Return to the Lost Continent!

The name of Hammer Films is now inseparably attached to classic horror, but this occurred more by financial necessity than artistic choice. Throughout their 60s heyday, the studio were trying to get all manner of projects off the ground, their preferred method of attracting investment being to prepare a poster for the prospective project. Many of these garish posters still exist for unmade Hammer projects such as When the Earth Cracked Open, Queen of the High Seas and the delightfully literal Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls! Invariably though, investors were not interested in these more outré projects and the studio ended up falling back on another outing for Frankenstein or Dracula. A few bizarro Hammer projects did slip through the net though and one of the strangest of these must surely be 1968’s The Lost Continent.

Based on The Uncharted Seas, a lesser work by 1930s author Dennis Wheatley, it’d be easy to misfile The Lost Continent alongside the likes of Mysterious Island and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but in truth it’s a much rarer and altogether more exotic beast. The story starts with a small group of passengers travelling on a cargo ship called the Corita to Caracas in Venezuela; unbeknownst to them, the cargo that the ship is carrying is a deadly explosive compound that ignites upon contact with water. Bad news when you’re travelling by sea, right? Even worse news when the ship is caught in a storm and the crew have to abandon ship, putting their flimsy lifeboat full of people at the mercy of arguments, starvation and rubber sharks.

Eventually though, they find themselves weirdly becalmed in a Sargasso Sea full of wrecked ships and flesh-eating seaweed (yes, you heard that right). As luck would have it, their original ship has not exploded and has also become mired in this misty, swampy section of ocean, so they climb back on board and are back drinking gin and orange in the bar before you can say Jack Robinson. This demonstrates the weirdly cyclic nature of the script, where characters that were in dire peril one minute are back to semi-normality the next. There’s a lot of nice character development in there, but it’s quite scattershot in its deployment, with the script often seeming over-eager to get back to rubber strands of killer seaweed as quickly as possible.

Before too long, the Corita comes under attack from a group of marauding conquistadors, whose own vessel has been stranded there for hundreds of years and have survived for generations by attacking other stranded ships and are currently under the command of a snot-nosed teenage aristocrat and a group of pointy-hatted inquisitors. Yes, it’s all rather odd. They walk across the swampy surface of the ocean using body harnesses to which are attached two helium balloons and inflated ‘snow shoes’ that bring nothing to mind so much as Priscilla – Queen of the Desert! It’s very imaginative, but looks feintly ridiculous, especially when worn by amble-bosomed scream queen Dana Gillespie, who looks like she’s coming at you with four enormous balloons.

There are a lot of stalwarts of British cinema in the cast, including Eric Porter, Tony Beckley, Nigel Stock, Victor Maddern and Hammer regular Michael Ripper. The female lead is German actress Hildegard Knef, with glamorous support from two young ladies who would both go on to be in other Hammer productions, Susanna Leigh and the aforementioned Dana Gillespie. This would be the final film appearance for character actor Jimmy Hanley, who died three years later, but his daughter Jenny Hanley would carry on the family tradition by appearing in Scars of Dracula for Hammer in 1970. The youthful leader of the Spanish marauders was played by 17-year old Darryl Read, who was a guitarist with punk rock pioneers Crushed Butler and compounded his rock  ‘n’ roll credentials by dying in a motorcycle accident in 2013.

The special effects are a mixed bunch. The miniature shots of the wreckage-strewn Sargasso Sea are actually really impressive and are matched by some full-size panoramic sets for the scuttled ship of the conquistadors. However, the monstrous crab/scorpion creatures that inhabit the sparse collection of rocky crags that make up the ‘lost continent’ are very primitive animatronic creations that wouldn’t look out of place in an early Japanese kaiju production; the mechanics that make them scuttle are quite clever, but it doesn’t really stop them from looking very silly and particularly out of place in a production intended for adults. The same goes for the rubber tendrils of the deadly seaweed, which the cast struggle to wrap around themselves whilst trying to look as if they’re not wrapping it around themselves.

The Lost Continent is a schizoid production that’s never quite sure if it wants to be a Ship of Fools style psychodrama, a Land That Time Forgot style adventure or an all-out Hammer Horror, and it ends up being a bit of all three. It’s too violent to capture the Warlords of Atlantis family-friendly audience and it was certified as an ‘X’ certificate upon its release in 1968 (though it has been down-graded to a ‘12’ for its DVD release), but it appears to have been an influence on the later Doug McClure vehicles such as The Land That Time Forgot (1974), At the Earth’s Core (1976) and Warlords of Atlantis (1978). What producer John Dark seems to have done with the McClure films is to take the basic theme of The Lost Continent, dial down the violence and sadism, dial up the monsters and create a winning template for cinematic boy’s own adventure.

It’s possible that Hammer were under the thumb of their investors, who expected a certain type of content from the studio. Hammer had set out their stall very early on by courting the ‘X’ certificate for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and in doing so had unwittingly created a rod for their own back; they might have been the same studio that produced A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) and Holiday on the Buses (1973), but when they went in search of American funding for a bigger budget picture, their prospective investors were invariably looking for a horror project – because that is where Hammer Films were most profitable internationally. I’ve no doubt that Hammer could have successfully produced The Lost Continent as a family film, but could they have raised the capitol for it?

The Lost Continent is sometimes unfairly quoted as Hammer’s worst film, but it isn’t – not by a long shot! It’s certainly one of their strangest and most misjudged though. There are certain production changes that could have been made to make it a better film; it’d have worked better as a period piece for starters, as its contemporary 60s setting and folksy songs date it appallingly. It also could have stuck to its guns and been a solid adventure film instead of trying to be lots of different things at once, which would have made it a more coherent production. On the whole, we should probably think ourselves lucky that The Lost Continent was made at all, as even Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls feels like a more viable commercial prospect. It’s nicely made and fairly entertaining though… but most of all, it’s an interesting glimpse into the kind of Hammer Film that almost never was.

Hammer Films’ ‘The Lost Continent’ is currently doing the rounds of Talking Pictures TV in the UK and is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Optimal/Studiocanal.

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