At the Earth’s Core
So there have been a couple of reviews now, possibly more, where I’ve claimed that the crummy movie in question would have been much improved had the two leading stars been replaced by actor Doug McClure and actress Caroline Munro. I figured, then, it’s high time I reviewed a crummy movie that did cast McClure and Munro in the lead roles, and when one’s talking crummy films featuring either of those stars, it’s hard to find one that’s much crummier than At the Earth’s Core, a low-budget attempt by England’s Amicus Studio to bring to life Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series of novels. Pretty much every pulp fiction writer, from Burroughs to Verne, wrote a hollow earth, beneath-the-surface of the planet adventure. Burroughs, in fact, wrote several, and these attempts to do Journey to the Center of the Earth one better comprise the Pellucidar books.
Burroughs wrote seven books in total, one of which is actually a cross-over adventure with Burrough’s most famous creation, Tarzan. And in 1976, a guy named Eric Holmes, with the blessings of the Burroughs estate, wrote a brand new Pellucidar adventure. He did it again in 1980, though that time he seems to have forgotten to get permission, and the publishing of the book was blocked by the Burroughs estate until 1993. I’ve always thought Burroughs’ writing seemed to be fairly well geared toward adaptation into film. But for some reason, almost every adaptation of his work ends up being either so different that it hardly even relates to the source material (the Tarzan movies) or is just ends up being a colossal failure. At the Earth’s Core, an attempt to adapt the first of the Pellucidar novels, falls into the latter category.
Well, it falls into the latter category for the greater portion of humanity. I however, and probably not surprisingly, happen to enjoy the film. I don’t love it, but I am certainly charmed by its offbeat tone, its astoundingly inept special effects, its plot that manages to be both incredibly streamlined and meandering at the same time, and most of all, its game performances from a trio of genre stalwarts who give it their all despite the fact that they must know this movie is, to steal a description from Douglas Adams, a load of dingo’s kidneys.
Peter Cushing stars as bumbling doctor Abner Perry, a turn of the century (that’d be the turn of the 20th century, whippersnappers) inventor who has built himself a gigantic drill he intends to use…well, it seems like he mostly intends to goof off with it by boring through a mountain on a bet. But one assumes that there are more visionary applications for the world’s most amazing drilling car. Accompanying Perry on the trip through the mountain is American financier and all-around lovable man of action, Doug McClure. Well, technically, his name is David Innes, but when has Doug McClure ever been anyone but Doug McClure? Sound of mind, able of body, good-looking in that “lovable lug” sort of way, and just as capable of piloting a magnificent drill-o-kabob as he is punching a caveman in the face. In short, if you are doing anything — from drilling to the center of the earth to exploring a lost world populated by rubber dinosaurs — McClure was the man you wanted along for the ride. And it’s a good thing Perry brings Innes along, because it doesn’t take long for the drill to prove too effective, sending the unlucky duo tearing through the earth’s crust and into Pellucidar, a fantastical kingdom that exists within the hollow earth.
Hollow Earth theories have been around for…heck, how long? Probably for as long as there have been theories about the Earth. Considering the incredible depths of some of the world’s caves, and the often bizarre creatures one sometimes sees issuing forth from their mouths, it’s not hard to understand how pre-historic — end even more recent — man would have conceived of some source for these creatures, some hitherto unseen world deep below the surface of the known world. In a time before caving technology, lights, and Iron Moles, even the largest of caves was an impenetrable, black abyss, and the surface of the earth itself could be no more than scratched by man. But at times, it would open up in earthquakes, spewing forth smoke and lava (and, presumably, monsters) and swallowing people whole. As such, the center of the earth becomes the location of countless mythological underworlds, from the Greek Hades to the Christian Hell.
As a movement, however, the hollow earth theories really gained steam in the early 1800s, when a cat named John Symmes Jr. put forth the notion that the Earth consisted of a crust 800 miles thick, with massive openings at either pole. Beyond the crust exists a habitable inner surface, with the core of the earth actually acting as a sun. Symmes intended to mount an expedition to one of the poles to prove his theory, but nothing ever came of it. Another expedition was planned by a newspaper editor and explorer named J.N. Reynolds, who actually managed to visit Antarctica, though not the pole itself. When, later in the 1800s, people started actually making it to the poles, the theory that there were openings into the hollow earth, hundreds and hundreds of miles wide, didn’t quite pan out. But history is full of beliefs that continue to find adherents long after pretty much every piece of evidence collected has disproven them, with the mantra of “cover up” always being a convenient defense against, “We went to the North Pole and there was no giant hole leading to a world that exists inside the earth.” Dismissed by actual science, hollow earth theories found new purchase among the pulp writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. As each subsequent writer took a crack at this world-within-a-world concept, the claims regarding what was actually inside a hollow Earth became more fantastic.
Famed science fiction pioneer Jules Verne probably did more to sensationalize and spread the hollow earth gospel than any crackpot scientist or explorer when he published A Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864. Several years prior, in 1838, Edgar Allan Poe used hollow earth theories as the basis for his story , The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. And even before that, in 1825, Faddei Bulgarin wrote Improbable Tall-Tale, or Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which he wove a description of three concentric layered societies existing within our planet. And in 1914, with the publishing of At the Earth’s Core, Burroughs seized on the hollow earth idea and used it as the basis for his series of involved and detailed adventure novels.
Despite setbacks in the scientific realm, hollow earth theories did not remain the sole purview of the science fiction authors. They enjoyed and, in fact, continue to enjoy sudden flare-ups in popularity from time to time, fueled by the fact that even the deepest hole in the world isn’t very deep. The Russians initiated the Kola Superdeep Borehole in 1962, an attempt to reach the point in the earth’s composition where the crust meets the mantle — the “Moho” as it’s known. After twenty-five years of drilling, the project was terminated after reaching a depth of 7.5 miles — about 1.7 miles short of the goal. But even so, it’d take a lean and hungry man to drop down the hole and see what was to be seen, as it’s only nine inches wide (Peter Cushing might have fit). Picking up where the Russians left off, and spearheaded by Japan, the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) seeks a similar goal but made the task easier by starting on the ocean floor, building upon work done by the Deep Sea Drilling Project and the Ocean Drilling Program.
A similar scientific expedition was attempted, I think, in the early 1980s, when me and my buddy Robby decided we were going to dig the deepest hole ever. We hiked way out into the woods down by this caves and began our glorious attempt. I think we got about a foot down before we hit bedrock. Shortly thereafter we all saw Red Dawn, and convinced that nuclear annihilation was unavoidable but that we would somehow survive, along with the girls on whom we had crushes, we revived the hole project with the intent of turning it into a nuclear fallout shelter. It never got any deeper, but we made it wider, covered it with a warped piece of plywood, and stocked it with important supplies, like a pocket knife, a canteen full of water (that had been in the canteen for probably two years), and some Star Crunches. The war with the Russians didn’t come, of course. Well, not yet. When it does, I’m sure the shelter will still be there, ready to protect us so that we might emerge from the rubble and build society anew, preferably as a society involving well-groomed cavegirls.
The IODP, incidentally, employs the services of one of the largest research ships ever built — nicknamed Godzilla Maru. There are, obviously, untold secrets yet waiting to be discovered. Psychic pterodactyls ruthlessly oppressing a race of stone age humans may not be among these secrets, but they make for better movies and adventure novels than if we’d had a movie in which Doug McClure extracted core samples from the Kola Borehole and discovered interesting things about the rate at which the temperature increases as one drills through the crust. Yes, fascinating from a scientific standpoint, but more fascinating than Caroline Munro in a tiny loin cloth?
Psychic pterodactyls actually aren’t that far off from what some modern-day proponents of hollow earth theory claim exists within the crust of our planet. Some think that it is the realm of ascended spiritual masters; others say it’s where UFOs come from. Atlaneans live there. Some even claim that at the end of WWII, Hitler and the remaining members of the Reich escaped to the hollow earth. Last I heard, the entrance to the hollow earth realm — which someone decided to name Agartha, since it needs a suitably cornball new age name — was at Mount Shasta in California. But this could have been updated to Nepal, Tibet, or some other suitably mystical location. I believe according so leading scientific researches, the only way to get there is to astrally project. And although hollow earth theories have persisted for centuries, it is perhaps no big shock to learn that the most ridiculous and new agey “facts” sprung up fully formed in the late 1960s.
Back in Pellucidar, however, Innes and Perry have their own troubles to contend with. It turns out that this realm within the earth is populated by all manner of poorly realized prehistoric creatures. As soon as Perry and Innes venture forth from the Iron Mole, they are attacked by dinosaur-like monsters that make the dinosaurs from The Land that Time Forgot seem amazingly lifelike. These creatures are realized by having a man in a monster suit stomp around a jungle set in slow motion, while McClure and Cushing sort of hunch over and dart back and forth for what seems like an eternity. Soon, the two begin to unravel the mysteries of the society that exists in this strange land. The Mahars are a race of psychic pterodactyl looking things, and they rule over a race of stone age humans, including one scantily-clad Caroline Munro as Princess Dia. When they handed out princessing duty, Dia got the short end of the stick, being appointed princess of a race of slaves. Keeping the cavemen in line is a third race of pig-faced thugs.
Needless to say, when a couple of Victorian-era bad-asses from the surface come to Pellucidar, armed with an umbrella and cigars, there’s gonna be a whole lot of whoop-ass and Doug McClure getting the puffy sleeves ripped off his Dr. Frankenstein shirt. Innes and Perry are captured and forced to join the slave march, during which Innes commits a social gaffe that causes him to get on the wrong side of Dia. But you know things are going to work out for them. Until they do, Innes is going to spend his days escaping and punching stuff, and Perry is going to try to unravel the mysteries of the Mahar’s power over Pellucidar. And then there’s going to be a big revolution. Well, as big as Amicus can ever afford to mount. And probably, a volcano or something will erupt.
At the Earth’s Core was released in 1976. The next year, Star Wars was released. If ever there was a crystal clear illustration of the quantum leap forward in special effects technology that film represented, this was it. At the Earth’s Core is dirt cheap, albeit in a fun and imaginative way. The monsters are man-in-a-suit effects that wouldn’t have passed muster in even the cheapest Japanese Ultraman series. Hell, even 1970s Doctor Who probably felt a little bit embarrassed to see what At the Earth’s Core had to offer. And yet, it’s precisely because they fail so spectacularly that the effects succeed. Coupled with a really weird score by Michael Vickers (who also wrote the ultra-funky theme song for Dracula A.D. 1972), the sets and monster suits lend the movie a completely phantasmagoric atmosphere. At the core (ha ha), it’s really a very simple movie, and one we’ve seen countless times (b-movie stars run around in cave sets until something blows up), but it takes on a completely bizarre, hallucinogenic mood that lends the film far more power to engross than it might otherwise have had. In other words, a movie this bad needs to be this bad. If it had been competent, it would have been dull beyond the point of enduring.
But because it fails in such a charming, weird way, it becomes much more than it would otherwise have been. Burroughs’ original novel was a sprawling epic, and there was no way Amicus was going to be able to bankroll such a story. However, this movie strips it down to its core (ha ha) while still managing to reach far beyond its means. This is, of course, sort of the defining aspect of director Kevin Conner’s filmography. He populates his films with tons of special effects that would have been considered crude if they’d been a movie released ten years earlier. Amicus was the perfect home for him. They were the cheap version of Hammer, and if you know how cheap most Hammer films were, that’s really saying something. The big difference was that the boys at Hammer knew how to work within their limitations without looking like they were working within limitations. Amicus aims for the special effects stars and comes back with a paper mache pterodactyl.
Aside from the charmingly inept special effects, At the Earth’s Core has a few other things going for it. By this point, it should be pretty obvious that I’m a fan of b-movie and television staple Doug McClure. He gives the exact same performance here that he did in his previous Amicus outing (The Land that Time Forgot) for the same director. I can’t claim that there’s anything special about McClure’s performances. He’s just this dude, and when crazy fantastical shit starts happening, he deals with it. He has charisma without trying. And he makes a good pairing with Peter Cushing, who turns in a believable if somewhat irritating performance as the proverbial absent-minded professor. Perry is somewhere between Will Hartnell era Doctor Who and Grandpa Simpson, with a dash of the Doctor Who character as played by Cushing himself in the two technicolor feature film adaptations produced by Amicus. It can get on the nerves a bit, to be honest, but Cushing does get the films’ two best moments: he takes on a dinosaur whilst armed with nothing but his crazy old professor umbrella, and when the Mahars are trying to use their psychic powers on him, he gets to proudly proclaim, “You cannot mesmerize me. I’m British!” If that’s not the greatest movie line ever, it’s only because Cushing also gets to say, “Monsters? We’re British, you know!” in Horror Express.
And then there’s Caroline Munro.
OK, yeah. You’re right. She doesn’t really have much to do in this film other than slink around in a furry micro-bikini while coated in a thin sheen of perspiration, but oh is she ever good at it. Who wouldn’t punch out Jubal the Ugly One to win her affections? Caroline represents everything that was good and right with starlets in the 60s and 70s. Yes, she brings the sex appeal, but she also brings an affable warmth and agreeability to the proceedings. There’s no hint that she feels this material is beneath her (and Munro could certainly perform at a much greater level than demanded of her in this film), no need to sneer or seem above it all. She’s in it and having fun, and there’s nothing about her that doesn’t make her the easiest girl in the world with whom to fall in love. Or whatever emotion governs a reaction to gorgeous cavewoman princesses with killer smiles.
Paired with the really weird LSD atmosphere of the movie, the cast makes At the Earth’s Core a treat despite its many impossible-to-ignore faults. Many times, I’ve been able to dismiss a film’s short-comings and justify my adoration of it by spinning some yarn about how I saw the movie as a young boy, and blah blah blah. Not so with this one, though. I first saw At the Earth’s Core when I was in college. Realizing that I was witnessing something completely weird, I threw a tape into my VCR and recorded about 70% of the film. It became one of the most cherished gifts I ever gave my stoner buddy Ken (the other cherished gift was Young Taoism Fighter). But I can’t even play the “dude, I was so wasted” card, because I was stone cold sober at the time. Granted, I hadn’t slept in like three days, and I’m pretty sure this was during the time when I was doing an experiment that involved eating Taco Bell for breakfast every morning after not sleeping. Whatever the case, At the Earth’s Core succeeds for me when it just as easily might have failed, thanks largely to the freaky feel and an able cast. Sometimes, you just like a bad movie.
Well, most of the time, if you are me.
Release Year: 1976 | Country: United States, England | Starring: Doug McClure, Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro, Cy Grant, Godfrey James, Sean Lynch, Keith Barron, Helen Gill, Anthony Verner, Robert Gillespie, Michael Crane, Bobby Parr | Screenplay: Milton Subotsky | Director: Kevin Connor | Cinematography: Alan Hume | Music: Mike Vickers