With JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM officially joining the “billion dollar club” last week, rampaging reptiles clearly have global appeal. Unfortunately, mega-monsters don’t always fare so well on the big screen. Case in point: a dozen dinosaur films worthy of extinction. These are our picks for the most toothless titles in the prehistoric pantheon.
Ever since their first rickety, live-action incarnation in the 1914 silent film Brute Force, dinosaurs have been a cinematic mainstay. That inauspicious debut was a harbinger of things to come. Creature classics like King Kong (1933 and 2005), Gojira (1954) and Jurassic Park (1993) are outliers in a celluloid tar pit of low-budget quickies, assembly line franchises and kiddie matinée fodder. Even iconic properties have at least one unfortunate sequel, re-make or spin-off somewhere in the mix.
WHEN BAD FILMS HAPPEN TO BIG BEASTS
Our critical journey started with a comprehensive inventory of movies showcasing dinosaurs in some way. For purposes of this assessment, silent films and animation didn’t factor in. Only live-action features were considered. All genres were fair game, however, including comedies.
Rather than picking on the most hopelessly feeble or titles long since forgotten, the final list covers the most significant disappointments in the dinosaur filmography. Each selection started with enough pedigree or production resources that failure wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, whatever potential there might have been got lost somewhere in the production process.
This is the first of two parts. Films are presented in chronological order, spanning U.S. release dates from 1960 to 1981. Box office grosses are original returns and have not been adjusted for inflation.
THE LOST WORLD (1960)
FATAL FLAW: The dinosaurs are played by lizards in drag.
Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, his epic tale of exploration and adventure had previously been adapted for the screen in 1925. The ambitious production is regarded as a classic of the silent era. Groundbreaking stop-motion visuals were created by Willis O’Brien. He would continue his impressive special effects work in the 1933 masterpiece King Kong.
No such accolades or admiration are bestowed upon the 1960 version of The Lost World. It’s a plodding, dull affair thanks to a tedious script and a cast of veteran actors who meander their way through communal career suicide. Frosty, The Poodle doesn’t help matters. Yes, there’s a yappy dog on this expedition for no good reason and it even gets star billing. It’s that kind of movie.
Director Irwin Allen, the schlockmeister behind 70’s disaster potboilers like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, was working with a shoestring budget. The results aren’t pretty. Production design is a cringe-worthy mix of Styrofoam rock formations, plastic jungle plants and some of the most horrendous visual elements ever seen in CinemaScope. Hit play and see for yourself:
No, your eyes do not deceive you! Those fantastical beasties are indeed pet-shop reptiles with fins, horns and assorted dino-bling glued to their bodies. Despite hyperbolic narration designed to convince us otherwise, there is nothing scary or amazing about an Iguanasaurus Rex.
TOTAL DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE GROSS: $2,500,000
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)
FATAL FLAW: Kong looks like a raggedy reject from a Rankin Bass special.
The third installment in Toho’s lucrative Godzilla franchise is a frustrating creative failure. Instead of a rousing battle royale, we get rubber-suit roughhousing and clunky aesthetics. King Kong is such a bedraggled and ridiculous looking mess, every scene the character appears in feels like a train wreck. The film is an uncharacteristic misstep by director Ishirō Honda. To be fair, he shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. There were other forces conspiring against him.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is lighter in tone than its predecessors, due in no small part to studio-backed meddling by special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. He hoped to broaden the appeal of the films by adding more kid-friendly elements. Though Honda wasn’t a fan of the idea, Toho’s support meant he had to at least give it half-hearted credence. That ambivalence probably explains the wildly uneven tone of the final cut. Making matters worse, Tsuburaya’s humorous flourishes land like cheap silliness.
As was often the case with Japanese kaiju films, the English-language version of King Kong vs. Godzilla underwent an extensive overhaul. New scenes were shot and integrated. They added American characters and a long-winded subplot to the narrative. Unfortunately, glaringly racist depictions of island natives (complete with actors in blackface) were not excised. The cumulative effect did moviegoers no favors. Dumbed-down nonsense is still nonsense not worth watching.
TOTAL DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE GROSS: $2,700,000
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)
FATAL FLAW: The U.S. cut runs 90 minutes. It feels like three hours.
When the claim to fame of a dinosaur movie isn’t the dinosaurs, that’s a red flag. Such is the case with this goofy British re-make of the 1940 American original. Even with visual effects by stop-motion master (and Willis O’Brien protegé) Ray Harryhausen, One Million Years B.C. is still best known for the pin-up cheesecake of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini.
That bit of prehistoric prêt-à-porter isn’t even in the film. It was a staged publicity still. On the plus side, at least you don’t have to take an Evangelical charter to the Creation Museum if you’re jonesing to behold a world where man and dinosaur coexist.
Welch’s character belongs to a tribe of peaceful pescatarians. In addition to rudimentary language skills, her people are also blessed with an over-index of nubile, well-coiffed cave ladies. The wig budget alone must have been huge! Too bad it looks like they cut corners with Harryhausen’s contributions.
Poorly executed composite shots doom at least half of the creature set pieces. Like in The Lost World, obvious blow-ups of ordinary lizards and arachnids don’t make for convincing mayhem. It’s a shame every scene of dino-action isn’t on par with this terrific Allosaurus attack:
Even if you give the hit-or-miss visuals a pass, One Million Years B.C. is still a ponderous trudge. Despite four credited screenwriters (including celebrated playwrights Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard), there’s not much in the way of dialogue beyond grunts, snarls and primitive monosyllabics. That places undue burden on a plot already too weak to hold its own weight.
TOTAL DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE GROSS: $8,000,000
THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975)
FATAL FLAW: Hand puppets belong on Sesame Street.
Though The Land That Time Forgot is indeed based on a 1924 novel by “the author of Tarzan” (Edgar Rice Burroughs), don’t be fooled by a desperate ploy to associate junk with a literary classic. The film is from American International Pictures, the Family Dollar of production and distribution companies. Some of their releases are a cheesy hoot. This isn’t one of them.
For a movie overrun by hand-puppet monsters and stiff pterodactyls on strings, The Land That Time Forgot chugs along with almost no sense of farce or fun. A decent set-up involving a German u-boat attack eventually devolves into another shopworn “lost world” discovery yarn. This one folds in some hokum about evolution before the obligatory volcanic eruption ends the story…and your pain.
Reliable box office grosses are not available, but the movie did well enough to spawn a direct sequel and two additional genre films (all starring Doug McClure and directed by Kevin Connor). The People That Time Forgot (1977), At the Earth’s Core (1976) and Warlords of Atlantis (1978) are also low-budget howlers, but they’re a blast to watch. If you’re looking for a midnight movie diversion, any one of these follow-ups would be a better choice than the depressing original.
KING KONG (1976)
FATAL FLAW: They built a 40 foot robo-Kong. It didn’t work.
Long before Giada was the De Laurentiis with a household name, her grandfather was the family’s standard-bearer. Dino De Laurentiis was a prolific producer and co-producer with hundreds of feature credits to his name. Some were celebrated successes, like La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1956) and Serpico (1973). Others were unmitigated disasters, like Barbarella (1968), Dune (1984) and this soulless re-make of the 1933 classic.
Like many of the worst films he produced, De Laurentiis lavished King Kong with a massive budget and relentless pre-release hype. The supposed pièce de résistance was a life-sized, 40 foot tall mechanical Kong. Built by special effects honcho Carlo Rambaldi at a cost of more than $2 million, the final assemblage was so leaden and unconvincing it appears on screen for less than a minute. You can see some of those “golden moments” in several quick cuts during this climactic scene:
With robo-Kong sidelined, the monster mayhem is a jarring confluence of convincing close-ups (using a cable operated mask), medium and long shots that are obviously a guy in a gorilla suit (Rick Baker, in an uncredited role) and some truly awful composite work. Tacky as it all looked in the final cut, Oscar took the bait. Rambaldi received a Special Achievement Academy Award for visual effects.
King Kong was a commercial success. That says less about the film’s quality and more about the power of carnival barker marketing circa 1976. Sure, De Laurentiis spared no expense. Too bad he didn’t spend a dime of that money on a story, characters or screenplay worth caring about.
TOTAL DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE GROSS: $52,614,445
FATAL FLAW: Fart jokes are the comedic high-water mark.
Released less than a year after Airplane! turned spoofing films into box-office gold, Caveman was one of its first inevitable imitators. Like most crassly opportunistic productions, this flaccid comedy is vastly inferior in every way. Ostensibly a satire of One Million Years B.C., that film actually had more laughs (unintentional though they may be).
A decent cast (including a young Dennis Quaid and Shelley Long, pre-Cheers) is wasted on 90 minutes of fart jokes, lame sexual innuendo and dated slapstick. The charmingly dorky stop-motion dinosaurs also deserve much better celluloid stomping grounds.
TOTAL DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE GROSS: $15,965,924
PART TWO: COMING JULY 20