Friday, February 6, 2015

At The Earth's Core (1976) [Friday Fakeosaurus February]

The trouble with an undertaking like HubrisWeen is that, afterwards, you feel a bit too drained to do much of anything else. November was a wasteland, December just barely got its Christmas review, and it took me a month to write my review of King Kong Escapes and I've seen that movie enough times to have its plot memorized!

Yet, I knew I wanted to challenge myself to do better. And nothing inspires you to step up your game quite like a theme. And February seemed like a perfect month to do a theme for. I briefly considered doing a weekly Blaxploitation review, but I really didn't even need to be told by one of My Black Friends (keep them around as a shield against accusations of racism) that this would be a bad idea for obvious reasons.

Then it hit me: Fakeosaurus February! A month of reviews of movies that contain completely bogus species of dinosaurs! And to further nail down the theme, every review will be scheduled on a Friday!

No concerns of racism necessary! Well, at least not from me--I make no promises for the movies.

Speaking of racism, have I featured a White Savior movie on this site? No? Well, here, let's tackle an Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation!

In this case, we're tackling the first Burroughs book I ever read and the second of three Burroughs adaptations that Amicus Productions churned out in the mid-1970s. Amicus was a competitor to Hammer Studios and if you ever felt that the budget on any of Hammer's productions were threadbare, you haven't seen an Amicus film.

When Hammer wanted dinosaurs, they hired Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth & David Allen. When Amicus wanted dinosaurs they Uhhh... Well, they hired someone, but I'm not entirely sure that someone wants to be remembered.

The film begins in the early 1910s, with eccentric inventor Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing! And he's doing an oddly foppish accent in this film) and his financier and former student David Innes (Doug McClure!) unveiling the Iron Mole for a cheering crowd. It's a huge, tube-shaped  machine with a drill on the front. The Iron Mole is going for a test run, where it will burrow through the Welsh Hills, racing against a team of horses topside.

Of course, things almost immediately go pear shaped. The machine continues digging straight down and refuses to right itself to horizontal. And so the pair of explorers find themselves drilling through the mantle and are quickly overcome by the great heat, losing consciousness. The Iron Mole continues on and the two are soon woken by cold, as the machine has hit a huge layer of ice in the outer core. However, they're able to stabilize their descent and reverse it, finally--singing merrily as they go.

Well, until they find themselves in an underground lake. And then they land in some kind of forest, right before the Iron Mole's power goes dead. Perry observes it must have been a short caused by the water, as he hadn't prepared the machine for water. David decides to make the best of their situation and go exploring. Perry grabs his trusty umbrella and follows, into the bizarre forest full of prehistoric vegetation and giant mushrooms, and a pinkish purple sky. They both take much too long to figure out where they are, all things considered--it takes Perry checking his compass to realize they're not on Earth but under it.

And then the "dinosaur" shows up. (Mind you, we are 14 minutes in to the film and our first monster has already appeared. You can't accuse this film of wasting time, which is not exactly true of the other Amicus Burroughs films)

Now, in my distant memories of the book I seem to recall the creature they first encounter being described as being like an upright alligator. The monster that the film gives us sort of has a body like an upright lizard or alligator---albeit much more simplistically detailed--but its head is what you would get if Sam the Eagle were hit with Gamma radiation and Hulked out.

"You weirdos shouldn't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Whatever the Fakeosaurus is supposed to be is not mentioned, probably because there was no real-world equivalent the filmmakers could pass it off as. How big is the Fakeosaurus? Hell if I know. The rear-projected shots of Perry and David fleeing from the creature suggest it is maybe 30 feet tall at minimum, but soon they'll be interacting with full-sized props that suggest the creature is around 12 feet tall.

David leaves his cigar lit as he flees and Perry tries to shoo the creature with his umbrella, before David tells Perry to climb up a tree while he...tries to find a weapon, I guess. Naturally, this puts Perry at mouth height to the beast. Which, again, seems very large in the shots where it's menacing Perry but the full-size prop leg that David hits suggests the creature is barely twice his height. At any rate, David distracts the monster from Perry--whose poor umbrella was not much help in fending the fiend off--and then David manages to run straight into quicksand. The Fakeosaurus should have an easy meal, except it is suddenly driven off by spears and David is hauled out of the bog.

It's not exactly a rescue. See, their saviors are a bunch of aggressive humanoids in alligator-skin vests outfits, with pig-like noses and cone-shaped heads that all have thinning hair. No doubt they're touchy about it. The humanoids only communicate in electronically distorted voices and they promptly chain Perry and David to the rest of their human captives. I might add that fully a third of the humans we see in the film are wearing awful, curly "Annie" wigs. Even the black people.

"Look, we had to either cut wigs or catering from the budget. I'm sure you'll agree we made the right choice."
"There was catering?"
And yes, there are black people, which makes this film sadly more diverse than it would be if it was shot in 2015.

There's some possibly intentionally vaguely racist dialogue where Perry observes the humans appear to be intellectually superior to their non-human captors, yet the pig-faces are the "Master Race." And then David is lashed by one of their captors and says, "I'll remember him, Doc, but they all look the same."

The group is quickly set to march by their captors--completely oblivious to another barely glimpsed Fakeosaurus that is watching them from the trees. Amongst their fellow captives, David naturally quickly notices and makes the acquaintance of Dia (Caroline Munro!), seeing as how he's the "dashing" hero and she's gorgeous.

Yes, I would punch dinosaurs in the face for her.
Luckily, Dia and her compatriots speak English (?) so Dia is able to tell David that the shady-looking creep that keeps looking at him is Hooja the Sly One (Sean Lynch) and is not to be trusted. When David wonders if it's ever night since his watch says it's been two days of marching, Perry explains that they are in an immense cave with light provided by magma some 20 miles above them so there can't be any night. When one of their captors steals David's watch, which belonged to his father, he asks Dia what they are. "Sagoths," she explains, "soldiers of the Mahars." She further explains that, "Mahars rule Pellucidar. They are taking us to be slaves in their city."

And then Hooja the Sly One decides right then to grab Dia and David slugs him good. For some reason, everyone--including Dia and the Sahgoths--then stares at David expectantly, and then everyone turns their backs on him before the Sagoths march them forward. David doesn't have much time to ponder why everyone is giving him the cold shoulder before the captive leading the chain gang is suddenly set upon by the Fakeosaurus that was watching from the trees.

This promptly turns him into a truly regrettable doll puppet as the Fakeosauruus crams him into its mouth, What is this Fakeosaurus? Well,'s...

"Mmm. Hobbit!"
Basically, it appears somebody took an Uintatherium (a prehistoric rhino, which has been featured in a film on here before) and made it a biped with hands. So, strictly speaking it's not a dinosaur but I'm still calling it a Fakeosaurus because it's, well, fake,

A second Fakeosaurus of the same species then arrives to fight the first after the Sagoths cut its victim loose. The two grapple while humans and Sagoth cower in safety. Finally, the challenger fatally gores his opponent and makes off with the prize of the poor captive human. Onward the chain gang marches.
"You do realize there are, like, over a dozen equally vulnerable prisoners over there you could eat instead of fighting me for this one?"
"Up yours, Carl!"
They soon arrive at the City of the Mahars, which is an elaborate castle-like structure when seen from afar, but the entrance and interior are just a system of caves. As they are ushered into the city, Perry observes of the Sagoths, "They're so excitable, like all foreigners." David soon notices that Dia has disappeared and tries to get some answers from one of their compatriots about why he's getting the cold shoulder. Hooja the Sly One has somehow absconded with Dia: it seems that David claimed Dia as his own by besting Hooja the Sly One, but he neither claimed her nor released her from his claim and thus committed a heinous faux pas. No man may claim her until they have bested David now, and Dia was already fleeing from Jubal the Ugly One who has the strength of many men and wants her for his own when the Sagoths captured her. Presumably Hooja the Sly One intends to bring her to Jubal the ugly One.

The agenda of Goomba the Moderately Handsome One is not mentioned.

Oh, and Dia is actually a princess, but you knew that already. She's incredibly proud and unlikely to forgive David even if he does find her again. Whoops.

Perry, for his part, is more fascinated by the fact that the Mahars are able to somehow channel the flow of lava as they see fit. And he's even more amazed when they are ushered into a large chamber to serve as audience for the Mahars, for the Mahars turn out to be a variety of man-sized Rhamphorynchus!

Now, I'm gonna go ahead and call the Mahars yet another Fakeosaurus here. Yes, as I have previously observed, Rhamphorynchus is a real pterosaur (and my favorite). And Perry identifies them as Rhamphorynchus, which they also were in the novel--but nobody told the special effects department that, apparently. So instead the Mahars are just beaked dragon-looking creatures. Nobody would actually look at them and go, "A Rhamphorynchus, of the Middle Jurassic Period!"

The white one is the leader, because of course it is.
And I will say that the Mahars are, while nothing special, not horribly bad suits--except for one glaring miscalculation. You know that frill that Kermit the Frog has around his "collar"? Well, some demented suit designer decided that the Mahars should have them as well. Because when you're making a monster, you definitely want it to remind people of a Muppet.

"Hi ho, Kermit the Mahar, here!"
As in the novel the Mahars are at least partially telepathic and have the power of mesmerism, which they use to control the Sagoths. However, the film never addresses if they are all female, as in the novel. The Mahars split their captives into groups, with Perry being sent to the Mahar library and David is sent to perform physical labor to keep the channeled lava in check. Perry quickly discerns that the Mahars have some secret that may serve to destroy them if he finds it, David, meanwhile, causes a brief slave revolt and uses it as a distraction so he can escape the city.

Once outside he finds an unattended campfire and helps himself to the meat being roasted over it. the owner of the campfire returns and attacks David and the two fall into a nearby cave in their struggle. A cave that, bizarrely, serves as the home of a tentacled carnivorous plant that makes vocalizations like the THX logo. (Why the plant would want to live in a cave instead of somewhere food would actuallly be likely to happen across it, is beyond me) The two fight,oblivious, until David's foe is grabbed by the plant. David rescues his companion by cutting the tentacles holding him--which apparently kills the plant!

The other man introduces himself as Ra (Cy Grant) and expresses amazement that David escaped from the Mahar city. When David asks why Ra's people and all the other tribes haven't risen up against the Mahars, Ra explains that it isn't that simple. And he leads David to the Mahar's grotto to show him why. Thus David gets to watch, helpless and horrified, as several women prisoners are placed in a pit ringed with fire, and then the Mahars swoop down and devour them.

Now, it's called a "grotto" despite no water being present probably because, in the original novel, it was a grotto. A Mahar would choose one woman at a time and mesmerize her into walking into the water with it, then resurface--and each time they resurfaced a part of the woman was missing until only the Mahar surfaced. It was creepy as Hell. This sequence? Yeah, not so much. The lead Mahar hypnotizes one woman and carries her off, but the others aren't even mesmerized into not running away!

At any rate, David's White Savior button has been pushed and he declares it is time to destroy the Mahars. Well, after he manages to fall into the "grotto" and then has to sneak by the Mahars napping off their meal. David decides he will go back into the Mahar city to rescue his compatriots and tells Ra to go back to his village, but Ra refuses to let David go back alone. "We've just doubled our strength," David quips. And all without finding two wolves named Kurt!

Sorry, that joke only makes sense if you've seen Tarkan vs. The Vikings.

Naturally, the two are promptly captured and brought to the Mahar audience chamber again. While all the slaves--including Perry, who does a superbly hilarious "Hi, it's me!" wave at David--are made to watch, Ra is chained to a sacrificial pole and the Sagoths toss David a spear. A portcullis rises and out of it roars...

...the cutest Fakeosaurus you will ever see. It might be supposed to be something like Inostrancevia, a mammal-like reptile of the therapsid order and thus not really a dinosaur, but then almost none of the Fakeosauruses in this film have been what you would classify as dinosaurs and it's definitely a Fakeosaurus. It's also adorable. (And it would reappear, though barely glimpsed, in The People That Time Forgot the next year)

"I was hiding behind your portcullis because I love you!"
Well, David is not moved by its adorableness. Following Ra's advice he spears the poor thing in the ear after a bit of dodging a rear projection of the guy in the monster suit and a full-scale head that, I'm sure you're shocked to hear, doesn't match the scale or proportions of the suit. The poor thing seems very confused about being stabbed, since it didn't appear to actually be trying to eat David but rather acted like an overly excited puppy greeting a new guest, and then it falls over either dead or exhausted.

Well, the Mahars are sore losers and one swoops down at David, only for Ra to break his chains and use them to strangle the beast to death. Great job, Mahar #3: you've just shown the hairless apes that you are not only mortal, but easily killed. Not that the other Mahars do anything to stop it. And just like that, the rebellion begins. The Sagoths are overwhelmed and almost all the slaves escape, save those trapped by the Mahar fire curtains. David leads Perry through the caves, during which Perry cries out a line that is hilariously easy to take out of context: "I have a firm grip upon your trousers, David!" Perry also insists on showing David the Mahar's secret before they leave: the Mahar's eggs are kept in a chamber that is heated by lava. Destroying the chamber would wipe the Mahars out.

David and Perry find their way out of the city and immediately stumble across Dia, who is being pursued by Hooja the Sly One. Hooja the Sly One catches Dia and threatens to spear her if David comes closer, but luckily the silliest Fakeosaur of all intervenes: a fire-breathing toad monster! Well, it has a tail so that makes it actually a salamander, which I'd think was clever if I had any inkling that the filmmakers were intentionally making a joke. And amusingly enough, this weird critter actually is in the book, though there it's just described as a literal dragon.

A gritty, live-action reboot of Pokemon was a really strange idea.
Hooja the Sly One flees and David rushes to Dia's side to chucks rocks at the Fire-breathing Fakeosaurus. However, they're only saved from certain flamebroiling by Perry shooting the beast with arrows using a bow he whipped up in a matter of seconds somehow. The creature falls off its perch and when it hits the ground it explodes in a big fireball, as you do,

Dia proves incredibly quick to forgive David after puts the moves on her, but she warns that Hooja the Sly One will be leading Jubal the Ugly One to them. And, indeed, the trio quickly run into Jubal the Ugly One (Michael Crane) before they've gone far. David refuses to run, however. For Jubal the Ugly One is merely practice. Soon he's going to have to unite all the tribes of Pellucidar and take down the Mahars.

All in a day's work for a White Savior.

There's no question that Amicus didn't have the best production values when it came to their Edgar Rice Burroughs films. The Land That Time Forgot probably had the best effects budget, and its dinosaurs were all obvious puppets or stiff full-size props. Meanwhile, almost all of the creatures in this film are men in suits that wouldn't pass muster at Toho Studios and awkward full-scale props. You really need to pull out all the stops with the effects for films like these, but the sad thing is that Amicus probably did.

Yet, while the effects may not be breathtaking or convincing--for instance, the bit where a Mahar tries to strangle David with its wings but somehow stays airborne--there's a certain charm to them that you can't help but love. And the fact that they still pushed forward with stocking a movie full of dinosaurs when they could have had hardly any and saved the effects budget for other things is very admirable. Sometimes quantity is way better than quality.

As for the story, it definitely takes a few divergences from the source novel that are not always the right choice. (Like its ending, which I won't spoil here) Some of these are obviously due to budget and an attempt to reach a wider audience, but not all of them. However, it's faithful in spirit to the original novel and what truly matters is that it's a fun adventure romp--and the film is definitely that. The plot may be something you've definitely seen before, but there's something to be said for the familiar in fiction.

The cast is also a delight and there's nary a terrible performance to be found. Peter Cushing is as delightful as he always is; Caroline Munro makes Dia an interesting character in spite of being only asked to basically be present and look gorgeous; and Doug McClure, while certainly no master thespian, makes for a very enjoyable pulp hero. The supporting cast is also good at what they do. Even if most of them are forced to act with some of the worst wigs and fake beards the costume department could find.

There's just something pleasing about this kind of film. I hate to pull the old nostalgic, "kids these days" crap, but there's just a certain charm to movies like these that today's B-Movies don't capture. Since so few people do practical effects, you just don't encounter films with charmingly terrible practical effects anymore--and terrible CGI doesn't have the same appeal. Hell, when a rare B-Movie comes along that does use practical effects, they often make the effects in this film look like Stan Winston and Rick Baker. Somehow that's not as charming as you would think.

It's also nice that this film is just recent enough to not be irredeemably sexist or racist, even though it's based on Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sure, I've long ago had to inure myself against such things as a B-Movie fan, but it's nice to not have to utilize that self-defense system. This is a movie I'd show my son without worrying overmuch about it warping his view of the world.

If you're looking for a classic, At The Earth's Core is not it. But if you want a fun matinee flick full of ridiculous Fakeosauruses, then this is a wonderful choice. Plus, too few movies contain Peter Cushing declaring to a telepathic pterosaur, "You can't mesmerize me: I'm British!"

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