Unchartered Seas: ‘The Lost Continent’ (1968)

❉ Andrew Screen chronicles the production of Hammer’s outlandish fantasy adventure.

The Lost Continent (UK, Michael Carreras, 1968) was not just an attempt by Hammer to reinvigorate their output as they began to face a declining reputation. The company had always tried to balance their output of Gothic horrors with ventures into other genres such as thrillers, and more recently fantasy themed material, so the production did not seem out of step with their array of material at the time. The movie, overlooked in some Hammer retrospectives, has been labelled as being filled with “sheer undaunted quirkiness.” (McKay, A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films; Aurum Press, 2007) as well as being “surreal, but ponderous.” (Hearn, The Hammer Vault; Titan Books, 2011).

Yes it is a flamboyant and outlandish mess in some ways, lacking a focused tone, perhaps reflective of a change of director during production, but it is also an entertaining slice of popcorn escapism if viewed in the right mood. The first half is a schmaltzy potboiler which is fairly faithful to the source novel. The set up conveyed is familiar from later Irwin Allen disaster pictures, such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), where characters from mixed backgrounds, escaping difficult situations or with hidden secrets, are thrown together to face a dire situation, often resulting in many of them not making it to the end of the story. After the various misfits that make up the film’s crew and passengers abandon ship in a storm the film changes gear as it ebbs and flows into a fantasy adventure with marine-based flesh-eating monsters and Spanish conquistadors. It is the latter half of the film which I recall watching in my youth with the imagery of the almost Lovecraftian monsters instantly springing to mind; the giant octopus dragging the unfortunate Ricaldi to his doom and the super-sized crab throttling poor old Pat the barman in its pincers.

The Lost Continent was made as part of Hammer’s deal with Warner Bros./Seven Arts to co-produce a slate of films. As well as The Lost Continent other productions included She – The Avenger and the never made The Bride of Newgate Jail which were announced in the trade paper The Stage and Television Today during March 1967. The film was based on the Dennis Wheatley novel Uncharted Seas (first published 1938) and it is easy to forget just how ubiquitous Wheatley was in the 1950s and 1960s on the bookshelves of the general public. Hammer taking on the Wheatley novel is akin to them adapting a work by Stephen King in the modern era. This didn’t stop Hammer from changing the title of the film which may have come from a desire to associate with the Lost World genre recently popularised by the 1960 movie The Lost World.

With a large cast of characters in the story an eclectic ensemble of thespians was assembled to star in the film. Distinguished actor Eric Porter added some much needed gravitas in the lead role of Captain Lansen whilst Nigel Stock gave an accomplished character turn as the buttoned down and stiff upper lipped Dr Webster. The character can be seen reading a copy of Wheatley’s source novel in one scene of the film as a small in-joke. It is also notable that when Stock, who had played Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr Watson, gets in the lifeboat he is sat with two Professor Moriartys – Eric Porter and Alf Joint who was Porter’s stunt double in the role.

Another notable cast member was singer/songwriter/actress Dana Gillespie, who would feature heavily in publicity as the latest ‘Hammer Glamour’ girl, making the most of her physical attributes. She had appeared in the Hammer movie The Vengeance of She (UK, 1968, Cliff Owen) in a tiny part as a try out for the meatier role in Lost Continent. Other female roles were taken by the German actress and singer Hildegarde Knef, who had caused a sensation by appearing nude in the film The Sinner (West Germany, 1951, Willi Forst), and Suzanna Leigh, as doctor’s daughter Unity Webster, who was fresh from the Amicus movie The Deadly Bees (UK, 1966, Freddie Francis). Unity is first seen frolicking with the boat’s randy radio operator played by an uncredited Donald Sumpter in one of his first film roles. Tony Beckley, a year away from his signature role as Camp Freddie in The Italian Job (UK, 1969, Peter Collinson), completes the passenger list as an alcoholic pianist called Harry Tyler.

The crew of the boat features the always dependable James Cossins as the no-nonsense chief engineer, Hammer mascot Michael Ripper, the ever scowling Victor Maddern and Jimmy Hanley as the rosy cheeked bartender and crab fodder Pat. Christopher Lee was offered the role of The Inquisitor but he declined as he was told it was a non-speaking part. Instead the role went to his regular stunt double Eddie Powell who then found out on set that the character did have lines after all. He struggled through the dialogue which was eventually dubbed by another actor in post-production. With this role Powell holds the distinction of being the only actor to appear in all three Hammer adaptations of Wheatley stories.

The movie was ambitious and would require all the resources that Hammer and Elstree Studios could muster. Filming began on 11th September 1967 and the production attracted a budget estimated to be around £500, 000, the equivalent to over four million pounds in modern money. The complexity of the production was discussed in an article printed in, of all places, the Runcorn Weekly News. “Fact is more fearsome than fiction – that is what producer Michael Carreras and the key pre-production personnel he has assembled for The Lost Continent have learned after several months of intensive preparation for the massive new action-adventure from Hammer, on which filming began last month… Carreras, director Leslie Norman, art director Arthur Lawson and special effects expert Robert Mattey have been sifting through a mass of references, consulting with experts on strange phenomena in flora and fauna, and studying exhibits at the National History Museum… An especially large art department set up at Elstree has become a veritable menagerie with the model of a coelacanth, scorpions and other deadly creatures. These are inspiring the form the action of their giant counterparts will take in colour on the big screen.” (Runcorn Weekly News, October 1967).

Suzanna Leigh – The Lost Continent (US lobby card)

The following month the same newspaper carried further news of the monsters expected to be featured in the film reporting that an “army of gigantic sea monsters” had been devised “including a jellyfish with fifty foot tentacles, a prehistoric shark, giant crabs, and man-eating seaweed are all in the final stages of gestation. When they emerge to encounter the large cast of humans in a few weeks’ time, it will be, sadly, to decimate the majority of the players!” (Runcorn Weekly News, November 1967)

The task of realising the fantastic monsters fell to distinguished effects man Robert Mattey who had won an Oscar for his work on the giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (US, 1954, Richard Fleischer). He found himself with a greatly reduced pool of resources for his one and only Hammer credit. Michael Carreras later recalled “Mattey came over to do the blue backing and he stayed to build the monsters. I was a little bit in awe of him and I think everybody else was too. He was also working on a nothing budget. However, if we’d had more money and more time, they wouldn’t have been quite as lovable. They all had names. They were very sweet” (Michael Carreras interview by Denis Miekle, Little Shoppe of Horrors #12, 1994).

The film takes its time before the monsters do finally appear, but when they do they are worth the wait. They are Lovecraft meets Japanese kaiju in their presentation; a giant many tentacle octopus with a huge green glowing eye, a mutated crab and scorpion the size of a family car, the sentient seaweed with a taste for blood and the gaping maw in the hull of a Spanish galleon that devours the unfortunate which may have inspired the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi.

The introduction of the character Sarah (Dana Gillespie) is when the film finally slips into Hammer mode. The sight of her making her way across the flesh eating seaweed with the use of snowshoes and two huge balloons will invoke mirth in the sternest viewer as they witness the symmetry between the balloons and the imposing cleavage of Miss Gillespie. Dana herself recalled, in a 2021 interview with We Are Cult:

“I had these strange sort of balloons over my shoulders meant to keep me afloat from being eaten by the weed that was devouring the people in the film. So I had to splash around on inflatable rubber rings, when in fact you didn’t because the water wasn’t that deep, but it had to look deep. So what with my cleavage and these two balloons on my shoulders, it looks like four balloons and I went to see the film, incognito, to see how film was going to look on the big screen. And as I walked up, splish splash across the sea onto the set, my scene, the whole audience keels over with laughter. So I was quite happy that nobody recognised me on the way out!”

Dana Gillespie – The Lost Continent (US lobby card)

Direction began under Leslie Norman (1911 – 1993) who had previously replaced Joseph Losey on Hammer’s earlier sci-fi horror X the Unknown (UK, 1956, Leslie Norman). Norman was replaced on The Lost Continent by Michael Carreras (who also wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym of Michael Nash). Norman had supervised the extensive pre-production work and shot some second unit footage before “creative difficulties” saw him being dismissed.

There are conflicting explanations for Norman’s swift exit. Suzanna Leigh’s autobiography states that he was fired due to making racist comments to crew members. On the other hand Michael Carreras is on record as saying “I’m afraid I didn’t catch him at his best time. He was tired and couldn’t really keep up with our schedule. He was floundering and the cast were unhappy. By mutual consent he ‘retired’ and I took over.” (Beasts, Bosoms and Balloons! The Making of The Lost Continent by Bruce G Hallenback, Little Shoppe of Horrors #37, 2016). Further production issues occurred when the original score for the film by distinguished British composer Benjamin Frankel was dismissed by Hammer musical director Philip Martel and Gerard Schurmann was commissioned to write a new one. The opening titles song was the Lost Continent performed the jazz pop group The Peddlers which was included on their album Three in a Cell (CBS, 1968).

The Daily Mirror also covered the filming by focussing on Suzanna Leigh who “is having something spectacular in the way of bath nights down at Elstree these days. All day and every day she is battered and buffeted by water. Drenched right through to her plastic catsuit… The effects men, led by Robert Mattey, head of the Disney effects team, have whipped up a bumper-sized man made storm for them in a 175,000 gallon studio tank” (The Daily Mirror, October, 1967). The Thanet Times also detailed the filming in the water tank. “The filming was so complex that the cast were set adrift each morning for virtually the entire day with emergency rations and between-scenes supplies of magazines. Hot tea was ferried out to them between shots” (Thanet Times, January 1968). The hard work was worth it as these scenes are very effective in the finished film.

The difficulties continued during the shooting of the climax where the Spanish galleon explodes. A horrific accident happened when phosphor used in the explosion landed on the actress Sylvana Henriques and severely burned her back. According to Suzanna Leigh the actor successfully sued Hammer for compensation. Shooting went over schedule into December due to the complexity of the technical effects which forced Hammer’s management to bring the shoot to an enforced end. James, father of Michael Carreras, arrived on set accompanied by solicitors to physically close the production down.

The completed film opened in the UK on 14th July 1968 with an X certificate for violence and adult themes. Reviews were mixed and demonstrated the marmite nature of the movie that still exists until this day. The Kensington Post felt that Hammer had “foundered badly. The costumes and scenery are embarrassingly threadbare, the music is irritating and the film borders on the boring” (Kensington Post, July, 1968). The Middlesex County Times felt that the film was “tensely developed and lavishly produced” (Middlesex County Times, July 1968) whilst the Aberdeen Evening Express enthusiastically declared “the film is adventure, adventure and adventure all the way through” (Aberdeen Evening Express, November, 1968).

In America the movie was released on 19th June, 1968 as part of a double bill with The Vengeance of She, where the movie was gutted by its distributors of around eight minutes of material to avoid the dreaded M rating which could impact on the box office. This was the version which circulated on TV for many years afterwards until Anchor Bay issued a commercial home releases. The missing material was sourced from an uncut print and inserted back in the movie. These scenes can be easily identified as they are a different grade and in poorer condition to the surrounding footage. Some of the extra footage helps to expand the characters with Pat the bartender especially given some lovely additional character beats. The film proved popular on the American drive-in circuit despite reviews that felt “the plot has as many holes as a fishnet and special effects look shop-worn.” (The Boston Globe, September 1968)

At the end of the day the film’s cinematic ambition was not matched by resources or budget from Hammer. The filming schedule made no allowances for the extra time needed to craft such a special effects-laden storyline let alone the indoor tanks sequences, model work and fiery climax all depicted in the completed production.

The Lost Continent is best viewed as a missing link between the 1960s fantasy films like The Mysterious Island and the Amicus “lost world” movies of the 1970s starring Doug McClure which included The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core, Warlords of Atlantis and The People That Time Forgot (the latter of which also featured Dana Gillespie in the cast). Outrageously plotted and eccentric to the max, but presented with a poker face by the eclectic cast, The Lost Continent was made as pure escapist entertainment and should be viewed as such to get the fullest enjoyment.

❉ ‘The Lost Continent’ (1968). Produced and directed by Michael Carreras. Written by: Michael Nash aka Michael Carreras. Starring Eric Porter, Hildegard Knef, Suzanna Leigh, Tony Beckley, James Cossins, Dana Gillespie, Victor Maddern, Jimmy Hanley, Nigel Stock, Benito Carruthers. A Hammer Films/Seven Arts Productions. Distributed by Warner-Pathé. Run time: 91 mins.

❉ Andrew Screen writes on things film and television by night and by day is a SEN practitioner with thirty years’ experience. He has written for Action TV and was editor of the magazine’s website for several years. His work has been published in Creeping Flesh Volume 1 and 2 (Headpress), The Sapphire and Steel Omnibus (Pencil Tip Publishing) as well as Horrified Magazine. His guide to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts is forthcoming from Headpress in 2023. Twitter: @aneercs

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