Sunday, September 19, 2010

At the Earth's Core (1976)

Eccentric British scientist Dr. Perry (Peter Cushing) has invented a fabulous drilling device, the Iron Mole. Before going on some more interesting travels deep within the Earth's core in it, he and his former student and current financier, two-fisted American David Innes (Doug McClure) are making a test run through some Welsh hills. But the Mole works better than anyone could have expected and transports our heroes right to the centre of the Earth, where they find a whole new world - called Pellucidar - to explore.

Only armed with an umbrella and Doug McClure's fists, the men have to fight off ridiculous suitmation dinosaurs, are captured by the swine-faced servants of a race of hypnotic, telepathic, man-eating dinosaur-birds, romance a princess (Caroline Munro) - alright, only McClure romances, but what can you do - and incite a human revolt against the evil dino-bird people.

Poor Amicus studios, always playing the second fiddle behind the Hammer juggernaut, having to somehow make movies on budgets even lower than those of their more successful rivals. In the second half of the 70s, Hammer was of course already racing towards financial doom itself, and it's not difficult to imagine that times for Amicus must have been even harder.

So, while Hammer was trying to turn Dracula into a James Bond villain without a James Bond to fight, Amicus turned its misshapen but loveable head towards the non-Tarzan works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of course biting off much more than their budgets could have been able to chew even at the best of times, as At the Earth's Core amply demonstrates.

Seldom have the 70s (this is shortly before the first Star Wars movie, mind you) seen a more rickety looking conglomeration of cardboard sets. The often nearly immobile and always terrible looking giant monster suits are usually crosses between dinosaurs and other animals. My personal favourite here is the toad-o-saurus who seems barely able to move its head but is at least able to breathe fire (as toad-o-saurusses do) and explodes when punctured by arrows shot by famous action hero, elderly (and terribly ill looking) Peter Cushing. The toad-o-saurus is exemplary for the special feeling of ambitious ridiculousness the cramped but colourful sets and the monsters exude, the charm of the inept but beautifully sillily imagined that one can find in certain Taiwanese fantasy films, and that one wouldn't expect to find in a film from the UK. On a technical level, the special effects are of course utterly embarrassing, but I haven't got what it takes to complain that a fire-breathing toad-o-saurus, a boar-o-saurus or the awesome cave octopus doesn't look "realistic" enough.

Where the special effects either embarrass or charm the pants off of one, the script turns Burroughs' rather sprawling (at least as far as I can remember) novel into exactly the theoretically tight, yet easily distractible, simple adventure yarn one usually finds Doug McClure starring in. It's all very silly (and takes place in surprisingly few sets) and somewhat dumb, but it hangs together well enough while providing the basic thrills it promised to deliver.

I also dig (sorry) the trio of B-movie stalwarts at the film's core (sorry, I can't help myself), or rather the professional enthusiasm they bring into a film with such a thin script and dubious production values.

Beloved B-movie icon Peter Cushing looks rather terrible, and has to play an often annoying "idiot scientist" role, but does this with his own peculiar sort of dignity that makes my inner child cheer whenever he does things like trying to fight a chicken-o-saurus with an umbrella, explodes the turtle-o-saurus, or states the obvious with one of the better lines of his career, "You cannot mesmerize me, I am British!" (of course echoing something very similar from Horror Express).

Doug McClure gives exactly the same easy-going, two-fisted manly man performance he does in all of his films (to be honest, I never understood why his films even bothered to give him a character name other than "Doug McClure"), but fortuitously this is exactly what the film wants of him, no more, no less. Caroline Munro is, as was so often the case in her career, relegated to the role of the stunning girl that doesn't wear much clothes and needs to be rescued repeatedly. On paper, it's a waste and a shame, but in practice, she's at least so good at the stunning bit that I'm glad it's her and not blonde bimbo number three playing that role.

So, although probably nobody would want to call At the Earth's Core a good movie, I find it quite irresistibly charming. It's a little weird, a little cheap, a little stupid, and sometimes, that's exactly what a film is supposed to be.


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