a screenshot from The Primevals with a towering Yeti covered in fur in the mid shot, a tiny gaggle of humans behind, and three lizard people with medieval weapons at the front

Science and Sensation: A Blast from the Past Courtesy of The Primevals (2023)

Buy Stu’s Book!

Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground

“How would you compare this snowman with the Hollywood versions?”

In my recent review of Arrow’s Empire of Screams boxed set, I wrote that Dave Allen’s signature stop-motion style was arguably as synonymous with the Full Moon brand as producer Charles Band’s name. Unfortunately, Allen passed away in 1999 at the age of 54, and after he was gone, Full Moon stopped featuring stop-motion effects as prominently in their films.

During his nearly 30-year career, Allen worked on movies ranging from Equinox and Flesh Gordon to *batteries not included and Young Sherlock Holmes, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. From very early in that time, he was also toying with the project that would eventually become The Primevals.

The Primevals actually has its origins at the very beginning of Allen’s career, when he pitched an old-fashioned adventure movie to Hammer Films. That project eventually stalled, but not before morphing into another notoriously unfinished film: The internet darling Zeppelin vs. Pterodactyls, which has made the rounds in a variety of hoax formats over the years, but which only truly exists as a concept and a single illustration.

By 1978, the movie that would become The Primevals was in pre-production with Charles Band and was featured on the cover of the January ’78 issue of Cinefantastique, with a groovy sci-fi drawing of an alien lizard-person at a control panel directing flying saucers toward planet Earth. Unfortunately, the film was never finished – at least, not in Allen’s lifetime.

The cover of French magazine Cinefantastique featuring an illustration reveal for the Primevals with a lizard man standing at a console on a grid overlooking the earth stars and moon

In recent years, Band worked with some of Allen’s proteges and a veritable army of other animators to finish the film, which still bears the deceased stop-motion master’s name in the “directed by” credit. Now, following a semi-successful Indiegogo campaign, the final product is in our hands at last – or will be soon, having recently premiered at Fantasia Film Festival.

In 2021, another modern master of stop-motion animation (they are few enough and far enough between, these days) debuted a similarly long-in-production passion project. Phil Tippett’s Mad God probably needs no introduction by now, a mind-bending piece of nearly dialogue-free animation that feels like outsider art, produced almost entirely via stop-motion.

In some ways, Mad God and The Primevals are very much alike – both long-gestating projects that reflect the obsessions of their creators, and act as showcases for their unique styles. In other ways, they could not be more different. Without intending any slight, Mad God feels more like a Tool music video than a feature film. It’s beautiful and heady and potent, but also ugly and violent and nonsensical.

When it comes to stop-motion, no name is more (rightly) revered than that of Ray Harryhausen. There’s a story that Guillermo del Toro once tried to get Harryhausen to work on the 2004 film version of Hellboy, but Harryhausen passed on the project because he thought the movie was “too violent.” If that story is true, then Harryhausen would probably have hated Mad God.

The Primevals, on the other hand, feels like a movie that Harryhausen could have made in the 1960s, alongside films like First Men in the Moon or One Million Years B.C. Indeed, one of Allen’s earliest jobs was on Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, the third film in their unofficial “cave girl” series of spiritual sequels to One Million years B.C.

Like Harryhausen’s films, The Primevals combines human actors and stop-motion creatures. And like many of the best Harryhausen productions, the story is a rollicking adventure that, frankly, could easily have been rated PG. The screenplay comes from Allen and another name best known for special effects, Randall William Cook, who worked with Allen on several Full Moon features, designed the creatures for The Gate, and won an Academy Award of his own for the Lord of the Rings films, to name a few.

a Screenshot from the Primevals featuring a few fur clad humans with torches leashing the giant Yeti in a snow cave in a very unkind way

As far as its story goes, Primevals is pure pulp, hearkening back to the golden age of adventure stories. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has ever read many of these pulp tales of expeditions into forbidding landscapes (the Himalayas, in this case) which come across lost civilizations. Or, for that matter, anyone who has read Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” which The Primevals could be interpreted as very loosely adapting.

This is the sort of film where the Great White Hunter character owns a nightclub in Calcutta and meets the other characters in the midst of a knife fight, and it never does anything much to subvert the expectations put forth by its genre trappings. At the same time, it is perhaps to the film’s credit that it isn’t any more racist or sexist than one might expect from a movie that started out as an Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche and borrows uncritically from the tropes of pulp adventure.

There is a certain amount of erasure of the Nepalese people, and the film’s five-person cast is pretty overwhelmingly white. There’s also a moment where one of the characters somewhat inexplicably tells the others to “get the women to higher ground,” even though almost fully half the cast are women. However, the plot avoids the Chariots of the Gods? angle that I was expecting from what I knew about it going in, instead opting for a (poorly-conveyed) last-reel twist that suggests some rather unpleasant things about human nature.

a screenshot from the Primevals featuring one of the alien lizard people in bondage gear sitting at a bowling lane console with bulging yellow eyes and an ominously raised finger ready to plunge down on a button

And yet, the throwback quality of the plot works in service of the picture’s overall purpose, as a vehicle for a type of special effects that are, themselves, throwbacks to an earlier era of filmmaking. In this case, however, “throwback” does not mean “inferior.” The stop-motion in The Primevals is some of the best I’ve ever seen and, indeed, if modern post-production techniques allow us to achieve process shots that look this good, there is no excuse for stop-motion to be a dying art.

I was unable to find a reported budget for The Primevals – it may be that an accurate budget for a movie that has been in and out of production for over thirty years is impossible – though we know that the Indiegogo to complete the film raised over $40,000. Whatever it might have been, there is no way that the budget for The Primevals is even a fraction of what any of the year’s big tentpole sci-fi movies cost, and yet it looks considerably better than most of them.

a closeup of the Yeti from Primevals in the snowy cave, arms reaching up and mouth wide in a bellowing rage but with a little sadness or reluctance in his eyes

Which is not to say that Primevals looks expensive. The limitations of the budget are obvious, and anyone expecting the scope of a Marvel movie will be in for a surprise. Primevals has a cast of roughly five humans, and runs a tight 90 minutes, in good ol’ Full Moon fashion. Most of the sequences take place in the daytime, outside, and at least one cave set is definitely re-used for two different caves.

No one is here for any of that, though. We’re not here for the humans, who mostly have little enough to do besides stare in awe at things that they’re supposed to be seeing just off camera. We’re not even really here for the adventure plot. We want stop-motion monsters, and Primevals gives us what we want.

a contemporary painted poster for The Primevals with a spear-wielding lizard front and center above snowcap mountains and below spaceships and the moon while other lizards attack a mountain climber and there's a yeti and a weird globe and another lizard type it's a lot honestly

The Yeti itself is a masterpiece of monster design and execution. Obviously inspired by such stop-motion legends as King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, Allen and company avoid the easy angle of making the Yeti just a big, human-like ape, instead opting for an expressive design that, by rights, should become as iconic as its forebears. But the Yeti also isn’t alone, and there are aliens and lizard people and spaceships – oh my! – all before the final credits roll.

In the end, The Primevals may be no great shakes as a narrative, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s a nostalgic recreation of another time, a love letter to an art style – and a type of movie – that they mostly don’t make anymore, and a fitting tribute to a master of the form. For those of us who love this type of thing, we would be hard-pressed to ask for more.

———

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, game designer, and amateur film scholar who loves to write about monsters, movies, and monster movies. He’s the author of several spooky books, including How to See Ghosts & Other Figments. You can find him online at orringrey.com.

Categories
Animation, Movies, Review, Science Fiction
Social