When I was in grade school, the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations that AIP and Amicus were putting out had a sky-high "gotta see that!" value. My friends and I saw the ads on Saturday morning television, and some of us even got to see these in the theater. I remember seeing The Land That Time Forgot in an aging movie palace that was entirely too swanky for the film. Such thoughts didn't occur to me then; I was a precocious child, but I wasn't THAT precocious. I think I saw The People that Time Forgot on cable in the early early days of HBO. I don't remember ever seeing At the Earth's Core (1976, directed by Kevin Connor), which is today's subject, but I might have. They all blur together in my mind, an effect exaggerated by Doug McClure's presence in all three films.
I never saw any of these films as an adult. Some things probably shouldn't be revisited. At the Earth's Core is pretty bad, but it is instructive, in so far as it demonstrates the wide, wide gulf between what fantasy films looked like in 1976 and what they looked like just a couple of years later. To put this into some context: At the Earth's Core, like the other two films in the sequence, was shot by cinematographer Alan Hume, who went on to shoot The Return of the Jedi. On the one hand, you have a paper mâché kid's movie, on the other, you have a fully-realized alien world. Of course, a lot of this is down to budget. Amicus were the low budget knock-offs of Hammer Films, and if you know how cheap the Boys at Bray were, then that should be saying something. This movie was cheap, and it usually looks it, from its over-reliance on rear projection compositing to its "suit-mation" monsters to its plaster and mâché sets. Not that The Return of the Jedi was above that sort of thing--just look at Luke Skywalker's battle with the Rancor, which looks a bit like McClure's battle with the dinosaur in the pit in At the Earth's Core--but there's a world, if not a galaxy of difference between the design sensibilities and effects techniques in these movies. At the Earth's Core appears at the cusp of two filmmaking epochs, and it plays a bit like a silent film made in 1932. Curious, but dated. Perhaps a better comparison would be to Saturday morning kids shows from the same period. At the Earth's Core looks a LOT like an elaborate episode of The Land of the Lost.
That all said, I have a lot of affection for At the Earth's Core. I read a LOT of Burroughs when I was young and I'm a die-hard fan of Hammer films (and their Amicus cousins, who often used the same talent). This is a movie that casts Peter Cushing as a cracked scientist and Doug McClure as his action hero sidekick, with Caroline Munro as one of Burroughs's alien princesses. How can I not respond to that? My love of the genre is too deeply rooted. A lot of my response to this film is rooted in nostalgia, and I can certainly understand how younger viewers than myself might have no such vested interest. But then, I can't really defend this as a "good" movie, because by any standard you'd care to use, it isn't one.
The story here is pretty basic. Professor Abner Perry has designed a mole machine and American adventurer David Innes has built it. Together, the two bore into the Earth, where they discover the lost world of Pellucidar. Pellucidar is populated by prehistoric monsters, telepathic pterodactyl people, and a ragtag band of enslaved humans. Innes and the good doctor are captured by the Mahars and taken to their city. Innes escapes after witnessing a ritual in which select human slaves are devoured by the Mahars. He returns to rescue Perry, before uniting the tribes of humans against the Mahars. Standard fantasy stuff.
Some of the things I like about this movie:
- Peter Cushing seems a perfect actor for a steampunk fantasy. He just LOOKS the part.
- Carolyn Munro doesn't have a lot to do in this movie. Her main job seems to be to display a lot of cleavage while shining with a faint sheen of sweat. She does this admirably well.
- The mole machine in this movie is really friggin cool. The special effects for this machine are the best in the movie, and are about comparable with the best of Ishiro Honda (The Mysterians, perhaps).
- Doug McClure plays the Doug McClure part. McClure doesn't really vary his performances from movie to movie, so when you see his name in the cast list, you pretty much know what you're going to get.
- Fun with carnivorous plants.
- "You can't mesmerize me! I'm British!"
- Best supporting performances by an umbrella.
Don't take any of this as some kind of recommendation. Like I say, I have some affection for this film and it's siblings, but I'm clear-eyed about its overall quality. It's a fun movie if you have the right frame of mind for it, but if you don't--and unless you are of a specific age from a specific background, you probably don't--it's likely to be drag.