THE LOST CONTINENT (1968)

the lost continent
On their way to South America, the passengers and crew of an old freighter face many challenges...

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The Lost Continent is a bit of an oddity in the Hammer filmography, and no wonder it’s often overlooked: it’s a mess! A hotchpotch of soapy drama, high seas adventure, Gothic horror, and monster movie. Sounds great, right? And yes, it can be lots of fun when approached as a kind of grown-up pantomime… with plague.

I first saw it as a youngster. I think it was an edited-for-TV print shown as a Saturday matinee. Swap Shop had finished, it was a few hours until Doctor Who came on, and I enjoyed it immensely. Although the final worrying scenes stayed with me long after I’d forgotten which film they’d come from. To a 13-year-old in the mid-1970s, it all seemed very mature and serious… but as an arguably more mature and probably less serious adult, I’m surprised it passed muster alongside the Doctor Who of that era! For one thing, I don’t know how my teenaged self even sat through the first hour of this potboiler plot… probably doing something else at the same time, like building a plastic dinosaur model kit and hoping I would eventually be rewarded with some Harryhausen stop-motion effects when the beleaguered ship eventually reached its titular destination.

Alas, it was not to be…

With their other two adaptations of Dennis Wheatley’s books, The Devil Rides Out (1968) and To the Devil a Daughter (1976), Hammer can be held responsible for the author becoming so associated with occult stories. Actually, the bulk of Wheatley’s fiction was in the espionage genre, with a spattering of crime, historic intrigue, and action adventure.

Wheatley’s 1933 debut novel, Forbidden Territory, about the daring rescue of a captured spy from a soviet prison, had been an instant bestseller. Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock was quick to option it and passed in on to producer Richard Wainwright, who wasted no time and the film hit UK screens in 1934. It turned out that, due to contractual wrangling, Hitchcock had been unavailable when the film went into production and it was instead directed by Phil Rosen. It was no blockbuster, but performed well enough at the box office for Wainwright to buy the rights to Wheatley’s 1935 exotic spy thriller The Eunuch of Stamboul, which was released the following year as The Secret of Stamboul (1936), a.k.a The Spy in White.

The Lost Continent’s source material was Wheatley’s 1938 novel, Uncharted Seas, and the change of title was a deliberate attempt to align it with the popular ‘lost-world’ genre that had been reinvigorated by Irwin Allen’s The Lost World (1960) and mastered by Hammer with She (1965).

In a weird way, the genre comes full circle in Lost Continent as Wheatley wrote it in the wake of its progenitor King Kong (1933), which was released the same year as John Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, was first published. Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of Lost Horizon was responsible for boosting the success of the novel and making it one of the bestselling books of the 20th-century. It became the very first American ‘Pocket Book’, or mass-market paperback, establishing a format that would serve Dennis Wheatley very well.

The first half of Lost Continent is quite faithful to Wheatley’s novel, though characters have been merged and renamed. In this it deserves some recognition for prefiguring the classic disaster movie template that would later be exploited in such genre-defining films as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), both produced by Irwin Allen. A group of people from different backgrounds, the filthy rich rubbing shoulders with the working class, some escaping dire situations or hiding a damning secret, all thrown together into a contained environment to await impending disaster.

In this case the disaster is blatantly foreshadowed, as a motley cast of characters set sail in an old rust-bucket of a ship, the Corita, that ignores calls from a Customs launch for them to heave-to. The Captain (Eric Porter) then receives a hurricane warning, yet steams on regardless. He flagrantly disregards the advice of his first officer, Hemmings (Neil McCallum), to turn back, before revealing that they are carrying an illegal cargo of ‘Phosphor B’—a high explosive that ignites on contact with moisture. (It was probably Friday the 13th, too, and I bet there was a dead albatross lying around somewhere!)

The passengers provide a good selection of insalubrious characters. There’s the sleazy Latin ‘repoman’ Ricaldi (Benito Carruthers), hired to retrieve stolen bonds from runaway trophy wife, Mrs. Peters (Hildegard Knef); there’s a stereotypical ’70s blonde bimbo called Unity (Suzanna Leigh), whose overbearing father (Nigel Stock) is a disgraced doctor on the run; and alcoholic Harry (Tony Beckley) is a cheeky-chappie who plays piano and wears a jacket lined with cash, presumably gained through nefarious means.

There are clear divisions between the officers, the crew, and the handful of wealthy passengers on board. This underlying theme of class conflict pervades the story and may be a remnant of the original racial division prominent in the novel (where those ‘below decks’ were predominantly black) though avoided in the film. The friction between the engineers—including Michael Ripper, one of Hammer’s regular character actors, along with James Cossins and Victor Maddern—and the authority of the captain comes to a head when an anchor chain slips a gear and ruptures the bulkhead. The sea begins to flood the chamber where the hydrophobic explosives are stored. There is an abortive mutiny, led by Hemmings, but shortly after things get even worse as they feel the brunt of Hurricane Wendy, and they are all forced to abandon ship in the storm.

The lifeboat sequence is suitably drawn-out and claustrophobically intensifies the conflict between the characters, until it all comes to a head with fisticuffs resulting in a man overboard. In fine Boy’s Own style, there’s a hungry shark right on cue. From that moment the dynamic changes and the characters begin to break away from their predestined roles and redefine themselves. The storm effects and drifting lifeboat scenes were shot in a vast water tank, purpose built at Elstree Studios, and are pretty effective.

So far, it’s been a sort of gritty melodrama, and the direction of Michael Carreras has maintained a steady pace. He’s made the most of a solid cast that all turn-in competent performances and he’s got us well past the halfway mark before anything too weird occurs. But now, the film, like the anchor chain, slips a gear—and possibly a genre. Depending how you look at it, this is either the film’s point of failure or saving grace… but, for me, it’s definitely the latter.

In thick fog, the lifeboat drifts into the abandoned Corita, which has ridden out the hurricane without the help of her crew, but now lies trapped in a raft of clogging sentient seaweed. Yes, the seaweed is definitely out to get them, and they are forced to take refuge in the doomed vessel once more. Everything starts to go a bit Doctor Who

Their ship is just one of many forming a sort of archipelago of assorted wrecks bound together by the thick weed. The miniature effects by Robert Mattey for this ships’ graveyard are actually pretty good for the time, but I’m afraid the same can’t be said for the mechanical creature effects. First, there’s a stealth attack by a giant glowing-eyed, limp-tentacled, octopus that almost devours Unity but gets her would-be rescuer instead. Already a special effects veteran, Mattey had overseen a similar, and as I recall more effective, sequence for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and would go on to wow audiences with his effects for Jaws (1975).

Later, there’s a battle between a huge hermit crab and a giant scorpion that looks more like something from the contemporary Toho Godzilla franchise! There’s no denying the creature effects are, frankly, terrible but the actors’ responses are convincing enough. And if you’ve made it this far, it’s well worth sticking with as the story is about to get really interesting, perhaps unique.

It finally starts to look like a classic Hammer production when Dana Gillespie appears out of the fog, walking across the raft of seaweed with her pair of impressive floatation devices. Hot on her heels are a horde of fur-clad barbarians who attack the ship with berserk bloodlust. Among them are a few more skilled soldiers wearing the armour of Spanish Conquistadors.

It turns out that the descendants of survivors form various trapped ships have formed a community that still exists as a sort of concentrated enclave of the Spanish Inquisition, ruled by an adolescent boy-king who is, in turn controlled by an evil vizier clad in the tattered robes and cone-hooded garb of a grand-inquisitor. Apparently the ‘inquisitor’ part was intended for Christopher Lee, but is actually played by his regular stunt-double, Eddie Powell. Finally, it all goes gloriously Goth, with organ music and corrupt monks wearing ancient decaying habits. Unfortunately, the truly interesting possibilities presented by this scenario are trampled over by the action-driven finale.

The subtext is still in there for those who delve. It’s a somewhat socialist attack on the elite who enjoy their privileges of unearned rank and demand respect without demonstrating actions to confirm it. Most of the characters are archetypal capitalists, motivated solely by money, at least to begin with. Though those that survive have questioned their values and mended their ways by the final reel. The outward corruption of the leprous order of the inquisition is a clear metaphor for how a belief system can also spread its inner corruption like a contagion, as well as being a direct reference to the diseases that decimated the New World, carried there by the Conquistadors.

Lost Continent is not as bad as some may claim. Then again… it really depends on what mood you’re in and how you approach it. It’s certainly a flawed, but nonetheless interesting Hammer production, and not like any other. It captures the pulpy appeal of Wheatley’s populist fiction, whilst attempting to update its outmoded sentiments. But now of course, 50 years on, its sexist ’70s sentiments seem very much a throwback!

To enjoy: close your critical eye, crack open a beer, or beverage of choice, accept the awful monster effects as the light relief, and try not to compare it with Hammer’s other two, superior, films based on the works of Wheatley.

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Cast & Crew

director: Michael Carreras.
writer: Michael Nash (aka Michael Carreras) (based on ‘Uncharted Seas’ by Dennis Wheatley).
starring: Eric Porter, Hildegard Knef, Suzanna Leigh & Tony Beckley.

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