Monday 15 December 2014

Unknown Island [1948]

UNKNOWN ISLAND is an American fantasy-adventure film that was directed by Jack Bernhard and originally released in October 1948.  It stars Virginia Grey, Richard Denning, Phillip Reed and Barton MacLane.  An unscrupulous businessman, with finance-providing fiancee in tow, hires an equally unscrupulous sea captain to take them to an uncharted island where dinosaurs are reputed to have survived.  They take along a washed-up adventurer who had been shipwrecked there some years before and only escaped at the cost of his nerves.

These days the modern cinemagoer is expected to pay through the nose for a film and some advertising, and encouraged to also purchase a megadrink and enormopopcorn at similarly inflated prices.  In the good old days when you got proper value for your cinema ticket, you'd get the main film, a supporting (or B) picture, possibly a serial episode and no doubt some newsreels. UNKNOWN ISLAND is such a B picture.

The reason I bring all this up is to draw a distinction between a good example of the B picture and that which might be considered to be their modern equivalent.  Following the letter of the law there isn't a modern equivalent; as I said above, you simply don't get a supporting feature any more so the concept of A and B pictures is redundant.

"But", I hear you cry, "not all modern films are glossy big budget productions with proper movie stars!"  You're quite right too: in actual fact there are probably fewer A pictures in production these days than has ever been the case.  The modern movie business prefers there to be fewer films and for them all to be putative blockbusters.  Why go to the trouble of making and marketing hundreds of very expensive films when you can make a few dozen?  All you have to do is ensure that all cinemas show the same films and then Joe Public has no choice but to see what you want them to see.

A consequence of this trend is that there is a massive gap in the market for film-makers who for one reason or another can't or won't make blockbusters.  A good chunk of that gap is filled by inane comedies and derivative horror movies, a few of which are well enough produced that they elbow their way into the multiplexes.  What you have left could be described as the modern B pictures: straight-to-DVD features, semi-pro horror movies, films made for niche cable channels - in short, films that were never intended to be seen at the cinema. And therein lies the difference between ancient and modern: however cheap and ostensibly insignificant the old school B picture might have been, it was still made using standard film industry methods and to be consumed at the cinema.

The point I'm trying to make is that the quality gap was much narrower then than it is today.  If you poke around in the credits of some of these B pictures you'll often find technicians who worked on A pictures as well.  UNKNOWN ISLAND is a case in point: it was edited by Harry W. Gerstad, who was a two-time Oscar winner - including for the stone cold classic HIGH NOON [1952]; the DP was Fred Jackman Jr who did uncredited special effects on MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON [1939]; the set dresser was Robert Priestley who worked on many prestige productions including GILDA [1946] and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF [1958].  These guys were industry veterans and even if the budget of the film they were working on was lower than they were used to you still got the benefit of their experience and artistry.  That kind of cross-pollination simply doesn't happen these days; it's inconceivable, for example, to think that the DP on Danny Dyer's latest picture is also moonlighting as the DP on James Cameron's next AVATAR iteration.

This is Ted Osborne's photograph taken while flying over the Unknown Island
Speaking of moonlighting, 18 months or so ago I wrote film reviews for a horror movie website and was appalled at the low quality of the stuff I was sent.  These are the semi-pro efforts I mentioned earlier: they're shot on digital video so they look ugly, the performances are terrible and the special effects dreadful.  They're not even straight-to-video standard, much less B picture standard.  So while cheap technology has put film-making in the hands of a greater number than ever before, in so doing it has opened a vast, almost unbreachable gulf between the two ends of the film-making spectrum.

The intrepid explorers make landfall
There's loads to enjoy in UNKNOWN ISLAND.  It opens in a seedy Singapore bar, complete with fist fights, before setting sail with a brief boat sequence (boat-bound scenes are among my favourites in movies), complete with mutiny, before landing on the titular isle at a gloriously fake shoreline set which looks more like the edge of a boating lake.  Okay, yes so the seams are beginning to show a bit here but what I like about the sets is the craft behind them; the idea of having a great pool of water in the middle of a sound stage surrounded by what must be miles of electric cable is terrifying but if that's what the script calls for then that's what the tech boys will deliver.

A poor Malay crewmember about to fall victim to a couple of rear-projected dinos
A giant sloth (this is probably Ray "Crash" Corrigan suited up)
It's the same with the jungle sets, which aren't actually that bad: the Hollywood craftsmen simply get on with doing their job the best they can given the budget.  The less said about the dinosaurs and "giant sloth" the better but here again I admire the chutzpah of the crew: the low budget wasn't seen as a limit on ambition.  Indeed, the challenge of coming up with a desert island, a seashore, several monsters, and a cliff-top fight between a giant sloth and a T-rex wasn't enough to daunt these boys.  Contrast that with a lot of today's horror movies, most of which give up the ghost (if you'll pardon the pun) and cop out of producing special effects by falling back on the tiresome 'found footage' gimmick.

Phillip Reed (C) as Ted Osborne and Virginia Grey as Carole Lane.  N.B. On the left is silent movie star Snub Pollard

Barton MacLane as Captain Tarnowski
Richard Denning as John Fairbanks
The acting is good too.  Another thing today's equivalent of B pictures can't offer is an experienced, charismatic cast: you might get a Brad Dourif or a Malcolm McDowell or a Jeffrey Combs but that's pretty much it and they'll be surrounded by lots of pretty but bland youngsters.  Marooned on UNKNOWN ISLAND are: Richard Denning, monster movie stalwart; Virginia Grey, one time squeeze of Clark Gable and an MGM contracted player in her own right; Barton MacLane, grizzled character actor par excellence, notably from John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON [1941] and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE [1948].  You even get Dick "Cueball" Wessel and, albeit in a dinosaur suit, Ray "Crash" Corrigan, at whose movie ranch Corriganville the exteriors were shot.  N.B. Corriganville was in Ventura County, California, not the Malay Peninsula.

1 comment:

  1. This movie's without a doubt one of the goofiest dinosaur movies ever made considering that it's got bad acting and goofy effects! Add to the fact that the movie ends with a derpy-eyed ceratosaurus confronting and fighting a rather ape-like sloth makes this movie even more goofy and laughable!