Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Lost Continent (1968)

For a brief time in the late 90s, I lived in the Philadelphia area.  Not as massive and overbearing as New York City nor as unrelentingly bright and politically correct as Los Angeles (not that I’m against either city; they’re simply not for me), I found Philadelphia and myself to be a pretty good fit.  There was just enough grime and crime to make it exciting and just enough events to attend to make you feel culturally uplifted (even if said events happened to include grubby loincloths and the spraying of bodily fluids).  Parking was for shit, especially near any place you actually wanted to go, but the one thing that made Philly easy to navigate is that it is essentially a series of concentric circles (okay, squares, but I think you get the picture).  You could start on either the outside or inside and gradually work your way down or up to your chosen destination quite readily.  Naturally, knowing a few shortcuts never hurt, and there was always those places you would need to get to (as opposed to wanting to get to) which seemed almost purposefully hidden (and I’m thinking here of the UPS depot in South Philly, specifically).  Yet, going to these places was like finding a new city entirely in some ways, and even if you hadn’t a clue what street it was you had just passed, you knew that your objective would inevitably be just ahead, just a couple of streets away, always attainable.  Of course, having not lived there for some time, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what negotiating the area is like nowadays.

Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) has his ship, The Corita, leave its latest port hellbent for leather.  Aboard the vessel are a motley gathering of malcontents including (but not limited to) Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley, whom you may recognize from Doctor Who’s “The Seeds Of Doom” storyline), Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), and Unity Webster (Suzanna Leigh).  It seems that the good captain has taken on a load of Phosphor-B, which is not only illegal but also highly comburent when it comes in contact with water.  Needless to say, the ship is heading into an oncoming hurricane.  After some of the characters come through that ordeal they then have to deal with the man-eating seaweed which is pulling The Cordita into a waterborne naval graveyard and its inhospitable inhabitants.

Michael Carreras’s The Lost Continent is an adaptation of the 1938 novel by renowned fantasist/occultist Dennis Wheatley.  The film was produced by Hammer Studios, and it bears that traditionalist feel associated with so many of Hammer’s efforts.  The film takes its time setting up all these characters and then takes its time also fleshing them out (or fleshing them out as much as it ever could).  There is not a lot of visual flair or ostentatious camerawork, and the camera only moves when it is necessary and never without motivation.  It gives off an air of “production,” a place for everything and everything in its place, and keeps the viewers at arm’s length even when trying to get them to invest in the trials and tribulations of the characters.  This is one of those films where you become very aware of the ambient sound that overtakes a scene when the characters are not speaking.  It’s one of the things I love about movies, that tangible silence that you only get in this medium, and it’s something that’s not seen often in more recent films, for better or worse (and I vote the latter, but that’s just me).  

To a man (or woman, depending on your perspective), the characters are misanthropes of the first order.  Harry is an inveterate souse.  Eva is a thief.  Unity is a spoiled brat.  Lansen is just an all-around jerk.  Even after placing these characters in the path of danger, it is extremely difficult to drum up any sense of sympathy for all but a few of them.  Sure, we get the reasoning behind why these people have had to flee their pasts and take off for Caracas.  But we just don’t care.  In fact, we almost want the ship to go down (I did; you may not) and put these people out of our misery quickly.  Alas, no such luck.

The titular land mass is interesting not only in its concept but in its execution.  Apparently, this deadly sargassum snares ships which happen to hit it and draw them in, eventually crushing their hulls and forming a de facto continent.  There is little actual land mass which makes up the area, being comprised mostly of seaweed which can be traversed with the aid of some balloons and snowshoe-type devices.  The entire region is enshrouded with fog, which is most likely due to budget constraints, but it also serves a purpose diegetically.  It is the gateway (along with the hurricane, in the same tradition as The Wizard Of Oz, sort of) to this new world, which is actually nothing more than a very old world cut off from modern society.  Intriguingly, there are several ways to look at this in the story.  It’s possible that the passengers on The Corita did not make it through the hurricane; That they have died, and their souls have been deposited in Hell to atone for their sins.  The Lost Continent is the afterlife, its inhabitants the damned.  Another way to look at it is in the juxtaposition of El Supremo (Darryl Read) and his religious fanatics versus the modern newcomers.  The Boy-God believes that he is there to civilize the people stranded on the continent, but he and others in his thrall will be civilized (for good or ill) by Lansen and company, but judging from the way the newbies treat each other, perhaps the zealots would be better off just going about their business.

What ultimately drags the film down, though, is its wildly uneven pacing.  The story starts off like a Disaster Film, with the characters having to overcome not only the obstacles which nature throws at them but also being wrapped up in their individual melodramas.  When the ship hits the eponymous expanse (which incidentally isn’t until the final half hour or so), the film suddenly switches into High Adventure mode, with bizarre, rubbery monsters flung at the screen just to give viewers something to look at or to get rid of the odd character.  Fair enough, but it short changes the fantastic segment of the story, and, consequently, the ending feels rushed and perfunctory.  Add to that, the characters act almost exactly like they did before anything bad happened to them, as everything goes down the tubes.  I suppose you could chalk it up to the legendary British “stiff upper lip,” but it just comes off as baffling and unsatisfying.  Not even the appearance of Dana Gillespie (and let’s face it, she does little more than fill the standard Hammer quotient of buxom beauties, with her cleavage a special effect unto itself) can make the film worthy of any serious praise.  For a film titled The Lost Continent, it gives very little indication that it cares enough to actually be about the Lost Continent.

MVT:  The interplay between the characters is engaging in that every one of them seemingly has nothing but open contempt for any or all of the others.  It keeps the conflict level high.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do the same for the entertainment level.

Make Or Break:  The battle between the giant crab and giant scorpion is the best scene in the film (and if you’ve seen stills of it, you have a perfect idea of exactly how exciting it is).  Regrettably, however, it is too short to appease and too clumsily executed to impress.  If you can make it through the rest of the film for this, I suppose you know exactly what it is you want out of this film.

Score:  5.5/10

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