Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Last Dinosaur

"This animal.
This eight ton animal is a carnivore.
It eats meat. US!
This forty foot monster with a brain the size of a dried pea...
And I tell you this.
It is the last.
I will hunt that thing down and kill it!
...And by God I will not leave here until I have destroyed that thing!"

-Masten Thrust with the perfect monologue of the film over soft, gentle, lilting, mournful music and somehow the elegiac tone works beautifully in The Last Dinosaur-

Say cheese! Sexy actress and photographer Joan Van Ark joins old war dog and last dinosaur himself Richard Boone for what critics often term the cheesy b-movie in the form of The Last Dinosaur (1977).  If that's so, it's quite possibly cheese-fest perfection, but I've never been a huge fan of using the term cheese to describe the films I enjoy preferring to keep it squarely with my Kraft macaroni.  Boone plays Masten Thrust an unattractive playboy and millionaire who has a way with women. The rather ornery and ugly Thrust serves as a terrific juxtaposition to the film's titular villain.  It's essentially dinosaur versus dinosaur.  Beyond physical appearances, Thrust is a nasty old codger who simply isn't a nice guy because he's a man with everything utterly bored by his life. His existence yearns for a big game to excite his final days.  He is essentially a product of his chauvinist era.  Women are simply objects to be bought for pleasure (clearly I was born just a touch too late).  Boone is also a big game hunter in the vain of John Huston (White Hunter, Black Heart) whose home walls are adorned with taxidermy-treated animal trophies.

The Last Dinosaur is one of those films they simply don't make it anymore.  It's a surprising treat from a veteran cast.  Where most films require casting with an average age of twenty-two (a non-scientific study) and girls bopping around with mouth-watering scoops of flesh (a quote from Weird Science), The Last Dinosaur defies the conventions of today by employing a much older cast. This was a much more accepted approach in television and film in the 1970s.  Ageism was certainly not an issue years ago, but certainly plays a more significant factor in today's casting.  The Last Dinosaur's sense of adventure is propelled by a dynamite group that dramatically sells every ounce of the script to its final moments with a singular determination.  It's a gripping little story and truly remains a gem of kaiju entertainment to this day more than anyone ever expected it had a right to be given its limited production.  More on that in a moment.

An opportunity arrives to hunt down the last dinosaur.  Thrust cannot resist the hunt.  It's in his blood.  It's an obsession.  Well, despite the title, there are more than just one of the ancient beasts roaming the wilds of this pocket universe (a la 1974's Land Of The Lost minus the Sleestaks, Pylons and Dopey) discovered by the travelers within the Thrust Polar-Borer.  The Polar-Borer was a cool, ground-boring vehicle in the tradition of Thunderbirds' The Mole or terrific mech craft of the era like the vintage Landmasters of Damnation Alley (1977) that thrilled our childhoods.

The pocket universe is always a lot of fun and the 1970s was rife with them.  As I mentioned, Land Of The Lost (1974-1976), as well as Planet Of The Apes (1968) and other apes films, Edgar Rice Burrough's (1875-1950) The Land That Time Forgot (1975), At The Earth's Core (1976), and The People That Time Forgot (1977) (all based on books from 1918,1914 and 1918 respectively) and Warlords Of Atlantis (1978).  These films loved exploring these fantasy worlds and sometimes enjoyed emerging from great depths of water or burrowing through earth to find something entirely fantastic.  The 1970s truly had the concept down to a science and made science fiction all the more fun for it.

To further augment the effect of a foreign world during this period of cinema, look no further than the dark, electronic scoring employed used to great effect in the 1970s. The Warriors (1979), the Planet Of The Apes series, and even here with The Last Dinosaur - composers knew how to transport us to a different place giving their stories a slightly eerie, weird edge of fantasy.

Thrust is looking for the ultimate last dinosaur, the holy grail of dinosaurs, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. How fitting he should choose to remain behind himself, one of the last real men of his kind to become extinct.  It's B grade poetry.  Of course he always has Hazel so he's not entirely alone.  Hazel, played by Masumi Sekiya, may not be Nova, played by Linda Harrison, in Planet Of The Apes (1968), but she's still mighty damn fine as primitive natives go.

Uncannily, the T-Rex even shows remarkable intelligence for a creature with the kind of brain power scientists have recorded.  It literally tosses and rolls the shiny Polar Borer back to its lair for safekeeping demonstrating real initiative.  The ship sits strewn among the bones as he proceeds to bury it.  How is this group getting home now?  Thrust is a man on a mission and says he won't go home without killing that T-Rex. Without the Borer he won't be going home at all.  Unfortunately, the natives are getting restless too.  Well, remarkably, the Van Ark and Steven Keats characters get the Polar-Borer back to the river they arrived in, but with no explanation on how that is achieved.  It simply isn't possible. But in The Last Dinosaur it simply is.  Work with it.

The cheese factor is high in this 1970s classic but in the best possible sense.  Effects look remarkably good and what equates to cheese for most delivers wonders for the fan of these films.  From the opening James Bond-styled theme song that employs a Shirley Bassey sound-a-like, Nancy Wilson, to a score by Maury Laws, to the strong miniature effects set against not-so seamless matte painted backdrops that are stunning to the eyes, The Last Dinosaur works miracles to create a believable fantasy world.  Recycled and slightly altered Godzilla sound effects are also employed to good effect.  How ironic Dr. Kawamoto would be the first to be squashed by a lizard's foot.  Awkward rubber dinosaurs, wrestling-styled monster smack downs, bright red paint for blood and green screens all amp up the vintage era effects. Upon arriving in this hot pocket zone, an inactive volcano filled with glaciers and hot temps, the group is charged by a Triceratops-like creature complete with a horse hair tail.  Did Triceratops have horse hair tails?  Well, they didn't have two men in one suit but this one does.  This is an odd world with not-so-scientific accuracy and maybe more in common with Land Of The Lost than one might think.  The incorrect proportions dedicated to the dinosaurs are also all over the map altering size for any given scene and never quite establish any degree of consistency.  Yet these shortcomings, surprisingly, do not detract from the fun or credibility of all of the efforts involved in creating this strange place.

The four man, one woman group is also joined by Bunta, a giant African tracker.  The vintage 70s effort is turned up a notch when the camera holds on the oddest of shots like a facial shot of Bunta.  These kinds of touches truly augment and amplify what makes these films such treasures and so unique in contrast to today's quick and often predictable editing styles.

But all of these things work not as negatives but positives.  Oddly enough, all of the craft involved works, combined with the use of a uniformly strong cast delivering believable turns in their respective roles.  There isn't a stitch of CGI in the world that would make this film better.  Its gritty, rough and low grade approach looks positively brilliant culminating in a wonderfully intense final act between Thrust and the T-Rex.

The Last Dinosaur was one in a line of Rankin/Bass, Tsuburaya Productions and Toho collaborations and is arguably one of the best kaiju film of the 1970s when one considers the often child-like fantasy of Godzilla Vs. Megalon a(1973) and Godzilla Vs. Gigan (1972). The Last Dinosaur was released along with a handful of other notable collaborations including the wonderful King Kong Escapes (1968), The Bermuda Depths (1977), The Ivory Ape (1980) as well as one called The Bushido Blade (1981), Boone's last film alongside Toshiro Mifune and directed by Tom Kotani.

The B-movie was originally slated for theaters  but ended up on television stateside and remains a wildly popular cult classic thanks to fans like myself.

The spirit of the film is very much in the mold of the Doug McClure/ Edgar Rice Burroughs classics like The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Warlords Of Atlantis to name a few, with as much of a nod toward American dinosaur and monster films as the fantasy classics of Toho, Ishiro Honda or Jun Fukuda and that integration of fusion of ideas makes for a surprising and somewhat refreshing production.

In fact, there's a kind of magic to these projects making them some of the best ever produced by Rankin/Bass next to those holiday classics like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town (1970) or The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974). These kaiju pictures may not have the same kind of notoriety or retain the same kind of classic status but they are indeed wonderful additions to the Rankin/Bass world as well as Toho. In fact, I'm surprised Toho Kingdom does not note these efforts on its site.

The dinosaur effects are largely successful and special because of Tsuburaya Enterprises, Inc. or Tsuburaya Productions. Its hand in production is notable here. Without them the villain of this film, the dinosaur itself, probably doesn't work. In fact, many of the same Japanese talents worked on this very film so if it bares a distinct resemblance in quality to the very best of Toho, so it's really no surprise at all.

Thematically, this simple film works on two levels as Thrust hunts down the last dinosaur, but as I mentioned, is ironically something of a last dinosaur himself.  You'll rarely see an older alpha male quite like Boone today.  Boone passed away four years after this film in 1981 and with him a departure from a classic era of television and cinema.  They just don't employ these kinds of performers at that age.  I mean, the man was 60 years old when he made this film.

Thankfully we have time capsule films like The Last Dinosaur with real, tangible effects in all of their beautiful golden era glory to get lost with.  I would much prefer seeing a film like this over something with dated CGI or even a brand new SyFy (un)original generated with none of the artistic craft of these special films.  This film far exceeds expectations of the B films of today with plenty of impressive visual ingenuity to behold.  The Last Dinosaur is simply an exceptional adventure yarn in the school of Toho or Doug McClure with moments of real tension.  It's definitely not just a cheesy classic but perhaps a bit of a prehistoric gem to some and a splendid-looking fossil at that. Kaiju fans just can't go wrong especially with some popcorn, candy, soda and maybe some D'Angelos.  Seeing these films again and enjoying them so damn much I'm beginning to wonder who the dinosaur is.

The Last Dinosaur: A-.
Writer: William Overgard.
Director: Alexander Grasshoff/ Shusei Kotani.

This is actually B-movie poetry.  Nothing like sending a message that reminds me of a similar scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

More terrific images from the fantastic kaiju classic The Last Dinosaur.


Roman J. Martel said...

Thanks for the review of this one. It has popped up in conversations and blogs over the years. Even folks who thought it was a "bad" movie had a wonderful time watching it. Sounds like a good time to me! I put it on my "to watch" list.

The images really reminded me of "Land of the Lost" but with a more realistic feel.

Cannon said...

For a second there I got this confused with Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, the 1985 B-movie equivalent, which consequently plays like an 80s 'family film' adventure.

That last, bottom pic you posted is borderline comical, like a dance floor POV shot from Saturday Night Fever, which was also released in 1977. Hmm.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Yes Roman a fun film with loads of mood and atmosphere in this strange land.

I can't remember if I ever saw Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend but thanks for mentioning it Cannon.

I loved that last image as the final shot of the post but you are SOOOO right Cannon. Very Solid Gold! Ha!

El Vox said...

I've not seen this one, I'm surprised Richard Boone is in it. I am a fan of dinosaurs and films in this genre like One Million Years B.C., The Land Before Time, and so forth. I'm already looking forward to Jurassic Park 4. As you said there may be some cheddar in films of this nature, but a lot of fun & escapism too.