Matty takes a moment to mull over Jim Wynorski’s much derided dino-schlocker, looking at its place within the Carnosaur series and contextualising the film as part of its maker’s resume.
From inception, as films and a written work, the Carnosaur series has been locked in a game of leapfrog with the Jurassic Park franchise.
Written under his ‘Harry Adam Knight’ alias, John Brosnan’s 1984 novel, Carnosaur, came first, predating Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park by six years. While it would take balls and a legal team bigger than mine to call Crichton a plagiarist (especially so, considering the late author’s win record in the intellectual property cases that have been brought against him), the comparisons between sci-fi scribe Brosnan’s forgotten, Paperback From Hell-type pulper and Crichton’s bestseller are at once superficial yet shockingly similar, with DNA noodling and museum-based destruction key components in both of them.
Incidentally, it was the success of Crichton’s book that inspired the legendary Roger Corman to pick up the rights to Brosnan’s. Snagged after Carnosaur’s US publication in 1989, Brosnan, who passed away in 2005, was initially part of the Carnosaur film’s development and penned a couple of drafts of the script at the behest of Corman’s wife, Julie, before the project was bequeathed to writer/director Adam Simon. Simon had previously made the Twilight Zone-indebted Brain Dead (1990) and the excellent erotic thriller Body Chemistry II: Voice of a Stranger (1991) for the Cormans, and his more budget conducive iteration of Carnosaur (1993) was finally nudged into production as soon as wily ol’ Roger caught wind of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) adaptation starting to roll.
Transposing the novel’s British setting to the States, and taking only its central premise of dinosaurs being genetically engineered from chicken genes, Simon’s Carnosaur, made for $850,000, is a solid little monster movie. Despite being lumped with Raphael Sbarge’s ineffective lead, its strengths lie in a batshit crazy performance from a cannily cast Diane Ladd (mother of Laura Dern who was, of course, starring in Jurassic Park); the big ideas that teem beneath its schlocky veneer, Simon touching upon a raft of hot-button issues of the period including environmentalism and eugenics; and the awesome, typically cartoon-y FX by the sorely missed John Carl Buechler, with puppetry, animatronics, and miniatures bringing the film’s Deinonychus and T-Rex to life with gusto. Ever enterprising, Corman elected to release Carnosaur the week before Jurassic Park’s big screen bow in a move that garnered appreciation for the exploitation impresario’s moxie if not for the actual film itself. Monetarily, Carnosaur turned a small profit during its brief big screen run. However, Simon’s flick found its real place on video and it’s here where Carnosaur and Jurassic Park’s game of tigs intensified.
Just as Crichton was finalising his Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, Corman unleashed the straight-to-tape Carnosaur 2 in February 1995. Directed by Louis Morneau (who’d go on to strike DTV gold with the outstanding Retroactive (1997), and tackle the tip-top creature feature Bats (1999)), the action-packed Carnosaur 2 was basically Aliens (1986) with Velociraptors, the long extinct species placed at the forefront of the film after entering pop culture as the primary terrors of Jurassic Park. Following The Lost World’s publication in September 1995, Steven Spielberg announced his plans to use it as the basis for a second Jurassic Park movie which in turn led Corman to bankroll a third Carnosaur. The so-so Carnosaur 3: Primal Species was let loose in December 1996 — the same month as Spielberg’s subsequent The Lost World (1997) finished shooting — and did decent but unremarkable business among renters looking for another quick dinosaur fix. After all, dino-fever was in full swing. The blockbusting Jurassic Park and the Spielberg-produced live action version of The Flintstones (1994) ushered in a wave of video store friendly cash-ins like Corman’s other prehistoric lizard romp, Dinosaur Island (1994); Tammy and the T-Rex (1994); Theodore Rex (1995); Charles Band’s Prehysteria! programmers; and a slew of excruciating Land Before Time sequels that Spielberg, again, had a behind the scenes part of.
And that was it…
Until Jurassic Park III (2001).
Made on the fly, production on Jurassic Park III commenced without a finished script; an accusation that a person of particularly cruel persuasion could aim at Jim Wynorski’s RAPTOR (2001). The sort-of but not quite fourth Carnosaur, Raptor is arguably even more mercenary than its predecessors, which at least tried to hide their designed-as-a-rip-off statuses. Raptor, though, was born of almost total moolah-chasing cynicism. Beyond Jurassic Park III’s influence, it’s currently unclear where, exactly, Raptor’s genesis lies other than either Corman or Wynorski — his most trusted protege — deciding that a new Jurassic Park needed a tackier, coattail-riding alternative post-haste. And in all honesty, such a shameless birth isn’t a bad a thing. The problem was that in order to save money in a rapidly dwindling straight-to-video market, Raptor had to be cobbled together from preexisting footage. There was no wonga to ladle on the Buechler creatures a la the previous Carnosaurs; instead, Raptor’s copious scenes of dinosaur carnage needed to be cribbed from the rest of the franchise like some twisted greatest hits package, and the film’s story had to be built backwards to accommodate it.
Thankfully, it’s a challenge that Wynorski rose to. Indeed, upon reading that last paragraph, you’d be forgiven to think Raptor a cack-handed howler but it isn’t. Far from it. A frustrating and repetitive experience if viewed as a genuine Carnosaur sequel, yes (but, in fairness, none of the preceding three are properly connected anyway), this faux instalment is best seen with the above ‘greatest hits’ epithet in mind. Raptor has all the coolest, goriest bits from the rest of the enjoyable killer reptile saga: the jeep assault, the laser cage, the sheriff’s slaughter, and the impressive forklift vs Tyrannosaur sequence from one; and a boatload of frenzied and ferocious velociraptor attacks from two and three. And all of it — which makes over fourteen minutes of Raptor’s eighty-two minute duration — is as brilliant and as thrilling to behold as ever.
What helps is that said footage is, largely, very well used. In terms of set-up, Raptor is a touch awkward. Due to the ‘this needs to link to this’ and ‘this needs to link to that’ nature of their screenplay, Wynorski and his co-scripters Francis Doel and Michael B. Druxman (a pair of Corman semi-regulars, with Big Bad Mama (1974) and Battle Queen 2020 (2001) to their respective credit) subject the cast to some clunky dialogue in order to get characters to the point where Wynorski can cut in with the preassembled setpieces. Undoubtedly, the clunkiest is when Raptor’s beast-creatin’ big bad, the dastardly and in no way sinisterly named Dr. Hyde (Corbin Bernsen, dressed like Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown (1997) and effectively playing RoboCop’s (1987) Clarence Boddicker by way of his own Dentist (1996) schtick), encourages a hulking underling to “walk down the laser corridor for me, won’t you?” (or words to that effect). The absurdity of Hyde’s utterance is compounded by a noticeable shift in the Carnosaur clip that Wynorski then jumps to: Hyde’s dogsbody, Lyle, is portrayed by Frank Novak, who’d met the same beam-and-chomp fate in the original Carnosaur, albeit as a different character. In Raptor, Novak’s costumed identically to his Carnosaur counterpart but even a helmer with as much magpie-esque precision as Wynorski can’t mask how the actor’s obviously aged seven or eight years between the two movies. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Novak has form in the ‘new movie culled from a lot old material’ stakes: in 1987, he popped up as a victim in the infamous Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, which began as recut of the first Christmas hackathon.
Raptor’s fifth-billed Harrison Page is also marred by the problem. The Sheriff in Carnosaur, Wynorski recycles Page’s ace, shotgun-toting death, positioning him in Raptor as star Eric Roberts’ right-hand man, his older visage be damned. But for as unflinchingly apparent as it is, Novak and Page’s send-offs work within the context of Raptor’s efficient, attention-holding story. And thankfully, the rest of the Carnosaur series footage Wynorski uses is either that quick or that efficiently disguised by the director’s assured technical credentials that it’s easy to accept it as a charming auteurist quirk.
For Wynorski buffs, Raptor is a joy because it ticks so many of the ultra prolific filmmaker’s boxes. For instance, the reliance of footage from other films is a classic Wynorskian flourish. He’s enhanced numerous offerings with stock side dressing: his nifty Not of this Earth overhaul (1987) swipes from Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and Humanoids From the Deep (1980) (the latter, funnily enough, is also where Raptor’s James Horner score (!) is pulled from); his hilarious horror pastiche Transylvania Twist (1989) contains a Boris Karloff cameo pinched from The Terror (1963); the brilliant Storm Trooper (1998) repurposes the thrilling motorcycle/truck chase from Wynorski’s earlier 976-EVIL II (1991); and Raptor — Wynorski’s second dinosploiter after the aforementioned Dinosaur Island — arrived towards the end of a slate of slick, high impact actioners that the director had built around sequences nabbed from a raft of bigger budgeted movies like Invasion USA (1985) and Cliffhanger (1993). Tellingly, for Raptor, Wynorski would employ the same pseudonym that he’d slather across those pictures – Rangers (2000) and Extreme Limits (2001) etc – ‘Jay Andrews’.
Cast-wise, multiple members of Wynorski’s rep compny appear, specifically good luck charms Melissa Brasselle (aka ‘Rocky DeMarco’) and Lenny Juliano, Tim Abell, and the striking Lorissa McComas, who tragically died in troubling circumstances in 2009.
Yet it’s Raptor’s giddy tone that resonates. Logic, reason, and prosaisms such as nuance and subtlety have no room within Wynorski’s canon; he simply wants to entertain, usually by firing everything he can afford to throw at you. And in that sense, with his pilfered passages from Carnosaur surrounded by pulpy characters, easygoing humour, and the obligatory boob-centric sex scene (cut in the version available on Amazon Prime, for the record), Raptor succeeds.
It’s tremendous fun.
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