AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976) Blu-ray
Director: Kevin Connor
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Made by Amicus Films (once popular rivals to Hammer in the British horror market), AT THE EARTH'S CORE is extremely juvenile in execution but makes for grand Saturday afternoon popcorn entertainment. This was the second in a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations released by backers American International Pictures (AIP) that began with THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1975), and ended with THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT (1977). All were directed by Kevin Connor, produced by John Dark, photographed by Alan Hume, and starred Doug McClure (there also was a fourth Burroughs-style fantasy produced by the same team for Columbia in 1978: WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS). This fantasy favorite now gets the Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Set during Victorian times, the story concerns Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) and the unveiling of his latest invention, "The Mole," a giant vehicle that is able to drill to the center of the Earth. David Innes (Doug McClure, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), a rich American engineer (and one of Perry's former students) is backing the project, and sets off in the Mole with his mentor. The machine makes a downward trek into the ground, and advancing uncontrollably at an accelerated speed, cuts clean through into the center of the Earth. When the two explorers wake up from being unconscious, they exit the machine and enter a world that resembles a "Sid & Marty Croft" Saturday morning kids show after a few acid tabs. David and the doctor are soon captured by the Sagoths, a tribe of noisy, ugly piggy men with oval shaped heads and balding, "comb over" hairstyles. The Sagoths obey the Mahars, giant bird creatures that use mental telepathy to give orders and attack humans who happen to be treated as slaves. The Mahars are actors in rubbery suits with shiny plastic wings, and they kind of remind you of that famous giant Japanese monster bird, Gappa. David instantly falls for Dia (Caroline Munro, DRACULA A.D. 1972), a beautiful brunette slave girl, and he ends up fighting a brutish ogre twice his size in order to win her over. After being captured, David manages to escape and befriends Ra (Guyanese-born singer Cy Grant, SHAFT IN AFRICA) another slave with a sandy afro. Together they return to lead a rebellion against the Sagoths and the Mahars by formulating a daring plan that will set the humans free once and for all.

OK, so some of the creatures and effects here look kind of bad, and this can be blamed on economics more than anything else. Especially embarrassing is when two rhinoceros creatures do battle and one of them takes off with a male slave, which becomes a lifeless ventriloquist's dummy in the proceeding shot. There's also an exploding, fire-breathing frog that looks like a gigantic reproduction of one of those plastic toad garden tool holders that you'd find in your mother’s backyard (both scenes — and others — are bound to induce a few belly laughs). But look past that as the film is very enjoyable and holds great memories for those who saw it in theaters or prime-time network TV as enthusiastic children. Shot on the sound stages and utilizing the special effects rigs of England’s famed Pinewood Studios, the sets for inner-earth can easily be described as ambitious and quite trippy, and are complimented by a constant array of enormo killer reptiles and man-sized birds on the lurk. Looking at the film so many years later, the organic construction and representation of these monsters, however crude they may be, compares favorably to the modern CGI methods, which have become so tiresome and predictable at this point.

Written by Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky with a family audience in mind, AT THE EARTH’S CORE is basically a Jules Verne-esque adventure with outrageous, ridiculous creatures and characters, and a great cast that knows how to have fun with it. Cushing's Dr. Perry is an amusing character, who fends off enemies with his trusty umbrella and later a bow and arrow, similar to his big screen interpretations of Dr. Who a decade earlier (although here he looks every bit as elderly as that "old" character was supposed to be). McClure was a solid leading man in LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, so he was a natural for this, and holds things together just as well, keeping a straight face throughout. Munro’s character of Dia (she’s actually a princess in waiting for a mate) is a perfect damsel in distress, being seen captured and fought over, and she’s of course charming and delightful eye candy. Since she had just been in the spectacular fantasy THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, it’s suitable that the actress join in on the other-world monster mayhem here and add to her impressive resume of fantasy film roles. The fine English cast also includes Keith Barron (who earlier starred with Cushing in NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT) as a newspaper reporter and Godfrey James (CRY OF THE BANSHEE) as Dia’s kindly bearded father Ghak. Bobby Parr, who plays the Sagoth Chief, played the caveman Ahm in the previous year’s THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT. Former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers does the fine score, a mix of unusual electronic sounds and very triumphant orchestrations representing merry old England.

First released on DVD from MGM back in 2001 on their “Midnite Movies” line (and then later re-released as a double feature with WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP), AT THE EARTH’S CORE has always had primary colors lean towards red, orange and purple (due to its mainly hot-looking inner-earth setting). Now presented in full 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio for this Blu-ray, the transfer nicely separates the warmer colors from the cooler ones, so the film now boasts a more distinct and impressive color range and is more than a revelation for anyone who has seen it in any of its past incarnations. The strong detail also standouts here, making Alan Hume’s cinematography much better appreciated, and textures are also smooth with realistic looking fleshtones. Except for some occasional speckling, this is a beautifully clean transfer that’s a sight to behold. The English audio is presented in a DTS-HD mono Master Audio track with dialog, music and sound effects all sounding perfectly fine in the mix.

Some much-appreciated supplements have been included here and are produced by Walt Olsen’s Scorpion Releasing. “An Interview with Director Kevin Connor” (22:03) has the filmmaker discussing his start as an assistant editor, learning his trade (more so from bad directors than good directors) and eventually making it as a director starting with Amicus’ FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, which lead to his being hired for LAND THAT TIME FORGOT. On AT THE EARTH’S CORE, Connor fondly reminisces about working with McClure, Munro and Cushing as well as the execution of the special effects, the stunts and other anecdotes about what was happening on those enormous sets (Connor actually favors LAND and PEOPLE over AT THE EARTH’S CORE). Conner, who is still a very busy director, touches upon other films in his career including A DIRTY KNIGHT’S WORK, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, AN ARABIAN ADVENTURE, MOTEL HELL and THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS. “Interview with Caroline Munro” (28:43) has the actress revealing that she was cast for having the right look from her Lamb’s Navy Rum ads which were popular in England. She has only nice things to say about co-stars McClure, Cushing, James and Sean Lynch (who plays the villainous Hoojah) as well as having fond memories of the crew. She humorously describes the scene with the fire-breathing frog as well as an incident during a scene where she was being attacked by the descending Mahars. Most of this excellent interview focuses on AT THE EARTH’S CORE, but she also talks a bit about THE DEVIL WITHIN HER, TALENT FOR LOVING and even appearing in Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” video from the early 1980s.

Director Connor is on hand for an audio commentary moderated by Bill Olsen. Connor has specific recollections about the sets, locations and effects (what was a model, what was rear projection, what was done in-camera, etc.) and is loaded with information, including that actor Parr accidentally lost a finger shooting a fight scene with McClure and that Subotsky complained about the amount of lipstick Munro's character wore in the film. The conversation stays mainly on the film in question, as well as some of Connor’s film credits, and Olsen keeps it going in a lively, jovial manner. A vintage “making of” featurette entitled “A Special Art: Monsters” (5:43) shows production designer Maurice Carter on the set at Pinewood Studios, showing his designs and storyboards. Producer Dark is also interviewed on set, and there’s some great behind the scenes footage of the fire-breathing frog scene and a glance at some of the monsters being created in the workshop. The original theatrical trailer is also included, and the Blu-ray’s cover art is reversible. (George R. Reis)