"You can't hypnotize me...I'm British!"
Aside from Tarzan, the fantasy/adventure classics of Edgar Rice Burroughs have not fared so well on film. Since so much of Burroughs' work dates from 75 to 100 years ago, and so many filmmakers, from George Lucas to James Cameron, have been inspired by (some may say begged, borrowed or just plain stole from) him over the years, that when someone tries to do a more-or-less faithful rendition of one of his works, like last year's mega-budget misfire John Carter, the results can come off as stale and overly familiar.
In Britain, the independent production company Amicus (most noted for their horror anthologies like From Beyond the Grave, Asylum, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, et al) took a chance and brought three of Burroughs' more memorable novels to the big screen. Amicus, founded by Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, enjoyed a certain level of success and made some fine genre films. To say their efforts in bringing Burroughs' larger-than-life, elaborate lost worlds to film were not entirely successful would be an understatement. However, the three films in question - The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and its sequel, The People That Time Forgot (1977) (based off the Caspak trilogy) and At the Earth's Core (1976) (the first book in the Pellucidar series) - all have their hearts in the right place and bring plenty of old-fashioned fun to the table. For those of us who saw these movies as youngsters when they first came out, they still hold a certain nostalgic appeal that (just barely) transcends their clumsy monster effects and general silliness, and most of their (many) faults can be blamed on the production teams' trying to do far too much with way too limited means.
American TV star Doug McClure was lured to the U.K. to work in all three of these movies (though his presence is drastically reduced in The People That Time Forgot). The Land that Time Forgot must have been successful enough to warrant another film, and 1976 saw McClure once again back in Burroughs' fantasyland, as realized by the Amicus crew in At the Earth's Core.
The Sagoths lock David and Abner in chains alongside a number of other humans, including the ravishing Princess Dia (Caroline Munro), and take them to the ancient Mahar city. Along the way, David defends Dia from the depredations of Hooja the Sly One (Sean Lynch), but doesn't realize that local tribal custom dictates that when a man fights over a woman and wins, he may claim her as his own. Dia seems not averse to the idea, but quickly takes offense when the understandably clueless David makes no move in that direction, and from then on, during the remainder of the trek, she and the others give the the two strangers the cold shoulder.
The prisoners finally arrive at the Mahar city and are brought before the winged overlords, who seem to communicate with the Sagoths via telepathy. After a period slaving away in the mines with the other captives, David manages to escape through a disused cave tunnel and encounters Ra, a chieftain of one of the human tribes. In time-honored fashion, the two fight and become fast friends once David rescues Ra from the clutches of a carnivorous plant. Thinking to dissuade David from his plan to free Perry and the rest of the humans from the Mahars' rule, Ra brings him back into the Mahar city to witness their hideous ritual of feasting upon the more comelier female captives. This just strengthens David's resolve to bring the various warring human factions together and eliminate the Mahars for once and all. But first, he is reunited with the lovely Dia and must fight Jubal the Ugly One (Michael Crane), the most ferocious warrior in the land, for her hand...
That said, the film still manages to be pretty disarming matinee fodder, thanks mainly to its cast. McClure makes for an agreeable (if slightly pudgy) action hero, but the film really belongs to Peter Cushing and Caroline Munro. Cushing, the esteemed horror star famous for his depictions of cold, steely intelligence in the Hammer Frankenstein films, as well as Sherlock Holmes on film and television, has a total field day here. Some have criticized Cushing for laying the ham on a bit thick as the kindly, doddering professor Perry, but he's far and away the best thing in this film. He knows he's stuck in a bit of silly juvenalia and gets right into the spirit of things with a very broad, charming performance. Whether waving his brolly at a towering monster and exclaiming "Shoo!" or sending a flurry of arrows into the side of a fire-breathing giant frog, Cushing is constantly endearing. He also gets all the best lines, including "You can't hypnotize me - I'm British" and (of the piggish, sadistic Sagoths) "Oh, they're so excitable, like all foreigners"... not to mention the immortal "I have a firm grip upon your trousers, David" (as McClure is leading him out of a cave). Cushing classes up this joint and enjoys an easy rapport with McClure. His presence goes a long way to making the movie as watchable as it is.
Catching At the Earth's Core on TV, followed by a school showing of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), was a heady one-two punch of exotic, scantily-clad pulchritude. I came to these films for the fantastical worlds and monsters, but the lasting image I took away from them was of Caroline Munro in revealing, barely-there clothing. I was one of the many, many fans similarly captivated by Munro and her succession of skimpy outfits. Though she never became a big star, she remains a cult figure for her work in the above two films, plus a handful of others, such as the two Dr. Phibes movies (as Phibes' dear departed wife), Dracula A.D. 1972 (opposite Christopher Lee's Count), Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (also from Hammer, and reviewed earlier on this site), the Italian Star Wars ripoff Star Crash, and most notably, as bad Bond girl Naomi in the popular 007 extravaganza, The Spy Who Loved Me. Munro isn't actually in that much of At the Earth's Core, but what's there is, as they say, choice. Her role isn't exactly designed to challenge anyone's acting talents, but she more than fulfills the brief, and brings a winning mixture of tremulous vulnerability and royal hauteur to her Pellucidarian princess.
The rest of the cast is decent enough, considering what's required, and the script, by producer Subotsky, is perfectly serviceable for this kind of fare. Director Kevin Connor perhaps wisely keeps the frame tight in on his stars' faces for the most part, which sometimes works in tandem with the cramped feel of the sets to make this feel like a very small lost world, but otherwise does a competent enough job moving the story forward (this clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes). What really lets the side down is the aforementioned poor effects work; it might be unfair to compare this with the marvels of Star Wars which came out a mere year later, as the budget here is surely less than a tenth of that film's, but after Star Wars, effects-heavy films would never be the same, and George Lucas' film pretty much sounded the death knell for the sort of old-fashioned yet cheap monster mayhem seen here.
There's also a number of plot holes and other head-scratching moments (such as how the denizens of Pellucidar manage to speak English, for one...and where exactly did Perry get that bow and arrow? for another.) Taken as a proper adaptation of its far superior source, there's no denying that At the Earth's Core falls way short of the mark.
Still, the sets, colorful lighting, rubber monsters and (actually quite effective) sound design all work together to give the film a strange, otherworldly atmosphere that kind of works in spite of the budgetary shortcomings, resulting in an almost hallucinatory quality; taken on the level of a kind of trippy 70s fever dream, the film remains pretty diverting stuff. It's goofy fun aimed at 10-year-olds, and if - like me - you still have a ghost of that 10-year-old self hanging around, you might enjoy it too.
And, if all else fails, there's always Caroline Munro.
DVD Note: MGM released a pretty nice DVD of At the Earth's Core as part of their Midnight Movies line back in 2001. There's also a double-feature disc of the film, along with War Gods of the Deep. Both are out-of-print but still available from various Amazon Marketplace sellers.