50 Years in the Making | Stop-motion Fantasy Primevals has Finally Emerged, but Was it Worth the Wait?

There are two films this year that are being released that I first read about as a kid that I waited to see. One was Megalopolis, which as a ten year old I hoped Francis Ford Coppola would make. It took him another twenty years. The other was a film that I first knew as Zeppelins vs Pterodactyls, from a poster by Hammer in a magazine. This was from the 70s, a project the venerable British horror studio were trying to sell.

I later learnt that Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls was actually a budget-restricted version of a project by legendary American stop-motion animator David Allen (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Willow (1988), The Howling (1981)), and  fellow future effects legends Jim Danforth and Dennis Muren. What began as Raiders of the Stone Ring (a title dreamt up long before another film called Raiders that Dennis Muren would work on), an Edgar Rice Burroughs/Conan Doyle/Jules Verne homage about a WW1-era Zeppelin drifting into a lost Arctic colony of dinosaurs, lost Vikings and lizard-men evolved.

Firstly, Hammer wanted the expensive stop-motion lizard men cut, and replaced with Papuan mud men. Allen decided not to go with Hammer, who instead incorporated elements such as the mud men into the inaccurately titled monster-free prehistoric actioner Creatures the World Forgot (1971). However, real change happened when Disney released The Island at the Top of the World (1974), which concerned a Viking colony being discovered in the Arctic by a Zeppelin. Although it was based on a 60s-set novel, the Lost Ones, Island was adapted by Disney to be set in 1904, to tie it in with their Verne adaptations and to be used as the centrepiece for a doomed Disney steampunk theme park called Discovery Bay. Though the film flopped, Allen decided the similarities were too great, and had to rethink, instead moving the story to the present and to the Himalayas, adding a Quatermass meets Lost Horizon vibe, and more overt science fiction elements. This meant the Zeppelins and Pterodactyls were no longer in Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls. Instead, we got the Primevals, and after years of work, the film finally started production in 1994, under the watch of B-movie kingpin Charles Band. However, the stop motion work proved arduous, and in 1999, still working on the film, Allen died. Since then, people have wondered would The Primevals ever see the light of day… Until now.

After a festival run, it’s appeared on Amazon Video rental in the US. and well…The film has a simple plot. The film begins when some Sherpas in the Himalayas are attacked by and eventually capture a Yeti, in an impressive stop motion sequence. Brought back to America, the remains of the Yeti are studied by Professor Collier (Juliet Mills), She, her students Kathleen Reidel (Walker Brandt) and Matthew Connor (Richard Joseph Paul) and a big game hunter named Rondo Montana (Leon Russom) go to Nepal to find a living Yeti, only to find a lost world and prehistoric creatures, ape-men and alien reptiles. 


For us fantasy film fans, this film has been something that has been anticipated for fifty years. Of course, it’s going to be something of a letdown. It looks like pretty much every other Charles Band/Full Moon film shot in Romania (with additional filming in the Italian Alps). Everything is nicely earnest. However, the cast is rather lacking. There is a nice cameo by SF veteran Robert Cornthwaite (The Thing from Another World, War of the Worlds), but of the central cast, only Emmy winner Mills shines. A rare female take on this kind of mad professor role, her role is a nice echo, her father John of course being a former Quatermass. Russom is a bit ‘we couldn’t get Charles Napier’. However, Paul is a bland hero and Brandt is a bit ‘Sandra Bullock bought from Poundland’.

There are some nice sets, including the flying saucer, the arena and Calcutta backstreet where Rondo Montana lives. However, a browned-up Romanian in a turban does show that this film was made in a different time. And the native Sherpa character (Tai Thai) whose only characteristic is scared feels especially backward, ironically reminding me especially of the Inuit played by (a wasted) Mako in The Island At The Top of the World.  And replacing the Vikings with grunting missing links (men in ape suits) robs us of a human villain, and a voice to the ancient civilisation. The stop-motion takes a while to kick in, but they’re excellent as expected. There is a nice variance of designs between the warlike reptile drones and the more intelligent alien scientists (mainly witnessed in a Quatermass and the Pit (1967)-type projection of the past). The scientist aliens do however have a design very reminiscent of the aliens from Allen and Band’s first film together, Laserblast (1978). 

So, is Primevals worth the wait? Well, the problem is it has a weak script. If it had been released in 1994, I feel, it’d be kind of fondly remembered but really only for the stop-motion. Even then, it seems dated (this was made after Jurassic Park (1993)), and a relic, a leftover from its beginning in the 70s. Laserblast, by comparison, is very fondly remembered for the brief stop-motion FX, and despite having a starrier if not exactly well-utilised cast including Roddy McDowall and Keenan Wynn, it’s a forgettable runaround about a punk kid with a laser gun until the aliens come back for the climax. This would pretty much have the same reputation I feel, with the caveat that the effects are basically the film, and everything else is filler. The script seems really only interested in FX, rather than character and so on. And the fact there’s no real villain is a misstep. But although it’s not quite as charming as the Harryhausen films it was originally designed to capitalise on, it’s a fun little picture. But I feel it would have been more fun had they stuck with the steampunk setting, or made it in 1978.

Primevals is available to rent on Amazon Video in the US