A Journey To The Beginning of Time/Cesta do praveku (1955)

‘I mean, it wouldn’t sound good if it was called bumpy head or bubble nose or whatever.’

Four young boys embark on a strange trip back through the epochs of prehistory when they find an underground river in a secret cave. Their journey becomes a mixture of a grand adventure and a struggle for survival when their boat is wrecked by an unseen creature…

Unusual children’s film featuring the groundbreaking FX work of director Karel Zeman. He’d already made his mark in the Czechoslovakian movie industry with a series of short films, but this was his first attempt at a project of feature-length. Here, he combines model work, animation and stop motion techniques to create a prehistoric world that’s quite an achievement, given the vintage of the project.

Young boy Petr (Josef Lukás) is reading his logbook, reviewing the fantastic adventure he enjoyed over the summer with friends, Toník (Petr Herrman), Jenda (Zdenek Hustak) and Jirka (Vladimír Bejval). When the latter unearthed a fossilised trilobite, the others promised to show him a living specimen. So the quartet embarked in a rowboat down an underground river in a hidden cave. There’s no lead up to any of this action; we’re not told where the children are, how they found the cave, or how it can take them back into prehistory. When the film was released in America, a new opening sequence was shot with four young lookalike actors visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York and then rowing out on Central Park Lake, where they find the cave.

Once they emerge from the other end of the cave, our intrepid quartet finds themselves trying to row through the pack ice of the Ice Age, but expedition leader Lukás is confident it will disperse, much to the relief of the impatient Bejval. Here it becomes clear that the river is a way back through the geological ages of the planet, rather than a doorway to one specific time in Earth’s past. Lukás even has a map folded up in his precious notebook.

As the ice breaks up, Bejval’s spots a woolly mammoth grazing on the shore nearby. This is the first appearance of one of Zeman’s creatures and a mighty impressive animal it is, the smooth flow of its movements even surpassing those of Ray Harryhausen’s more familiar menagerie. It must be acknowledged, however, that these movements are far more limited in comparison. There’s a switch to full animation when actual locomotion is required, although it’s still artfully delivered.

The boys’ next discovery is a caveman’s hideout, complete with jawbone weapon and wall paintings, although the occupant is nowhere to be found. From there, our explorers meet a whole series of creatures, more familiar ones at first such as flamingos, giraffes and elephants, before the river takes them back to more monstrous times. There, they find themselves ringside at a fight between a T Rex and a Stegosaurus (makes a change from a Triceratops, I suppose). Unfortunately, despite its armour, the herbivore comes off badly and expires soon afterwards. The event gives our heroes their one chance of a close encounter with a dinosaur, and they examine and clamber over the corpse in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

However, it’s around this point that some of the film’s shortcomings start to become apparent. The relationships between the characters are never clearly established, and no mention is made of their home lives or parents. We’re never even told if any of them are related to each other, although you might assume that to be the case, given that Bejval is a few years younger than the other three. There’s also Lukás constantly identifying all the flora and fauna they encounter and writing everything in his logbook.

Eventually, the inescapable conclusion is that this film is intended to be educational as much as entertaining. There’s a distinct possibility that it was designed as a learning tool, perhaps even to be shown in schools. This would explain why nothing in the story is ever explained, and the plot, such as it is, dissolves into a series of encounters with various prehistoric creatures. These have little dramatic weight because there is no developing plot. The destruction of the quartet’s boat suggests that things are hotting up, but, ultimately, the event has no significant consequences.

Of course, it is the SFX that merit attention and admiration today. Most of the dinosaurs were modelled after the paintings and drawings of celebrated Czech artist Zdenek Burian, and Zeman’s skill brings them to life in a way that was remarkable for the time. He presents us with an impressive Trachadon, a Brontosaurus, a Styracosaurus and a group of Pteradons and some of the composite shots where they share the frame with our young heroes are very well done. Those which feature a model of our rowing quartet have stood the test of time somewhat less persuasively, though.

Within a few years, Zeman had created the outstanding feature ‘The Fabulous World of Jules Verne/The Deadly Invention’ (1958), which boasts a seamless mix of live-action and animation. It still holds up superbly over half a century later and has been unjustly neglected. Later projects included ‘The Outrageous Baron Munchausen/Baron Prásil’ (1962) and a return to his Verne obsession with the somewhat less dramatically satisfying ‘On The Comet/Na komete’ (1970). Unfortunately, although acknowledged by professionals in the animation field, he is not well-known to the general public, an oversight that ought to be remedied.

Squarely aimed at children with a thirst for knowledge, Zeman’s first feature may fall short in its dramatic respects, but it’s still a fine showcase for his skills as an SFX artist, model maker and animator.

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)

Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)‘I tried to persuade Joe to remove his clothes and pose as a faun.’

Two young boys pester their uncle to tell them a story. He chooses to tell a tale of a trip to the remote Slumber Mountain, where one of the explorers falls asleep and dreams a strange dream…

This 18 minute short subject was the brainchild of early SFX guru and animator Willis O’Brien, who had already created half a dozen similar productions for Edison with titles such as ‘The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy’ (1915) and the intriguingly titled ‘Prehistoric Poultry’ (1916). These early experiments found O’Brien pioneering the ‘stop-motion’ technique of animation, a method almost exclusively used to create monsters and mythological beasts until the advent of Computer-Generated-Imagery, and most famously practiced by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

Here, the story is slight and actually rather drawn out if you consider the film’s brief running time. Two young cousins decide their afternoon can only be improved by pestering their Uncle Jack (Herbert M Dawley) who’s supposed to be working. Luckily, as a writer, he’s only too glad to be interrupted. To fulfil their wishes, he spins a story about two travellers who head to the mysterious Slumber Mountain, a remote region allegedly inhabited by a mad old hermit (played by O’Brien himself, uncredited). While one paints, the other falls asleep and dreams that the hermit takes him to a place to watch dinosaurs, although some commentators have suggested that the man travels back in time.

Here we find O’Brien’s work at an early stage in its development; the fluidity of movement isn’t bad but the creatures are generally shown from a distance rather than close up. We see a Diplodocus at a watering hole and a prehistoric bird, although it only appears on the ground. The glorious exception is the climactic fight between the Triceratops and the T. Rex. It may only be brief, but it’s a few seconds of footage that launched a thousand prehistoric movie clichés, probably second only to cave girls in leopard skins with perfect hair and dental work.

Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918)

‘Come on mate, put your horns into it! Raquel’s watching…’

The hours of painstaking work that went into these brief scenes were an undoubted labour of love and O’Brien eventually got his just rewards. Seven years later, he was hired to create the dinosaurs of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’ (1925). It was a daunting prospect; not only had O’Brien to oversee the making and animation of the beasts, he also had to establish how they might have looked and moved. Indeed, the Agathaumas, which O’Brien based on a painting by Charles R. Knight, is thought now to have never existed.

Fortunately for O’Brien, the film was a massive hit, but there was little call for his specialised talents immediately afterward. Later on, his debut as a feature director, ‘Creation’ (1931), was shelved after the cost of the SFX sent it wildly over budget. However, after wrangling a giant ape called ‘King Kong’ (1933), his name entered the halls of the Hollywood greats. But he had little opportunity to enjoy his greatest success. Toward the end of the year, his estranged wife Helen shot dead their two sons and attempted suicide. She survived, but died soon afterwards from a combination of tuberculosis and cancer.

O’Brien’s subsequent career is surprisingly patchy, with little more than a half dozen more pictures over the next 30 years, and those including such underwhelming items as ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1949), ‘The Black Scorpion’ (1957) and ‘Behemoth, The Sea Monster’ (1959). He’s also credited as an ‘Effects Technician’ on lrwin Allen’s terrible remake of ‘The Lost World’ (1960), but apparently his contribution was limited to hundreds of dinosaur sketches and concepts, all of which proved too expensive for Allen’s pocket.

This film may be a slight creation when viewed today, but it was an important stepping stone in the history of SFX, and led to the screen realisation of everybody’s favourite big ape.

Carnosaur (1993)

Carnosaur (1993)‘Humans are the ants crawling through their living rooms…’

A top geneticist has been working in secrecy at an underground government facility in the desert. By the time the bigwigs take any notice, her plans to repopulate the world with dinosaurs are well advanced. To make matters worse, one of her pets escapes and begins tucking into the local population.

What could be better than 3-time Oscar nominee Diane Ladd breeding dinosaurs from chicken eggs laid by young blondes in an early 1990s Roger Corman schlockfest? Well, as it turns out, almost anything really!

This is dreary stuff indeed, with a premise so contrived and ridiculous that the script doesn’t even bother with a great deal of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook to explain it. Instead Ladd just pontificates a lot about how awful humans are and how great the dinosaurs were. In typical low-budget fashion she was obviously only available for a few days filming so never leaves her lab and has only limited interaction with the rest of the no-name cast. A lot of the other main characters never meet each other either, so the story doesn’t so much develop as fragment into a series of vaguely related scenes almost randomly stuck together.

The SFX are truly laughable as well, ranging from a desperately stiff and unconvincing ‘full size’ creature to a selection of gory hand puppets used for close ups. This does make for some laugh out loud moments, of course, but they are few and far between, and the audience is left adrift in a sea of dull mediocrity. Nods to George A Romero’s classic ‘The Crazies’ (1973) only highlight the production’s deficiencies, and attempts to add a layer of authenticity by inserting very official looking ‘time & place’ captions at the start of every scene are completely doomed.

Carnosaur (1993)

Carnosaur’s table manners left a little to be desired…

Ladd bares up as well as she can, and she is handy to have around when you’re laying an egg, but her climatic scenes must rank as a career low, and rather a humiliating experience for this respected actress. Elsewhere, a lot of the burden falls on the shoulders of nominal hero Raphael Sbarge and pretty, young environmental activist Jennifer Runyan. Unfortunately, it’s hard to care about two such underdeveloped characters, which becomes a serious liability at the supposedly hard-hitting climax.

Lengthy scenes in a local diner feature the usual assortment of generic stereotypes favoured by lazy (or ‘in a hurry’) scriptwriters, and we’re treated to some truly idiotic, unrealistic dialogue. Our scaly anti-hero also squares off against construction vehicles at one point in a tired nod to the climactic confrontation in ‘Aliens’ (1986).

Corman was only executive producer, leaving ‘on the job’ chores to writer-director Adam Simon (‘Body Chemistry II: Voice of A Stranger’ (1992)) with help from Darren Moloney, whose only other directorial credit to date is ‘Andomina: The Pleasure Planet’ (1999). The whole mess was apparently taken from a novel by John Brosnan, who was also involved here.

The fact that the film came out in the months following worldwide smash ‘Jurassic Park’ (1992) was obviously a complete coincidence. Even the fact that one of the advertising lines was ‘It’s no walk in the park.’

Sequels followed.

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)
‘We can’t risk lives trying to tame dinosaurs!’

A space crew flee their exploding craft and crash land on a nearby planet. Luckily, it has an oxygen based atmosphere, Earth-like gravity and bears an uncanny resemblance to Vasquez Rocks in California. Unluckily, the local population are large, reptilian and very hungry.

A film that truly does what it says on the tin! You want some excellent stop motion dino action on an alien world? You got it! It’s just a shame that it’s interspersed with a dreadful script and a non-professional cast dressed in jogging suits and flares.

We begin in the spaceship’s control room; a very dark and apparently cramped place where the Captain (Louie Lawless) and his girl Friday (Pamela Baruto) are squashed together in front of a TV screen and some buttons. Things go pear shaped when the ship’s reactor hits critical and most(?) of the crew are ejected in an escape capsule. Heading for the closest planet, they crash into a lake, only it’s not the ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968), this is the ‘Planet of Dinosaurs’ (1977) baby!

11 of the crew bail out one by one into the water, although there are only 8 of them by the time they reach the shore. We don’t see what happens to the other 3 but I guess they just didn’t make it. The girl in charge of the radio realises she’s left it behind and dives back into get it. Unfortunately, she gets chomped by some of the local wildlife but hey, we get to see her strip down to her undies first, so that’s fine.

Planet of Dinosaurs (1977)

‘Talk to the hand…’

The survivors then get some dino action. Yes, it’s all stop motion and no, it’s certainly not ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993), but the SFX are really very good for the time. The fluidity of motion of all creatures is excellent and, although interaction with the cast isn’t entirely convincing, it’s kept to a minimum so it doesn’t really spoil things. To achieve this on what was obviously a low budget is damn impressive (although the running Triceratops was a poor decision).

Sadly, what isn’t so good is the unspeakable script. Inane and lengthy dialogue really doesn’t help the inexperienced cast and the acting is very stilted indeed. Few of these performers went on to appear in anything else; the most naturalistic and convincing being Baruto, whose only other credit is a bit in an Al Adamson movie! The musical soundtrack is also a problem, composed mostly of strange bleeps (hey, it’s the future!) and weird fart noises (eh?) However, on the credit side, the story does get points for not employing the obvious ‘Statue of Liberty’ twist and instead going for an ending that is rather realistic and appropriate.

One of the dinos that appears near the end is based on the Rhedosaur that appeared in ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ (1953). Apparently, SFX maestro Ray Harryhausen visited the production and gave his consent for this little nod to his own work. And he must have been impressed with the final results. Probably not so much with the rest of the movie though…

Buy ‘Planet of Dinosaurs’ here