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Saturday, February 15, 2014

At The Earth's Core

This is the middle of three films produced by Amicus Productions in the mid-70s. All were based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and all three starred Doug McClure. The set are more properly classified as fantasy than sci-fi, but this middle film, At The Earth’s Core (AEC) at least featured a steampunk earth-boring machine called The Iron Mole. This techno-wonder is just a device to deliver two Victorian man into a fanciful world of monsters and pretty “prehistoric” women. Doug McClure (more famous for his role in The Virginian television series) stars with the venerable Peter Cushing. Caroline Munro stars as tribal babe and love interest.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Abner Perry (Cushing) and David Innes (McClure) set off to explore the center of the earth in their giant boring machine, The Iron Mole. Very soon after embarking, however, the Mole proves difficult to steer. They avoid magma, but stumble upon an underground sea and prehistoric land with a giant cave. They are chased by a sort of parrot T-Rex until captured by little pig-men with spears. They are added to the pig-men’s other captives, which includes the beautiful Dia (Caroline Munro). Dia escapes. The rest are taken to the city of the Mahars. These are chunky pterodactyl beings who command their pig-men army via telepathy. Most of the captives become worker slaves. Perry is sent to the library to copy cuneiform clay tablets. Some are set aside to be food for the Mahars. David escapes in a moment of chaos. Once outside, he comes across Ra. They fight, until a tentacled plant has Ra. David saves him and they become best buds. David wants to free the slaves from the Mahars. Ra says they’re too strong. He shows David the feeding ritual wherein the Mahars mesmerize their prey (20-something pretty women with glistening cleavage) so they can swoop down and grab them. The eating is mercifully just assumed. David falls from the hiding spot, but the Mahars are all asleep. He crawls to freedom, but return to help the slaves. They are captured by pig-men and brought to an arena. David has to fight a big lizard thing. He manages to kill it, but as a Mahar swoops in to get David, Ra breaks free and kills the Mahar with his chains. The slaves make a rush for freedom. Most are stopped, but David and Perry are reunited. They remerge to find Dia being menaced by Hooja. All are attacked by a fire-breathing frog-thing. Perry kills it with his newly built bow and arrow. David reconciles with Dia by being assertive. They go back and unify the tribes to mount an attack on the Mahars. Perry teaches them all archery. The attack does not go well at first, as the Mahars direct the pig-men to close the fire curtain gate after David and a few get in. Ra manages to find the control room with the gate lever, but dies opening it. The Mahars swoop in to get David and his few tribesmen. Reinforcements arrive just in time to shoot arrows into the swooping Mahars. The city starts to explode, so everyone rushes back outside. Fast forward. David and Perry, now all cleaned up, prepare to take the Iron Mole back to the surface. David wants Dia to come with him as his wife. She loves him, but cannot leave her people (she’s a princess). Sad David leaves with Perry. The Iron Mole comes up in the White House lawn. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The rubber suit monsters have a nostalgic charm, giving the film a very 50s feel. While the budget cannot live up to the story’s ambitions, the story itself shines through to keep interest up. Of course, the revealingly-clad prehistoric women add visual appeal.

Cultural Connection
Rubber Suit Monsters — The movie Godzilla in 1954, introduced audiences to the man-in-a-rubber-suit monster. At first, it was fairly effective as a technique. Toho Studios would produce many, and have many imitators (often of much lower production values). Toho themselves devalued the technique down to cheesy levels by creating so many rubber suit monsters themselves. Only the very young in a 70s audience would still have the suspension of disbelief to simply accept the monster for what it pretended to be. The advent of the Star Wars era, just a couple months after the last of the three Amicas ERB films hit theaters, spelled doom from the old school approach. People still accepted wacky monsters played by men in rubber suits, but the fashion was for them to be aliens in galaxies far far away.

Based on the Book — Edgar Rice Burroughs published the story “At the Earth’s Core” in 1914, as a four part serial. It was pretty much a solid ERB tale, with monsters and villains to fight and a beautiful princess to defend and win the heart of. AEC follows the book reasonably closely for the story line. There was no way Amicus Productions limited budget could have done ERB’s fanciful monsters justice, of course. The ending of the film deviates from that of the book. In the novel, Dian did not return with David to the surface because of a trick by Hooja. It was not because she had to stay with her people. The book leaves open the possibility of a sequel when he goes back for her Orpheus in the Underworld-like.

Retro Sandwich — AEC was the second of three films by Amicus, based on ERB’s prehistoric fantasy stories. The first of the trilogy was The Land Time Forgot (’75). Then AEC in ’76. Finally The People That Time Forgot (’77). All three featured Doug McClure.

How To Treat A Woman — An amusing leftover bit of ERB’s man’s man world view, lingers in the story thread of David insulting Dia. When Hooja made rude advances towards Dia, David smacked him down. But, David did NOT then claim Dia as his justly-won property, thereby insulting her and making her unfit to be anyone’s mate — except for Jubal the Ugly One, who did not seem to care. To resolve her feeling insulted, Perry tells David to “be strong and masterful.” So, David spins her around by the shoulder and orders her to sit down and listen to him. Once he had pushed her around, all was well. She was all smiles and eager to rest her head on his semi-bare chest. That’s how ya have to treat wimin. Show ‘em who’s boss. This is a surprising carryover from older days, given it was a mid-70s film.

Bottom line? AEC is marginal as sci-fi. It does have a bit of steampunk with the Iron Mole, but this gets little screen time. The rest is pure fantasy genre. 20 years after Godzilla introduced audiences to the rubber suit monster, the technique was pretty lame. People weaned on CGI in the post-StarWars era may have a hard time looking past such low-rent FX. Fans of the older style of movie story telling may be able to look past all that, and just enjoy a good adventure story. —

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