Monday, February 14, 2011

"You Can't Mesmerise Me, I'm British!"

AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976)

Having cowered from superior special effects in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, Caroline Munro is at her most beautiful in AT THE EARTH'S CORE; every male wanted the actress to be a nubile slave girl above anything else.

AMICUS produced a trio of Lost World features: THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975), AT THE EARTH’S CORE and THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977), all of which were based on the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and shared the same producer (John Dark), director (Kevin Conner) and leading man (Doug McClure). Subscribing to the mentality of matinee cinema, these escapist adventures were released to coincide with school holidays; the ‘Saturday morning’ ethic has a heritage that stretches back to the serials of the 1930s and 40s, but also applied to the cinematic spin-offs DR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) and DALEKS’ INVASION EARTH 2150 AD (1966), which were co-financed by Amicus under the Aaru banner. Peter Cushing’s portrayal of the eponymous Time Lord in both of these films has much in common with his character Dr Abner Perry in AT THE EARTH’S CORE: a stereotypically British eccentric professor – who stubbornly carries his trusty umbrella at all times - created for a stereotypically juvenile target audience.

Perry – together with David Innes (McClure) – set out to test their earth-boring Iron Mole machine. However, they unexpectedly arrive at the centre of the Earth, where in the cavernous underworld of Pellucidar primitive humans – such as Dia (Caroline Munro, "SEE: The seductive Dia, Princess of the land of Pellucidar") – are enslaved by a prehistoric race of birds with mind-altering powers, the Mahars. With the help of Innes’ two-fisted exploits and Perry’s scientific know-how (plus a skill with bow and arrow), the humanoid tribe overcome their beastly oppressors. Unsurprisingly, AT THE EARTH'S CORE’s ending is very different from the book; in Burroughs’s version, Innes escapes from the underground world to discover that his companion in the Iron Mole is not Dia but the corpse of a Mahar, placed there by Hooja, the Sly One. The film eschews this ghoulish ending in favour of a suitably light-hearted climax, where the Mole emerges through the lawn of the White House.

Peter Cushing plays the dotty professor role similar to his big screen Doctor Who; a mix of British eccentricity and stoic, colonial spirit.

Lost World features are synonymous with rubber monsters, and AT THE EARTH’S CORE ("An Adventure Beyond Any Ever Before Filmed!") is no exception. Here we have a lizard/parrot crossbreed pursuing Perry and Innes upon their arrival in Pellucidar; the lumbering hippopotamus which Innes is forced into combat; and a fire-belching toad-beast ("SEE: The MOSOPS, whose fiery breath withers trees & plants"). Making amends for these misfires are the distinctly more malicious Mahars, the female mutated pterodactyls ("SEE: The vicious MAHARS, bird-women who feed on human flesh"). Using telepathy to communicate with their foot soldiers - the diminutive spear-toting Sagoths ("SEE: The cruel SAGOTHS, animal-faced soldiers of Pellucidar") - the nastiest moments come at meal times, where the juiciest slave girls are lined up in their chamber.

It is easy to forget Cushing’s more light-hearted roles (Perry’s comment to his avian captors “You cannot mesmerize me, I’m British” echoes his quip from HORROR EXPRESS (1971), “Monster? We’re British you know!"). In isolated moments of his filmography, the imperious actor gave a jovial twist which was otherwise consumed by his magisterial horrors. Early in his career he played one of the students in the Laurel and Hardy vehicle A CHUMP AT OXFORD (1940), before developing his comedic craft in BBC productions such TOVARICH (1954) and COMEDY PLAYHOUSE: THE PLAN (1963). Television would also call at the height of his Hammer Horror excesses - Cushing was featured repeatedly as a guest on THE MORCAMBE AND WISE SHOW wondering when he was going to be paid - but the actor was largely wasted in latter box office “comedies” such as TENDRE DRACULA (1974) and SON OF HITLER (1978). As a bookstore owner in TOP SECRET (1984), Cushing sported a grotesquely large eyeball (the punch line to which he is first seen gazing through a magnifying glass), an arresting image for this most unassumingly playful of men.