The Lost Continent (1968)
Seeking to expand its horror films beyond the classic monsters and Victorian gothic sagas of Frankenstein and Dracula, (which they were in danger of flogging to death), in the late sixties Hammer turned to prolific British pulp author Dennis Wheatley for inspiration. This yielded two wildly differing movie adaptations of his work in 1968: The Devil Rides Out, which is something of a minor classic, and the often overlooked and completely barmy The Lost Continent. Directed by Micheal Carreras, who would later buy Hammer from his father Sir James Carreras, the film, loosely based on Wheatley's Uncharted Seas, is a bizarre, meanderingly plotted, sea faring adventure in which the titular land mass is only reached about two thirds into the film and which, somewhat misleadingly, turns out to actually be a small island.
The first part of the film, which involves Eric Porter's sea captain attempting to get his dilapidated tramp steamer, with its typically dysfunctional crew and regulation complement of passengers with dark secrets and psychological problems,past the local port authorities. It transpires that he's carrying an illegal cargo of highly unstable explosives which, if they get wet, will blow the ship up. Inevitably, they run into a storm, a mutiny is threatened and the ship temporarily abandoned. Once the survivors have re-boarded the vessel, the film takes a left turn from being a nautical adventure story into a full blown madness, as they find themselves sailing into an uncharted sea full of bizarre creatures and carnivorous sea weed which has trapped a number of other vessels there. Various characters are strangled by the weeds, grabbed by a cyclopean giant octopus and crushed in the claws of a huge scorpion - the latter also fights an equally massive crab creature. These events are made even more bizarre by the fact that all of the creatures are basically life size mechanical puppets.
Just when it seems things can't get any more insane, Porter and his crew encounter the inhabitants of some of the other wrecked vessels, (some of which have been there for centuries), who walk across the weeds with the aid of balloons! Chief amongst these other inhabitants of the 'Lost Continent' are the descendants of the crew of a Spanish galleon, who are running their own version of the inquisition. Naturally, they come into conflict with Porter's crew, providing the film with a fiery climax. Told in flashback, The Lost Continent is a genuine oddity amongst Hammer's output, straddling genres and piling lunacy upon lunacy until takes on the delirious feel of a fever dream. Thoroughly enjoyable and typically well made, (even though the monsters are obviously mechanical, there's still something both fascinating and impressive about their artifice), The Lost Continent represented a strange and intriguing diversion from Hammer's regular late sixties output of gothic horrors and psychological thrillers). A diversion which prefigures Micheal Carreras' eventual stewardship of the company, during which he continually tried to diversify their output in an attempt to reduce their reliance upon the decreasingly popular period Gothic horrors.
Sadly, it wasn't a profitable diversion for the company. Indeed, the lack of commercial success of The Lost Continent and the lower than expected box office returns for The Devil Rides Out, played no small part in ensuring that Hammer wouldn't dabble with Wheatley again until To the Devil a Daughter in 1976. The latter turning out to be a box office and artistic disaster that effectively sounded the death knell for the original Hammer Films. The film has only ever rarely turned up on British TV and seemed to vanish for many years, before the Horror Channel resurrected it last year, along with several other of Hammer's more obscure films from the era. Which is good news for those of us who enjoy the unexpectedly surreal in their films.