SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “At The Earth’s Core” (1976)

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Last week you may recall that I mentioned Disney’s 1954 film “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” began a subgenre of Victorian SF. Well, if that film was the first of a generation, then today’s movie is more or less the ragged end of that generation, gasping for breath in the moments before extinction.

PLAY BY PLAY

At some point in the late 19th century, Peter Cushing (Best known to us geeky folk as “Grand Moff Tarkin”) and Doug McClure (Best known to us geeky folk as the guy who isn’t Troy McClure), are testing out the “Iron Mole” - a tunnel-digging machine. They intend to cut a tube through a Welsh hillside, but, of course this all goes horribly wrong, and the Mole careens out of control, tunneling its way into the creamy, nougaty center of the world.

Here they’re chased by a variety of rubber suit monsters that look like extras from a Godzilla flick, and then are captured by some short piggy-looking humanoids with protruding, naked skulls and frankly disquieting combovers. Pete and Doug are chained up with a bunch of other human prisoners who are being marched off to piggy prison, or whatever. This isn’t so bad, however, as Caroline Munro is one of ‘em.

(I apologize for the awful music in that, just watch it with the sound turned down).

The movie underplays her astounding hotness for some reason. Anyway, Caroline and Doug seem to be hitting it off as well as any two folks on a chaingang can, but then there’s some unpleasantness when an squirrelly little guy I’m going to call “Curly McFro” tries to cop a feel or whatever, and Doug pounds hell out of him. There follows an awkward pause that eats up like a minute of screen time, after which Caroline won’t have anything more to do with Doug. Doug is powerless to understand her odd behavior, so he broods and watches her in old Adam Ant videos (Yes, that’s her with the big glasses!) to dull the pain

You really can’t blame the guy. She’s smoking’ hot.

They get to Piggy City, where several of the chaingang folks are sacrificed by the piggies to some big fake looking pterodactyls (Again, rubber suit monsters). A man with an outrageously fake beard explains to Doug that under the Pelucidarian customs - oh, this land is called ‘pelucidar’, did I forget to mention that - when a man fights another man for a woman, then the woman is his, and he needs to say either “I’m a’gonna’ make you the main fillie of my herd” or “I don’t wantcha’.” By staring awkwardly for a full minute and doing neither, this is a grievous insult to the honor of Caroline Munroe.

Doug escapes and Pete is put to work in the Cuneiform libraries, where he discovers that the pterodactyls are the masters here, with the piggy folk being their slaves. They’re using the piggies to round up humans for chow, thus saving them from having to forage themselves. Not a bad little scam, really.

Doug gets in a fight with a total stranger named “Ra,” but they bond over a long and entirely boring fight sequence, and decide they’re chums now. Ra takes him to see some humans being sacrificed to the Pterodactyls, and Doug swears to defeat the lizard-bird things and free Pelucidar. They decide to break back in to piggy city, and they free Pete and several others. Pete shows Doug a big egg chamber where the Pterodactyls are born, and this functions as the ‘small unshielded exhaust port’ for this movie, which will allow an easy and clear-cut defeat of the enemy in convenient terms and without moral ambiguity. Sigh.

As they flee Piggy City, they find Caroline Munro once again being chased by Curly McFro, and Doug fights him off while being attacked by a fire breathing rubber suit monster. Pete puts a bow and arrow together in less than a second out of less than nothing, and slays the beast. Caroline isn’t too thrilled with Doug what with the slight and all, but Doug perseveres because, hell, she looks like this

Even if this movie isn’t really showcasing her much.

The movie bogs down for a bit as we’re told that Jubal the Ugly (And rather tall) is coming to kill him so he can take Caroline for his own, and…uhm…give her to Curly McFro or something. It’s all a bit vague. Perhaps Jubal is gay? Perhaps he’s impotent, but likes killing people? Who can tell. Anyway, they fight and Doug wins, but it pads out the film.

Pete teaches the locals how to make Bows and Arrows and then they attack piggy city. Ra manages to take out the Egg Chamber at cost of his own life, and a bunch of stuff explodes. At the Ewok Celebration afterwards, they prep the Iron Mole to go home, but Caroline refuses to go because it’s not her world. Unintentionally, this echoes her real-life decision to stay in the UK, rather than go to Hollywood, where she undoubtedly would have been a huge star. Thus she kept cranking out Hammer Films and crap like Star crash (Which I hope to review at some point in the future)

The Iron Mole pops up in the White House lawn, while guards run around like panicky idiots.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

I don’t want to be too hard or too negative on this film because I believe - I’m honestly pretty certain - that it was intended to be a charming and quaint romp, not to be taken terribly seriously. The special effects are low-tech and rather embarrassing, but it’s almost like they’re drawing attention to how cheap everything looks in an effort to say ‘This is all just a lark.” The dialog, the performances - particularly from Peter Cushing - are all the particular kind of goofy that can only be deliberate parody. So accusing it of not being as good as other Victorian SF films is a little unfair. It’s obviously intended for kids, and I remember loving it a lot when I was ten or twelve, and it came on TV.

That said, I think I’d be more inclined to give this one a passing grade if it weren’t so dull. Granted, it’s not as bad as last week’s film, but it’s still far, far more boring than it has any right to be. I mean, we’ve got a movie with rubber suit monsters, Peter Cushing, and Caroline Munroe, how the hell is it this dull? None of the action sequences are what you’d call exciting, or even really mildly diverting. The story is your typical “Sophisticated modern dude becomes savior/leader of primitive locals, and takes one of their own as his mate” kind of story which is really the worst, most clichéd form of white 19th century daydreams, and, again, there’s really very little interesting here. On top of this, McClure plays a typical Burroughs hero who’s already (inexplicably) somewhat superhuman before the story ever even really gets going.

To be fair, though he’s an SF writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs was really more into fantasy than SF. The SF trappings are just to get his characters in a location where they can do sword wielding bloodletting Conan crap. It should be mentioned that ERB was also not a Victorian writer, but merely the first of several authors who deliberately set their stories in that era, sort of electing to place himself alongside Verne, Welles, and Doyle as a kind of retroactive peer. Again, I can’t really subject this film to the same kind of criteria I’d use for a film like “The Andromeda Strain,” can I?

The telepathic link between the Pterodactyls and the Piggies is a neat hook, and the weird combovers do actually make the piggies look sort of distressingly sick-and-wrong, so that’s a nice touch. Peter Cushing goes through the whole film delivering all his lines in a high, wheedling old man voice, much unlike any other role I’ve ever seen him in. To his credit, he gets the best line in the film, “You can’t mesmerize me! I’m British!”

Even so, there’s just not a lot of dash and fun to the proceedings. The lighting is murky, the sets are bland, the direction is flat, and Mike Vickers vaguely prog-rocky score is largely at odds with what happens on screen (Though it is rather memorable, it feels like it came from another movie entirely.) Even though it’s pretty obvious that everyone in the production intends it to be ‘all in fun,’ there’s relatively little fun to be had here. It was good enough for me as a somewhat addlepated ‘Tween, but it was grueling to sit through now.

And that’s pretty much it, really. End of an era, though admittedly not a particularly good era. You can watch the whole film here:

And for more information about Caroline Munroe, please consult your local library. Or just go here

http://www.carolinemunro.org/

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