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Posts Tagged ‘At The Earth’s Core’

When I was but a lad, one of the joys of public holidays and the dog days of summer was the tendency of the TV programmers to fill gaps in the schedule with low-budget SF and fantasy films from the 60s and 70s. (These days you would probably get a programme about antiques or a repeat of the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final, and this is supposed to be progress.) As a lad, I always used to turn up to these things wide-eyed and undemanding, but even so there was a subset of the films which I always suspected weren’t quite up to scratch. These were what my elder male relatives would refer to as ‘Trampas movies’.

At the time I had no idea what they were on about, but now of course I understand this is a reference to the character in the TV show The Virginian played by Doug McClure, and it’s McClure who’s the face of the films I’m talking about: The Land That Time Forgot. The People That Time Forgot. (But not Creatures The World Forgot, a Hammer dinosaur movie which omits to include any dinosaurs.) Warlords of Atlantis. And, in 1976, Kevin Connor’s At The Earth’s Core, perhaps the most perfect time-capsule of mid-70s pop culture imaginable.

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Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, on this occasion McClure plays David Innes, who with his old mentor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) is testing their new invention: the Iron Mole, basically a big metal drilling vehicle (the model is, by the way, beautiful). Things inevitably do not go according to plan and the machine goes out of control. The intrepid duo eventually find themselves in a barren wasteland populated by hostile, savage, subhuman creatures. It obviously takes them a while to figure out that they are not in the Welsh countryside (their intended destination) but Pellucidar, a vast subterranean otherworld.

After a somewhat underpowered action sequence with the first of many extraordinary Pellucidarean beasties (most of them realised through the wonders of suitamation), Trampas and Cushing are nabbed by the Sagoths, homuncular thugs intent upon enslaving the local human tribes. Cushing is surprised by the fact that the Sagoths seem to be in charge, declaring that the humans are clearly intellectually superior, but as the only innovation they seem to possess over the Sagoths is their mastery of the bubble-perm hairdo, it’s unclear what he is basing this on (maybe the doc is just speciesist). Present among the slaves is Princess Dia (Caroline Munro, an iconic actress if ever there was one), but things between her and Trampas are not allowed to get soppy.

Everyone is dragged off across the soundstage to the City of the Mahars, the Mahars ruling the roost in Pellucidar. This is literally true as the Mahars look awfully like birds (strictly speaking, awfully like stuntmen in extremely ambitious bird costumes) – Cushing identifies them as ramphorynchi, and as it’s Peter Cushing I would not dream of arguing with him. The Mahars seem to have mesmeric powers (possibly everyone is just knocked into a stupor by the dreadfulness of the monster suits), which they use to dominate the lesser races and be generally gittish to everyone in Pellucidar.

Anyway, soon enough Trampas manages to escape, though not before stumbling upon a scene of the Mahars ravaging some attractive some tribeswomen (cue many gobsmacking shots of the Mahars ‘taking wing’, i.e. swinging inelegantly across the set on the ends of wires). Trampas solemnly swears he will liberate the humans from the oppressive Mahar regime, and then (one can only guess) sack his agent. But first he’s got to rescue the lovely Dia from her captors, Hooja the Sly One and Jubal the Ugly One…

Yes, as you may be able to tell, this script is the work of Milton the Unsubtle One, or Mr Subotsky as he was actually listed on Amicus’ letterhead. The thing about Milton Subotsky is that here we’re talking about someone who had a reasonably successful career as a producer of genre movies, but whose ability as a screenwriter was not, er, always apparent. He seems to have had only the shakiest grasp of either SF or fantasy as genres, though this does result in the charming ‘bit’ recurring in his work where, preparatory to any kind of scientific undertaking, someone solemnly announces that they’re going to ‘check the gyroscope’. Possibly this was just a favourite euphemism in the Subotsky household.

Anyway, the script for At The Earth’s Core is not really what you remember the film for. (Though it’s not a million miles away from that of the more recent, more notorious ERB-adaptation John Carter of Mars.) It just about serves in terms of getting the various characters from place to place and inserting the required sequences of mayhem and jeopardy, but it certainly doesn’t linger in the memory and it’s very hard to shake the sense that the whole thing is a bit juvenile: for instance, there are many significant looks exchanged between Trampas and the princess, but never the slightest indication that he has actually got around to checking her gyroscope.

Seemingly sharing this view as to how the movie should be pitched is Peter Cushing, who goes all out as the comedy relief character. Cushing, of course, has a well-deserved reputation as a consummate professional with a near-miraculous ability to lift dodgy movies through sheer force of will. Except here: in this movie he’s just plain bad, the most jaw-droppy-open moment coming with his delivery of the line ‘You can’t mesmerise me, I’m British!’ followed by a comedy cross-eyed gurn.

Doug McClure, on the other hand, actually seems to be taking proceedings seriously, which is rather sweet. He’s really a good leading man for these films – he’s big and inelegant and unsubtle, but then so are they. McClure alone is not a good enough reason to watch this film, and neither is the garish art direction or Mike Vickers’ prog-rocky score. The special effects are striking, as I’ve said, but not really in a good way.

And yet, and yet: by any objective measure, At The Earth’s Core is thorough-goingly terrible, but the fact remains that it’s a hard film to actively dislike, and it was a substantial box-office hit back in those dim pre-Star Wars days. (It was #18 on the UK chart for 1976 – a position held in more recent years by respectable films like The Great Gatsby, War Horse, and Black Swan.) Nothing with this kind of kitsch grandeur is made any more, and so it has a certain charm simply as a period piece. But I would be reluctant to recommend it any more enthusiastically.

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