Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Wheatley on film: The Lost Continent (1968)


While everyone knows and loves Hammer's film of The Devil Rides Out, only hardcore fans of either studio or author know that it was one of two Wheatley adaptations Hammer released that year.

The other was this barnstorming adaptation of Uncharted Seas, one of the most elaborate and expensive productions the studio had ever mounted. Partly for the simple reason that it is not one of the studio's pure horror films, it tends to be dismissed or (more often) ignored in most histories of Hammer, although in the best of them, Denis Meikle's A History of Horrors, the author calls it "the single most spectacular production that Hammer have ever mounted."
Sadly, it proved a box-office disappointment and was more or less forgotten, though today it has become something of a cult favourite, largely account of its delightfully patchwork monsters and technical effects. (Note the scene where an octopus nearly carries off Unity, and leaves her bloodied and covered in green slime.) All the monsters, including some superbly horrible giant crabs, were the work of the distinguished Robert Mattey, later to design the model sharks used in Jaws. The miniature shots in the ship's graveyard scenes are likewise no less effective for not disguising their artifice.


Oddly, Meikle makes the preposterous claim, repeated in numerous other books on the studio and seemingly originating with the film's writer-producer-director Michael Carreras, that Wheatley had no recollection of the novel by the time the film was made. If so, he'd certainly regained his memory of it when he came to write Drink and Ink, where he dismisses the movie as a bad adaptation and a poor follow-up to The Devil Rides Out: "Hammer also made my Uncharted Seas, re-christening it Lost Continent. But the story was entirely altered, with the result that it was less successful."
Actually, the film is not the wholesale reinvention of the original Wheatley seems to imply: the first half is a pretty close adaptation (with only cosmetic changes), and while the second part differs radically from Wheatley in detail it retains the original's trajectory and form. (Wheatley's recollection gives the impression that it is of a piece with The Haunted Airman, a kind of riff on the original, but it is not.) It's actually one of my favourite Wheatley movies, and whereas The Devil Rides Out seems a touch over-keen to stress its respectability, as if half-ashamed of its inspiration, this one leaps wholeheartedly into the absurd spirit of the original.


The basic changes are, as I said, cosmetic, but nonetheless wholesale. The period is updated to that of the film (a not unreasonable decision, given the novel was only thirty years old), and all of the characters are renamed, with the sole and curious half-exception of Unity, who retains the first name of her equivalent character in the novel but not the second. The characters, however, are all recognisable variants of those in the book; they serve the same functions and interact in the same ways. Nicely cast, too: Eric Porter brings welcome gravitas to the lead, here the British Captain Lansen rather than Finnish ship's engineer Juhani Luvia, and Suzanna Leigh (as Unity), Hidegarde Knef (as Eva/Synolda), Tony Beckley (as Harry/Basil), Ben Carruthers (as Ricaldi/Vicente), Nigel Stock (as Dr Webster/Colonel Carden) and Jimmy Hanley (as Patrick/Hansie)  all bring the novel's characters effectively to new life, while adhering to their printed spirit. One could easily imagine Wheatley enjoying the opening sections thoroughly, especially when we see Webster nonchalantly reading the paperback of Uncharted Seas!


Three enormous studio tanks were used to create the storm effects (one was specially built for the movie), and very effective they are. All the same, it was clearly impossible to show the ship lurching on the waves in the manner described by Wheatley, so an additional motive for their abandoning ship is added: the hold is filled with an illegal cargo of high explosives that are ignited by contact with water. The most interesting structural change is that the film spends fifteen minutes introducing us to the characters before the action begins - just what we would expect in books and films of this sort, but the very thing that Wheatley had so masterfully avoided. (And in an agreeable sign of what is to come, Carreras ignores the novel's early notice of its race-war theme in the form of Harlem Joe and his attempts to rouse the black crew members to mutiny.)
On the other hand, the scenes where the characters are cast adrift in the lifeboat suffer a little from abbreviation: in the novel it is a major episode and we are left in no doubt that the crew come within an inch of death before the ship is re-sighted. Here it is over too quickly, there is no real sense of desperation, and their return to the ship now feels a bit pointless - Carreras might more easily have simply gone from the storm setting them off course to their discovery of the weed, and used the extra time to space out some of the other highlights.  But essentially, the narrative up until the point where the regained ship runs aground in the sea of weed is one with that of the book.


The first sign that the film is about to cut its own path occurs when it is discovered that as well as treacherous, the weed is literally alive, crawling up the side of the deck and into portholes, intent on grabbing the characters and dragging them into the deep, presumably to be in some manner eaten. It is so bizarre an idea one wonders if it even stemmed from a misreading of the original material: Wheatley on a few occasions describes the weed as if it were actively malevolent. At one point he speaks of its "countless tendrils... holding the ship back like the tangled skein of a vast, many-stringed bow", and one might perhaps misunderstand this section, when it is discovered that a crew member has gone missing during the night:

After the unavailing search had been completed and the others had gone below, De Brissac took Luvia by the arm and led him along to the spot on the port side of the ship just below the bridge. He said nothing but switched on his torch and pointed with it.
Luvia stared at the thing upon the deck. He stood very still, his hands felt cold and clammy. It was a single, long tendril of wet, bright-green weed to which De Brissac pointed.
Bremer was gone, and both men knew that in the darkness of the night some stealthy, hideous thing had come up out of the sea to get him.

In fact it is one of the octopi that use the weed as cover, but one could imagine a skim-reader putting two and two together and making five. Given that the film does retain the octopus attacks also, the decision to additionally give the weed itself sentience and carnivorous habits is inexplicable. It also makes a nonsense of the balloon jumping - in the book the characters use the balloons and stilts to leap across the weed, covering great distances between jumps, and only briefly making contact each time. Even then, it is not enough to prevent them occasionally falling prey to a lurking octopus. Here the stilts are replaced with large flat discs, and the characters don't leap but merely trudge across the weed's surface. This would give them no protection even against the octopi: with the weed itself also alive and hungry, it makes no sense at all. 

The remainder of the movie plays fair by the spirit of the novel - the travelers discover a strange island populated by the descendants of shipwrecked mariners - but entirely alters the details. As in Wheatley, they are approached by the balloon-jumping escapee (Yonita in the novel, Sarah here) described by Wheatley as "less than five feet in height, but with well-developed breasts" and played distractingly to the letter by actress/singer Dana Gillespie. 


In hot and murderous pursuit, however, are not the "devilish negroes" of Wheatley but zombie-ish whites in ragged sixteenth century costumes. We learn that this time round there is only one island, but it is an arcane tyranny occupied by the descendants of the conquistadors, and ruled over by an anaemic boy king and a sinister, hooded Inquisitor (a role intended for Christopher Lee but in the event played by his regular stunt double Eddie Powell). Miscreants are wont to be tipped into the film's oddest invention: a pit at the bottom of which waits something hideous, of which we see for certain only a gaping rubber maw. Disease and dementia are rife among the inbred population. 
Even more than the original book did, then, this may well remind you of Peter Benchley's The Island, as well as The Fog - the film, that is - and Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead series. It's all much spookier than Wheatley's original, more in keeping with his sixties reputation as a master of horror and with the kind of thrills expected of a Hammer movie, and - frankly - preferable. All builds to a rousing, explosive finale.
Wheatley should have swallowed his pride and given it a second look.