Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Lost Continent (1968)

Outlandish, lightning-paced, and genuinely hallucinogenic in its flow of bizarre behaviour, feverish plot development, and gaudy Eastmancolor-infused visuals, The Lost Continent is something of a lost continent itself in the realms of B-movie appreciation. The best directorial work of Hammer scion Michael Carreras (who also scripted under the name Michael Nash) and the second in a fiscally ill-fated series of adaptations of Dennis Wheatley novels by the great British House of Horror, The Lost Continent was taken from the novel “Uncharted Seas”, a rather better and more apt title, not least because there’s no real continent in sight. Few movie tropes say ‘1968’ quite like a fantasy-adventure starting off with a pop love song over the credits, and The Lost Continent sports a swinging theme by The Peddlers. But once the credits end it plunges right in with bewildering images, first of a shipwreck-strewn cove clogged with ships from a multiplicity of eras, and a similarly rag-tag collective of people, clad in the apparel of jarringly anachronistic fashions, arrayed on the deck of a tramp steamer for a funeral service being given by the ship’s captain, Lansen (the cast-iron Eric Porter). His pondering of just how the hell he ended up giving a service with conquistadors looking on segues into a flashback when he fled Freetown in his ship, the Carita, a jump ahead of the Coast Guard. Trying to amass money to retire on before his rustbucket disintegrates, Lansen turned to carrying illegal cargoes, and on this occasion took on a particularly nasty explosive chemical, one that ignites in contact with water. The old rule of the stage was that a pistol, once flourished, had to be fired by the end, and when it comes to introducing a plot element like that, it’s a fait accompli that something’s going to go boom by the end.



The ship has a motley collection of crew and passengers, and the first half of the film unspools familiar voyage-of-the-ship-of-damned-fools threads as these variously seedy, damaged, and desperate people are placed in close proximity in sweat-inducing circumstances. Exiled physician Webster (Nigel Stock) tries to keep his oversexed daughter Unity (Susanna Leigh), and her trust fund, on a short leash. Drunken entertainer Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley) sucks down the booze and charms the pants off anyone he targets, and internationally notorious dictator’s mistress Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), has, after her lover’s downfall, absconded with a large amount of his ill-gotten fortune. Sleazy agent Ricaldi (Benito Carruthers) is on board to retrieve that fortune, but he proves open to bribery by cash and flesh. The crew sports a muscular Christian Chief Engineer Nick (James Cossins), an uptight first officer, Hemmings (Neil McCallum), and various, frantically spineless seamen including ever-familiar faces Michael Ripper and Victor Maddern. The film cranks up as calamities pile up, sending the narrative into incidental meltdown: as the ship veers into a hurricane’s path, a loose anchor punctures the hull and water gushes into the hold where the drums of explosive are stored. Rather than aid in pulling out the drums, the crew revolt and try to flee the ship, Lord Jim fashion, but most die as their lifeboat is swamped. Instead, Lansen has to muster the passengers together to extract the explosives, and finally the remnant vote to abandon the ship when the storm drops, and face dying of starvation in the middle of the sea.


The Lost Continent presages the ‘70s pulp revival begun by the likes of Gordon Hessler and Kevin Connor and taken up eventually by mainstreamers like Spielberg and Lucas. But the first half seems closer in scope and tone to the run of ‘70s disaster flicks, with its focus on a collective of colourful personalities pressed into close quarters in a high-pressure situation, Rather than the showy blockbuster pretensions and celebrity roasts of Irwin Allen, the emphasis is on generating a serial-like pace and a miasmic mood of collective hysteria. Like Terence Fisher’s similarly feverish Night of the Big Heat from the year before, The Lost Continent channels a fearsome charge of sexual frenzy abutting the familiar tropes of generic swashbuckling, just at the edge of the era when sex and gore would erupt into the still hitherto rather prim mainstream fantastic shenanigans. Erotic angst arcs between almost the entire cast: Lansen, Eva, and Ricaldi, Tyler and Unity and the definitely incestuous glint in her father’s eye, all are enveloped in a roundelay of lust and loathing, particularly keen in the mutual recognition of rot evinced by Tyler and Webster, the former sickened by Webster’s mouthy hypocrisy and the latter driven to explosive rage by Tyler’s drunkenness. This has a tragic denouement when Tyler gets smashed in the lifeboat and Webster, reacting with self-righteous rage, provokes the pianist into slugging him. Webster tumbles over and in spite of Tyler’s attempts to save him, he gets promptly chowed down by a shark. Tyler’s subsequent decision to go on the wagon inflects the rest of the film with an aspect of a recovering alcoholic’s DT-warped sense of reality as redemption and damnation are rendered as trippy landscapes of slithering, man-entrapping weed, id-externalising monsters, and religious dictators. For the lifeboat drifts into the fringes of a huge Sargasso Sea which proves to cling to a remote island, and the weed is a living, malevolent thing from which there seems to be no escape.

The detail piles on with remorseless skill in these scenes: the passengers forming a chain to extract the drums, intercut with the Chief trying to keep his engines from failing; Unity’s crew member squeeze (Donald Sumpter) getting his brains dashed out against a pulley; Tyler driving everyone up the wall by pounding out the death march on the piano and reacting in a fury when someone takes his bottle of booze to use as disinfectant in a medical treatment; Eva firing a flare gun into a mutineer’s belly as some of the crew try to prevent Tyler and Webster being rescued from the sharks. The survivors find to their luck that the Carita, rather than sinking or exploding, has also drifted into the weed. They soon find, however, that they’re far from alone in this bizarre netherworld: other shipwreck survivors have formed colonies around the lost island, using a combination of cup-like shoes and inflated balloons tethered to their shoulders to traverse the weed without being snared by it (how they inflate their balloons, I don’t know). One local, Sarah (Dana Gillespie, who would later return to such fare in The People That Time Forgot, 1977, playing practically the same role), comes to the ship and warns it of an impending attack by another hostile party. Sarah seems as much supported by her pneumatic chest, prominently displayed, as by any mechanical aids, but I digress. Sarah is the descendant of exiles searching for religious freedom, whilst the island is dominated, in the most dizzyingly weird and brilliant stroke, by the descendants of conquistadors, who maintain a repressive religious regime headed by an adolescent god-emperor El Supremo (Darryl Read), called El Diablo by those who won’t bow to him, and his puppet-master, the Inquisitor (Eddie Powell). They maintain hegemony by raiding supplies of newcomers and offering them the choice to join them or die by being fed into the gruesome maw of the weed-beast which lives directly under the conquistador’s galleon, anticipating the Sarlac in Return of the Jedi (1983).


The Lost Continent stumbles a little once it finally reaches this particularly odious fill-in for Fiddler’s Green: Carreras, confident and careful in setting up the early drama and keeping the action on the boil, gropes a bit once in this new, delirious, but initially rather static setting. Carreras compensates by trying to keep up the breakneck pace, and as much as one hopes the filmmakers will build on the fantasy world into which the tale stumbles, Carreras keeps piling on incident, in the familiar Hammer rush to be over in an hour and a half. The special effects aren’t clever enough to offer quality giant monster action on a Ray Harryhausen level, but the glowing-eyed critters that lurch out of the fog perfectly embody id-beasts from the psychosexually twisted, substance-abusing miasma. The atmosphere, and the integration of theme with visuals, nonetheless stands comparison with Mario Bava’s similarly alchemic Terrore nello Spazio (1966). Carreras allows his characters to interact with surprisingly animated, aggressive depth, from Lansen and Eva tentatively romancing in spite of his repeatedly foundering on his misreading of her past, to the newly liberated Unity and the newly sober Tyler failing badly in communication: she takes aim at his shrivelled manhood and looks for someone who can service her over-revving engine. That turns out to be a ready and willing Ricaldi, but he’s promptly swallowed by a gruesome tentacle monster from out of the deep. The island proves riddled with such beasties, also including oversized crabs and scorpions, crawling across the landscape like vengeful vagina dentata to eat men whole. The backdrop of the island with its perpetual lysergic-hued fogs and stony reaches seething with nightmarish life resembles, just a little, the alien vistas of Barbarella (1967), beautifully substantiating the psychic pressures of the characters. Whilst it’s presented as a genuine physical space, this lost realm looks forward to the island limbo of the TV series Lost in portraying its cast of screw-ups stumbling into a zone where their metaphysical quandaries are made solid and they have to learn how to operate as human beings. 


Happily, the filmmakers remain solidly on their side: almost everyone, except for Ricaldi and Webster and sundry dangerous crewmembers, all active victimisers, wrestle within cages of shame and self-disgust, and emerge to effectively become warriors and survivors in a hell-hole run by would-be gods on earth. The ripe Sarah arrives purely like a balm for Tyler’s sapped and self-conscious masculinity, and he sets out, when she disappears, to track her down. When the Carita’s crew captures one of the conquistadors, Jonathan (Norman Eshley), he confidently predicts a sticky end for them, and Lansen beats the hell out of him to extract vital information from him, stirring Unity’s empathy for the arrogant yet finally servile, pathetic henchman. The film’s tone remains remarkably anti-heroic in the familiar late ‘60s mode with all of the characters presented as deeply flawed, even disgraceful types, and yet there’s a current of peculiar humanism running through all of it. There’s genuine substance, even in the film’s heady rush, to the notion of the island as an existential hole into which the characters have all slipped, given voice at last as the clash of determinism versus free will is personified, with the Inquisitor and Lansen arguing that very matter in terms of struggling against the entrapping weed. Lansen counters the prelate’s vision of inescapable fate with his own plan to keep fighting, as it’s all that truly keeps the soul alive. The message is backed up by the Chief, who bristles with good Protestant fury when El Diablo claims to be the voice of God. Undoubtedly much of this comes from Wheatley, who took metaphysical battles seriously (with a whiff of anti-Catholic prejudice).


The production design and conceptual intrigue finally reaches something close to the surreal in the candle-massed riot of colour and strangeness within the galleon, adapted into the throne room/torture chamber/cathedral of a petty empire, where the dress styles of the conquistador descendants have remained in stasis and their theology has become completely fascistic, and miscreants are stretched on the rack and fed to the weed beast for public edification. Theological debating gives way quickly to a riotous, rushed yet vivid finale in which that explosive finally gets used, catapulted onto the galleon, blowing up the weed-monster. El Diablo himself is finally revealed to be as much a prisoner of the Inquisitor’s sensibility as anyone, pleading to join in the escape efforts of the newcomers only to get a knife in the back from the priest. The Inquisitor, unhooded in all his leprous glory, dies with what’s left of his followers into a splendid auto-da-fe, making vengeful prayers whilst their organ player continues to drone on even as consumed by flames: it’s a potent image of the repressive order and viciousness moralism (“Let them suffer the agony of their guilt!”) refusing to relinquish a life-strangling grip until forcibly annihilated, and the last phase in the characters’ release from self-imposed purgatory as even the evil weed goes up in flames. The final shot of the massed crews of the different ships giving funeral rites to the dead junior dictator now makes sense not merely on a plot level but also in its appreciation of the completeness the characters have found in tentative romantic partnerings – Lansen and Eva, Tyler and Sarah, Unity and Jonathan. The excellent multinational cast, sporting in particular the intriguing presence of former German starlet Knef and John Cassavetes collaborator Carruthers does a lot to give the film the heft of personality it all needs, with the familiar Hammer appreciation of realistic types and actual acting talent even in the bombshells. From one angle the whole affair will look like an absurd stew, and yet I’m not unconvinced this isn’t a little masterpiece of the cinefantastique; in any event English-language genre cinema hardly comes richer or stranger, and it’s one of the most unfairly neglected Hammer works.