Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Planet of Dinosaurs (1978) review



James Whitworth (Jim), Charlotte Speer (Charlotte), Louie Lawless (Captain Norsythe), Pamela Bottaro (Nyla), Michael Thayer (Mike), Chuck Pennington (Chuck), Derna Wylde (Derna Lee), Harvey Shain (Harvey)

Directed by James K. Shea

The Short Version: This minor cult item was once a mainstay of Saturday Afternoon local airings; and seen by many monster kids growing up in the 80s. The impressive, and plentiful stop motion animated effects work are the main attraction here in this tribute to the accomplished work of Ray Harryhausen. Aside from the creatures, it's populated by lots of disposable characters that serve no other purpose than to end up as dino food. Recommended for nostalgia lovers and those who can appreciate low budget movies from a time period where even overly bad, "made from scratch" films had an air of child-like wonder about them.

A group of space explorers crash land on an unknown planet with a similar atmosphere to Earth. The stranded Futurians soon discover the land is populated by dinosaurs and other giant creatures.

James K. Shea's sole directorial effort is one that doesn't generally receive much in the way of positive notice. While it's glaringly apparent it's not the most polished movie of its type, it's easily one of the most ambitious in technical terms. Shea and his crew were obviously very passionate about this project, even going so far as to pour the bulk of the minimal budget into the numerous stop motion effects shots. The dinosaur sequences are so good, in fact, that a later film, GALAXY OF DINOSAURS, borrowed much of PLANET's creature footage.

The devotion and respect for famous animator Ray Harryhausen is noticeable not just in the animation by Doug (THE TERMINATOR, ALIENS, EVIL DEAD 2) Beswick, but in a few key scenes. The opening crash in the lake is an homage to the near identical shot in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). Harryhausen's fabled Rhedosaurus also puts in a cameo appearance during the finale where it briefly tangles with the Tyrannosaur. Another well respected animator, Jim Danforth, also worked on the movie as a matte artist as well as animating at least one sequence.

PLANET OF DINOSAURS is the sort of movie you enjoy as a kid, but upon getting older, you recognize its deficiencies, yet still maintain appreciation for what made you love it as a kid in the first place. It's basically a 70s version of countless, and lifeless SyFy Channel drivel; but instead of bland confrontations with CGI critters, it's stop motion dinosaurs devouring a bland cast. It may also dredge up memories of the popular LAND OF THE LOST (1974-1977) television series, which also used stop motion creatures during its three season run.

Speaking of which, this movie lives and breathes by its stop motion dinosaurs (including an Allosaurus, Compsognathus, Styracosaurus, and the all important Tyrannosaurus Rex). Neither the performances nor the flimsy plot leave much of a mark when put up against the numerous monster sequences. According to the DVD commentary, there were some additional scenes shot afterward to beef up the exposition. With bland acting across the board, no amount of characterization is going to make these individuals appealing outside of the audience anxiously waiting for them to meet their fate.

And waiting for the actors to get eaten one by one is just what you'll be doing with this one. The plot, such as it were, consists of our group of spacemen and women trekking across California locations like Hansen Dam and Vasquez Rocks where episodes of the original STAR TREK were shot. You may recognize some rocks and mountain terrain from the likes of 'Arena' and 'Friday's Child' in between (the thankfully frequent) dinosaur attacks. Interestingly enough, there are some who die you don't necessarily expect to get eaten. The film is also surprisingly bloody in places for what is ostensibly a kids movie.

James Whitworth is the only major name among the cast, at least among cult film fanatics. Most likely remembered best for his maniacal Papa Jupiter role in Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), Whitworth had a steady stream of trash film roles throughout the 1970s. Some of these were BLACK ANGELS (1970), SWEET SUGAR (1972), TERMINAL ISLAND (1973) and briefly in THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1974).

He does fine as Jim evoking some sort of futuristic Grizzly Adams who butts heads with the annoying Captain Norsythe (Louie Lawless); whom you'll expect to be scooped up into the maw of any number of carnivorous dinosaurs populating the picture. Both men have that old Ben and Harry argument from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). But instead of deciding whether to stay upstairs or lock themselves in the basement, Jim and Norsythe argue whether they should hunt the dinosaurs or stay neutral and build a stockade.

The only other recognizable face is Michael Thayer (here sporting a bushy porn 'stach) whom trash fanatics will recognize as Ilsa's love interest in ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIK SHEIKS (1976). He gets paired up with another lovely lady, the curvaceous Derna Wylde who doesn't seem to have gotten much work since. According to the DVD commentary, Thayer ended up in the Philippines where he had a stable career.

It's also worth mentioning that the filmmakers were cognizant of the cheesecake and beefcake factor populating their movie. Some of the cast are built well, and very photogenic. The girls get the beefy Chuck Pennington and Thayer, and us guys get Mary Appleseth and Derna Wylde among the four attractive women in the cast. Particular note should go to Mary Appleseth. She's barely in the film at all, but she's the only one who strips down to her bikini only to be eaten by an aquatic creature as soon as she hits the water. She utters her lines with all the conviction of a turtle, but she is very easy on the eyes and shame on Shea for killing her off so quickly.

The soundtrack by Kelly Lammers and John O'Verlin wallows in synthesizer orchestrations, and is mostly unremarkable save for the ominous, otherworldly opening theme. 

Bill Malone (William Malone), the director of SCARED TO DEATH (1981) and the underrated CREATURE (1985) is listed as the "Special Props" person

The films poster design features some striking, Flash Gordon styled artwork that is pretty accurate in the context of what transpires onscreen, and the look of the actors.

The film ends on an uncharacteristically high note where most futuristic pictures were concerned. During the last few minutes, our inter-galactic "cavemen and cavewomen" (now wearing the most modern in prehistoric wear) have essentially started over again in what amounts to a crude, if ambitious new beginning -- but with dinosaurs as neighbors.

Had the acting been better, we'd of had a much more significant piece of science fiction to discuss. As it is, PLANET OF DINOSAURS isn't quite as bad as its reputation suggests, but will likely find its best audience with those who remember it fondly from their younger days.

This review is representative of the Retromedia DVD.

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