Note: Originally put up on the old site as a 2002 Video Cheese Segment. Introduced here in conjunction with my blog posts on the 2008 T-Fest, at which this film was featured.
It might be considered strange that after ignoring the oeuvre of sci-fi schlockmiester Bert I. Gordon for over five years, we’d review two of his films in a week’s time. (The other being Empire of the Ants.) However, given that the theme for this month is giant monsters, all comes clear. If you’re going to review a bunch of bad giant monster movies, chances are good that at least a couple of them will be the work of Bert I.
We open on a quite evident still photograph of an observatory. The standard ’50s Omniscient Narrator comes on, providing the de rigueur “This is all really, really scientific” rundown. The staple use of opening narration helped reduce the running times of the period’s genre films â€“ King Dinosaur clocks in at just over an hour — and move more quickly than modern examples of the breed. By having a voiceover explain the set-up, the filmmakers save twenty or thirty minutes of screentime and thrust us right into things.
“On the morning of March 18 at precisely 7:48 AM, a coded message directed to our President was cabled from this observatory. A message of such vital importance that our Congress [cut to stock shot of Congress building] was called into an emergency session. [Cut to ersatz starscape.] A phenomenon out there in space was the subject of these top secret communications. It wasn’t long until the astronomers of outer nations had learned of what had happened.”
Note the statement of a specific time and date (while omitting the year), a technique still used today on shows like The X-Files to add a sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.
Cut to a ‘planet’ out in ‘space,’ introduced with harp music. “Earth now had a new neighbor.” Cue blaring trumpets. What does this mean? It means the film’s about to prove one of the silliest the ’50s had to offer. Which is saying something. We pan back from this mysterious planet and see that they weren’t kidding about that ‘neighbor’ business. The Earth itself is revealed to be hilariously close by, not much farther than we are from our Moon. (Which oddly doesn’t appear in the shot.) In fact, I’d have to believe that the planet would be readily visible to the naked eye. This makes all that stuff about “top secret” wires from observatories rather farcical.
“A new planet had moved into our solar system,” the Narrator rather inadequately expounds. Given its proximity to our own planet, this is like describing someone camped out on your doorstep as having recently moved into the United States. “[It] had established its orbit around the Sun,” we’re further told, “so close to Earth that for the first time it was conceivable to believe that Man on Earth could actually travel to another planet. A planet that had every indication that its atmosphere would support life.”
See, this is the kind of situation where I wish I lived near Lyz from And You Call Yourself A Scientist!, so that I could just hand it over to somebody competent to deal with the manifold scientific fallacies here.
The intro out of the way, we cut to our opening credits. The card for the limited cast is telling â€“ four human actors are listed, followed by a special credit: “Featuring LITTLE JOE – – THE HONEY BEAR.” Meanwhile, Marvin Miller gets his own “Narration by” credit. This is fitting because he’s the biggest ‘name’ actor involved here. Miller had a long career in film and an equally busy one doing TV shows. He’s most famous for providing the voice for Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.
With the Cold War on, the President â€“ or so we’re told — naturally decides that we must be the first nation to send a manned ship to this newly appearing planet. (It’s now officially been named Planet Nova. Not a particularly auspicious name for a heavenly body, you’d think.) This announcement cues a further procession of narrated stock footage regarding the development of the rocket ship. This goes on for some minutes, and successfully eats up more of the film’s slim running time.
I must admit that as cheesy as this technique is, it works better than would the alternative. Which would be to portray the construction of the rocket by building patently inadequate laboratory sets and stocking them with three or four extras in lab coats. Moreover, it’s not too far off in portraying the sort of immense effort that resulted from President Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon some years later. Certainly some of the specific musings are a tab absurd (see following paragraphs), but on the whole this is a surprising accurate forecasting.
To resume on the cynicism front, however, am I the only one who thinks the following hunk of narration is meant to establish a plot point? “This [shipboard] nuclear power plant will serve as an auxiliary source of electricity while our people are on the planet. Actually, because it is activated by atomic power, it could supply their needs for many years if something were to go wrong and their return to Earth were delayed. Naturally the people must be careful in using such equipment. [Yeah, you’d think.] Because if the atomic power were allowed to go unharnessed, an atomic fission reaction would take place. An atom explosion.”
And so, after over six minutes, we cut to some footage actually shot for this movie. This portrays a guy holding a saber-toothed tiger skull. (!) “If animal life is found on the new planet Nova, an expert on zoogeography would be a most important member of the space expedition.” Admittedly, that’s a big if, especially when the expedition consists of our people, but there you go.
“On August 10th, Dr. Richard Gordon was chosen to fill that position. He became famous with his discovery of the giant prehistoric tar pits near Salt Lake City just two years ago.” Considering that Salt Lake City was founded in 1847, it seems a bit odd that “giant” tar pits in the area wouldn’t be ‘discovered’ until 1953.
Next we cut to a field. In the foreground the forward section of a massive Chevy â€“ man, it looks like you could just take that thing into space — projects into the shot. (Is the rocket ship hood ornament meant to be a joke? If so, it’s an unusually sly directorial touch for Bert I. Gordon.) Behind it is a woman in full Laverne and Shirley regalia, a tight turtleneck sweater and full skirt. She’s standing before a rock face and smacking it with a pick.
Although not, I should stress, in a manner suggestive of someone used to wielding such an implement. This is odd, given the role the Narrator suggests she will be playing here. “The study of rock formations and its minerals,” the Narrator rather ungrammatically opines, “is like reading the personal diary of a planet.” Thus Dr. Nora Pierce, the aforementioned pick wielder, will be joining the expedition. By the way, I want to mention the music accompanying these intros, which is weirdly comical and jaunty. Think Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Why such a tune for these prosaic sequences? Got me.
“Medicine must be represented on this expedition,” The Narrator continues, “since the health of these people and the people that will venture into space in the future is of primary importance. Dr. Ralph Martin’s war service fortified him with the experience of treating most diseases and fatalities that overtake men. That is, on our Earth.” Uhâ€¦OK. (Given the apparent age of young Dr. Martin, I’m assuming he was a veteran of the Korean War rather than WWII.)
“The chemistry of the new planet [??],” he concludes, “was to be studied by Dr. Patricia Bennett, who completed the group of scientists. She was noted for her thesis on the use of radiochemistry in medicine.” This concludes the introductions to our small group of actors, er, scientists. By the way, I’d give them more points for including two women in the group â€“ who make up an abnormally high percentile of the team for a film made in the ’50s â€“ if I didn’t suspect that readymade romantic couples were being provided.
On October 1st, Nova is judged to be in the “most advantageous location for our purpose.” (I’m not sure what that means, since it’s supposedly in the same orbit as Earth and thus shouldn’t be moving nearer or farther away.) Therefore the rocket ship must take off within 24 hours. Not bad, considering the planet was first seen only a tad over six months ago.
The craft is soon making its way through space with engines, of course, constantly blasting away. These sequences are realized with a mix of stock footage and some trademark Bert I. Gordon special effects. Meaning bluescreen work so primitive that the image of the rocket is transparent as it flies through the heavens. See also The Amazing Colossal Man, who grows similarly translucent as his height increases.
“The people on Earth followed the ship’s progress as long as possible, with powerful telescopes and with radar.” (!) I’d have thought that observatory telescopes would have significantly greater range than radar, but perhaps I’m mistaken. By the way, it just struck me that we’re nearly eleven minutes into things and have yet to hear a single character speaking a sentence. Even in Beast of Yucca Flats and The Creeping Terror they looped in lines and pretended the actors were speaking them. Here they don’t even bother.
After a flight lasting some months (!), the yet transparent rocket lands on Nova, as illustrated with a series of comically bad effects shots. Which happens to look quite a lot like Earth, coincidentally enough. Soon the crew disembark from their craft, which is sitting in a field, haloed with think bluescreen borders. As you’d expect, their spacesuits and the prop ‘bottom’ of their rocket are borrowed from another and more expensive movie, in this case Conquest Space. Two of them leave first, the man waiting to help the woman down the space ladder, then taking her hand as they stroll through a heavily sunlit meadow. You’d think if they were going to make two of the characters sweethearts â€“ I think it’s Martin and Bennett in the suits â€“ they’d have given us some scenes to indicate their growing regards towards one another.
They note that the planet is quite beautiful, at least “if it’s habitable.” (Characters speaking! And only twelve minutes into the film!) The handholding twosome next spot a nearby stock footage volcano â€“ what else? â€“ which is spewing a column of smoke. “This planet is quite young!” Dr. Martin notes. Yes, your older planets, such as Earth, certainly don’t have smoking volcanoes any longer. Perhaps Martin should stick to the medical stuff and let Dr. Pierce handle the geological theorizing.
By the way, they start cutting to a model of the ship here which doesn’t remotely match the one in the take-off scene or the one in the flying-through-space shots. Shades of Doomsday Machine.
Ralph is seen walking around and pointing what appears to be a hair dryer at the ground. I’m guessing it’s supposed to be a Geiger counter. I can’t be certain, though, because they aren’t having it make clicking noises. Bennett, meanwhile, is sitting in the grass and examining something with a cheap classroom microscope. Then she plays back her notes, as recorded on a suitcase-sized reel-to-reel tape recorder. “A preliminary biological study made of the air on Nova show
A montage of test tubes and beakers, all filled with bubbling Colored Fluids and emitting the obligatory dry-ice fumes, is accompanied by snippets of test results. “Although our preliminary tests are in no way conclusive,” Bennett’s report concludes, “they do substantiate however
This conclusion reached, the implications are obvious. “Now let’s get out of these suits!” Pat exclaims. Being advanced gear, it comes off quite easily. (Probably because of the zippers.) Soon the four are gallivanting around in khakis. As a compromise to functionality, the women are wearing culottes instead of skirts.
They walk around. Soon they see exotic space deer and space bear cubs and other exotic species. Admittedly, these look surprisingly like their Earth analogs. Still, they probably have like two hearts or gills or something.
The group decides to check out a lake they flew over earlier. As they walk through the space grass and between the space pines they see some space birds and another space bear cub shimmying down a space tree trunk. They laugh. Space critters are so dol’garn cute.
Soon they reach the lake. This is rather large and sports an island in the middle of it. “It’s a strange looking place,” Pat remarks. Since this statement is accompanied by an Ominous Music Cue, me’thinks something odd will be found there. “It looks like it’s covered with jungle growth,” Dick adds. Well, actually it doesn’t. I guess this is a Geographical Informed Attribute.
The gals decide the lake calls for taking a bath. Cue wacky music. Strangely, this seemingly promised scene never materializes. Maybe the very idea of ladies bathing was consider risquÃ© enough. Instead, we cut to them back by their ship. They’re loading up on gear, including sidearms and bolt-action hunting rifles. (The men carry the latter, of course. Still, the women do get to pack heat.)
They hike around and see a space sloth. They hike around some more and see a flock of space ducks. Meanwhile, we get this:
Pat: “What time would you say it is?” [??] Ralph: “It’s about three o’clock Earth Time.” [!!]
In a bold attempt at Science!!, Nora notes that “We don’t know how many hours there are in the daily cycle here.” Wow!! Cut the fancy jargon, doc. “Well, let’s figure about three o’clock anyway,” Dick decides. “That gives us three or four hours before dark.” Hmm, that theory seems to depend upon a lot of dubious premises. Still, he’s a scientist and I’m not, so what do I know?
They walk around. They see another space sloth. They walk around. Then they stop. Nora examines some rocks. “What do you think?” Dick inquires. “About the age of this place?” she replies, glancing at a stone. “I’m afraid your guess was right. It’s pretty young as planets go. Much younger than our Earth.” Ralph is intrigued. “What era would you say it is?” he asks. “Prehistoric,” she answers.
The others exchange wary (?) looks. “Are you serious?” Pat asks. Now thoroughly spooked (?), Pat requests that they head back to the ship. Seeing the island again — although it now look completely different and has a smoking matte painting volcano on it — Nora ponders whether they should visit it. The still shaken Pat votes against it, however, and they head back.
They walk around. Unfortunately, they didn’t leave a trail or make a map or take compass readings or anything. So they’re lost. Tired, they lean against a fallen space tree. Suddenly, we see a space snake slithering up on Pat. Ralph shoots it and Pat blubbers away like a girl. Anyway, they decide to stop walking around â€“ a novel concept â€“ and make camp. (Literally.)
Cue more of the film’s oddly comical music. They assemble some weird wooden lean-tos. Suddenly they hear a strange hooting noise. Looking over, they laugh. “It’s an owl!” Ralph exclaims. Wrong, Doctor. It’s a space owl. Dick tells the girls that they should get some sleep. The menfolk, meanwhile, will stand watch. The girls protest they can take turns at this also. Dick brusquely shoots down such weird, almost frightening talk.
Later Ralph takes over for Dick. Loud thunder soon wakes Pat up, who heads over to sit with Ralph. They immediately start making out. Man, those are some horny scientists. This was still the ’50s, though. Therefore Pat breaks the action to ask, “Do you still want to marry me?” He answers yes. The audience thus reassured, they go back at it. “Let’s take a walk,” Ralph gasps after coming up for air. Why, you little devil. (Good maintaining of watch, too, doofus.)
The two go off. In an amazing example of space affirmative action, it’s Ralph who trips on a rock and tumbles down a hill. He unfortunately lands on a stuffed space gator, which he begins to vigorously pretend to wrestle. Pat, meanwhile, helpfully stands there and screams her head off. The ruckus wakes Nora and Dick, who run over to see what’s up. By then Ralph has punched the space gator to death (!). However, he somehow has been badly mauled on parts of the body the space gator never got near.
Dick, who spends much of the movie living up to his name, carries him back to camp. He barks at Pat to get a canteen, but she responds by bursting out in tears again and just generally being useless. Yeah, there’s somebody I’d want to travel into space with. Nora gets it instead and Dick washes Ralph’s wounds off. Er, I mean, washes them out. I don’t know why I said off. Really. I don’t. Anyway, Dick basically yells at Pat and even shoves her around while tending to the unconscious Ralph. I can’t say I felt much pity for her, though. What a drip.
The next morning Ralph remains largely insensible. Dick and Nora head back to the ship to get some medical supplies. Pat is to stay and watch over Ralph. It’s seems unlikely that the party’s most insipid member would be tasked with this. However, my theory is that Dick fears he’ll strangle the ninny if she accompanies him back.
Dick and Nora find the ship again with suspicious ease. So much for being lost. They stay the night and head back the next day. As they walk around they stop to admire cute little space monkey Joe. (This is the credited Joe the Honey Bear. Still, unless there are bears with prehensile tails I don’t think it’s a member of the ursine family.)
A sore and yet weak Ralph rouses back at the camp. Good thing, too, for nearby is Bert I. Gordon’s first giant bug. (It’s a proud moment for all of us.) Gee, its lucky the still slumbering Pat was left behind to watch over things. Said space bug, if I’m not mistaken, is footage of a de-winged bee that’s been negatively exposed and poorly matted into the shot. Aside from the typically, er, Gordonian quality of the visual effects use to realize this creature, it’s also been assigned very goofy vocalizations.
Of course the creature never actually interacts with our cast. Instead, Ralph pours pistol and then rifle fire into its supposed direction until we cut over and see it resting on its back. Pat wakes up during this and, of course, merely starts screaming hysterically. Good thing they armed her. The beast slain, an exhausted Ralph lays back down. Still, he’s better enough that he requests some “medicine” from Pat. At least she’s good for something.
Dick and Nora soon return, bearing various supplies and scientific equipment. (This includes what is laughably supposed to be there portable nuclear generator, as established earlier.) They’ve brought with Joe, who they introduce to Ralph and Pat. Pat asks how their sojourn went. Nora’s reply pretty much sums up the movie as a whole: “Lovely, if you like walking.”
Over dinner that night they discuss the planet. Dick opines that it would readily support colonization. This being the ’50s, nobody questions this concept. Nora, meanwhile, restates her wish to explore the Mysterious Island. Since Ralph is better but still somewhat shaky, it’s agreed that Nora and Dick will take a rubber raft to the island the following day. Pat and Ralph will stay in camp and continue their duties from there.
There’s a loud hissing sound, but the explorers relax when they see it’s only a largish space python. This is accompanied by a loud blaring musical cue, but seem to pose no threat to our protagonists. (Probably because it’s currently in a different movie.) That night, however, things are different. First we see the space owl hooting. Then Dick relaxes from his watch for a bit, messing around with Joe the Space Monkey.
This leaves him a little slow on the uptake when the space python slithers into camp. And this time it’s in the same shot with them and everything. By the time he gets his pistol out, the snake is wiggling around and over the recumbent Ralph. Waking to find the twelve-foot space reptile invading his personal space, he wisely stays still. After a bit the space snake becomes bored and slithers away on its own.
In the morning Ralph is feeling much better. Well enough, in fact, that he tosses a snotty remark in Dick’s direction regarding his watch skills. (Dick certainly deserves this, but on the other hand, Ralph was the one who earlier abandoned his post for a little kissy-face.) Dick and Nora, meanwhile, ready for their trip to the island. Before leaving they arrange a signal system. If they should need help, they’ll fire a red flare. Hanging Joe from his neck, Dick and Nora take off. Given the way Dick slings Joe around by his tail, I hope the little guy’s got a lot of muscle in it.
Despite the film’s short running time, they still pads things out to a humorous degree. (A fact you may have discerned from the above account.) For instance, rather than heading straight for the lake, the two must return to the rocket first to grab the raft. Then they go to the lake. They inflate the raft. They climb into it and push off. They paddle through the water. They see a flock of space birds. Eventually they reach the island, pull ashore and disembark.
Dick and Nora (and Joe) walk around. They see some space vultures. They walk around some more. “Looks like a cave up on that ledge,” Dick notes. Yes, the unearthly splendors of this alien globe bewilder the mind. Yet soon even this bizarre space cave on its miraculous space ledge are forgotten. For suddenly a matted-in iguana with a horn pasted on its snout is matted into the frame. It’s awesomely suspended on wires so that we see it ‘standing’ on its hind legs. Terrified by this fearsome apparition, the intrepid scientists (and monkey) flee.
Of course Dick’s first impulse is to shoot the beast. Dude, you’re on your own now. The creature comes after them. (Sort of.) Lucky, then, that the recently established space cave is there to provide Our Heroes with shelter. Now the space lizard actually comes after them, probably because it’s not hanging on wires anymore. In a sight familiar to all giant monster fans, the leads cower in the cave as the space dinosaur tries to burrow its way in and get them.
“Where’s Joe?!” Nora cries. (Yeah, that’d be my top concern about now, too.) Dick rushes out to save the none-too-bright space monkey. We hear him scream from off-camera, and he returns with his khaki blouse ripped and stained with stage blood. Joe, however, is saved. Thank goodness!
Dick tells Nora to tend to his injuries. But she’s a female, and thus all but useless as she blubbers in terror. (Man, bringing chicks into space is a bad idea.) So Dick strips off his shirt â€“ there’s one for the ladies â€“ and binds his own wounds.
The ‘dinosaur’ pocks its snout at them for a while. Then a giant space alligator â€“ represented perhaps by a small Earth alligator â€“ makes the scenes. In a bit sure to make modern viewers blanch, these are encouraged to have at it. The two reptiles attack each other in painful looking fashions for our amusement and edification. Thank you, Bert I. Gordon.
This goes on for a while. During the struggle, Dick fires a red flare. Pat and Ralph see it and are soon on the way. After, that is, themselves stopping at the rocket to procure a second rubber raft. Eventually â€“ and I do mean eventually — the *cough, cough* T-Rex emerges triumphant. (Hopefully the still visibly breathing ‘gator has just been doped and smeared with ‘blood’ rather than actually cut up.) It returns to the space cave, where it resumes threatening Dick and Nora. Then, because we’ve still twelve minutes of running time left, it encounters a space gila monster. Cue pretty much the same scene as with the space gator, with about the same results.
Meanwhile, Dick examines a Polaroid he took of the iguana. Looking at its fearsome visage, he notes that it “resembles the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Earth’s prehistoric age. Tyrannosaurus Rex. King Dinosaur!” (Wow! He said the title!) Needless to say, his credentials as a paleontologist are somewhat undermined by this announcement. Nora is still hysterical, however, and tears up the photo in a hissy fit. Women!! Am I right, guys?
About this time Pat and Ralph make the scene. Pat is predictably freaked. “What is it?” she gasps. “Something prehistoric,” Ralph replies. Yes, we got that part already. I do like his response when she demands he shoot the ‘monster.’ “What with?” he replies, looking at their deer rifle. “That won’t do any good.” Can’t argue with that.
During the second battle Dick and Nora decide to make a run for it. (Good idea.) Ralph and Pat, meanwhile, just sit there and kibitz. “Faster!” they keep yelling. Yes, I’m sure Dick and Nora are finding your savvy advise of great utility.
Their reunion is a happy one. “I brought the atom bomb,” Ralph notes. “I think it’s time to use it!” I’m not sure why, exactly. Even if the planet’s to be colonized, you’d think the beasts would prove of scientific value. Moreover, it’s pretty obvious the ‘dinosaurs’ are contained by the waters surrounding the island. So I’m not exactly sure why they feel it must be nuked off the map. On the other hand, why bring an atom bomb all this way if you’re not going to detonate it? Am I right, guys?
They set the device to go off in half an hour (!) and then run for their raft. There’s some purported suspense stuff as they’re pursued by the space iguana, not to mention the imminent atom bomb explosion. They also pause to take some potshots at a giant space armadillo that’s just minding it’s own business. Then we see a really decent looking space wooly mammoth, one well enough realized that its clearly been stolen from another movie. (1940’s One Million B.C. would be my guess.) Still, Gordon manages to turn this laughable as well. It’s matted into the frame with Our Heroes, in a manner that makes it look at least fifty feet tall. All very scientific, I’m sure.
Despite these time-eating travails, *gasp* they finally make it to the raft and then back to the mainland. From (comparative) safety, they watch a montage of atom bomb explosion stock footage. “Well, we’ve done it,” Ralph exclaims. “Yeah,” Dick agrees, a wide grin on his face. “We sure have done it. We’ve brought civilization to Planet Nova.” And with that, they prepare to fly back to Earth. Cue triumphant music.
Ah, the ’50s!
Summary: ’50s sci-fi cheese at its cheesiest.
The learned Jabootu philanthropist and gaming icon Sandy Petersen elucidates several cloudy issues:
“I have been a dinosaur buff ever since I can remember. My parents tell me that at the age of three, I already knew the name of every dinosaur around and could not only pronounce things like brachiosaurus, but correct their pronunciation or errors like “No, mom, Stegosaurus does not eat meat.”
Anyway, as a result of this background, for many years I felt that King Dinosaur (which I have seen multiple times) was possibly the worst movie I’d ever seen. I guess it just hit a nerve.
Anyway, here are some notes for you just because I love you, man.
1) “Little Joe the Honey Bear” is a kinkajou â€“ a small carnivore that lives in Central and South American rain forests. They are omnivorous, but mostly eat fruit. They are not bears, but are more closely related to raccoons. Amazingly enough, one of the common names for them is “honey bear”. Now you know.
2) For what it’s worth, I was actually an entomology major in college and graduate school, so I know a lot about bugs. (Entomology = science of insects and arachnids). The poorly-matted giant bug that they shoot early on in King Dinosaur is not a bee, but a “Jerusalem cricket”.
Some people call these things potato bugs. I don’t think they live in Illinois so you probably haven’t ever seen one. They are well-known in the West because they’re large, repulsive, and reasonably common. (Enough so that you can reasonably expect any Californian to have encountered one.) They are, in fact, a type of cricket. Probably Bert Gordon felt they were really nasty-looking. They are omnivores and sometimes attack and eat live prey, so a giant one would probably be dangerous. However, I found it pretty funny that a few rifle shots killed it â€“ in my opinion gunfire would have almost no effect on a colossal arthropod! At least not for hours. Read this account of a person’s encounter and attempt to kill a Jerusalem cricket encountered in his bathroom (he mistook it for a “sewer monster” and thought its ovipositor was a stinger).
3) The Tyrannosaurus rex of the film is not the usual iguana, but a monitor lizard. The monitor is a slight improvement over the more-commonly-seen iguana for cheesy dinosaur films, because at least monitors are carnivores (iguanas eat plants). To me, one of the funniest scenes in the movie is the fight between the monitor lizard and the alligator. It’s really obvious that the gator is kicking the lizard’s ass (duh â€“ I mean think about it! Alligator. Lizard. Who would you put YOUR money on in a fight?) and then suddenly the monitor lizard almost magically wins because IITS.
4) Best ending line ever as they watch the A-bomb explosion.