The Lost Continent (a 1968 Seven Arts-Hammer Film production, based loosely upon Dennis Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas) opens with a wheezy, breezy organ-laden lounge track by The Peddlers—vaguely reminiscent of the club music in Melville’s Le Samouraï—murmuring over the introductory credits. The song (which I found quite catchy) is, in its languid, slightly seedy tone, at odds with the ghostly, forlorn scenery, but, as one will discover, not with the lurid characters of the drama, for whom it is a fitting anthem.
Cut to a child’s burial at sea upon a tramp steamer moving under an auspicious sky. The steamer is surrounded by a graveyard of ships, seaweed-strewn and ominous. The murky color-saturation lends to a tangible otherworldliness which digital is as-yet unable to capture in its chromatic projection. The vessel’s captain (Eric Porter), who provides the departed’s last rites, ruminates on how he and the scant, peculiar crew—some dressed in 60s fashion, others in colonial-era armor—arrived at such a grotesque wending. From there the film jumps back in time, where, again, we see the stone-faced Captain Lansen being hailed by two customs officials, who he promptly ignores, much to the chagrin of his nervous first officer, Mr. Hemmings (Neil McCallum).
The film then introduces the colorful main-cast of passengers, the alternatively charming and boorish drunkard-pianist Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley), the eastern-european fugitive and aging-beauty Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), the bumbling, self-important Dr. Webster (Nigel Stock, who is seen reading Uncharted Seas in his introductory scene in a respectful nod to the source material), his wayward daughter Unity (Suzanna Leigh playing the only main character who retains a name from the novel), the jovial bartender Pat (Jimmy Hanley) and the scheming mustachioed Ricaldi (Ben Carruthers).
When the captain instructs Hemmings to avoid “the usual shipping lane” on-route to Caracas, the latter’s curiosity and concern grows. It is then unveiled that the captain is transporting a large quantity of chemicals in the cargo-hold which react violently with water. A hurricane encroaches, yet the captain expresses little interest in turning around and tells the first mate that if he wishes, he can put the matter before the passengers. Hemmings does so and is astonished when none vote to turn the ship around. Lansen declares they will “keep going.” Thereafter, a drunken Tyler sardonically quips, “One man. One vote. Aren’t you glad you live in a democracy?” Hemmings, confounded, pronounces the passengers “bloody mad” and rushes back to the captain whereupon he is greeted by the crew who informs Hemmings that the cargo is filled with explosives. Shortly thereafter, Lansen confesses the truth of the matter to Hemmings: The cargo is indeed filled with combustible material as the crew feared, which was why the captain ignored the customs officials. Lansen then tells his first mate the reason he’s transporting the material is because its his last haul and one he plans to retire on (hence his challenging-forth into the storm).
As this is occurring, Eva returns to her quarters to find Ricaldi rifling through her belongings, in which lies 2 million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. He explains that his interest in her is “nothing personal” and that he’s working for the man from whom she stole, who, unsurprisingly, wants his properties returned. Eva attempts to bribe him, first (vainly) with money, then (successfully) with sex (unlike Unity, Eva’s sexual liaisons have a deeply moral impetus, as she needs the money to save her son from her ex-dictator-husband who holds the boy hostage).
As Eva barters with Ricaldi, Unity quarrels with her controlling (and possibly incestuous) father (Mr. Webster), who accuses her of being a whore (which she is), though he has little moral high-ground upon which to stand, as Unity swiftly recounts his numerous affairs with his nurses, secretaries and even his patients. Through this exchange it is revealed that, just like Peters, Ricaldi and the captain, the Websters, too, have a secret reason for being on the ship, for Mr. Webster was formerly practicing in Africa, where he carried out illegal operations on his patients when he wasn’t busy diddling them. The unprofessional doctor’s behavior caused such a stir that the police opened up a investigation, forcing the Websters to flee.
On deck, the crew attempt to take the slack out of the ship’s anchor-chain, which they botch, causing a rupture in the hull that floods the cargo-hold. This in turns threatens to ignite the chemicals. The emergency pumps prove useless and the crew, thoroughly distressed, convince Hemmings to lead a mutiny. The crew-leader, however cautions against mob-tactics, and states that Hemmings will be in charge and that everything will be done in a legal “above board” manner. The crew agrees. It is here that the film displays its knack for deft and three-dimensional characterization; even amidst such dire situations, the crew-leader is cool-headed enough to understand the latent dangers of hysteria and frenzy, never letting his own caution get the better of him. Unfortunately, the crew-leader’s reserve is all for naught as the captain, when confronted, refuses to abandon ship and states that he’ll kill anyone who tries. Unity’s lover, the radio-operator, tells the passengers that the crew is abandoning the vessel and asks them to join. Pat asks if the captain ordered the desertion. The radio operator tells them he did not and the bartender is aghast. “That’s mutiny!” the loyal soul cries. “Call it what you like.” Declares the radio-operator, before vainly attempting one last time to convince them to leave. All decline save Unity, who is swiftly ordered back into place by her father. Failing to move the passengers, the radio-operator curses them hysterically and dashes for the lifeboats as Tyler declares to his companions, “This is the moment when all the rats leave the sinking ship.” Emphasis on rats.
Back on deck the crew moves to escape but the captain arrives and opens fire, hitting the radio operator, whose head is then smashed by a winch much to Unity’s horror. The surviving crew members, lead by Hemmings paddle away to an uncertain fate as the captain mulls over his next plan of action.
One of the wounded crew members is brought into the piano parlour where Tyler, still swilling booze, incessantly strikes up a funeral march, which, unsurprisingly disturbs the other passengers. When Webster attempts to wrest Tyler’s bottle from him to use on the patient to sterilize his wounds, Tyler becomes incensed and flys at the bartender. Before Tyler can beat Pat senseless the captain intervenes, breaks up the fight and enlists the passengers aid in moving the explosive barrels from the hold before it completely fills with water. This they successfully accomplish but it is only a matter of time before the water leaks into the new room housing the barrels; in light of this, Lansen decides there is nothing further to be done but abandon the ship, as Hemmings previously suggested, which lends a sense of grave futility to the previous scene; for the captain killed his own men for doing precisely what he would later go on to do. Yet, it was mutiny. Betrayal. What currency is more precious than loyalty? Had they stuck with him, no one would have died and they’d have escaped the ship all the same.
After the passengers and the remnants of the crew escape the ship, tensions run high. Tyler, shorn of his booze, attempts to thieve rum from the captain, which greatly annoys Webster. Tyler later successfully steals the rum and cackles about it and is again confronted by Webster. Irked, Tyler trounces the man, accidentally knocking him into the ocean. Distressed by his drunken impulsivity, Tyler leaps after Webster as a shark approaches. The sea-beast kills Webster, leaving Tyler utterly devastated. Two of the remaining crew members find this a opportune time to stage yet another coup to ensure they have access to the supplies. This fails, as Eva shoots the chief mutineer in the gut with a flare, killing him. Tyler makes his way back to the boat as Eva breaks down in tears. From that moment on, Tyler decides to give up drink.
Sometime later, the lifeboat is seen drifting through fog. Nearly 47 minutes into the film, we are finally introduced to the ‘lost continent’ itself, which, though certainly lost to the world, isn’t really a continent by any classical definition, but rather, a great, floating, matted tangle of carnivorous seaweed, which wastes no time in wounding the captain and devouring the cook. This is quite a departure from Wheatley’s novel, wherein the seaweed is likewise thick and strange but yet, not malevolently sentient, nor carnivorous. Shortly after encountering the weeds the survivors find a ship floating in the fog and hail the crew, only to be greeted by Pat, the bartender, who had been left behind during the evacuation whereupon they realize its none other than Lansen’s ship.
After a change of clothes, Tyler and Unity engage in a discussion in the bar, where Tyler (conspicuously drinking coffee) begins to apologize for accidentally causing the death of her father. Rather surprisingly, she thanks him for “freeing” her. Naturally, Tyler is perplexed but when she proposes a toast to the future, he hesitantly raises his cup (of coffee).
The captain and the rest of the crew discover that the ship is now completely in the grip of the hungry aquatic vegetation, which has jammed the propeller. Lansen remarks upon the situation in one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines in the film, “Now we go where the weed takes us” (I’m surprised it hasn’t been meme’d).
The weeds drag the ship into the Sargasso sea, as they do so, Unity attempts to put the moves on a increasingly morose and withdrawn Tyler, who will have none of it. In an attempt to loosen the pianist up, she brings him a drink as Pat looks on with worry. Tyler, however, promptly declines. He does, however, begin to dance with her as she whispers sweet nothings to him. That is, until, she offers him a drink again and suggest they go back to her cabin. Infuriated, Tyler reprimands her and casts the glass across the room, shattering it against the wall. He declares he’s “given up the booze” whereupon Unity (who at this point in the film had become my least favorite character) informs him that “it won’t do you any harm.” To which he replies, “The first one never does.” Unity then becomes irate and demands he have drink, stating that it “might just make a man out of” him. He calmly replies “I’m beginning to feel like a man for the first time in years.” He turns her down once more and she storms off to find another man (as I previously mentioned, she’s a whore). She finds her “man” in Ricaldi, who is smoking on deck. Before they can consummate there extremely premature relationship, however, a giant octopus-like creature attacks, grabs Unity, covers her in slime, then kills (and presumably eats) Ricaldi.
Some time after this harrowing experience, the crew hears cries of help coming from the water and discover a young woman striding towards them across the seaweed through a pall of fog via the aid of a balloon backpack and paddle shoes. Tyler aids her whereupon she explains she’s being followed, and right on cue the camera cuts to a legion of shadowy figures, balloon-and-armour garbed and paddle shoed, striding over the carnivorous flotsam. Whilst such a description might sound comical, its not played for laughs. I certainly never cracked a smile as I was watching. Rather than coming off as goofy, its evocative of a grotesque dreamscape. The balloon-harnesses, are taken directly from the book (Uncharted Seas), whereas the paddle-shoes are a original invention. In the book, the inhabitants of the lost continent used balloons and stilts to evade the ravenous octopi that camouflaged themselves within the weeds, in the film, the inhabitants trudge over the vegetation like water-bugs. Wheatley’s inspiration (and hence, the film’s) for the balloons came from balloon-jumping, a popular fad of his time.
The crew engages in a battle with the lost continentals, which the crew wins and captures one of the striders alive.
It is here that the film, for the first time, cuts away from the crew and passengers to another, much older ship, hidden in the roiling mists of the lost continent. It is revealed that the piratical water striders are the descendants of Spanish conquistadors and have been living on the lost continent for hundreds of years. They are ostensibly ruled by the boy-emperor, El Supremo (alternatively, El Diablo), however, the real power behind the throne is the insidious, masked man referred to only as The Inquisitor (Eddie Powell—the prolific stuntman behind the action in films such as Alien, Aliens, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
The cut makes excellent narrative sense, as the crew and passengers learn all of this information at the same time as it is being shown to the audience by interrogating one of the Spaniards they’d capture. Here again, is another departure from the book, where the hostile inhabitants of the lost continent were not forgotten conquistadors, but negro savages (presumably, a bloody race war was a little too recherche for even the notoriously transgressive Hammer Films). The young woman they brought aboard, whose name is Sarah (Dana Gillespie), explains her people had moved to the lost continent to escape religious persecution, however, they found precisely the opposite under The Inquisitor’s bloodthirsty proxy reign.
That night Sarah abruptly departs without a word, water-striding into the fog. However, Tyler spies her leaving and heads out after her along with Pat and another member of the crew. They catch up with her and plan to spend the night in a cave when Pat is attacked by a giant crab, which kills the poor man. Before the hideous crustacean can turn its rapacious maw upon the rest of the wayfarers, however, its waylaid by a giant scorpion(thingy). The two beasts then engage in a duel to the death, which is interrupted by the crewman who shoots the oversized crustacean in the eye, killing it. It’s worth remembering the shark earlier in the film, as the patchwork monsters featured in the scene were the creation of the late Robert Mattey, who also designed the model sharks used in Jaws. The monster fight is the low point of the film. Ambitious and interesting as Mattey’s creations are, they’re simply not convincing. It’s all too obvious that they’re running on wheels! The interlude into monster mayhem, however, is quite brief, so it (much like the giant octopus scene) detracts little from the overall serious tonality.
The Inquisitor then shows up with a band of guardsmen who incapacitate Sarah, Tyler and the crewman and take them back to their decaying galleon-turned-death-cathedral. In a film with more winks and nudges, this might all be quite ridiculous, however, The Lost Continent never loses its sincerity and plays every scene for emotional believability (which is one of its greatest strengths, beyond its solid acting and fantastical setting and atmosphere). Before The Inquisitor can have El Supremo execute them, Lansen and the rest of the crew burst onto the scene and hold the Spaniards at gunpoint. The Inquisitor, unperturbed, then addresses Lansen in one of the best exchanges in the film. The Inquisitor tells Lansen that he and his people can’t escape. That escape is impossible because it is God’s will that they stay. Lansen, of course, disagrees.
The film concludes in a cataclysmic battle pitting Lansen and Tyler’s men against The Inquisitor’s forces. In the fight, El Supremo is slain and it is his body which rests in the coffin that is dumped into the water at the beginning of the film.
The beginning, it turns out, is the end. A peculiarly inconclusive one for an adventure film. For we know not whether they are able to defy The Inquisitor’s expectations, or whether he was right that escape was impossible. Though we don’t know if they escape, we know that they would try until the last. As Lansen said, “The day we stop trying, we stop living.”
- Dick. (2019) The Oak Drive-In: The Lost Continent (1968).
- Matthew Coniam. (2016) Wheatley On Film: The Lost Continent (1968). The Dennis Wheatley Project
- Michael Carreras. (1968) The Lost Continent. Seven Arts-Hammer Films.