Prolific British director Kevin Conner (“Motel Hell”) helmed four fantasy-adventure movies in the 1970s, three of them produced by the British production house Amicus, overseen by Americans Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, and all four of them starring likable but unremarkable American leading man Doug McClure, whose presence was determined by US distributors James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures. After progressing from sound editing to the role of film editor in the sixties and early seventies, Conner’s first director gig came in 1974 with the cult Amicus horror anthology “From Beyond The Grave”, and was followed a year later by a successful adaptation of the American fantasy novelist and Tarzan of the Apes creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Land That Time Forgot”. As well as his more famous jungle-dwelling creation, Burroughs also specialised in a vast array of science fiction and Lost World-style adventure stories, highly similar in content and theme to the works of authors such as Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, but with his own peculiarly imaginative pre-WWI twist. With the British horror market rapidly dwindling by the mid-seventies, Amicus found that Burroughs’ patent mixture of prehistoric dinosaurs, florid scientific romance and intrepid action-adventure aimed at a younger audience resulted in a brief revival in its box office fortunes, and the success of “The Land That Time Forgot” led them and their American distribution partners AIP to bring Conner and McClure together for a second stab at mining similar territory, this time with AIP as co-producers, their second such partnership following on from the lacklustre “Madhouse”, which had brought Peter Cushing and AIP’s horror luminary Vincent Price together for the first time. Amicus this time turned to Burroughs’ 1914 Hollow Earth fantasy yarn “At The Earth’s Core”, the first story in his ‘Pellucidar’ series of novels, as its source. This was a period-set adventure taking place in the Victorian 'era and the tone was much less gritty and tough than the milieu of “The Land that Time Forgot” – a fact which allowed the two production houses to exploit the classic British Gothic vibe by drafting in Peter Cushing to take the role of doddery British inventor and Geological expert Dr. Abner Perry to play opposite McClure’s dashing bourgeois hero David Innes, the rich financier who backs Perry’s gigantic high-calibration drilling machine project -- christened the Iron Mole – a device which can bore through solid rock at seven feet per minute. Innes sets out with Dr Perry at the start of the film on a test run with intent only to drill through a Welsh cliff face while a brass marching band commemorate the event, parading past a small crowd of excitable Victorian spectators against a studio back projection of the gleaming model machine.
For despite the combined resources of AIP and Amicus coming together here, this is patently a very low budget affair with limited resources at its disposal, shot entirely on the soundstages at Pinewood Studios with the aid of copious back projection and rubbery jungle set props; most of the monsters which appear end up being men dressed up and lumbering about in cumbersome suits, a la the original Godzilla -- yet the (now) primitive special effects (capably rendered by Ian Wingrove, who went on to take credits on “Return of the Jedi”, “Sleepy Hollow” and the recent “The Wolfman”, among many other well-known projects) combined with a guileless approach to what is some undeniably charmingly old-fashioned adventure storytelling, makes for a nostalgic viewing experience that recalls old Saturday morning children’s serials of yesteryear.
Dr Perry and Innes’ journey begins when their drilling machine gets stuck in a vertical position and bores straight down through the Earth’s geological layers and discovers a lost Mesozoic jungle world underneath the mantle, with giant-sized vegetation and a luminous, glowing pink magma sky (‘this can’t be the Rhonda valley?’ muses Cushing’s befuddled Victorian professor). The descent through the Earth’s various layers is economically but effectively achieved; viewed entirely from inside Dr Perry’s impeccably Victorian ‘steam punk’ control room, which is all polished brass pressure gauge and dial technology surrounded by mahogany panelling, the whole process is represented simply by changes in lighting and frequent cutaways to a little chart on a control panel indicating which section of the Earth’s inner core the screw-tipped craft has reached thus far. The journey becomes rather an uncontrolled and bumpy ride which takes the travellers through an underground lake and out into a lost world full of outlandish prehistoric monsters. A giant flightless bird pursues them through the weird jungle and Innes gets stuck in the usual pit of quicksand, which can always be relied upon to make an appearance in such adventures; finally, the adventuring duo find themselves taken prisoner by a race of whip-wielding slave owners called Sagoths, who have pig-like snouts and samurai-style clothing and hair.
Their slaves are long-bearded cavemen of various tribes accompanied by scanty-clad women, led by Caroline Munro. The ‘tribes’ are reminiscent of different Earth races, some of them with swarthy complexions and dark curly hair, although most are played by blacked-up British actors and all speak perfect Queen’s English! It turns out that the Sagoths are themselves controlled by a race of intelligent, bipedal pterosaurs, with a familial relationship to Rhamphorhynchus, who are called the Mahars – except these demonic-looking winged creatures are telepathic and use mesmeric powers to hypnotise the cavemen, whom they feed off in their cave-like grotto -- an inner-sanctum where they perch on rock faces like stone gargoyles gazing down on their prey as they're entrapped by a ring of sulphurous fire.
The caveman slaves are needed to channel the lava flow away from the Mahar city by forging tunnels through the rock, and the whole regime in Pellucidar is given the appearance of some sort of an infernal hades: humans toil amid constant flames and lava in backbreaking work presided over by devilish-looking dinosaur birds with strange powers. Naturally, the two Victorians manage to instil the seeds of revolution in this hellish set up, encouraging the warring tribes (which allegorically stand for the world’s nations presumably) to join together in combined struggle against their monstrous oppressors. Along the way there is a constant flow of entertainingly choreographed action set-pieces involving various imaginative alternate versions of the dinosaur form, from squat, toad-like fire breathing dragons to bipedal, horned bison-men. The creatures are rendered using a combination of actors wearing quite clunky-looking monster costumes and life-sized mechanised model heads for the close-ups; while the Mahars’ flight, as they swoop down to scoop up their mesmerised victims, is hilariously brought about with the aid of wire harnesses for the actors who toil in the Mahar costumes.
The main storyline is augmented by a cheesy romantic subplot in which McClure’s mid-Victorian industrialist falls for the formidable primitive charms of Caroline Munro (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?), but in the course of defending her from lewd advances made by another slave called Hooja the Sly One (Sean Lynch) (many of the cavemen conveniently have their most noticeable character trait included as part of their name, which is quite handy really!) he offends tribal etiquette, not realising that his defence of her obliges him to take her as his slave according to Pellucidar culture. Furthermore, it turns out that Dia is actually a princess (making her Princess Dia by title?!) who is in self-imposed exile, hiding from a nasty hulking brute called Jubal the Ugly One (Michael Crane) who has also claimed her as his own.
Unfortunately Munro is not required to say or do much else here other than look good while not wearing too many clothes. In order to win her over, Innes has at some point to defeat Dia’s vicious deformed suitor in battle, while Hooja makes him self useful to the plot by slyly threatening the plan Dr Perry and Innes devise in order to destroy the Mahars’ hold on power, treacherously betraying it to the demon birds. All this is, of course, fairly standard narrative fare for this kind of family-orientated fantasy adventure; from our current perspective the whole thing plays like a much more floridly executed version of a William Hartnell era 1960s Doctor Who adventure, with Doug McClure taking the heroic-but-down-to-earth action figure role William Russell or Peter Purves might have essayed back then. This is quite fitting seeing as Peter Cushing is in effect giving us another iteration of his doddery inventor Doctor previously seen in the two Dalek films produced by Rosenberg and Subotsky a few years earlier: this time Milton Subotsky’s screen adaptation of Rice Burroughs’ novel allows Cushing dialogue which gently pokes fun at the unspoken prejudices of this kind of early twentieth century fiction, mainly in the form of lines which emphasise Dr Perry’s gentlemanly mores in contrast to the outlandish otherworldly backdrop he now finds himself in: leaving the drilling machine to explore the jungle, Perry insists on taking his umbrella because ‘the weather here seems so changeable!’ In the midst of the adventure he reflects on how the various tribes of caveman are ‘so excitable … like all foreigners!’ And when faced with capture by the Mahars he defiantly insists: ‘You cannot mesmerise me! I’m British!’ The music soundtrack for the film was provided by ex-Manfred Mann musician Mike Vickers who provides an unusual-for-the-era synthesized score. This inclusion of such a relatively modern flourish in the context of a tale which harks back to an earlier era endows the movie with a unique flavour and Conner’s direction is snappy enough to make it work relatively well; it could well still hold some degree of interest to the kind of child that’s still able to watch and enjoy classic Doctor Who without complaining about the artificial studio sets and the lack of CGI, while older viewers will be availed of a pleasing blast of nostalgia for lost childhoods of their own.
The UK Studio Canal release is a bare-bones affair with a nice transfer in the film’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio.