Saturday, February 18, 1978: Dinosaurus! (1960) / The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)

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Synopsis: On a Caribbean island, an engineering crew is working on deepening the harbor to allow larger ships to enter. This is expected to be a boon to the local economy, but the presence of the engineers is an irritant to slimy local authority Hacker (Fred Engleberg).

The engineers, led by Bart Thompson (Ward Ramsey) plant dynamite charges to blast the harbor opening. After the charges have detonated, Bart’s girlfriend Betty Piper (Kristina Hanson) impulsively goes for a swim. She sees something that causes her to faint, requiring Bart to pull her out of the water.

In doing so, Bart sees what Betty saw — a large creature in the water that looks like a dinosaur. Bart notes that the water where they saw the creature was ice-cold; apparently the creature was preserved in some icy chamber beneath the island.

Bart orders a message be sent to the government, alerting them of the find. In the meantime he orders construction equipment be used to haul the monster ashore. It turns out there are two creatures, a tyrannosaurus and a brontosaur. The frozen creatures cause great excitement in the town, and Bart decides to post a guard on the beach. Hacker skulks around the site where the two frozen dinosaurs are lying, and discovers a frozen caveman. He drags the body away from the site and covers it with brush. 

At the local pub, local boy Julio tells Bart and Betty that one of the dinosaurs is a meat-eater, and the other a herbivore. Like a lot of children he has a keen interest in dinosaurs, and he’d even sent away cereal boxtops to get plastic models of dinosaurs, which he shows to them. Hacker, whom we learn is Julio’s legal guardian, sees Julio showing the toys to them, and angrily breaks them in front of the boy. This causes Julio to run off. Bart threatens Hacker, telling him that if anything happens to Julio, he’ll hold Hacker responsible.

Later, during a tropical storm, heavy rain falls on the dinosaurs. A bolt of lightning strikes them both. When Bart and Betty return to the beach, they find the guard’s bloody hat and the dinosaurs gone. Hacker, who had hoped to turn the caveman over to a museum for a reward, is astonished to find that his precious find is missing as well….

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Comments: Yep, this picture was on the schedule just a few weeks ago, but here it is again. Why did it pop up again so soon? It’s possible that it had been planned for broadcast back on January 28 but the print wasn’t available for some reason; or it could be that it turned up in tonight’s listings by mistake, or it could be it really was shown twice in as many months. We’ll never know for sure.

In any case, this picture was a collaboration between producer Jack H. Harris and Valley Forge Studios, a small outfit in Pennsylvania that was owned by a non-profit organization called Good News Productions. It specialized in religious films, and could offer production values far beyond their films’ budgets. Harris saw an opportunity in Valley Forge and made them an offer to work together on a series of low-budget horror films.

The first of the three films, The Blob (1958), was a sleeper hit. 4-D Man (1959) was less successful but still a solid moneymaker that featured a smart performance by Robert Lansing. Dinosaurus! was the third and last film, and followed the template of the previous two: it was shot in color, had no stars, but relied on a high-concept idea to drive the narrative.

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While all three films were pitched to younger audiences, Dinosaurus! was the only one that was strictly for the small fry. Its premise is rooted not so much in scientific ignorance as it is in scientific indifference; the screenwriters were probably aware (or should have been aware) that a) dinosaurs and Neanderthals didn’t live in the same era, b) living creatures can’t be perfectly preserved in ice for millions of years, and c) frozen animals can’t be revived by lightning.

But to be fair, they clearly weren’t interested in telling a scientifically accurate story; instead, they wanted to tell an adventure yarn that was just plausible enough for kids to buy for the running time of the movie. Judged by that standard, they succeeded. In spite of a good deal of creaky dialogue and poorly-drawn characters, Dinosaurus! works, thanks to the sure-footed direction of Irvin Yeaworth. Tim Baar, Wah Chung, Gene Warren and model maker Marcel Delgado did effects work for the dinosaurs in this picture, and while it’s clearly inferior to Ray Harryhausen’s, it gets the job done. They had very little time and less money, and the results were better than would have been provided with a man in a rubber suit or, worse yet, a Slurposaur — and some scenes, such as the climactic battle between the tyrannosaurus and the steam shovel, are pretty good. The crew also used the brontosaurus and some of the miniature tropical set to shoot the dinosaur footage used in the Twilight Zone episode The Odyssey of Flight 33.

One thing that’s always been a mystery to me is the title. I know what a dinosaur is, but what’s a “dinosaurus”? It could be that the screenwriters just thought it sounded catchy, or maybe they believed it to be the Spanish word for “dinosaur” (it isn’t; that would be dinosaurio). But it seems to get its point across — between the title and the picture on the movie poster you know exactly what you’re going to get.

The acting in this film is generally poor, and while Ward Ramsey and Kristina Hanson make a handsome couple, they clearly don’t have much in the way of charisma. Neither had much of a career either. Alan Roberts shouts most of his lines as Julio, and his performance becomes grating after a while. Fred Engleberg’s Hacker is so one-dimensional we don’t really have an opportunity to see whether or not he can act.

Interestingly, Gregg Martell turns in the best performance as the Neanderthal. In most of his scenes he functions as comic relief, particularly in a fish-out-of-water sequence where he finds himself in a 20th-century house — destroying a radio with an axe when he hears a human voice coming out of it, putting on a frilly apron, running in terror when he accidentally flushes a toilet, and so on. It’s broadly comic stuff, but Martell makes it work because he convinces you he is experiencing all these things for the first time. Martell took up acting after service in World War II, and had a fairly lengthy but undistinguished career playing cowboys and henchmen. He did mostly one-shot appearances on TV shows through the 1960s before dropping out of the business. Much of Dinosaurus! was filmed on location in the Virgin Islands and makes good use of the tropical exteriors.

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The Thing That Couldn’t Die

Synopsis: At a California dude ranch, owner Flavia McIntyre (Peggy Converse) and her ranch hands watch as niece Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) searches with a divining rod for water on the property. Three of the ranch guests, Gordon (William Reynolds), Linda (Andra Martin) and Hank (Jeffrey Stone) arrive on horseback and watch as Jessica walks around with the divining rod. Gordon expresses the opinion that water witching is just a lot of superstition, but Flavia vouches for Jessica’s ability; she can even find lost objects, having once found one of her own missing rings.

Jessica is briefly nettled by the appearance of the three skeptics but continues her search. Near a large tree she indicates that she has found water, but just as quickly declares that there is something evil below the tree and no one should dig there.

Ignoring her protests, Flavia’s hired hands Boyd and Mike begin to dig a well, but soon hit a strange object instead: a chest with words carved into it that indicate it dates from 1579. Believing it might be a significant archeological find — and perhaps might even have been left by Francis Drake’s expedition — Gordon goes into town to fetch Dr. Julian Ash (Forrest Lewis) who can help verify what they have found.

But Boyd, convinced the chest is filled with treasure, decides to open it. He convinces the strong but simple-minded Mike to break the lock. But when Mike opens it, he finds not treasure, but a human head that stares into his eyes and mouths words we can’t hear. This, we learn, is the head of Gideon Drew, a devil worshipper executed by the Francis Drake expedition. Now freed from the chest, the head uses its hypnotic power to force a reunion with Drew’s body, which is buried nearby….

Comments: The Thing that Couldn’t Die was paired in cinemas with Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula, and it had a less-than-stellar reputation even before it got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in the 1990s. MST3K fans enjoy kicking around movies featured on the show by giving them one-star ratings on IMDB (they seem to believe this makes the jokes funnier, for some reason), and this has a lot to do with why the movie currently scores a lowly 3.8.

The MST3K bludgeoning set aside, this isn’t a great movie; it’s slow and talky for the first couple of reels. But things liven up considerably when we get to the buried treasure chest containing the severed head of Gideon Drew, a 16th-century Satan worshiper. The scenes of Drew’s head staring balefully at its victims, mouthing silent instructions, is pretty creepy, as is a scene where a hypnotized Linda places the head in a hatbox and places it on a closet shelf for its next victim. The juxtaposition of gothic elements with ordinary midcentury vacation cabins is surprisingly effective. And there’s a surreal bit near the end where the body gets up out of its casket and walks around. The movie ends somewhat abruptly, unfortunately, and the monster disposed of all too easily; but it does have its moments.

William Reynolds was one of the demobilized soldiers terrorized by a mysterious snake woman in Cult of the Cobra; his performance in that 1955 thriller made me wonder why he didn’t have more of a career (Arbogast, in his review of that film, compared Reynolds to a young Johnny Depp, and I can kinda see it) so it’s nice to see him get a shot at a starting role. But any screen presence he had in Cult of the Cobra has drained away here, and he’s quite forgettable. In his defense none of the characters in the film are very well-drawn.

Overall, this one has second-feature written all over it, but it’s worth a watch if you happen upon it.

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