I’m a fan of 1980s science fiction and fantasy films, and it has never bothered me that the bulk of them come with a large side of cheese. But I’m not blind to the faults of B-movies, and every so often it’s possible to tell ahead of time that a film is going to fall on the wrong side of the line dividing cheesy-good and cheesy-bad. This does not, however, preclude watching the film anyway and enjoying it as a film that’s so bad it’s entertaining in a whole different way. Such is the case with Terry Marcel’s Prisoners of the Lost Universe. Prisoners of the Lost Universe is his second fantasy film (after Hawk the Slayer), and he wrote and directed both. Everything about it, from the title to the poster, suggests a low-budget homage to old serials. The poster looks like something out of the 1950s, except it’s from three decades later.
Unusually for this sort of film, the actors are actually halfway recognizable. None of them are big name movie stars, but each has had some small success in minor roles or television, and the male lead is somebody who would have been a plausible choice for a sci-fi/fantasy action film star. The role of Dan, the hero of this film, is played by none other than Richard Hatch, who you will recognize if you’ve ever watched Battlestar Galactica — either version, as he played Apollo in the original and Tom Zarek in the remake.
Trading in his phaser for flannel.
Dan is a hero by virtue of being saddled with a streak of bad luck. That bad luck comes in form of Kay Lenz as Carrie Madison, a TV host of a schlocky science show in the veins of Fact or Fiction. Carrie accidentally runs him off the road while driving to meet an eccentric scientist for an interview, and his truck is disabled by the collision. Without any means of reaching anybody, Dan has to walk to the nearest house, which happens to be the manor of that same scientist. There he finds Carrie distressed by the disappearance of Dr. Hartmann (Kenneth Hendel). Hartmann had been demonstrating a device which could phase matter into another dimension, and when an earthquake struck, he fell into the beam and vanished. One aftershock later, and Dan and Carrie suffer the same fate, and find themselves in the alien world of Vonya.
They find that there is a time dilation effect to the transporter; Dan, who entered a few seconds before, arrived days before Carrie in Vonya. They realize the professor, whose help they’ll need to get back, may have been there for months by now. But any alien world in a movie is full of peril, so before they find the doctor, Dan will have to find Carrie — as she is promptly kidnapped by the local warlord. John Saxon plays the warlord Kleel, who has technology that is slightly advanced over most of the region. Saxon seems to be channeling a bit of Sean Connery in his glare, and it’s hard to escape thoughts of Zardoz as a result.
Calling Zardoz to mind is seldom a good thing. But at least Kleel’s wearing more clothes.
What follows is your usual assortment of cliches. Kleel tries to convince Carrie to marry him through the timeless romantic gesture of locking her in a dungeon. Dan tries to rescue Carrie by assembling a ragtag bunch of misfits from various fantasy races… although for one reason or another, the common designations of dwarf, elf, and giant, while entirely appropriate, are not used. Instead, Peter O’Farrell’s Malachi is referred to as a midget several times by Dan, but is never explicitly called out as a different species. Ray Charleson plays the Green Man, an elf in all but name, capable of basic forestry and able to call wild horses by whistling. And Philip Van der Byl’s hulking Neanderthal is never called a giant, but is simply “the Beast Man”. It’s strange that given the possibility of using generic fantasy names, Marcel chose to go with names that were even less imaginative, and aside from Malachi didn’t even bother to give them individual character names.
“We won’t let you go until you tell us your names.”
“That might be a problem.”
The actors all do a capable job with what they’re given, but they don’t have much to work with. Van der Byl’s character is essentially a mute, and Charleson’s has only a small number of vague lines. The only sidekick to get any real development is Malachi, whose thieving ways provide the comic relief of the film (well, the intentional comic relief, anyway.) Characterization is thin, and the dialogue is heavily cliched. It’s easy to tell what characters will be doing and saying several minutes ahead of time if one pays attention.
The bane of low-budget fantasy adventures is special effects, and Marcel wisely doesn’t over-rely on them. What there is isn’t very good though. Makeup on fantasy characters mostly consists of body paint. It occasionally gets more elaborate with more monstrous humanoids, but they aren’t convincing at any point. The explosions that are occasionally used aren’t bad though.
Prisoners of the Lost Universe is a film that crosses the line from being merely cheesy to being downright hokey. The actors are doing their best to deliver trite dialogue, and the action sequences are seldom believable enough to be exciting — and the few times that it’s believable, it usually fails to be exciting anyway. But there’s some merit in this collection of cliches in that it’s familiar goofiness provides something that’s fun to gently poke fun at.