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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

At the Earth's Core (1976) review


Doug McClure (David Innes), Peter Cushing (Dr. Abner Perry), Caroline Munro (Princess Dia), Cy Grant (Ra)

Directed by Kevin Connor

Doctor Abner Perry and his student, David Innes travel below the Earth's surface in a gigantic drilling machine. The scientific duo stray from their original geological course and end up in a strange land thousands of miles beneath the Earth. There they find a civilization of humans ruled over the cruel Sagoths, a race of strange creatures that serve the Mahars, a species of telepathic and prehistoric flesh eating bird monsters. David and the batty doctor Perry must find the means to destroy the Mahar city and free the enslaved people of Pellucidar.

The one cinematic adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' series of novels based on his fictional world of Pellucidar. It's a fantastic realm at the center of the Earth featuring a wild menagerie of monsters and vicious creatures. The monsters seen in the Amicus film are pretty faithful to those in Burroughs' book, only they are less violent taking into account that the film version is made for the kids or the young at heart. Conner's direction is good and the film moves along from one set piece to the next with very few slow spots. The only time the film really bogs down are several scenes featuring lots of walking around in dark caves and tunnels.

Other than that, the production design of Maurice Carter is stunning and commendable. The entire film is shot on studio sets and this adds immeasurably to the fantasy elements found herein. Carter handled designing duties on the first three of the John Dark & Kevin Conner quartet of lost world fantasy movies. Michael Vickers handled the rousing score which could certainly do with an issue on DVD. Vickers also returned to do scoring duties on WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978), the fourth in this quartet, but the only one not a Burroughs novel.

The opening theme is right adventurous and majestic. Similar to the playfulness of the ending theme, the score changes drastically once the intrepid explorers enter the bizarre world of Pellucidar. Possessing an otherworldly and alienesque sound, the music for the Pellucidar sequences perfectly matches the unearthly and quasi-prehistoric locations.

Doug McClure returns in full on hero mode playing a brash, yet brave, stranger in a strange land quickly turning into something of a civilized Tarzan character. There's not as much time spent with the characters as there was for the previous entry and most especially the one that follows it. However, McClure, Cushing and Munro get just enough depth for the viewer to not want to see anything bad happen to them. AT THE EARTH'S CORE is purely escapist comic book entertainment and that's all it want to be is entertainment. Anybody looking for subtext, or a serious and realistic picture would do well to look elsewhere.

McClure was known for roles in numerous American western television programs most notably on the long running western show, 'The Virginian'. He occasionally appeared in genre work on television in between the western programmers, but his career changed once he appeared in THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975). After that, more and more movie roles came his way including some extreme horror starring roles. His four lost world adventure movies are high points and memorable efforts in his long career.

Peter Cushing plays the wonderfully daffy Doctor Abner Perry. Comparable to his role as Dr. Who in two cinematic adaptations of the famed British science fiction series, Cushing plays Perry as a lively and spirited soul despite his age. Perry has no problem getting in on the action which is most prominent during a scene where he makes a bow and arrow out of the surrounding fauna to dispel an attack by a giant fire breathing frog monster that makes a hasty and unannounced appearance.

Cushing also relives one of his most memorable lines from HORROR EXPRESS (1972). In that film, he responds to a query that he may in fact be the monster on the train, "Monster? We're British you know." In CORE, the Mahar creatures use telepathy to control their victims. In an attempt to hypnotize Perry, Cushing blurts out stoically, "You can't mesmerize me! I'm British!"

The stunning beauty of Caroline Munro is one of the main reasons for male viewers to tune in. Her pouty veneer showcases an inherent sexiness that threatens to burst forth from her limited and somewhat revealing costume. Munro was one of the most famous Hammer girls despite never really getting a role worthy of her talents. Her turn in CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER (1972) was pretty good, but Amicus seemed to get a bit more mileage out of her looks in AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976).

By the time STARCRASH (1978) rolled around, Munro was in full on fighting femme fatale mode playing an intergalactic bombshell in a movie that mixed STAR WARS bravado with BARBARELLA style silliness.

When AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976) was released, it ultimately became the biggest grossing Amicus production ever with $3.5 million in box office returns. It was also the last. The next film, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977), which was not really an Amicus picture, came close to matching it with $3 million in profit. Despite the successes of the dinosaur opuses, the end of Amicus was nigh when shady business practices and the subsequent dissolving of the partnership of Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky spelled doom for the company.

There were a couple other notable lost world movies made by European filmmaker, Juan Piquer Simon. Those films were THE FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1976) and MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (1980). The latter picture featured Peter Cushing briefly onscreen. There was also another series of similar style adventure yarns in 1977 to 1980. It was a trilogy of US-Japan co-productions between America's Rankin/Bass Productions and Japan's Tsuburaya Productions.

The trilogy began with THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977) and continued with THE BERMUDA DEPTHS (1978) and concluded with THE IVORY APE (1980). All three went straight to television in the United States but played theatrically on the international circuit. There's no doubt the success of Amicus' lost world epics inspired these other productions.

At one time the chief rival to the famous (and infamous) Hammer Studios, it's questionable whether Amicus could have survived in the changing markets what with big budget Hollywood blockbusters becoming the norm since the release of JAWS in 1975. This style of fantasy adventure was becoming extinct much like the dinosaurs featured in the Conner movies. The resurgence didn't take place till the release of JURASSIC PARK in 1993.

For their time, movies like AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976) offered the type of serial inspired thrills that prospered in the 30's and 40's. Compared with the other three films, CORE contains so many more cliffhanger moments. The third film, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT comes close as the final act is a rapid fire exchange of close calls and tight spots for the heroes.

In CORE, there's the journey to the Mahar city replete with dangers from giant man eating monsters, the ensuing escape from the city, the duel with "Jubal, the Ugly One", returning to the city to destroy the Mahar's, a duel between man and monster and finally, the obliteration of the Mahar city. It would seem the writers of WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS (1978) took the template laid down for AT THE EARTH'S CORE for the later film as there are several similarities which are discussed in that films review elsewhere on this site.

AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976) is a highly enjoyable monster romp made during a more simpler time when sheer imagination fueled the ambitions of filmmakers capabilities. A time when budgetary constraints were channeled towards the imagination and creativity of those putting their vision up on the big screen. If you come to these types of movies with an open mind, a big smile and a buttery bucket of popcorn, you're sure to walk away with the notion you've just had a good time enjoying an old style adventure for kids, both young and old alike.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD (single disc edition).


Sean M said...

This is one of my big favourites from childhood when i first saw it at Saturday morning cinema about the time it was released.And i just picked it up as part of the Midnight Movies double feature,the other title being WAR GODS OF THE DEEP.

Apart from one or two slightly tacky looking monsters everything about this movie is perfection.Other than the ever reliable (for this type of movie) Doug McClure,Peter Cushing is entertainingly on form as the scatty scientific genius who i agree is very similar to his two Dr Who feature film performances.

The Mahars are among the most scary cinematic monsters in memory especially with their eyes that light up green when using telepathy to stun their victims or communicate with their very unpleasant foot soldiers.All very disturbing indeed and i always lovr McClure's line that "they've got to be destroyed!" before all hell breaks loose for the brilliant finale when they take on the seemingly indestructable bird monsters as well as sabotage the city.

Everything about this movie is stunningly beautiful including the travellers exciting steam ridden descent through the earths crust,the colourfully weird flora and fauna of the hidden world and the massive lava fuelled inferno of the finale.Yes the suitably weird musical score fits perfectly.

Suitably for all ages and easily a 10 out of 10 rating.

venoms5 said...

It's a shame they don't make them like this anymore. I remember seeing all the Conner lost world movies around the same time back in 1980-1982 except for the fourth film which I didn't catch till the early 90's.

Sean M said...

I can't believe that when i first watched the dvd the other day that the "kicking" victims in one of the monsters jaws is clearly a puppet!!

Still i find this quaint special effect (along with the excellent Mahar rubber suits) preferable to todays CGI.Also the actors in todays fantasy films lack the class of McClure/Cushing/Wayne/Munro etc etc.

venoms5 said...

Well it would have to be a puppet unless they wrangled a giant monster somewhere to fill in for the part, lol.

I have no problem with the effects, but assuredly, people of todays generation would have problems with the effects seen here.

And as you pointed out, Sean, the caliber of actor was much different then as it is now.

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