09 July 2009

Carnosaur: The Novel

Carnosaur (1984)
By John Brosnan writing as Harry Adam Knight

Let’s turn on the Way-Back machine for 1993. It’s summer, and the most fiercely anticipated and over-marketed movie of the season is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s science-fiction thriller Jurassic Park. Everybody knows the film will be huge, so why not rip it off before it comes out and save some time? Enter Roger Corman and his ultra-low budget film company New Horizons (where, by the way, I briefly interned in 1995 after graduating from college). Corman has made a career, first as director and then as producer, out of churning out cheaply made copycats of hit Hollywood trends; but with 1993’s Carnosaur he managed the nifty trick of getting his copy into theaters (a very few theaters) a week before the movie he was copying premiered.

Because of the tie-in with Spielberg’s mega-blockbuster, Carnosaur received a much higher profile in the media for a Corman flick that was otherwise destined to go straight-to-video. Carnosaur is an awful film, simply no fun at all for what could’ve been an enjoyable romp with old-style dinosaur effects; but as a piece of marketing it was genius and it turned a nice profit for New Horizons.

The movie is based on a novel that appeared before Crichton’s own take on dinosaurs re-created through DNA, something that Corman’s publicity liked to bring up constantly. If the movie Carnosaur had much of anything to do with the 1984 novel, claiming this provenance might have meant something. But it veers so far from the original novel, adding in doses of Alien (chest-burster dinosaurs!) and the recent interest in virus films, that it is almost impossible to recognize anything from the book.

The novel remains obscure. My copy comes from a brief U.S. print run from Tor to tie in with the movie that it only vaguely resembles. Its author, the late John Brosnan, was an Australian-born U.K.-based genre critic. He wrote the first important serious analysis of the James Bond films, followed by a number of science-fiction movie studies. He also wrote a regular column in the British magazine Starburst. In between his nonfiction gigs, Brosnan wrote horror novels under pseudonyms. Carnosaur was logged under the pen-name Harry Adam Knight. The initials HAK should give you an idea of what sort of writing Brosnan thought he was producing.

The novel Carnosaur is trash, but I don’t mean that as harsh criticism. It wallows in gory demises and ladles on outrageous sex; Brosnan clearly wasn’t pandering for the mainstream success, but for the niche paperback market. And I appreciate that. In fact, I like Carnosaur much more than Crichton’s dull and preachy dinosaur tale (although Spielberg managed to fashion a pretty good flick from it; he did the same fix-up with a novel called Jaws). Maybe it’s the speed of the writing, or perhaps the bizarreness of the English manorial setting, but Carnosaur ends up a pleasing load of monster-on-the-loose mayhem packed into a little over two hundred pages. The book weighs heavier on horror action—and it gets quite vicious in places—than Jurassic Park, but at least it goes all the way with the dinosaurs-in-civilization potential.

Brosnan’s interest in the James Bond series seems to have gotten into his dinosaur tale, since the story has a villain torn right from a 007 script: a mad English nobleman who wants his dinosaurs resurrected from DNA to conquer the world! (Cue evil laugh.) Up against the crazy Sir Penward, Brosnan pits a strapping handsome young reporter, David Pascal, and his jilted ex-girlfriend Jenny. Pascal decides to dig around and find out what’s really happening on the nobleman’s fortress estate after a series of weird killings that Sir Penward claims were caused by a tiger that escaped from his extensive private zoo. Pascal doesn’t have James Bond’s espionage tools to break into the compound, so he instead goes for seducing Penward’s nyphomaniac wife, Lady Jane. (Oh wait, that is a James Bond tactic.) A series of captures and escapes ensue, and then the enraged Lady Jane unleashes the dinos onto the Cambridgeshire countryside. An enormous amount standard-issue slasher death scenes follow, as we quickly meet minor characters, then watch various dinos chomp ‘em up. Predictable, but I think Brosnan was having a grand time playing with his dinosaur toys. And writing sex scenes, in which he indulges a bit over much. HAK, anyone?

After the opening Deinonychus attack chapters, the prehistoric creatures keep a low-profile until the second half, but Brosnan never skimps on the excitement once the creatures break out and go crazy in the town of and countryside of Warchester. I especially like the sequence of the Plesiosaur besieging the rich kid’s party boat, mostly because we never saw any water-animal action in the Jurassic Park movies.

A better-budgeted movie version of Brosnan’s novel might have been a kick; I would have loved watching a Tarbosaurus smashing up an indoor mall, or a lorry barreling down on an aroused Megalosaurus. The novel is extremely pulpy, knowingly so, but it really screams out for a good film version. Dinosaurs running loose around a British castle and manor house? I’ll watch that!