The Land Unknown (1957) dir. Virgil Vogel
Starring: Jock Mahoney, Shawn Smith and William Reynolds
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
The Land Unknown, a stirring, imaginative and entertaining feature-length sci-fi fantasy in the “lost world” mode is the work of a directorial non-entity by the name of Virgil Vogel. Vogel eventually distinguished himself as a camera jockey par excellence when he directed literally thousands of hours of dramatic television series including “The Big Valley”, “The Streets of San Francisco”, “Bonanza”, “Mission Impossible” and “Magnum P.I.” (to name but a few). Vogel helmed the shooting of some of the very best and certainly most popular dramatic programs, but as a T.V. director, he would always be taking a creative back seat to the artistic vision of the producers. In television this has (and still is) almost always the case - the producers are the auteurs – not the directors.
With feature-length motion pictures, however, critics and audiences generally tend to wax oh-so-eloquently about the considerable stylistic signature touches that directors bring to the table. This is especially so with genre pictures. Argento, Bava, Fulci, Cronenberg, Shyamalan, Browning and Whale – to name but a very few – are all directors associated with a wide variety of stylish horror, suspense and fantasy pictures and who all have distinctive signatures. But alas, when one thinks of phantasmagorical cinema, one virtually never conjures the name of a producer.
There was, however, a time when producers and/or studios and studio heads and/or production executives were often the primary driving creative force behind genre pictures. The most famous example is, of course, Val Lewton – the genius behind such noir-like RKO horror pictures from the 40s as The Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie and The Body Snatchers, among many others. While Lewton worked with a number of the same directors on these pictures (Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson and Robert Wise), the overriding stylistic voice is so consistent from picture to picture that it is clearly Lewton who is the auteur. Any individual signature touches belonging to the directors of those pictures are overshadowed to the point of obscurity. Lewton’s vision rules. (Interestingly enough, Lewton is such an important filmmaker that he is the only producer in all of film history to be afforded a DVD box set devoted to his productions. Not even true producer auteurs like David O. Selznick or Jerry Bruckheimer have box sets devoted to their distinctive oeuvres.)
Lewton might be King, but there remain a number of other great visionary producers of genre pictures.
Under Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Jr., Universal Pictures (during the 30s) was home to a myriad of iconic horror pictures including the Dracula, Frankenstein, Invisible Man, Wolf Man and Mummy franchises. While these properties utilized some of the aforementioned auteur directors (Browning and Whale), there is a consistency in tone and look to these pictures – a grand sense of humour mixed with the guignol. This is clearly the influence of the Laemmles - especially when one compares the Laemmle-produced franchise horror pictures to the subsequent sequels under Charles R. Rogers who took over as production head of Universal when the Laemmles were forced out in the late 30s.
In the 50s, we saw the beginnings of Roger Corman’s considerable influence as a producer of genre pictures and while his stature should not be diminished, he ultimately is in a separate league due to the fact that he eventually exercised his visions as a director too.
The actual fact of the matter is that the unsung hero of genre pictures was none other than William Alland, an in-house producer of genre features at Universal Pictures during post-war-cold-war America. Alland not only created a series of entertaining and original sci-fi horror pictures (Colossus of New York and This Island Earth), but created one of Universal Pictures’ most enduring and beloved horror franchises – the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Alland also worked with a number of directors – namely Jack Arnold and Nathan Juran (as well as the abovementioned Virgil Vogel), but again, there is a consistency to the pictures that suggests that the true auteur is Alland himself.
Alland’s most obvious trademark is his interest in sci-fi horror pictures that blend an ecological theme with a kick-ass monster (the latter to justify the activism and politics of the pictures and make them commercial). This approach to genre storytelling was not only a major influence upon other films and filmmakers at Universal, but the entire industry – during and after this period.
And, of course, one of Alland’s best pictures, The Land Unknown was not only a big hit at the time, but provided at least two generations of nerds with thrills and chills when the picture became a staple of creature-feature television broadcasts during the 60s, 70s and 80s. And it’s no surprise why it was and still is a much beloved genre picture – everything one would want from such a picture (including the kitchen sink) is on display here and then some.
We get a granite-jawed two-fisted handsome hero who provides more than able leadership to a motley assortment of adventurers (including a requisite babe) who find themselves in a mysterious world below sea level in the Antarctic where everything is heated by volcanoes and shrouded in a mist that allows for the continued preservation of dinosaurs.
Yee-haa! Let the fun keep a coming!
The script is lean and mean, the cast is highly attractive (from hunky Jock Mahoney to babe-a-licious Winnipeg-born Miss California beauty queen Shawn Smith) and the effects from Universal’s whiz-bang Clifford Stine rock big-time (even some of the cheesier man-in-suit and/or enlarged lizards work well thanks to some superb composite work and first-rate production design).
The expert and virtually seamless use of actual footage shot in Antarctica blended with the exceptional visuals creates the kind of mood necessary to plunge us wholeheartedly into the magical world The Land Unknown.
Most interestingly, we get a film which not only shows how man (in the name of science, exploration and ultimately, big money) infiltrates and encroaches upon an otherwise pristine natural world, but given the actual setting of the lost world itself, we have a film that eerily anticipates what has become global warming.
The Land Unknown is one of several terrific new films that are part of Universal Pictures wonderful box set called The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. In addition to The Land Unknown, the box features three other magnificent William Alland productions, The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula and The Mole People.
One last note about William Alland – Alland actually began his career as an actor. He was an original member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company and he performed in the now-legendary radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds. Alland also toiled for Welles as an assistant director – un-credited, of course. Even cooler is that William Alland, as an actor, portrays what is perhaps the most important character (save for the title character) in the greatest picture of all-time – Citizen Kane. Seen mostly in long or medium shots, and often from behind, Alland is the reporter entrusted with getting Kane’s story and through whom much of the film is mediated.
Like the near-faceless reporter in Citizen Kane, William Alland always remained in the background, but was clearly an ever-present mediator and conveyor of great drama and, most importantly, grand entertainment. The Land Unknown is proof positive of that fact.
"The Land Unknown" is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Enetertainment