Review: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)
Warner Archive has delivered another beautiful Blu-ray and DVD from their vast catalog. This time we're treated to dinosaurs, a sixties Playmate, and lots of surf and sand, courtesy of the Canary Islands. What more could a movie fan ask for? Well, a lot, actually.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is a 1970 cult film (I hesitate to use the word "classic") from Hammer Films, the same studio that brought us Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein. They're an icon of the horror movie landscape for giving film audiences the kind of scares, gore, and titillating situations that other major studios shied away from during the fifties. Fast forward a decade: long after Hammer had run their core Dracula and Frankenstein franchises into the ground, they produced a spate of prehistoric-themed movies, kick-started by the now-iconic 1966 movie One Million Years, B.C., starring Raquel Welch. That movie felt fresh and engaging, not just buoyed by Welch's obvious star power, but also by a sense of narrative. By the time this film came around in 1970, the trend was already played out; Hammer compensated for this the same way they did with their flagging horror films: by upping the spectacle and, at least in Europe, tossing in bits of nudity in hopes of bringing in audiences that had seen it all.
As for plot, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth doesn't really have one. In the first few minutes, we learn that the dark-haired prehistoric society we are watching has a thing against blondes and sacrifices them to the sun, or some deity...or something. When one of the blondes (1968 Playmate of the Year Victoria Vetri) that has been slated for execution escapes her fate, she finds herself among another tribe, struggling for acceptance. What follows is 100 minutes of stop-motion dinosaur battles, narrow escapes, and bickering between members of the tribe as jealousy and suspicion take control. There are at least two cat fights. All this is brought to the screen by one of Hammer's more prominent directors,Val Guest (who also contributed the screenplay), probably best known for helming Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment.
One doesn't come to these movies for plot, though; you come to see the spectacle of scantily-clad men and women struggling against fantastic elements (like dinosaurs). On that level, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth succeeds. The dinosaurs are mostly done with stop-motion animation--though there is a fight between what looks like a crocodile and a Komodo Dragon, both dressed up to like like prehistoric creatures--and that stop-motion animation looks absolutely fantastic. You can tell that technology and techniques had come a long way even since the 1950's and early 1960's with the passing of the Harryhausen era and the dawn of a more modern style. The dinos move fluidly and often have a sense of weight. The models, or puppets, that the animators used have good texture and detail on them that adds to the realism.
The prehistoricsploitation going on in this movie is moderately entertaining for a while. Everyone is mildly attractive, in a greasy, 1970 sort of way, but it's obvious that Victoria Vetri isn't really blonde and that she's wearing a wig. Also, for all the bouncing bosoms in this movie, it's hard to actually complain that it's sexist, because the men are barely clothed at all. In fact, pretty much everyone involved in this movie has a couple of inches of their butt hanging out of their loincloths, regardless of their gender. I haven't seen this much man-thigh since I watched 300. The much-ballyhooed nudity from the unrated international cut really only amounts to about 15 seconds of extra skin, and it's really nothing that anyone born after 1993 would raise an eyebrow at. If anything, the entire movie seems tame. Even 1984's Sheena, starring Tanya Roberts, had as much nudity and still managed a PG-rating.
Now for the bad: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth isn't very good. I don't mean that in the sense that it's not Academy Awards material (although, ironically, it actually was nominated for an Oscar for best special effects). No, I mean, it's not even a good exploitation movie. It could have been; One Million Years, B.C. certainly was, and that movie had more of a plot and an actual character journey and development, even if it was an afterthought. This movie literally hangs its entire fate on the backs of its skinny, oiled-up, prehistoric people and the novelty of seeing them defend themselves from brontosauruses and triceratops. It's all well and good for about an hour, but the movie unfortunately drags on for another forty minutes after that. I have no idea why they didn't trim this down to a tight 82 minutes like so many other exploitation movies. I mean, it's not like its crammed with plot and narrative.
The movie is good for midnight entertainment, and that's obviously what we're all about here. I'm a big champion of exploitation, especially from this era of cinema, and I'm a huge fan of Hammer Films. I know I'm not alone; presumably, this is the same movie that Steven Spielberg is paying homage to near the end of Jurassic Park when the T-Rex reclaims his throne and the banner reading "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" falls slowly to the floor. Sadly, there's just not enough here to make this anything more than a curiosity or a collectible for hardcore genre fans like myself. Kudos to Warner Brothers for this new release, regardless. Warner, even more than many of their peers, is sitting on a veritable mountain of cinematic history, much of which is out of print or unavailable. I thank them for releasing When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth with a very solid, clean transfer on a factory-pressed Blu-ray. If the internet is any indication, the response from cinephiles has been very positive and pre-orders for the disc were reportedly higher than expected.
Cheers to Warner Archive, and cheers to Hammer Films, but this one is for hardcore fans only.