Sometimes a movie is so relentlessly cheesy and dated that it virtually becomes critic proof. Take that series of epically staged Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations that Amicus put out in the 70’s (technically they didn’t release Warlords Of Atlantis, but you get my point), that saw Doug McClure whisked away to some sort of hidden world that were usually stuffed with despots to punch and exotic women to woo like a cut-rate William Shatner. The raggedy-ass sets, dodgy costumes and ludicrously rubbery monsters that make early Godzilla movies look like a freaking wildlife documentary are as laughable as an old episode of Doctor Who, but like those ropey old effects, they’ve dated to become an almost integral part of the camp fun of it, almost like bad dubbing in a 70’s martial arts flick. Stiring up nostalgic memories of lunch time viewing on a lazy Bank Holiday is At The Earth’s Core – a typically jovial fantasy epic that matches McClure’s patented, two-fisted heroism with a game Peter Cushing pushing the boundaries of on-screen befuddlement.
Grandfatherly Victorian scientist Dr. Abner Perry has, with his American financier David Innes, invented a massive drilling machine dubbed the Iron Mole that, if successful, will help to explore the worlds that exist under the earth’s crust. Before they tackle that, however, Perry and Innes plan to start off with something a little easier and plan to ease into things by boring through a mountain in Wales to test how the Mole handles. However, noting into their venture and the whe bloidy contraption goes haywire, instead taking them down perilously close to the molten core of the planet, but when the two men regain consciousness after their little subterranean joyride, they find that they’ve surfaces in some underground world, loaded with fauna, an atmosphere and a giant lizard/bird that chases them across this bizarre, trippy landscape.
Not long after, Innes and Perry are captured by the Sagoths, chimp-nosed, sub-humans whose high-domed heads are barely covered with the thinning comb-over of a 1970’s pervert and before you know it, our battered adventures have joined the other human prisoners that are being marched to God knows where. Conversing with the other humans (who obviously speak English), they discover the brutish Sagoths actually work for the Mahar, telepathic reptiles that look like fossilized parrots who put the humans to work in their lava mines and sacrifice the odd one when they’re feeling peckish.
Cozying up to a fetching native princess named Dia, Innes and Perry have to not only negotiate this crazy world if they want to make it back to the surface alive, but they’ll also have to organize the humanoids into rebelling against their creepy masters if they even stand a chance of seeing a blue sky ever again.
So, not to flog a dead horse, but At The Earth’s Core has obviously aged as well as Jon Voight, with the cracks probably showing as soon as three weeks into its theatrical run. However, while the effects have and have always been as questionable as an amateur dramatics group trying to pull off a play based on The Silmarillion, to judge them so harshly in these times of CGI, Mo-cap and compositing seems as pointlessly cruel as kicking a puppy for barking. Yes, the sets and creature look like they’d fall over if shoved by a particularly angry six year-old, but that’s sort of the whole point – these movies have become sort of creature-filled pantomimes where their look and tone are a gentle, goofy reminder that not everything in cinema has to be as polished and serious as a heart attack.
Will that being said, the monsters look awesomely shit, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t get more of those giant, boar-faced kaiju who try and gore each other to death for the honor of eating an extra in a shifty looking wig and beard combo. Elsewhere we get a giant beaked lizard whom Cushing tries to escape by climbing a tree (yup, that’s it Pete, always climb toward the face a giant predator, yeah?), a flame throwing toad and a crocodile-faced monster that visibly causes stifled grins from the extras within the movie as it clumsily attempts to gobble up McClure. Cheap looking? Almost certainly, but you could never accuse it of being dull and while it admittedly doesn’t match Amicus’ earlier The Land That Time Forgot for sheer thrills, it still moves at a lively pace thanks to the camp stylings of it’s leads.
Doug McClure (whom you’ll probably remember from such films as Warlords Of Atlantis and Humanoids Of The Deep), by this point could most likely do this sort of shit in his sleep (and probably did) and even though it’s fairly unlikely that a American financier from the Victorian age could outrun a Kaiju, chat up an exotic cave princess and out punch someone widely known around town as Jubal, The Ugly One (hey, words hurt, guys), he’s still dependably heroic. But while McClure is playing it safe, Peter Cushing takes his role as a fuddy duddy professor and strangles every bit of comic potential out of it he possibly can. In fact, he’s so doddery, he makes Sean Connery in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade look like Sean Connery in Goldfinger and when he isn’t suddenly producing a bow and arrow out of thin air and twanging off arrows like Jeremy Renner in fucking Hawkeye, he’s spouting outrageous dialogue such as “I’ve got a firm grip upon your trousers, David!” and the always magnificent “You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British!”. The boys are also joined by the typically luscious Caroline Munroe, who was obviously cast as some sort of consolation prize for any dads who had been badgered by their kids to take them to see this – but her distractingly oiled cleavage fits in well with the beasties and beaked baddies.
As creaky as an un-oiled hinge, At The Earth’s Core forms a centre point of the quartet of movies that were directed by Kevin Connor that repeatedly featured McClure hot-footing it away from toothy, rear projected hand puppets. But while this excursion to the underworld may not be the best of this campy bunch, it isn’t by any means the worst either and it even has something of a nifty steampunk vibe as the final shot cheekily has the heroes finally resurface in the back garden of The White House. A hearty slice of Z-grade, fantasy twaddle, once you divorce yourself of any snobbish notions, silly, throwback thrills are guaranteed if you dig deep enough…