Dubious Dinosaurs At the Earth’s Core

In the dying days of Amicus Productions, best known for their series of portmanteau horror films, company founder Milton Subotsky concluded his run of adapting other people’s work with At the Earth’s Core (1976), a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1914 novel of the same name (the first in a series of seven) by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan (who would eventually take a trip into the Earth’s core himself).

British gentleman scientist Dr Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) is the inventor of the Iron Mole, a manned vehicle designed to drill through solid rock. Providing the money is American mining heir David Innes (Doug McClure), who despite having had an intelligent father boasts of being Dr Perry’s worst student of all time. David has wagered that the Iron Mole, on its maiden voyage, will be able to drill all the way through a mountain in Wales before a man on horseback can cover the same distance. After this dubious attempt to enlist the audience’s sympathies for the privileged idiot filling the square-jawed hero role, they begin to drill down into the mountain, intending to descend for 700 feet before ascending again to emerge on the other side. Inevitably, something goes wrong and they continue to descend at an ever steeper angle before blacking out from the heat.

Returning to consciousness after the temperature in their transport implausibly drops below freezing, they eventually emerge in Pellucidar, the perpetually daylit world illuminated by a miniature sun which occupies the hollow core of the Earth. After being attacked by back-projected footage of a man in a dinosaur suit with a bird’s head, the two men are captured by the Sagoth, a race of creatures who are supposed to resemble brown-furred gorillas but look rather more like well-groomed cavemen with porcine prosthetics over the top half of their heads. After some token chest-tapping and name-stating, our protagonists are of course immediately able to communicate in English with the local tribespeople who are their fellow prisoners – these include Dia (Caroline Munro), a princess originally named Dian the Beautiful in the novel; Ghak the Hairy One (Godfrey James), her not-particularly-hairy father; and Hoojah the Sly One (Sean Lynch), an ineffectual romantic rival who gets punched in the face pretty quickly and never amounts to much of a threat.

After watching a fight between two more men in dinosaur suits (this time wearing the heads of wild boars), they are set to work in a network of caves complete with rivers of lava and curtains of fire which can only be bypassed via retractable bridges. Here they are ruled by the Mahars, a race of man-sized reptilian bipeds with wingflaps under their arms whose eyes glow green when they exert their mind-control powers. It’s just as well Dr Perry is on hand to inform us that they look exactly like the Jurassic-era pterosaurs we know as Rhamphorhynchus, because there’s no way the viewer (dinosaur-literate or otherwise) could be expected to draw this conclusion.

Escaping the caves, David has a meet cute with Ra (Cy Grant) after arrogantly assuming that meat roasting over a camp fire could not possibly belong to anybody else. They have a jolly good attempt at killing each other before rolling into a cave and being grabbed by the tentacles of some weird-looking carnivorous plants. David nobly rescues Ra from their clutches, somehow killing both creatures immediately by the simple act of cutting through one tentacle. The two complete their male bonding ritual before setting out to rescue David’s friends and destroy the Mahars.

40-year-old Doug McClure is a bit of a stretch as an action hero. His performance is… serviceable, but he lacks the charisma to sustain the amount of screen time devoted to him. Peter Cushing barely needs to exert himself to act McClure off the screen, his dotty professor persona very much in the vein of his performance in the earlier Amicus adaptations Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966). Caroline Munro is given very little material to work with, mostly being called on to just stand around looking alluring, but makes the most of her few lines and shows more emotion in one scene than McClure can manage in the entire movie. Sean Lynch is also clearly capable of more, but has little to do besides looking treacherous/or and shifty.

Scriptwriter and producer Milton Subotsky has an unfortunate history of hiring talented writers only to decide that he knows better and rewriting their work. In this instance, he went straight into writing the film himself, leading to a characteristically faithful but uninspired script. Director Kevin Connor had the distinction of directing one of the best Amicus portmanteaus, From Beyond the Grave (1974). While I’ve been unkind in my comments about the costumes, Connor does his best to make them work onscreen, managing to make the back-projected film sequences blend with the rest of the action most of the time and using close-ups of giant heads whenever the actors need to be seen interacting with the creatures. The fire-breathing creature actually looks quite good – although this is probably due in no small part to its always being seen from a distance and never having to move very much. The sets are rather more successful – the jungles and caves look pretty good for their era, even if they don’t quite have the same impact as the sets in the classier (and bigger-budgeted) Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). Unfortunately, the Mahar costumes are a big letdown. Connor is aware of their limitations, keeping them in shadows when possible and showing only a single glowing eye (accompanied by eerie electronics) when they use their telepathy, but all too frequently they need to be seen taking a more active role which the costumes can’t sustain. I can’t help wishing they’d been more like the Winged Devourers from The Beastmaster (1982), or even the Sleestaks from kid’s TV series The Land of the Lost (1974-1976) – they wouldn’t be any more faithful to the source text, but they’d look a lot better. Composer Mike Vickers does a great deal to elevate the movie’s effectiveness. An early member of Manfred Mann, he was one of the first British musicians to use the Moog synthesizer. His use of electronic music sets the tone during the opening credits before lapsing into a disappointingly conventional string arrangement during the first few scenes. Once we hit the realm of Pellucidar his music springs back into life, with the electronic component alternately underlying a more bass-oriented orchestral score or rising to dominate as the orchestra drops away entirely.

Kevin Connor and Doug McClure made two other Burroughs adaptations for Amicus, The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and The People That Time Forgot (1977), followed up in a similar vein with Warlords of Atlantis (1979) for EMI. Connor’s other work in the fantasy adventure genre (thankfully without McClure) included Arabian Adventure (1979), reuniting the team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and two episodes of the short-lived TV series Wizards and Warriors (1983). After the dissolution of Amicus, Milton Subotsky went on to form Sword & Sorcery Productions, attempting unsuccessfully to secure the rights to Robert E. Howard’s Conan and settling for Lin Carter’s The Wizard of Lemuria (1965). Adapting the novel as Thongor in the Valley of Demons (1978), the funding fell through and – for better or worse (I leave that up to the reader) – the film was never made. Whatever the final film might have been like, I strongly suspect it would have been no match for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982).

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