Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Thanksgiving Turkey – The Last Dinosaur (1977)

By Jerry Chandler

So, we so far served you up two turkeys this month. We’ve given you The Ghost Galleon, but, at best, that’s a minor bird. It may be the film where it was obvious that the Blind Dead franchise was heading off the rails, but it’s still a hugely enjoyable horror film with an absolutely amazing looking threat in the Blind Dead themselves. We then gave you The Bermuda Depths, a much larger bird by far. Despite its saving graces, it is certainly deserving of the label ‘Turkey’ and then some. This week, we give you a giant, prehistoric turkey in the form of The Last Dinosaur.

The Last Dinosaur was the first collaboration between producers Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass of Rankin/Bass Productions fame and Noboru Tsuburaya of Tsuburaya Productions that would also lead to the previously mentioned The Bermuda Depths and the (somewhat deservedly so) lesser known The Ivory Ape. This was the first of three films intended for US television release and theatrical release in Japan.

This partnership between Arthur Rankin Jr. and Noboru Tsuburaya seemed to have had more than a few things going against it from the word go. For one thing, Rankin/Bass Productions was not exactly known for its high end adventure and science fiction epics. The world of adult but family friendly live action movies was uncharted territory for them, so it was likely seen as somewhat of a gamble by more than a few people. However, a bigger issue here would have been Tsuburaya Productions.

Tsuburaya Productions had a somewhat long history by 1977, and it had some major achievements to point to. It started in 1963 as Tsuburaya Special Effects Productions but later had to change its name due to issues between Toho Company Ltd. and Tsuburaya Special Effects Productions founder Eiji Tsuburaya. By 1977, it was perhaps most famous to many in and outside of Japan for striking gold in 1966 by creating Ultraman. However, after Eiji Tsuburaya’s death in 1970, there was a noticeable decline in the quality of the work done at Tsuburaya Productions for quite some time, and the decline shows when comparing the quality of the FX work done for 1966’s Ultraman and the better budgeted The Last Dinosaur a decade later. Ten additional years of experience working on various productions and a better budget should show quite noticeably in the final product. As it stands, The Last Dinosaur has work done by Tsuburaya Productions that often looks no better than their first Ultraman series a decade earlier, and some of it may even look worse.

The production was directed by both Alexander Grasshoff and Tsugunobu Kotani, who almost worked seamlessly together. It also marked the first of relatively few television and movie writing efforts of William Overgard, and his inexperience with writing for such projects shows in spades.

Our story starts out slowly- ever so slowly -establishing that our lead character, Masten Thrust Jr., played by the late Richard Boone who often feels as if he’s phoning it in throughout the movie, is in fact the last dinosaur referenced in the title of the story. Sure, we meet a Tyrannosaurus Rex later in the story, but we also meet several other prehistoric beasties as well. But it’s Thrust who is the last dinosaur here. 

Boone was sixty when this was filmed, and his character shows every bit of that age physically and socially. He’s played up as a man’s man of the era who goes out and hunts the biggest game, bringing back only the best trophies. He has no use for the namby-pamby world of “endangered species acts” and laments that concepts like this have run so wild that even largely unseen and unidentified creatures like the Loch Ness Monster have been placed on it. He feels that women have no place in many occupations once held exclusively or predominantly by men, and he, of course, has no issue with enjoying the company of much younger looking women until he’s had his fill and dismisses them. This particular character trait is driven home for us over and over again in the first half of the film. We first see him with a woman who he has already lost interest in and then shortly after that dismisses. When then see him mistaking Joan Van Ark's character, professional photographer Francesca 'Frankie' Banks, as just some woman who is interested in him.

Thrust makes his way to a press conference where he announces to the world that a team using an experimental research vessel, the Polar Borer, was looking for oil when it found something else. He has Chuck Wade, played by Steven Keats, explain to the world why he is the only survivor of the mission. The team found their vessel in water when there should have been none. As the borer began to head for the surface of the water, the sensors showed the temperatures outside the borer to be more tropical than arctic. Once the borer surfaced, the team made for shore and set up equipment to find out what they could about this unusual environment. Chuck explains that he was some ways down from the camp when he saw “it” approaching the others. Despite his screaming warnings to the others, they couldn’t hear him and were set upon and eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Thrust announces that he’s leading a new expedition to find the creature and study it. The team will consist of himself, Wade, a scientist (Tetsu Nakamura) named Dr. Kawamoto, and Luther Rackley playing an African master tracker named Bunta. This was Luther Rackley’s first credited acting job. A year later he would play the part of “Basketball Player” in The Fish that Saved Pittsburg, which was his last credited acting job. Oh, Thrust also has a large amount of hunting weapons on his team, he just doesn’t feel inclined to mention that at the press conference. 

Frankie Banks is supposed to be on the team as well, but Thrust will have none of it. In his view, a woman has no place on such teams or on a safari. Frankie then spends a considerable amount of time convincing him that she can handle herself quite well on such trips. This is done in part by showing what a model of a liberated, independent woman she is; at least when she’s not doing the exact opposite of this. Banks and Thrust have a lot of moments together, most of them showing us that he would be fired from running Miramax these days, but she finally convinces him that she should be allowed to go. 

The team makes its way to their destination with scenes and FX that didn’t even qualify back then as the best of 1970’s science fiction television. Upon arrival, we see a magnificent lost world filled with amazing model train set trees, some nicely cartoonish painted backgrounds, and some rubber pterodactyls on string circling the skies. Our intrepid explorers make their way to the shore and set up camp. It’s here we get to see our first land dinosaur and discover that Frankie may not be all that smart. Although we’re supposed to see this as a good thing.

The rest of the team leave Dr. Kawamoto to set up camp and head into the rather countryside woods looking jungle to find their dinosaur. They encounter the t-rex in fairly short order and barely survive the encounter. As they stagger about afterwards, the t-rex sets about finding their camp and stealing the borer because plot device. Oh, and he eats Dr. Kawamoto.

From this point forward we get to be totally surprised by the revelation that Thrust just wants to hunt and kill the t-rex, we get to see a t-rex and triceratops fight that looked like it was staged for the Muppet Show, we meet hostile cavemen who haven’t even learned how to sharpen wood into pointy sticks but have managed to survive into the modern age without being eaten by every giant lizard in the valley, and we learn that Bunta can’t hit a t-rex with a spear from ten yards away. 

Our cavemen also share a trait with any number of other movie and TV cavemen from that era. While the men all have extra hair covering their bodies and faces and overly pronounced teeth, the women just need to have a little dirt washed off to pass for the average modern day gal. 

The team loses members to giant teeth and picks up one new member who becomes the first domesticated servant in the lost world they’ve encountered, Chuck finds the borer and delivers the explanation that the t-rex took it because it was shiny, they recover the borer, Thrust declares that they’re not doing anything until the t-rex is dead, and we get at least one scene that looks as goofy as hell when a plastic boulder rolls across a foam rubber t-rex head.

Eventually, Wade has the borer ready to go and announces that he’s leaving with or without them. Frankie pleads with Thrust to come back with them, but he’s decided that the modern world is a land of confusion and distraction. He decides to live life to the fullest by staying in the valley and hunting the t-rex. As he turns his back on the two of them and begins walking away, Frankie tells him to leave the t-rex alone as it’s the last one. Thrust remarks that so too is he the last of his kind before venturing off into the prehistoric wilderness with his new cavegirlfriend by his side 

William Overgard’s story and script come across as the first-time effort it is with stilted dialogue and characters that come off as little more than stereotypes and background props. He also hammers you over the head with the idea that Thrust is a relic of a bygone age rather than playing the story concept with subtlety. As written, you're also not sure if he is celebrating or lamenting that fact. 

The FX was not something that Tsuburaya Productions would want in a company highlight reel. The lost world sets are okay at best, and the dinosaurs range from looking like rubber toys to clunky suits with very obvious zipper lines. Most of the acting is done well enough, but Richard Boone comes across as if he’s sleepwalking through a number of scenes and reading his script for the first time off of off camera poster boards. 

Lovers of giant, rubber suited monsters will appreciate the fact that they almost got highly regarded suit actors for the production. Toru Kawai, who was credited as the t-rex, had also played Godzilla in the Ryusei Ningen Zon television show and Terror of MechaGodzilla and would later go on to play Brain Borot in Brain 17 and Gamera in Super Monster. Katsumi Nimiamoto, credited as the front half of the triceratops, played Ultraman Leo in the show of the same name and Chitanozaurusu (Titanosaurus) in Terror of MechaGodzilla. Interestingly, no one was credited as playing the back half of the triceratops.

The Last Dinosaur has still managed to earn itself a bit of a cult following despite all of its flaws. This is largely based on nostalgia, but some people have embraced it who didn’t originally see it when they were young. There is something there to enjoy if only as a slice of 1970’s television science fiction cheese, but, if it’s not a nostalgic memory from childhood, this movie is pretty much best served up as fodder for a DIY night of MST3K goofiness.

The Last Dinosaur can be found on an archive edition print on demand DVD through Amazon and other websites where DVDs can be found.It is the American TV cut of the film, and not the longer Japanese theatrical release cut. You may be thankful for that as it tends to feel padded and plodding at times in the TV cut, so the extra 10 minutes missing from the DVD may be a good thing.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary homes. He has also had a lifelong devotion to the forms of entertainment known as horror hosts and professional wrestling. He can occasionally be heard on the ESO Network’s Pro Wrestling Roundtable podcast and regularly on the Assignment: Horror podcast. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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