At the Earth’s Core (1976) **½
Amicus Productions had been the second-biggest name in British horror movies for most of a decade when the entire industry dedicated to producing such films began to sputter and stall in the mid-1970’s. And if even Hammer Film Productions couldn’t muster the cash to compete with the new generation of big-budget American horror flicks, what the hell chance did the number-two studio have? Faced with the choice between getting out of the fright-film business and going out of business altogether, the folks in charge at the company did the sensible thing, and started looking for a new cash cow. The question was, what would the new Amicus be? Interestingly enough, the studio’s leadership looked to Edgar Rice Burroughs to be their salvation (perhaps they figured rubber-suit dinosaurs were the next logical step for a studio fleeing the rapidly declining witches-werewolves-and-vampires market), and beginning with The Land that Time Forgot, produced a string of Burroughs-derived and Burroughs-inspired fantasy-adventure films. That the rather tepid At the Earth’s Core was almost certainly the best of these suggests that the whole enterprise was doomed from the start, and sure enough, it’s possible to watch the budgets shrinking with each successive entry in this loosely-constituted series, as each film brought in a little less money to the cash-starved Amicus production line.
If you ask me, the strangest feature of the Amicus Burroughs films is that they all feature the less-than-compelling Doug McClure in a major role. This time, McClure plays businessman and engineer David Innes, whose old professor, Dr. Abner Perry (an absolutely cadaverous Peter Cushing), has recently talked him into financing his latest invention. The new machine, which David likes to call the Iron Mole, is a giant manned drill, capable of boring through solid rock at a rate of 78 feet per minute. Amid much fanfare, Perry and Innes are about to take the Iron Mole on its maiden voyage, burrowing from one side of a hill somewhere in England to the other. If all goes well, Dr. Perry hopes to take his machine on a series of far more ambitious expeditions, deep within the Earth’s interior.
The doctor’s hopes are going to be fulfilled sooner than he thinks, just not in the way he intends. It seems he designed the Mole a little too well. The machine goes much faster underground than the 78 feet per minute predicted by Perry’s calculations— so fast, in fact, that he and Innes are unable to control the thing! Within moments of starting up the main drill, the Mole is more than 700 feet underground, and way off course. Before long, Perry and Innes are deep enough to start feeling the heat of the magma below the Earth’s crust, and the professor soon passes out from heat exhaustion. A bit deeper, and even the much hardier Innes can’t stand the heat, and he follows his mentor into unconsciousness. Neither man wakes up until the Mole is practically at the planet’s core, where they are snapped out of their feverish slumbers by a radical and unexpected change of temperature. Evidently, all the best scientific thinking on conditions deep within the Earth has been in error, because down below the fiery mantle, it’s freezing cold! After wrestling with the controls for a bit, David is able to slow the Mole’s descent enough to regain the power to maneuver. Confident that the situation is now in hand, the two men begin singing jauntily as they climb back toward the surface (this is a weird, weird scene...), but an unexpected trip through an underground lake puts paid to that. Apparently, Perry never figured on the Mole encountering large amounts of liquid water, because the machine shudders to a halt not long after completing its little swim.
Because this is a movie based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, there’s only one possible thing Perry and Innes can find when they climb out of the Mole to have a look around. That’s right, it’s another lost prehistoric world, full of Mesozoic cycads and rubber dinosaurs. The first such creature the two explorers encounter actually rather resembles the Gappas from Monster from a Prehistoric Planet— kind of like a big, upright theropod with a bird’s head. This monster just about eats both men, but it is driven off in the nick of time by a band of human warriors. Or on second thought, maybe they’re not quite human after all. In fact, what we have here is a bunch of pinheads with pig snouts and the worst comb-over hairdos on record. And despite initial appearances, they’re not at all friendly. No sooner have the natives chased away the monster than they seize Perry and Innes, slap manacles on their wrists, and add them to the chain-gang of cavemen they had been driving through the subterranean jungle when the Gappa-thing grabbed their attention.
Fortunately, these stone-agers speak English, so David is able to learn a thing or two about this strange land from a caveman named Ghak (Godfrey James, from Cry of the Banshee and The Blood on Satan’s Claw) and a cave woman named Dian (Caroline Munroe, from Maniac and Dracula, A.D. 1972). This world within the world is called Pelucidar, and it is ruled by intelligent, telepathic, pterosaur-like creatures called the Meihars. The porcine pinheads with the comb-overs are called Sagoths (or Sagons, or Sagos, depending on which befuddled actor happens to be talking at the time), and they are the Meihars’ soldiers. Every so often, the Meihars send the Sagoths out to round up a pack of humans to serve as slave labor in their cavern-like city— which is, of course, where this bunch is headed now. Not every caveman is so eager to embrace David and Perry as Ghak and Dian are, though, and one of them— Hoojah the Sly One (Sean Lynch)— goes so far as to pick a fight with Innes when he sees him talking to the girl. And strangely enough, nobody will talk to either of the men from upstairs after David finishes kicking Hoojah’s ass.
Okay, so most of you have surely figured out already that David is going to end up leading some kind of slave revolt before this movie is over, but 1976 was about two and a half decades too late for movies as short as this one would be if the plot were to get down to business this soon. Therefore, the creators of At the Earth’s Core have thoughtfully taken every possible opportunity to drag things out. The silent treatment administered by the cavemen is only one facet of this strategy, which also includes lots and lots and lots of completely random attacks by ridiculous rubber monsters— the carnivorous, bipedal rhinos that attack the slave caravan just outside the gates of Meiharville, for example. But unlike the monster attacks, there is at least some reason for the cold shoulder David and Perry start getting from their fellow prisoners. It seems that Pelucidarian custom dictates that a man who wins a fight over a woman lays claim to that woman as his mate. He may release her from this bond if he wants to, but to do nothing at all is to express contempt for the woman, who may then take another mate only if the man who dishonored her is defeated in battle. So what do you suppose David did after beating up Hoojah? That’s right— absolutely nothing. And what’s more, this social faux pas is compounded by the fact that Dian is— who would have guessed?— a princess! All of which means that David’s going to have to accumulate a hell of a lot of kiss-ass points before he can start leading that revolt we know is in his future. It also means that Dian sneaks off with Hoojah the Sly One as soon as that tricky bastard lives up to his name, and finds a way to escape from his Sagoth guards.
Upon their arrival in Meiharville, the captives are divvied up among several teams of slaves. Most (including David) are assigned to one or another of the lava-related public-works projects that keep Meiharville running smoothly. Perry, however, is put to work as a scribe, copying the clay tablets in the Meihars’ library. (Interestingly enough, the Meihars seem to speak Akkadian.) Before long, Perry has begun using his workdays to search for the “secret of the Meihars” (nevermind that neither he nor the audience has any real reason as yet to suspect the Meihars of having a secret), while David finds a way to sneak out of the city and go searching for Dian and adventuring in the Pelucidarian countryside.
He finds Dian, alright, but first, he meets and befriends a caveman with extraordinarily bad fashion sense named Ra (Cy Grant, of Shaft in Africa and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons), battles some exceptionally shitty monsters, witnesses the spectacle of the Meihars eating a bunch of attractive girls, and returns to the city to free Perry from his captivity. That’s an awful lot of action for one day, but David is far from done yet. He still has to outsmart Hoojah the Sly One and defeat Dian’s ex-boyfriend, Jubal the Ugly One (Gawain and the Green Knight’s Michael Crane) in single combat. Then, with his reputation as a warrior to be reckoned with secure, he must find a way to unite the squabbling human tribes of Pelucidar, so that we can finally get that fucking slave revolt off the ground. Perry, too, has something to contribute, in that the Meihars have a secret after all, and it turns out to be the fact that they use the lava to incubate their eggs (I think, although that’s certainly not how it worked in the novel— the movie is far from clear on this point). That’s one of the reasons why the creatures are so obsessed with keeping the channels and ductwork that control the lava in tip-top shape— no more steady supply of lava, no more baby Meihars. Sounds like a plan to me.
The main advantage At the Earth’s Core has over The Land that Time Forgot or The People that Time Forgot is lots of action. Though there are a couple of rather lengthy dull patches, there’s usually something going on in this movie, and that something is usually pretty exciting. There are more monsters here than in The People that Time Forgot, and they interact with the human characters in a far more direct and interesting way than do those in The Land that Time Forgot. Not only that, the slave rebellion plotline offers plenty of opportunity for comparatively large-scale fight scenes between the cavemen and their Sagoth overseers. Sure, this is visibly a cheap movie, and a lot of the special effects look pretty threadbare. (The incredibly cool Iron Mole is, fortunately, a notable exception.) And sure again, it’s probably about fifteen minutes too long, and insufficient attention was paid to some pretty important elements of the story. But experience has taught me to expect very little of a Burroughs movie, and whatever its faults, At the Earth’s Core really did deliver far more than I was prepared for.