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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Danforth’

You know, in the past I’ve kind of touched on the importance of a film having a really good title, but I’m starting to wonder if some titles are just too good to be left lying around in the open for anyone to use. Surely some sort of licensing system should be introduced where film-makers have to prove they’re really got what it takes to make a movie worthy of a really good name. It would certainly avoid crushing disappointments of the kind accompanying awful films with brilliant names like Lesbian Vampire Killers and A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell – and now that I think about it there may even be a case for imposing a relevency clause. Tyrannosaur was a terrific movie, but its existence sort of precludes anyone making a film called Tyrannosaur about an actual tyrannosaur, which is – I think you’ll agree – a shame, any way you cut it.

All this thought about titles and – more specifically – mesozoic megafauna was occasioned by my stumbling across James K Shea’s 1978 film Planet of Dinosaurs on a well-known video-sharing website. This is, obviously, a great name for a movie (possibly not a Ken Loach movie, admittedly), and coupled to this is a plot which emanates straight from exploitation-movie heaven: survivors of a crashed spaceship must battle to survive against the prehistoric monsters of an alien world, struggling to remain civilised as they do so! Ah, the dinosaurs! Ah, the heightened passions in this primitive new world! Ah, the babe in the chamois-leather bikini in the poster!

How it really works out is like this: the starship Odyssey is heading on its way when disaster strikes – one of the reactors goes out of control, to the consternation of Captain Lee (Louie Lawless, who was Oscar-nominated. But not for this movie. And not as an actor) and his co-pilot Nyla (Pamela Bottaro). Lee and Nyla appear to be almost unique amongst the crew of the ship, in that firstly, they are both on the same (very small) set together – everyone else reports in via video screen, from what looks suspiciously like the same room. Their other unusual quality is… well, let’s see if you notice it.

Anyway, the Odyssey does a firework impression and the ship’s lifeboat crashes, very cheaply, into a lake on the closest alien planet. This bit really is a rip-off of the original Planet of the Apes, leading one to expect a much, much classier movie than what follows. Lee and Nyla and their colleagues Jim (Jim Whitworth), Harvey (Harvey Shain), Derna (Derna Wylde), Mike (Mike Thayer), Chuck (Chuck Pennington) and Charlotte (Charlotte Speer) swim for shore.

Yes indeed, nearly everyone in this movie has the same name as their character. I can’t really work out why this is, as this doesn’t appear to be a playfully metafictional drama or arty docu-drama. Maybe it just saved the director from having to remember too many names – he certainly seems to have been struggling in some departments on this movie.

All of the cast are wearing funky, primary-coloured outfits in velour, which will apparently constitute high fashion in the future. Nearly all the men have big hair and luxurious moustaches too, and for a while I did wonder exactly what kind of movie this was going to be.

Not wearing a moustache, nor with the same name as the actor playing her, but still in velour, is communications officer Cindy (Mary Appleseth). On the beach, Captain Lee asks her where the Very Important Emergency Distress Beacon is. ‘Oooh, I forgot to bring it!’ trills Cindy, thus marking the moment at which it becomes irrevocably clear that this movie is entering the Total Crap Zone. Luckily, the Very Important Emergency Distress Beacon floats (oh, good God) and so Chuck whips off his shirt and dives in to retrieve it. Chuck keeps his shirt off for the rest of the movie, and even removes his trousers for the final scene, so he’s obviously very proud of how much he works out: I was completely indifferent, to be honest. Rather more hopefully, if you’re watching this film with a certain set of expectations, Cindy takes off her dress and jumps in the water as well.

Disaster strikes on all counts when Cindy is eaten by something lurking invisibly (and thus cheaply) in the water – disaster compounds disaster when Chuck is not (you will already be sick of this character). The survivors decide to leave the Very Important Emergency Distress Beacon bobbing off in the distance and head for safety on higher ground. Perhaps more importantly, Cindy’s dire fate so soon after taking off her dress is taken as a sign by the women, who decide to stay firmly inside their velour outfits for practically all the rest of the movie. So much for cheap salaciousness. Sigh.

Hey ho. The survivors trek very slowly across the planet, protected only by a handful of laser guns that stop working instantly and forever if you even get them wet, and break very easily (almost as if they’re made from very cheap thin plastic). En route they realise that the planet is solely inhabited by dinosaurs (the audience has almost certainly already worked this out from the title, though I make no guesses about the director). Also en route, the viewer will realise that this film is solely inhabited by people who can’t act and who’ve been given nothing but clunky and inane dialogue to deliver. Big tough engineer Jim, who looks a bit like Dave Lee Travis, thinks Captain Lee is a bit of a wimp for not wanting to kill all the dinosaurs and conquer the planet. Captain Lee is a much more cautious and thoughtful type. Their confrontations are, needless to say, fiercely dull.

The only other noteworthy character is Harvey, a lazy businessman who owned the spaceship. He is also one-dimensional, but at least in an interesting way, but unfortunately he is killed by a ceratopsian dinosaur quite early on. Whatever impact Harvey’s death may have had is instantly dissipated when, after being gored through the torso and falling hundreds of feet off a cliff, the actor audibly goes ‘Umf!’ when he hits the ground in close-up.

With Harvey off the scene it’s just a case of setting up camp in the dubious safety of a plateau, contending with the local tyrannosaur, etc, etc. Suffice to say nothing very interesting happens.

Let me just repeat that: a shipwrecked starship crew, stranded on a planet of dinosaurs, must struggle to survive both the local beasts and their own internal divisions – and nothing very interesting happens. Some astonishing force must have been at work behind the scenes of this movie, to take a premise with such promise (okay, dodgy and slightly ridiculous promise) and produce a film so crashingly tedious. The amateurishness of the cast is only partly to blame, because the script gives them nothing much to work with. The characters are totally underdeveloped, and the clash between their civilised values and the imperatives of their new situation is limply handled at best. There are occasional moments where the film looks like it’s going to get interesting, on a number of levels – ‘Civilisation is like that uniform you’re wearing,’ big tough Jim tells Nyla at one point, ‘it’s getting dirty and torn, and pretty soon it’s going to rot away. You’d better decide what you’re going to wear then.’ Crikey. Unfortunately, nobody’s velour outfit is actually showing any signs of dirtiness or wear, and the dissolution of civilisation basically boils down to Jim and Lee being snippy with each other. Every sign of primitive passions stirring is nipped in the bud by the appearance of an animated dinosaur.

All the attention (not to mention money) appears to have been lavished on the dinos, which are by a colossal margin the one and only reason to sit through this terrible film. Most of the film emanates from a lead-lined vault many miles below the bargain basement, but the animation is not far off Harryhausen standards – I was not surprised to see Jim Danforth’s name in the credits, but apparently most of the actual effects work was done by Stephen Czerkas and James Aupperle, two people previously unknown to me. Bits of this film compare respectably with the effects sequences from movies like One Million Years B.C. and The Valley of Gwangi, with a particularly good tyrannosaur and some nice ornithomimids too. But to get to them you have to endure such a lot of garbage involving the human cast you arrive in a bad mood anyway.

I expect Planet of Dinosaurs has defenders who will strenuously declare that it is so bad it’s good, a camp classic, etc etc. No, it’s not: most of it’s so bad that it’s painful to consider the obvious care and attention that has gone into the animation, which is wasted in a piece of crap like this. You’d think that it would be difficult for a movie called Planet of Dinosaurs to live up to the promise of the title, and I think you’d be right – but for a movie to not live up to the promise of that title as comprehensively and depressingly as this one possibly constitutes an even more remarkable achievement.

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