Lost City 2005 Horror Movie Review
Horror movies Review
What surprises me most about The Lost City is how much I enjoyed it. This is the first serial I’ve watched since I was a kid - around 1987 I picked up Volume 1 of the first Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” serial and watched it countless times. I knew it was old, I knew it was clunky, but something about it went straight to my juvenile cortex. And that’s predominately who serials were created for - kids. So to enjoy these things you have to put yourself somewhat on that level; you have to enjoy the thrills for what they are, you have to take the shoddy production values for what they are. You have to turn off your adult mind. (There is of course another way to enjoy these serials - call over some friends, crack open some beer, and let the comments rip.)
Despite all these caveats, The Lost City actually succeeds as pure entertainment. Produced and released in 1935, it’s comprised of twelve cracking “chapters” which run the gamut from flat-out action to Machiavellian intrigue, with enough sexual tension to keep even the ladies interested. (Okay, maybe that last one’s stretching it a bit.)
The story: the world’s going to pieces, with tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes ripping apart civilization. Electrical engineer Bruce Gordon (played by the square-jawed Kane Richmond) determines that the source of these problems is in an uncharted region of Africa. Putting together a group composed of his comedic-relief pal Jerry (Eddie Fetherston) and a few professors and soldiers, Bruce heads for Africa. There he discovers The Lost City (called such even by its inhabitants), a high-tech fortress built within The Magnetic Mountain. Here evil Zolok (William “Stage” Boyd in a drunken scenery-chewing performance for the ages) helms his “Bride of Frankenstein”-esque electrical equipment - equipment which has been wreaking all of that aforementioned havoc.
Also in the Lost City is Dr. Manyus, Zolok’s chief scientist, and Manyus’s pretty and vivacious daughter, Natcha (Claudia Dell, apparently the original model for the Columbia Pictures logo, and a lady with one shrill scream). Natcha’s of course the damsel in distress; she’s a headwrap-loving girl who, it seems, has never seen a white man (and yes, she makes this distinction), other than Appollyn (Jerry Frank), a hulking stooge who serves as Zolok’s henchman and who runs about in a pair of lightning bolt-emblazoned tights. There’s also a hunchback named “Gorzo” afoot. Oh yes, we are in pure pulp territory here.
After lots of action in The Lost City, with Natcha instantly swooning over Bruce, the story “opens up” with lots more action in the jungle itself; indeed, chapters five through ten don’t have much to do with the story proper. Bruce has, after all, come here to stop the electrical shenanigans which have caused the weather disasters back home, but all this is forgotten for half of the serial, with the story instead revolving around a lot of jungle adventure and plotting amongst various characters to get possession of the “zombie giants” created by Zolok and Dr. Manyus.
Zombie giants? Yes; in some of the most bizarre footage I’ve ever witnessed, Zolok and Dr. Manyus take shrieking African natives, strap them to an electrocution-style slab of metal, and enlarge them into monstrous giants. The actors portraying these giants are truly impressive; Sam Baker, who plays the “lead” zombie, Hugo (!), has to be at least seven feet tall, and he’s built like a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker. He and his fellow zombies tower over the other actors, and it’s to the producer’s credit that Bruce and his comrades are unable to match strength with them.
Zolok has created these giants - incredibly strong but brain-dead - and various personages who happen to be around the Lost City want them for their own purposes. First there’s Sheikh Ben Ali (played by Gino Corrado - and let me just say, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a fake Arabian singing a fake Arabic song), who wants to amass his power with said giants; next there’s duplicitous Butterfield (played by Gabby Hayes!), an American adventurer who has no qualms with back-stabbing; and most importantly there’s the jaw-dropping Queen Rama, a slave-trader who commands a legion of natives and serving-girls (played by the gorgeous Margot D’Use, who seems to have done little else).
All of these intrigues and double-crosses wind upon themselves to such an extent that I - an adult viewing this serial seventy-four years after it was produced - had a hard time following it all. But man I enjoyed it. There are all these little touches that still have me smiling: the goofy yet endearing way that Natcha grabs hold of Bruce in every single scene they’re in together, from clutching his hand to full-on wrapping herself around him; Queen Rama’s imperious gestures, which are just pitch perfect; the malevolent-looking devices Zolok has at his disposal, all of which spit out strands of electrify (designed by Ken Strickfaden, who designed the similar special effects for “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”); the impromptu and irrelevant costume-changes for both Natcha and Queen Rama (the former donning a black pantsuit - complete with headwrap, of course - and the latter donning an outrageous full-body bikini made of a leopard’s pelt); how William “Stage” Boyd stumbles through his lines (yet still delivering them with appropriate menace and tyranny), even tripping down a small stairway; the corny dialog Jerry delivers with aplomb (at one point both he and Bruce are trussed up, and while they’re struggling to break free of their bonds Jerry observes, “So this is Africa?”).
Okay, I’ve gone this far without mentioning the racist element of The Lost City. It’s there, and there’s no apologizing for it. Part of me wants to argue that maybe it’s there for a reason, the producers parodying the “black fear” of whites, these super-large zombie giants acting as ludicrous extremes of “native savagery.” In other words, like the serial equivalent of those frenzied last pages of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” where Pynchon goes into this essay about racism and the bizarre fears many whites have of blacks. But I can’t make that argument, because it would be moot. The Lost City is a racist film, pure and simple, and I would not advise anyone who is sensitive to issues of race to watch it. For this is a serial in which a character will say “That’s a WHITE girl’s scream!” before even seeing the screaming girl, a serial where African natives beg to be “turned white” by Dr. Manyus and then jump for joy when they are turned so, a serial where the Africans are treated like wallpaper, less than wallpaper, there just to carry around victims or to bark out bizarre grunts as they attack the white heroes.
It’s my understanding that this element of The Lost City was considered outdated by viewers even in 1935 (but that didn’t stop it from being a hit). I’ll make this clear: I am a white male, and though this element of the serial upset me, it didn’t infuriate me. I’m unsure how viewers of other racial backgrounds would view it. Sam Baker (Hugo) himself later apologized to the black community for being in the serial; in one of those heartwarming stories that Hollywood surprisingly hasn’t lapped up, Baker became lifelong friends with Jerry Frank (Appollyn), and the two met Martin Luther King, Jr a few decades later. Both apologized to King for having appeared in The Lost City, but MLK told them they had nothing to apologize for.
And he had a point. For despite all of its racist nonsense, The Lost City IS an enjoyable movie, and with a simple brain-change one can overlook the racism, chalk it up as a sign of a forgotten time and move on. Because, just to reiterate, I’ve never seen anything like this serial. It’s more of a comic-book-on-film than ANYTHING Hollywood has released in the past decade, and I plan to watch it again and again.
Please note: there are two DVD releases of The Lost City currently available: there’s “Lost City,” released in 2005 by Alpha Video, and there’s “The Lost City,” released in 2006 by VCI Entertainment. The one you want is the one released by VCI Entertainment. Avoid the Alpha Video release. Sure, the Alpha Video DVD is about ten dollars less expensive than the VCI, but you’re getting what you pay for; the print used for the Alpha Video DVD is noisy, filled with blemishes, and worst of all cuts off a lot of the print (ie scenes where the actors’ heads are missing from the frame). The VCI print is worlds better, but that’s to be expected from them; VCI actually takes the time to restore these serials, and they release them in the best format possible. So by all means, get your Lost City fix from VCI.