attacks the Brontosaurus, badly wounding it.

The caveman, jumping into 50s male stereotype mode, automatically demands for Betty to cook a rabbit he kills. Betty, naturally, is a bit leery about the whole amorous prehistoric man situation (“Hey 1960s, what the hell is wrong with you?!”), but before this can turn into Eegah, Hacker arrives to capture the caveman. Abandoned by his henchmen, Hacker shoots the Neanderthal in the arm, but the Tyrannosaurus attacks.  Bart and Dumpy arrive with Molotov cocktails Chica prepared (she mentions a war, but what war would that be? The Cuban Revolution?) and drive off the Tyrannosaurus with a flare to the mouth (which naturally isn’t killed by either the flare or the other incendiaries), but the Tyrannosaurus’ attacks have caused a cave-in. The Neanderthal sacrifices himself for Julio, Betty and Bart to escape, the cave in killing off Hacker as well. 

As the wounded Brontosaurus sinks into a pit of quicksand, Bart as the requisite Mighty Whitey leads the crew off to an abandoned Spanish fort where the villagers have fled to. With the help of Chuck and Dumpy, he prepares a trench with his excavation vehicles (“We’re actually supposed to take interest in the specifics of their work?! Come on, we had dinosaurs and an unfrozen caveman!”) , and when the Tyrannosaurus arrives, gasoline is poured in and lit.  This still doesn’t stop or kill the Tyrannosaurus, who somehow gets past the trench. Since Chuck doesn’t have a girlfriend, Dumpy is comic relief, Betty is a woman, and no other characters get speaking roles, it’s up to Bart to save the day.

The climax unfolds with Bart fighting the Tyrannosaurus with an excavator. While a white man using modern technology is always going to win in this kind of film, he does have to lure it to the edge of a cliff, then do a full 360-degree rotation to knock the dinosaur into the sea (“Tyrannosaurus is the Sonny Liston of the Upper Cretaceous Period”). Julio seems to call out the filmmakers, asking why the caveman had to die.  Bart (and the filmmakers) lamely offer that being out of their time and being in an unfamiliar environment is worse than death, then he distracts Julio with talk about spaceships and the future. Jurassic World wasn’t the first movie to hold the prehistoric in contempt.

This is an odd movie; creative scenes are mixed with clichés, upbeat kid-friendly scenes mixed with deaths galore.   The direction is fine-it’s a well shot film. The acting is period, and hard to untangle from the terrible script.  Producer Jack Harris wanted to do a dinosaur movie, but didn’t have the imagination to attempt a period piece, instead having dinosaurs brought to an isolated island where modern humans would be more vulnerable. As with many failed scripts, t was tossed around between many writers. In this case,  Harris and Aldis Budrys established the cliched characters, then the original script was written by Dan Weisburd, then it was lightened up a bit by director Irvin Yeaworth and his wife Jean. The Yeaworths wanted a family-friendly film that would be fun for children, making the character Julio prominent and adding the slapstick of the Neanderthal scenes. 

The stop motion was done by the burgeoning group Project Unlimited, who had just gotten started in the effects business but had already done George Pal’s The Time Machine. The team consisted of the three leaders Wah Chang, Gene Warren, and Tim Baar with the animation done by Tom Holland, Don Sahlin, Phil Kellison, and George Pal. The models were made by the veteran sculptor Marcel Delgado himself (Delgado had worked with Willis O’brien since in 1925) and his brother Victor.  While they had half the time they needed to build and animate the dinosaurs, the team did their best.  The result is rather crude compared to the work of Ray Harryhausen (Who was busy working with Charles Schneer at Colombia on a rendition of Gulliver’s Travels)  but still full of personality and energy. 

Still, it’s the script that really makes the film a difficult sit. Film conventions of the early 60s and late 50s, with their annoying kids, boring unlikable protagonists, and various ethnic and sexist stereotypes, just aged badly.  Everyone is a dated stereotypes-dinosaurs and humans alike; the square jawed take-no-crap-from-women-but-loves-kids hero, the dopey chubby sidekick, the idiotic but noble caveman, the victimized and reckless woman, the greedy, cruel and ruthless villain, his stupid, cowardly but not nearly as evil sidekicks, the mindlessly destructive Tyrannosaurus, and the dumb, hapless but friendly Brontosaurus. The Tyrannosaurus is well used, having plenty of threatening scenes and probably the most screentime the species had at the time.   The Brontosaurus  (which I supposed should be happy is purely terrestrial in this film) is sadly underused. It has two effective scenes palling around with Julio, but its fight with Tyrannosaurus is poorly choreographed and executed (relying more on puppets than the animation) and very brief. It dies painfully, a rather sudden and shocking end to the sympathetic dinosaur. The Neanderthal steals the show-he’s funny, he’s sympathetic, and while a lot dumber than a real Neanderthal would be, he’s the most charming character. His sudden brutal death in the third act brings the film to a halt and changes the tone completely.

Tone is the enemy of this film. We have some funny scenes and lines (Hacker: “I didn’t know you were an anthropologist” Jasper: “Not a very good one; I haven’t been to church in years”) , and some great kids material with Julio and his prehistoric friends, but the tone darkens. We’re introduced to Julio, then to the abusive and violent Hacker. We meet the Irish stereotype O’Leary, then he’s killed off horrifically. The Brontosaurus and Neanderthal pal around with Julio, but meet violent deaths.  The slapstick caveman sequence is intercut with the Tyrannosaurus encountering a tour bus and devouring the occupants.  A comedy bit with Betty and the Neanderthal is interrupted by Hacker holding them at gunpoint, a Tyrannosaurus attack, and then the death of the Neanderthal. Before the audience can recover (and Julio still depressed), we immediately run towards the desperate finale with the Tyrannosaurus. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the death of Obi-wan Kenobi is balanced by an exciting dogfight with TIE fighters, followed by a breather of a briefing and some character moments building up to the final battle of Yavin. In Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf’s death is tempered by a long quiet sequence in Lorien before the climax at Amon Hen.  

The film seems not to really respect the dinosaurs. “Yeah, they’re fun, kid, but you need to grow up. Machines and digging and construction and the future are more important” the film says. The past is something to be discarded and feared, an interesting contrast to the conservative treatment of women and minorities the film has. The film can’t really strike a tone balance between horror, drama, and comedy, nor between a children’s dinosaur fantasy and an intense horror film. Steven Spielberg proved his mastery of storytelling by being able to invoke a child’s sense of wonder and awe of dinosaurs while still making a tense, dramatic thriller. Harris and Yeaworth just don’t have that grasp. Spielberg knows better than to kill off the entertaining Dr. Malcolm or the friendly Brachiosaurus, and to give the dastardly saboteur Dennis Nedry a fitting death compared the offscreen death of Hacker (killing off the villain and the comic relief in the same scene is jarring to say the least). 

It’s unfair to compare this film to Jurassic Park, I know, but I’m trying to articulate the storytelling problems of this film. The ambitious premise promises thrills and the child, cartoony characters, and dinosaurs promise a fun kid film, but these two approaches clash with each other rather than blending together in a coherent whole.   Instead of being a classic, it’s more of an obscure cult film (as a child, I only became aware of it because of a VHS containing an extensive series of dinosaur movie trailers). It has the ingredients of both a cheesy turkey and a classic dinosaur picture, and unfortunately it fits the former far more than the latter. It’s more memorable than other sci-fi films of the period, but compared to say, Valley of Gwangi or even Journey to the Beginning of Time, it’s a forgettable drag.  My rating is a 40/100, carried mostly on Martell and the beleaguered effects team.