Often for children of a similar vintage, the Saturday matinee was where our movie memories began and then flourished; we were shown sword-fighting skeletons, one-eyed ogres and metallic barn fowl, pretty girls in peril and giants with a grudge. Fantasy adventure was a familiar label to us afternoon filmgoers, and the more absurd the flick, the better. The Lost Continent (1968) didn’t cross my path as a kid, but it certainly would have fit right in with our weird fiction viewing habits at the time. Watching it as a significantly aged and occasionally cynical movie lover, one can see that love of pulp on display, with one important difference: this was made by Hammer Films.
Pulp? Without question. But filtered through Hammer’s latter day approach of looser morals and giddy blood spraying, The Lost Continent seems to be made for adults who missed the experience the first time around, as opposed to children being welcomed into this particular world. This only applies to the characters themselves, who are given narrative weight to carry on between scenes of swashbuckling, octopus fighting, swamp vine wrasslin’, a giant crab versus scorpion kaiju stomp, and the attack of Spanish Conquistadors. That stuff is for the kid in all of us; the rest is a motley mix of thieves, drunks, and schemers stumbling and sweating through life - heady stuff for a kid, but not so much so as to be a slog. The film has pep, dammit.
Let’s shove off, shall we? An old freighter run by Capt. Lansen (Eric Porter – The Day of the Jackal) is now a passenger vessel heading for South America; aboard are an assortment of colorful types – the drunk (Tony Beckley – When a Stranger Calls), the mysterious German woman (Hildegard Knef – Witchery), a doctor (Nigel Stock – The Great Escape), a lascivious star (Suzanna Leigh – The Deadly Bees), and a thief (Ben Carruthers – The Dirty Dozen). Lansen burns through customs because he has his own secret – he’s carrying a cargo of high explosives. The others don’t mind; actually they seem relieved.
When the ship hits a hurricane and the captain refuses to turn around, most of his crew declare mutiny and jump ship, leaving the captain, first mate, and our above mentioned passengers. They carry on – until they can’t. You see, weeds have embraced their propellers and they drag the ship to foggy banks and a mysterious land. Once on land, our assortment of miscreants have much worse things to deal with than seaweed – including, well, see the first paragraph. Will they be able to escape The Lost Continent?
Based on the novel Uncharted Seas by Dennis Wheatley (boy, he sure hung around with Hammer a lot, didn’t he?), The Lost Continent is an odd duck in that it wants to push the more colorful philosophy of Hammer’s later years while creating what amounts to a kiddie flick; that it ends up being all of it – and mostly working – is a testament to Hammer Honcho (or one of them, anyway) Michael Carreras who wrote the script, and stepped in to take over directing chores from Leslie Norman (X the Unknown). Carreras was always known as a clean up guy; if one of his films was having trouble, he would take over.
There’s certainly plenty to oversee with The Lost Continent - the juggling of the misbegotten in the first half, and then having them spring into gaudy action in the second – and Carreras juggles it well; the only thing that lets him down is his script, which has more than a few tonal shifts to give a viewer whiplash. But when it works, it achieves the feel of a Saturday matinee – you just have to get to the island.
The thing is though, the character beats are very well fleshed out, so that by the time they get there you may not be fully vested in their outcome, but you’ve met some colorful people along the way. The MVP is definitely Porter as Captain Lansen; authoritative to a fault, he softens somewhat and becomes a sympathetic figure as the story progresses. Same with Knef; she tells her tragic tale to Lansen in a quite touching scene. Carreras could (and does) bring the action, but as always Hammer invests in drama, however heightened, to sell the horror.
And here it is of the fantastical, as the crew walks on top of the swamp wearing snowshoes and helium balloons, almost gets killed by giant crustaceans, and has to deal with dissenters of a generations-old Spanish galleon marooned forever. Let’s call it “horror adjacent” and just enjoy the show.
I’ve always admired Hammer’s resiliency to face, and try to keep up with, the evolving film market. I also admire that The Lost Continent doesn’t really fit in, but rather luxuriates in its oddities, rubber tentacles, and general weirdness. And truthfully, that’s more than enough for the Saturday matinee.
The Lost Continent is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1983)