Saturday, October 15, 2005

Book Review: The Dinosaur Filmography, by Mark F. Berry

Well, leapin' lizards! I haven't felt this jealous of another McFarland author since the North Carolina-based publisher released Eric Greene's remarkable Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race and Politics In the Films and Television Series back in the mid-1990s.

Nonetheless, jealous I am. Real jealous. You see, writer Mark F. Berry has written an exhaustive tome called The Dinosaur Filmography (483 page in softcover...) about all the dinosaur movies produced in the last century or so. Now tell me, is that a terrific topic for a reference book or what?

Heck, I would have paid McFarland to write this book. Not that I could have done it half as ably as the enterprising Mr. Berry, who provides fans and researchers of the sub-genre a giant nugget of dinosaur fun to chew over. This is such a remarkable and entertaining book; and I heartily recommend it if you're at all interested in the 100 year history of "when dinosaurs attack" cinema.

You see, I grew up in the 1970s, and that means that (before Star Wars and Space:1999), I loved nothing so much as dinosaur movies and TV shows. I religiously viewed Land of the Lost on TV. My parents took me to see The Land That Time Forgot, a great movie I loved (dinosaurs and submarines! Together!), but which time has indeed forgotten! And then there were all the dino-action films on WPIX's 4:30 movie. Reading this enthusiastic resource really brought back fond memories of some of those classics (or anti-classics...).

Damn, I never thought I'd live to see the day that Dinosaurus! earned a positive review; but when I was a kid I loved that film. I must have seen it on TV five or six times, and I never tired of it.

And I had actually come to believe that I imagined a TV-movie called The Last Dinosaur, only to re-discover it in all its glory here, reviewed with exceptional detail and even a small degree of love. When I was young, I had a toy shotgun and a cowboy hat (and seventies sun glasses..), and I would head up into the nearby trails with my friends and pretend to go hunting dinosaurs, aping the characters - especially Richard Boone's - in this movie.

What I appreciate so much about this book is that Berry is no easy apologist for dinosaur movies. He loves 'em all right; but he loves 'em especially when they're good. He doesn't mince words when it comes to the Mitch & Arnie redneck humor of The Crater Lake Monster for instance. And he doesn't give Son of Kong a complete "pass" just because King Kong was a landmark film. He's fair, and when he dislikes a film, you have a clear understanding of why he feels the way he does. At least for the most part. He slags off the new Godzilla (1998) here at one point (without featuring the movie in the book...). I understand and agree with his sentiment, but I want to know why! What elements made the film so bad, in his opinion? Since he's the expert, I want a point-by-point analysis!

Thankfully, Berry's also a completist, no doubt about it. There are films here I've never even heard about, let alone seen, though he did neglect to mention that really rotten movie Future War, which features miniature dinosaurs as the shackled slaves of futurustic cyborg leader Robert Z'Dar. No great loss there...

The Dinosaur Filmography goes far beyond the basic synopsis/commentary structure of many reference books, and also includes a section on production history and people, and special effects, and much more. The author has done a lot of research on this topic, including first-person interviews, and he's the absolute perfect talent to present this book to the world. I applaud his work, because these films bring back such intense (and happy) memories from my childhood.

I wonder if the love of dinosaurs (and dinosaur movies) is a male thing, because my wife, Kathryn - who will watch sci-fi and horror with me until the cows come home - just can't stomach these things. We recently had a marathon of AIP 70s flicks (Land That Time Forgot, People That Time Forgot and At The Earth's Core) and to say that she checked out during them is a polite way of putting it. I own (and love...) all the Jurassic Park movies too, but my wife doesn't even like those, and let's face it, they're kind of the pick of the litter in this sub-genre.

Speaking of the Jurassic Park movies, I feel I've discovered a kindred spirit in writer Mark Berry. When I first saw the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, I actually cried when I saw the first dinosaur (a brachiosaur?) on screen. Yep, I cried like a little baby. I'm sure the effects probably looks dated today, but that dinosaur appeared and felt so real to me. It was like a living creature...and I just wept.

God I love dinosaurs.

Whew. Okay, I'm better now. But my point, before I went all maudlin on you, is that Berry understood the importance of that moment too. As kids, didn't we all want to see a living dinosaur? Didn't we all imagine what that moment might be like? Those great rubbery monsters of yesteryear whet our appetite to see the real thing. And in some bizarre way, that first view of a CG dinosaur in Jurassic Park felt like a dream come true. It's one of my favorite moments in 1990s cinema, a watershed, and I've never forgotten it

So, if you love Valley of the Gwangi, if you think King Kong (1933) is tops, this is the book you must own. You'll have a great time reliving movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million BC, or The Lost World, and learning about ones you've never heard of before (Saurians, The Secret of the Loch...). The book is also lavishly illustrated, and there's a great twenty-page color section that features the poster art from such efforts as Where Time Began, Untamed Women, King Dinosaur, The Land Unknown, One Million Years B.C. (with Raquel Welch!) and more.

Did you grow up with dinosaurs and harbor a secret (or not so secret...) love for these movies? If the answer is yes, you can re-kindle the affair by ordering The Dinosaur Filmography from McFarland or the publisher's order line (800 253-2187). The book is $39.95, a reprint of a 2002 edition.

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