Thursday, April 23, 2015

At the Earth’s Core

At the Earth’s Core (1976)
Dir. Kevin Connor
Written by Milton Subotsky, from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Starring Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, Caroline Monroe, Sy Grant

AT THE EARTH’S CORE is an amiable little fantasy film from Amicus, adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy adventure into a colorful, jaunty 89 minutes of fur loincloths and big rubber monsters. It may not be the smartest film of all time, but it has brains enough to embrace its inherent silliness and move along to the next dinosaur fight before you’ve got time to stop and think too much about what just happened. There’s honor in that. I respect it.

Basically, the premise is this: Victorian scientist Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) and his hunky American financier David Innes (Doug McClure, inspiration for The Simpsons' inimitable thespian Troy) take a test run in their gigantic tunnelling drillship which goes a little off-course, and they end up inside (or, to be more accurate, in the general vicinity of) the Earth’s Core. You would think this would make for a fairly short, grim film with a smokey finale, but it turns out that the Earth’s Core is different than you might expect, there is quite a bit of ambiguously sourced light there, for example. Also way more trees and people living there than you might imagine. And, oh, also telepathic dinosaurs with a mind-controlled army of lizard men to enforce their brutal law and worship them in some kind of primitive death cult. That’s the kind of thing you just never see coming.

Before long, of course, our intrepid heroes are running away from aggressive British kaijus, getting involved in local politics, meeting sexy cave women, the whole deal. Pretty standard stuff, but they make up for it with charm. McClure’s got a likeable earthiness as a cigar-chomping, sleeveless lug, he sort of reminds me of Lon Chaney Jr.’s luckless schlub from THE WOLFMAN (minus all the howling). But it’s Cushing that carries the day, hamming it up like I’ve never seen him as the indefatigable gentlemanly kook. He’s got a few legitimately funny lines (“You can’t mesmerize me, I’m British!”) and it’s just a hoot to see him go so over-the-top, accurately reflecting the primary-colored exaggeration of the world around him.

The world itself is pretty fun, too. OK, so the effects are not on quite on par with the next film Cushing did (look it up), but there’s a ton of cool detail work and a whole menagerie of endearing rubber monsters, mostly of the man-in-suit variety. Surprisingly effective and sophisticated sound work also really helps pull you into this world and make it seem like an immersive experience, even if it’s never a remotely believable one (not that it really intends to be, anyway). As cheesy as it all looks, they really went above and beyond to build a ton of weird and ridiculous creatures and effects, I mean its not exaggeration to say that basically every ten minutes there’s a new and unique giant monster for you to chuckle at. Henry Levin’s 1959 JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH,* a pretty close parallel, has a much more lavish production (and three times the budget, two decades earlier) but a much more limited imagination. Who cares about your lousy journey to the center of the Earth if all that’s down there are giant iguanas and big mushrooms? AT THE EARTH’S CORE says fuck that, check out this giant exploding fire-breathing frog right here. Clearly a better return on your investment.

That’s basically it, but man, if you want more in your life than legions of giant rubber monsters, Peter Cushing mugging, furry loincloths and evil dinosaur cults, well, I doubt you will ever know true happiness. It is kind of funny to think a movie this unabashedly corny and old-fashioned came out in fucking 1976. I mean, it could have been in theaters with ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 or HELTER SKELTER or THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. But that’s OK, there’s something kind of adorable about how effusively unashamed they are about this cornball premise, and how excited they are to deliver the goods. Oh, and there’s a black caveman guy here (activist and singer Sy Grant as “Ra”) who ends up getting treated with a surprising amount of dignity, pretty much as an equal partner for McClure! Granted, this was a more impressive sidenote when I first watched the movie and assumed it was from the late 50’s instead of 1976, but oh well, hooray for not being as racist as I assumed it was going to be! The women don’t get quite the same courtesy, but oh well, baby steps. Hopefully at least they got to keep the fur bikinis.

*Based on the Jules Verne novel, it stars James Mason and Pat Boone as two proud, kilt-wearing bagpipe-playing Scotsmen, and doesn’t seem to see any problem with that.

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