Ah, the South Pacific! Where time stands still and World War II veteran turned adventurer Ted Osbourne (Phillip Reed) flew over a remote island and took a photograph of what looks just like a Tyrannosaurus Rex would look like if it were painted onto a postcard backdrop. This is the tenuous world of Unknown Island, a 1948 B-movie currently streaming on Amazon Prime. With cheap nods to King Kong and The Lost World, the movie even has a cheap title, which marks a by-the-numbers plot of ludicrous dialogue spoken by wooden actors and cheap thrills delivered by underpaid extras stumbling around in unconvincing rubber dinosaur costumes. The 75-minute adventure is the kind of picture that makes MST3K gold, a bad movie with enough earnest charm and ineptitude to make it a good bad movie.
Media-savvy critics of the 21st century might look back at this dusty product with pity for gullible post-war audiences hungry for base entertainment. But even contemporary reviews were unkind. Writing for The Washington Post in the snowy winter of 1949, Orval Hopkins noted that, “no matter how much noise you make and how many layers of paint and canvas you use, you can’t create a credible prehistoric monster for the movies.”
The plot unfolds as Ted takes his fiancée Carole (Virginia Grey) to a dingy Singapore bar in search of Captain Tarnowksi (Barton MacLane), who reluctantly agrees to take the couple to an island where dinosaurs roam. We hear the Captain before we see him: “That’s him laughing,” a befuddled and strangely American-looking local points out. Tarnowski is one of the stock characters that populate this movie, and one of the most vivid, his mean-spirited cackle puncturing tepid dialogue at regular intervals. Will the Captain’s laughter turn to laughter turn to blood curdling screams? Of course!
Ted and Carole have little chemistry for a couple about to be married. Oddly, there seems to be more chemistry between Tarnowski and the alcoholic adventurer Fairbanks (Richard Denning), who previously visited the unknown island with tragic results. Handing Fairbanks a drink, Tarnowski torments the sailor: “We’re going back to that island, Fairbanks! Back to find the beast that chewed up your pals while they were still alive and kicking! You wanna come along?” As the Captain laughs, Fairbanks holds his head in his hands before storming out through grass curtains, stopping to retort: “I’d blow my brains out before I‘d go back to that island.”
Fairbanks doesn’t blow his brains out, and the motley expedition journeys to a distant land or soundstage where awkward, rear-projected monsters pretend to attack actors who vaguely pretend to be threatened. In one particularly thrilling moment, a hairy gorilla-like beast battles a shuffling T-Rex as the expedition watches in apparent horror. Naturally, man and monster aren’t in the same shot; the set-up recalls the mashup of George C. Scott in Hardcore sobbing as he watches an Adam Sandler movie.
Journalistic ethics comes into play as members of the expedition meet cruel fates at the rubber hands of slow beasts. Despite growing sentiments to abandon the expedition and return home, Ted refuses to leave without the film footage that he hopes will make him famous. Meanwhile, Ted is losing his hold on Carole, who is courted and protected by Fairbanks, despite the latter’s strange admission that Tarnowski wants to have him over for a drink. “I’m particular about who I drink with,” Fairbanks smoothly tells Carole, perhaps to make her jealous that the Captain has his eye on him.
What Unknown Island lacks in conventional thrills or drama, it makes up for in an endearing B-movie innocence. While Ted labors to take film footage of the monsters-out-of-time, warning cries of “They’re coming at us!” is answered by shots of actors struggling to navigate their dinosaur costumes at speeds that approach two miles an hour. The beasts never seem to make progress, the low-budget suspense mechanism an inadvertent metaphor for nature’s helplessness against man’s primordial need for entertainment.