The Incredible Petrified World, made in 1957 but not released until a couple of years later, is widely regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Movies that have been tagged in that manner often turn out to be very entertaining. The Incredible Petrified World, sadly, is not one of them.
The basic premise is fine. Professor Millard Wyman (John Carradine) has invented a new and highly advanced diving bell. Unfortunately on its first test something goes terribly wrong and the bell is lost. It had descended to such a great depth that there is no hope for the survival of any of the crew.
In fact they do survive. The diving bell had been swept into an underwater cavern and within the cavern is fresh air. More surprisingly there is apparently fresh water as well although why this should be is never explained. Our four aquanauts, two men and two women, are safe for the time being but the bad news is that they’re trapped in a maze of caverns far below the earth’s surface. They cannot swim back out into the sea because they’re much too deep and they have no way of knowing if there is any way out.
Of course the audience knows they will have all sorts of adventures in this hidden world, except that nothing of the kind really happens. They wander about lost, they stop to rest, then wander about lost some more. At one point they do encounter a fearsome giant lizard. It ignores them and they ignore it.
Eventually it does look like some actual adventure might ensue when they discover a skeleton and a strange old man who claims to have been living in the cavern for fourteen years. Surely now we will get some kind of payoff? Alas, although the old guy is a bit sinister very little really happens.
Meanwhile Professor Wyman tries to get together another expedition using another diving bell. He is determined to find out what went wrong with his original design. The scene in which he delivers a torrent of delightfully loopy technobabble explaining his theory of what went wrong is the highlight of the movie.
There are also the obligatory romantic entanglements and jealousies between the four trapped aquanauts. That would have been fine if such scenes had been used to engage our interest in between exciting action sequences but in the absence of any exciting action sequences they tend to be merely annoying.
Producer-director Jerry Warren was known for low-budget efforts such as this, none of them very distinguished. His stodgy directing style is a major part of the problem with this movie. He has no sense of pacing or of suspense and seemingly no ability to craft action scenes. He relies heavily on stock footage, which was common enough in low-budget features at this time, but the scary thing about this film is that you end up wishing there was more stock footage and less of the actual movie.
The acting is a huge problem also. John Carradine is fine. In fact he’s very good considering how little the script gives him to work with. The other actors are uniformly awful. Bad acting will not necessarily sink a low-budget sci-fi flick but dull acting certainly will and these actors are devastatingly dull.
Strangely enough one of the things this film doesn’t suffer from is an excessively cheap look. The diving bell looks OK. The cavern sequences (which make up most of the movie’s original footage) actually look pretty good and pretty convincing. Some of this footage was actually shot in real caves in Arizona.
This film is public domain and the copy I saw was terrible although I told that Something Weird’s DVD release is excellent.
The Incredible Petrified World is by no means the worst movie of all time but it’s fairly bad and lacks the energy and sense of fun to compensate for its artistic deficiencies. Not really worth the effort.