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Review: ‘At the Earth’s Core’ (1976)

Following the success of his adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (1974), At The Earth’s Core (1976) was the second of three films Kevin Connor directed adapting Burroughs’ works for Amicus Productions. The third, The People That Time Forgot (1977), would be a direct sequel to Land, but because At The Earth’s Core’s script was ready to go first, it went into production ahead of People.

The Virginian’s Doug McClure starred in all three films. The American in a predominantly British cast, his co-stars for At the Earth’s Core included Peter Cushing as geological engineer, Dr. Perry, and Caroline Munro as Princess Dia, her golden head band disappearing after her royal status is explained.

While unfamiliar with the source material, there are aspects of the film reminiscent of Burroughs’ Tarzan (and to be honest, since I haven’t read that book either, the Disney Studio’s animated picture, Tarzan [1999]). Both have a dotty professor, whose dedication to science and general British-ness makes him immune to the dangers they’re facing. Both feature love stories where the couple are from different worlds, unsure whether they can find a way to be together. They even go about filming a fight sequence the same way, with the outcome of David’s spar with Jubal (Michael Crane), the ugly one, being kept in suspense like Tarzan’s fight to the death with Sabor, the jaguar.

The movie begins with the professor putting the finishing touches on his digging machine. Dubbed the Mole, it looks like a den or casino inside, all red leather and green lamp shades. Dr. Perry and David (McClure), who helped finance the project, are meant to be doing a test run but wind up stranded in the Earth’s core after a complete power failure. Captured by Sagoths, balding pigs with punk fashion aesthetics, they’re expected to join the human slaves who work for the Mahors, bird dinosaurs with telepathic abilities.

For some, these circumstances might be cause for alarm but not David and Dr. Perry, who excel at drawing attention to themselves. Never uncomfortable with being the only ones doing the talking (except for when they realize they’ve insulted the other slaves), there’s an air of posh, superiority around them at all times. This is especially true of Cushing’s Perry, who takes his character to oblivious lengths of privileged hilarity with his umbrella and impervious attitude.

Filmed completely in studio, instead of using puppets for the monsters, like they did in The Land That Time Forgot, the creatures are all life size and worn by stunt men with poor visibility and limited facial range. It’s very Godzilla, with two rhino creatures butting heads until one draws blood.

The electronic, chortling language of the Sagoths is rather memorable, but the film’s PG rating comes through in some of the sound effects. There’s been construction outside my house louder than the Mole digging through solid rock, and while the Sagoths are generous with their use of cat o’ nine tails, their impact is dimmed by the lack of sound they make hitting bare skin.

While seemingly unimportant, the occasional reference to David’s father could explain why David isn’t your typical businessman. You never see him fishing to know where the money’s being spent, or panicking when things go wrong. It turns out he studied geological engineering, too, but unlike his father, was the professor’s poorest student. The scientific curiosity is there, though, along with the desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.

When one of the Sagoths confiscates a watch that was his dad’s, the film bothers to show David retrieving the watch at the end of the movie. Of all the loose ends, this could’ve been forgotten and there’s no verbal acknowledgement of what David is doing. If you remember the watch was stolen, you know what he’s grabbing, but for being so forgettable it helps explain what’s driving David as a character.  

Kino Lorber’s DVD release is pretty stacked, an on-camera interview with Munro providing some lovely set stories about fire stunts and getting clipped by a Mahors’ wing (less lovely, that one). At the Earth’s Core has its slow sections, especially towards the end in the caves, but the final scene is a return to the silliness that makes the film’s beginning so preposterous to observe.

About Rachel Bellwoar

Rachel Bellwoar is the Comics Editor at That's Not Current and a contributing writer for Flickering Myth. Her first Alfred Hitchcock movie was Rear Window and she questions the value of the binge model for watching television — much better to avoid endings. Having found out who killed Laura Palmer, she compensates by watching as many David Lynch films as possible.

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