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Thursday, June 22, 2023

Throwback Thursday - That Time Rankin/Bass teamed up with the Japanese to make movies for ABC

note: A few years ago I signed on to write up some articles for a magazine titled Gravely Unusual. Specifically, I chose to write about various genre related television projects, which readers of Crappy Movie Reviews will know is a favorite of mine. Sadly this only lasted a couple of issues and I’ve already posted the other one here. Today I thought I’d share my other submission.


Television Terrors: Growing up in the Warm Glow of the Boob Tube

The Rankin/Bass and Japanese movies that ended up on ABC

by John Shatzer

Here we are back for another installment of Television Terrors. This time around I thought I’d talk about an odd collaboration that occurred in the late ‘70s between Rankin/Bass and some Japanese studios. This is a series of three movies that ended up premiering on ABC here in the States while getting a theatrical release in Japan. Initially, I had thought this was the plan all along. However, after doing research for this article I realized that the original idea had been for The Last Dinosaur to get released to theaters in the US, but the filmmakers couldn’t drum up any interest. After that movie was such a success, the other productions were sold to television even before they were finished. Because of this I consider these productions all to be television movies and decided to cover them here.

Before I go any further, I should chat a bit about my history with these movies. If you haven’t caught on yet I’m a huge fan of all things related to horror on the small screen. I was aware of the “movies of the week” that were cranked out to fill the voids in the schedule, having seen many of them in reruns on my local horror hosted shows years after their premieres. At some point in the mid ‘80s I heard about these strange projects and immediately went looking for them but was unable to find copies to watch. I filed it away and moved on to the next thing. I honestly had totally forgotten about it until recently when I stumbled over an article that mentioned them. This time, armed with the internet as a resource, I found what I was looking for. Though I imagine given the title of this article you probably figured that out already. After waiting over 3 decades, it is time to dive in.

I figured that I’d start with 1978’s The Bermuda Depths. This is the second of the trio and was the one that interested me the most. Mostly because one of the stars, Carl Weathers of Rocky and Predator fame, does battle with a giant sea turtle. The Japanese side of the production came from the same company that did the Ultraman shows that I loved growing up as a kid. I was so hoping for some killer Kaiju action which I must inform you never happens. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Things kick off with a guy sleeping on the beach who we later find out is our main character, Magnus. A beautiful woman, played by a very young Connie Sellecca, comes strolling up and smiles before disappearing back into the sea. Magnus wakes up and then we are given some background as he meets up with Eric, Weather’s character, who is working on a research vessel. Eric and another man named Paulis are continuing the work of Magnus’ father. Magnus has returned to the island to sort out his history and to try to remember what happened to his father. We get hints that since being orphaned as a child he has had a rough go of it. Signing on to help Magnus gets involved with Eric and Paulis’ work. Also in the mix is Sellecca’s character, Jennifer, who we find out has a strange connection to Magnus and his father.

Now you might have noticed that I have yet to mention the giant sea turtle. I’m not burying the lead here as the turtle is barely in the movie and is mostly seen in the last few minutes of the flick. Much of the movie is focused on developing the relationship between Jennifer and Magnus and revealing the secrets within that relationship. Be aware that there are some spoilers coming so if you don’t like that sort of thing stop reading right away. You have been warned.

Jennifer was/is the imaginary friend that Magnus had as a child (another flashback we get to see) who is also a legendary sea creature that was once a woman but sold her soul to a turtle god to avoid drowning. Or at least I think that is what they were going for. If I’m going to be completely honest here the movie is quite confusing. I had to stop it to go back and see if I missed something more than once. That hardly ever happens to me since I tend to really pay attention when I’m watching a movie. Sadly, that is only one of the many problems that I noticed.

Finally the Turtle!
The Bermuda Depths feels like a movie that tried to do a lot of stuff but never settled on one thing long enough to be entertaining. We get the promise of a monster, which never really happens. The title mentions Bermuda, which being a ‘70s production made me think it might have something to do with the Bermuda Triangle. While that is mentioned and hinted at nothing really comes of it. We get a bit of a mad/obsessed scientist vibe which also doesn’t turn into anything. There is even a bit of Jaws with the characters on the boat doing battle with the turtle, but it ends too quickly to be worthwhile. The filmmakers are throwing a lot at the audience to entertain, but it doesn’t work.

The casting of Burl Ives as the scientist Paulis also doesn’t work for me. He is wrong for the part and really the movie in general. He mostly mumbles through lines and spends his time cracking and eating peanuts. The only thing that I did really like about The Bermuda Depths was the casting of Carl Weathers. He is good playing Eric and is the only character that seems to have some sort of story arc going from friendly to obsessed with the fame that might be gained by killing the turtle and proving its existence. Plus, he wears a pair of shorts that have to be seen to be believed. I was having flashbacks to gym class in the ‘70s and was traumatized. 

One of the hazards of this hobby and tracking down movies is that when you find them you realize why they were difficult to locate in the first place. Many times, they were buried because they are just bad. While I’m pleased to have finally scratched this one off of my bucket list, I’m hoping that this isn’t a harbinger of things to come. Fingers crossed that the other two movies are more fun.  

Next up I thought I’d go back to the first project Rankin/Bass tried to get off the ground and look at The Last Dinosaur. This movie stars Richard Boone as Masten Thrust Jr., the owner of a large oil company that has been successfully exploring the polar caps in search of reserves of crude oil to drill. Thrust is also known as a big game hunter who has shot and killed many animals, including some endangered ones. We are given the idea that he is rich enough to get away with such things. The story picks up with him landing in Japan and heading off to company headquarters to check in with some scientists and have a press conference. Here is where the story kicks into gear.  

Chuck Wade works for Thrust’s oil company and is the only survivor of a mission that stumbled onto a hidden valley that is warmed by a nearby underwater volcano. This land is trapped in the past and is filled with dinosaurs, one of which ate the other members of his crew. Thrust is putting together an expedition to retrace their steps with the intent of studying the creature. Though when they arrive there are all sorts of dinosaurs to deal with as well as some cavemen! The T-Rex that ate the original crew causes some grief by constantly trying to snack on them, as well as stealing their ship because it was shiny. At least that is how they explain why it disappeared.

The plot then jumps to four months later as our survivors are struggling with the locals, both the reptile and mammal variety. They have also picked up one of the cavewomen who has taken a shine to them. They call her Hazel and try to teach her things. Stuff happens, including a dinosaur throwdown between the T-Rex and a Triceratops, as well some fighting with the cavemen over food. Eventually they do stumble over their ship and get it ready for a return home, but of course Thrust refuses. He has become obsessed with killing the T-Rex which leads to a weird but sort of enjoyable ending. I can’t say more without spoiling The Last Dinosaur. 

This is a much better movie than The Bermuda Depths with the most obvious reason being that we get to see the creature as well as other fun stuff. The dinosaurs are clearly actors in rubber suits flailing about at one another but being a Toho co-production that is exactly what I wanted. This movie promises monsters and doesn’t disappoint. In addition to the T-Rex there is a giant turtle, Pterodactyls, and the Triceratops. There is also miniature work used to bring the ship and its home base to the screen. If you dig Kaiju movies, then you will be pleased with what we get in The Last Dinosaur.

Richard Boone is chewing the scenery and having a blast. He yells a lot of his dialogue and the supposed love scenes between him and co-star Joan Van Ark are painfully awkward. Somehow this adds a certain cheeseball charm that works for the movie. The theme song is very ‘70s and again just fits. We even get some familiar giant lizard sounds coming from the T-Rex. Toho was involved so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this happened.

Sure it is silly... but I liked it.
While I was watching The Last Dinosaur, I also noticed something else that amused me. It probably wasn’t done on purpose but still, who knows? Our female lead is played by the previously mentioned, Joan Van Ark. Her name is Francesca Banks, and she is an award-winning photographer. She has cut her teeth taking photos in warzones including what I think was supposed to be Vietnam. She’s a blonde female photographer who is brought along as the press representative to document the expedition. Fans of Kong: Skull Island might notice some similarities here.

You might also notice that the movie is called The Last Dinosaur. Here is where I think that the writing is subtle and deeper than one would expect from a monster movie like this. The “dinosaur” referred to isn’t the giant reptile, but I believe is actually the character of Thrust. From his rough treatment of women (even for the ‘70s is a bit much), to the character’s resistance to returning to civilization, I believe the point is that he is the dinosaur. This is further reinforced with the casting of Boone, who is best known for playing cowboys and tough guys, and who was nearing the end of his long career when he made this movie. Then again maybe I’m just reading too much into it. Regardless, the movie engaged me in a way I wasn’t expecting and that added to my enjoyment.

Now it isn’t all good and I do have one complaint. The movie is way too long. I watched the uncut version of the movie that clocks in at 106 minutes long. There is a lot of padding at the beginning of the movie including an extended press conference that goes nowhere and is unnecessary. I did notice that the TV cut is only 95 minutes long so that might be the one to watch. Despite dragging at times there is still enough fun to be had that I think this one is worth a watch. If nothing else the giant rubber monsters stomping around should put a smile on your face.

Well, I’m glad that The Last Dinosaur was decent. I’ve spent a long time tracking these movies down and it would have been disappointing if they all were as bad as The Bermuda Depths. Fingers crossed that the last of three is also a good time. Might as well toss The Ivory Ape into the DVD player and see what I’ve gotten myself into.

The Ivory Ape starts with some farmers in Africa trying to protect their crops from a gorilla that is cleaning them out of bananas. There is a bit of an argument since the animal is protected and they are going to get in trouble with the game warden if they injure it. Though that doesn’t stop them from eventually shooting and capturing it. But it isn’t just any gorilla. It’s a rare white one that zoos and collectors all over the world will be willing to pay big bucks for. A ruthless poacher, Aubrey Range, takes the ape and loads it on a ship bound for Cuba. Why Cuba? Well, he illegally smuggled it out of the country so that is the only place he can sell it without getting arrested. A storm blows up and the ship is forced to dock in the Bahamas where the rest of our characters get involved.

Baxter and Lil are crusaders that have the papers to seize the ape and return it home where it belongs. Baxter also has a friend, a former big game hunter named Kazarian, who lives on the island. Kazarian gets roped into the hunt when the ape breaks free after killing someone and escapes onto the island. Behaving unusually aggressive, the gorilla creates a panic which leads to a posse of armed men tracking it down. One of those men is Kazarian and another is the poacher who is trying to destroy any evidence of his smuggling. Though the Inspector in charge gives Baxter and Lil a chance to capture it alive, things go about as well as you would expect, which isn’t great. In the end, which I won’t spoil here, we find out why the gorilla was acting aggressively and our characters either learn a lesson or are able to be righteously indignant.

Well crap… There are some things that I enjoyed about The Ivory Ape, but it is a flawed movie.  Much like The Bermuda Depths, I feel like this movie promised me a creature feature, but what I got instead was a drama with a conservation message. Normally I wouldn’t be too hard on a movie that did a switcheroo like that if they managed to do a decent job at it. Sadly, that isn’t the case here. The movie is padded with so much unnecessary baggage that I never could get into or care about the story.

For example, we get an entire subplot of Kazarian, Palance’s character, coming out of retirement to hunt again. Why did he quit? Thanks to a monologue we find out that his son was taken by a crocodile and he had to do the unthinkable to stop his suffering. He shoots the kid and not the croc (!), though it is hinted that it was already too late to save him. While this is interesting, it does nothing to move the story along and is never referenced in any way later in the movie. Combined with Palance barely playing a part in the movie, this is all wasted space. You could have cut his character out entirely and trimmed about twenty minutes off the runtime which would have helped the pacing a lot. Of course, they didn’t do that since Palance is top billed and used to sell the movie.

On the positive side of things Palance is very good in the movie. Unlike The Last Dinosaur where the Hollywood vet Boone chews scenery, Palance is subdued and very believable as the tortured Kazarian. The ending where he figures out what is happening through the scope of his rifle and tries to, but fails to stop what happens, there is a pain on his face that tells you more than any bit of dialogue could ever do. The rest of the cast is equally good including Steven Keats, who was also in The Last Dinosaur, and Cindy Pickett. A good cast can make up for some silly material and this is a very good cast.

Speaking of silly, I can’t ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room. See what I did there? The titular creature is nothing more than a man in a gorilla suit. It doesn’t look any better than the poverty row studio films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. I get that on their budget, and with the technology of the time, this was as good as they could do. But the choice of using stock footage side by side early on, just points out how fake it is. And I’m not going to lie that because this was a Toho co-production, I had expected a giant gorilla to appear and that the fact it is just a regular sized guy in a suit bummed me out. Again, if they had done the other stuff better my unmet expectations wouldn’t prevent me from enjoying The Ivory Ape.

The Ape
In the end, I can’t say that I would recommend The Ivory Ape. It isn’t awful and I’ve seen much worse, but it doesn’t do anything to make itself memorable. This is, at best, an oddity that “made for TV” nerds like me probably will need to track down. This is by far the hardest of the three to find. The weakest of these productions is clearly, The Bermuda Depths, which has zero going for it. The plot meanders along, never amounting to much, and is filled with characters that are uninspiring. Plus, we barely get any monster in it with the turtle showing itself at the very end for just a couple of minutes. Trust me it isn’t worth your time.

The best of the bunch is The Last Dinosaur. Now this is what I expected when I saw Toho was involved. Lots of guys in rubber monster suits, cheesy cavemen makeup, model ships zipping around the screen. This movie has it all! It isn’t perfect, but if you dig Kaiju flicks then I think you will have fun with it. It doesn’t surprise me that this was the easiest of the three for me to track down. I can see the appeal, which likely kept it in circulation.

So that is it for another installment of Television Terrors. It was a blast for me to finally track these movies down and to share them with you here in the pages of this fine magazine. As always, I want to thank Edwin for the opportunity to participate in such a cool project. If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to get in touch by emailing me at gutmunchers@gmail.com. I love talking to other fans about this stuff. I’ll see you all next time when I return with even more spooky stuff from the old boob tube.

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

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